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Human Sexuality and the Catholic Church | Introduction to The Conjugal Act as a Personal Act | Donald P. Asci

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A simple survey of the contemporary cultural landscape reveals a great interest in the sexual relationship between man and woman, with many books, articles, and programs dedicated to this subject. However, the energy spent seeking new ways to "improve" modern man's sexual experience betrays an almost equally great dissatisfaction. Though modern man's discontentment with sexuality undoubtedly derives from multiple factors, one cannot avoid suspecting that the contemporary approach to sexuality produces so little satisfaction because it sees sexuality in the most superficial of terms. Anytime we judge something profound by superficial standards we fail to grasp not only its significance but also its value for our lives. [1]

In contrast to the popular view of human sexuality, the Catholic Church promotes an understanding that not only includes unique considerations on the ethical level but that also appreciates the most profound aspects of sexuality without neglecting any genuinely human aspect of the sexual relationship. The Catholic concept of sexuality and sexual intercourse articulates the ethical norms by which these profound realities are preserved and promoted. Consequently, the teachings of the Church open the path to a joy and fulfillment that only the deepest aspects of sexuality can supply. Beyond the moral norms of the Church's sexual ethics lies a theology of sexuality that recalls what is at stake in the realm of sexual activity. Thus, the Church not only affirms marriage as the only morally acceptable context for sexual intercourse but also develops a specific concept of the conjugal act, recalling all that sexual intercourse can and should be for husband and wife.

I have undertaken this study of the Catholic concept of the conjugal act in order to investigate and present the deeper significance of the conjugal act, that is, the profound and sacred significance that the Church's theology of sexuality recognizes in sexual intercourse between husband and wife. In light of the contemporary situation, I see a great many people whose minds and hearts (and cultures) need to encounter these profound truths if they are ever to appreciate and value sexuality to its full potential. Thus, the opportunity to contribute to such an encounter in any small manner is worth taking. However, I am further motivated to study the Catholic concept of the conjugal act by the larger, more fundamental theological framework from which this concept of the conjugal act emerges. Within this theological framework, the Church's teaching becomes a true theology of the conjugal act, drawing upon fundamental theological principles, especially those related to theological anthropology. Thus, a study of the conjugal act provides a window or an opening to this greater theological framework and enables us to see how the Church's anthropological vision finds its way into the life of the person. In other words, the value of studying the conjugal act derives from the opportunity it affords to consider the Church's vision of man and the implications this anthropological vision has for our lives.

Throughout my consideration of the conjugal act and its related fields of study I seek to examine and present the "Catholic position" by focusing principally, though not exclusively, on the Magisterium's official pronouncements. In one sense, the Catholic position admits of various interpretations, so identifying such a position in a definitive manner seems nearly impossible. Yet, when we examine what is said by those who attack or dissent from the Catholic position on the conjugal act as well as by those who defend and promote it, several core, indispensable, and identifiable elements emerge that possess certain presuppositions and implications, the further details of which admit of various interpretations. Consequently, in the course of my consideration I concentrate on identifying the core elements of the Church's theology of the conjugal act while also forwarding the most reasonable presuppositions and implications of the explicit teachings or pronouncements. In accomplishing this task I rely on the official teachings of the Church and the writings of those authors who explore and promote these teachings, [2] while I mention only rarely those who take exception to these teachings. The dissenting position deserves serious consideration, but in another context. [3]

An examination and summary of the Church's position proves challenging precisely because it has been unfolding over a great number of years and in vastly diverse circumstances or contexts. Because the Church's position develops in this manner, certain elements in it receive greater or lesser emphasis according to the purpose and context of a particular teaching. However, though this manner of unfolding begins as a challenge, it ultimately becomes an advantage precisely because it allows each core element of the Church's position to receive an adequate prominence or emphasis. In other words, each core element receives adequate treatment because it eventually comes to the center of discussion by virtue of the vast circumstances in which the Church's position has been reiterated or deepened. For that reason, emphasis on one core element in one context should not be taken as a denial or dislodging of a core element that has been affirmed in a different context. In order to navigate the situation we cannot reduce the Catholic position to any one particular teaching, otherwise core elements of the position that are emphasized elsewhere will be lost. The Church diligently avoids a reductive approach in her theology of marriage and her theology of the conjugal act by preserving a multi-faceted unity across many years and differing circumstances. For this reason, I approach the diverse teachings, each representing a particular context and purpose, as a unified and coherent whole and prescind from speculation about the competition that each teaching poses to the others. The resulting summary provides a profound view of marriage and the conjugal act from diverse yet harmonious perspectives.

As a consequence of the Church's multi-faceted approach to the conjugal life of husband and wife, her theology of marriage considers this sacred relationship from three principal perspectives: marriage as a natural institution, marriage as an intimate friendship, and marriage as a sacrament. As a natural institution, marriage possesses a specific content in terms of its structure, purposes, blessings, and laws. The institution of marriage finds its origin in God, in the very creation of man as male and female, ordering masculinity and femininity to marriage. The institution of marriage bestows certain rights on husband and wife while also imposing obligations on them toward each other and toward God the Creator. The conjugal friendship "gives life" to the institution of marriage, confirming it as a loving personal communion. As an intimate friendship that embraces the good of the whole person, marriage demands the personal energy and emotion of the spouses as well as their firm commitment and selfless sacrifice. For its part, the institution of marriage protects and promotes spousal love, directing husband and wife to the goods upon which their personal communion is based. The sacramental dimension of marriage enables the relationship of husband and wife to share in and signify the mystery of God's love for humanity and Christ's love for the Church. Thus, marriage acquires a sacred role or purpose in the world insofar as the relationship of husband and wife should announce and manifest God's covenantal love. Moreover, because spouses fulfill this sacred role only when the essence of marriage as an institution and a loving communion remains intact, husband and wife discover in the sacramental dimension of marriage a serious motivation for conforming their daily life to God's plan for the conjugal life.

The Church's theology of the conjugal act emerges from this multi-faceted theology of marriage and relates intimately to each dimension of marriage as an institution, an intimate friendship, and a sacrament. These various dimensions of marriage harmoniously converge in the conjugal act, just as they do in the whole of conjugal life. Therefore, the conjugal act cannot be reduced to an obligation of the institution or to an expression of love. Instead, the conjugal act embraces each of these dimensions as the consummation of marital consent and the embodiment of conjugal love, sharing the sacramental signification of the conjugal covenant. It does so through a specific use of human freedom that relies upon the potential of human sexuality. Consequently, the Church's theology of the conjugal act advances along with greater insights into Christian anthropology, insights that clarify the nature of human freedom and the place of sexuality in the human body/soul composite. The Church's vision of the human person provides the necessary theological framework for the concept of an act that embraces the various dimensions of marriage and also supports the Church's broader teachings on marriage itself.

On the foundations of the Church's teaching on marriage and within the framework of Christian anthropology, a theology of the conjugal act emerges in which sexual intercourse between husband and wife is a particular human act (issuing from reason and will), a symbolic act (expressing love in the language of the body), and a sacramental act (sharing in the sacramentality of the conjugal covenant). Each of these various dimensions of the conjugal act confirms the conjugal act as a personal act, an act that depends upon the specifically personal characteristics of man and woman and that allows them to fulfill their fundamental vocation to love and communion. Thus, the Church's view of the conjugal act far surpasses the level of momentary erotic pleasure or the satisfaction of an urge. The Church's theology of the conjugal act affirms the wealth of significance and beauty inherent in the sexual relationship of husband and wife. The Church's theology of the conjugal act imbues the act with the dignity proper to husband and wife as persons and also exhorts husband and wife to preserve the dignity and beauty of their love by approaching the marital embrace precisely as a personal act.

The course of this study of the conjugal act proceeds along the thought that in order to understand the conjugal act we must grasp what the Church means by conjugal and what she means by act. In turn, these terms are intelligible only in the light of a vision of the person because only persons marry and only persons act. I begin my study with a review of Catholic magisterial teaching on marriage from 1930 through 1968, in which marriage is presented as an institution of fruitful love. The teachings from this period provide a foundation for understanding the conjugal life and the goods to which it is ordered as an institution and as a friendship. I next consider the manner in which the Church develops her theology of the conjugal act in the framework of Christian anthropology by examining magisterial teaching from 1968 to the present, focusing on the encyclical Humanae vitae and the teachings of Pope John Paul II. Because the Church's theology of the conjugal act centers on the doctrine of an indissoluble connection between the procreative and unitive meanings of the act, I dedicate the third chapter of the work to a consideration of procreation and union and the manner in which they enter into the conjugal act. In the fourth and final chapter of the work I consider the various dimensions of the conjugal act, the anthropological vision that underlies this concept of the conjugal act, and the manner in which the conjugal act is a personal act. Throughout my study I focus on two overlapping and converging areas as they arise in the teachings of the Church: the conjugal relationship and Christian anthropology. Consequently, this consideration of the conjugal act bears a threefold fruit insofar as it investigates the conjugal act itself, the nature of the conjugal relationship, and the Church's vision of man.


[1] Thus, for example, some people are bored at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, blaming the length of the homily or the quality of the music. In fact, the second Person of the Trinity is becoming sacramentally present on the altar during Mass, an event that could never fail to excite and to produce joy if properly understood and appreciated.

[2] Regarding these secondary sources, I concentrate my attention on the writings of those authors who demonstrate a clear effort to support or develop the official teachings of the Magisterium or whose work possesses a clear correspondence to the ideas articulated in the official teachings of the Magisterium. Though a great many theologians and philosophers fulfill this criteria, I mention (in alphabetical order) the following as authors who have done exemplary work in this respect and who represent significant sources for the development of my study: Carlo Caffarra, Ramón Garcia de Haro, Francisco Gil Hellín, Alain Mattheeuws, William E. May, Martin Rhonheimer, Janet Smith, Dionigi Tettamanzi, and Karol Wojtyla. Additionally, regarding certain concepts, I make substantial reference to the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas as two authorities explicitly incorporated into the teachings of the Magisterium (for example, in Pius Xl's Casti connubii and John Paul II's Veritatis splendor). The specific books and articles from these authors (as well as other relevant sources) that have been instrumental in the development of my ideas are cited throughout the text and contained in the bibliography. For a more comprehensive bibliography of the relevant work published in this area of study, consult Janet Smith, "Humanae Vitae", a Generation Later (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1993), and Alain Mattheeuws, Union et procréation (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1989), both of which contain extensive bibliographies.

[3] By "dissenting position" I mean the writings of those theologians and philosophers who, though working in a Christian context, do not fully accept the official teachings of the Church regarding the sexual relationship of husband and wife. For a simplified but classic example of this line of thought, see Anthony Kosnik et al., Human Sexuality, New Directions in American Catholic Thought: A Study, commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America (New York: Paulist Press, 1977). Although this position is usually expressed with regard to particular moral conclusions affirmed by the Magisterium, such as the Church's condemnation of contraception, the dissenting position amounts to an understanding of human sexuality and human action and, consequently, a concept of the conjugal act that differ fundamentally from the Catholic understanding of the same issues. The difference between the dissenting position and the doctrine of the Magisterium, then, cannot be reduced to a simple disagreement about certain sexual acts. Instead, those who dissent from the Church's teaching on the conjugal act invariably espouse, in one form or another, concepts of the human person and moral theories that are incompatible with the teachings of the Church. In simple terms, those who reject the teaching of Humanae vitae usually find themselves at odds with the teaching of Veritatis splendor. Prominent examples of this line of thought can be found in the writings of Charles Curran, Josef Fuchs, Bernard Häring, Louis Janssens, and Richard McCormick. The ideas and positions of these authors and others, often described as "revisionists", have been given serious consideration. For an analysis and critique of the dissenting position, including relevant bibliographical information, consult William May, An Introduction to Moral Theology, rev. ed. (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1994), pp. 109-53; Martin Rhonheimer, "Intentional Acts and the Meaning of Object: A Reply to Richard McCormick", Thomist, vol. 59, no. 2 (1995), pp. 279-311; and Smith, "Humanae Vitae", pp. 161-229.

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Donald P. Asci received his Master of Sacred Theology from the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family, and did his studies for a Doctorate in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical University in Rome. Since 1998 he has been Associate Professor of Theology in the Austrian Program of the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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