St. Valentine's Day—named for a Roman martyr—is probably associated with romantic love because in medieval England it was around this date "whan every foul¹ cometh ther to choose his mate" (Chaucer). But why do fools fall in love? Because it is what we were made for. Not all love is sexual, of course—although we learn from the Song of Songs and Catholic mystics that a divine eros pervades the cosmos. So this feast makes a fine day to recall the Church's theology of love.
The early Church faced a pagan world that considered sexuality too base to be worth philosophizing about. The Romans left sex as the realm of freedom and fun—by which they meant that rich men were "free" to have "fun" with slave girls and slave boys, regardless of age or consent. The word pornography derives from "porne"—which is Greek for prostitute or sexual slave. In contrast, some ascetic thinkers such as the held that the body itself was evil, and so was sexuality, since it gave rise to—you guessed it—more human bodies. So they encouraged total celibacy.
The Church took another view. From reading Genesis, it knew that sex was fundamentally good; Jesus himself thought it sacred enough to perform His first miracle at a wedding, and to elevate the marital bond to a stubbornly indissoluble sacrament, one of only seven ordinary channels for God's grace. But the sexual instinct is disordered like all the others, and much more powerful. Unlike, say, the hunger for food, the sex craving has as its object another human being; a Church that lost many martyrs to gladiatorial shows which included elaborate, live sex orgies was keenly attuned to sexuality's darker side.
Jesus thought sex was sacred enough to perform his first miracle at a wedding.
Maybe too keenly attuned. Because of this awareness—and perhaps because the Church has since the Apostles been governed and mostly staffed by celibates, who've made their wedding vows to Christ Himself—too many theologians and preachers neglected the Church's positive doctrine of sexuality. Some early Church fathers, who fasted and flogged themselves to subdue "the flesh," looked upon marital sex like embittered Atkins dieters staring through a bakery window. Their attitudes carried down through the centuries, particularly through the preaching of ² clergy, all the way down to the present. Young Catholics were taught about sexual morality through a simple, elegant formula: Sexual intercourse, like killing, is almost always wrong-except in special circumstances, such as self-defense and marriage. For premarital activities, we found an easy guide in the popular R&B song: "If It Feels Good, Stop It!"
This suspicion towards even marital whoopie was manifested in moral manuals which warned couples repeatedly against the danger of "pollution," in the custom of "Irish foreplay" (five Guinnesses, then the Sorrowful Mysteries) and in the lives of the saints. Up until the 20th century, very few married folks were canonized—and of those who were, an astounding percentage had renounced sex altogether, or left their marital bed to become monks and nuns. This renunciation was typically presented not as grounds for entering marriage counseling, but as proof of heroic virtue. Well, maybe. But it seems to most Catholics today that there was something a little strange going on.
Meanwhile, over in the secular world, people have adopted the sexual ideology of the Marquis de Sade—who reasserted the Roman aristocrat's privilege of unlimited sexual expression, without regard to partner or progeny. In the early 20th century, this old creed gained respectability through the likes of Havelock Ellis and Margaret Sanger, and a birth control movement which promised to eugenically produce "more children from the fit, and fewer from the unfit." The work of the energetic pervert Alfred Kinsey moved things along, breaking down every barrier of modesty (and faking statistics) to "prove" that inside each American lurked a secret de Sade, who hungered to try every imaginable variation of sexual act—if only a prudish society would let him. The result, today, is that we rear children who mature sexually at the age of 10 or 11, and psychologically at 40, who are ready to rut in junior high, but are emotionally retarded, unable to contract enduring marriages, unwilling to procreate.
The early Church faced a pagan world that considered sexuality too base to be worth philosophizing about.
Pope John Paul II, aware of these trends, has labored mightily throughout his pontificate to reinvigorate Church teaching and preaching about marriage. For instance, he has canonized married couples who were really... you know—married. John Paul has added innumerable such laymen and women to the ranks of the saints. In 2001, he , two heroes of World War II—making their mutual feast day their wedding anniversary. He often reminds sniffy celibates that spousal love and parenthood is the road most people take to heaven.
The pope has striven, in the words of theologian Johnny Mercer, "to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative" and "latch on to the affirmative." As he served as Archbishop of Cracow in the 1950s, Karol Wotyjla wrote the seminal study (1960). Instead of presenting sex primarily as an act of reproduction, with affection as a positive and pleasure as a dubious side-effect, the pope emphasized the human love between the spouses as a mirror of the divine love in the Trinity, and a hearkening back to the primordial unity of Adam and Eve.
In fact, the pope urged spouses, especially men, to attend to each other's enjoyment. Indeed, 15 years before the miserable Joy of Sex, the pope was writing about the importance of female orgasm and the duty of a Catholic husband to make sure his wife attains it "by any means necessary."³ The pope urged men to slow down the rhythm of their own arousal, to more closely match their wives', so that "the subjective happiness which they then share... [reflects] the joy which flows from harmony between one's own actions and the objective order of nature." Ways for men to follow the pope's advice, and "slow" their "rhythm," include counting to very high prime numbers, thinking about auto repair—and if need be, Man-Delay™, the Topical Anesthetic for Men. A little dab will do ya.
Compare spacing children to losing weight. You can achieve that through dieting—or you can try bulimia.
The pope has continued to develop his "personalist" theology of sexual self-giving and mutual love in a series of talks and documents called the Theology of the Body. Other writers who've followed in the pope's footsteps include Christopher West, author of Good News about Sex and Marriage, Gregory Popcak, author of For Better ...Forever!, Marriage, Mary Rousseau, author of Sex is Holy, and Naura Hayden, author of How to Satisfy a Woman Every Time and Have Her Beg for More.
Contraception, Bulimia, and Frankenfoods
Most Catholics in the West aren't fond of the teaching, but the Church still condemns all forms of artificial contraception. Just because your local pastor has tactfully avoided mention of this annoying doctrine—say, for the past 40 years—doesn't mean it has gone away. It has a very long pedigree, and between Pope Pius XI and Pope John Paul II, recent popes have piled up a fair-sized bookshelf full of increasingly infallible declarations on the subject. They've left just about no wriggle room for future pontiffs to change the Church's mind.
In the old days, the Church's teaching wasn't much of a problem, since farm families needed all the milkmaids and pig-stickers they could raise, few kids required education beyond the seventh grade, and the problem of too many mouths to feed was solved the old-fashioned way—through infant mortality. The circumstances of child-bearing have changed radically in less than a century, so it shouldn't be surprising that the Church has felt some growing pains. Okay, sometimes they seem more like death pangs; Catholics on either side of the divide over this doctrine barely speak to one another. They read different magazines, attend different liturgies, and quietly hope that the other side will die off or go away. They'll be waiting quite a while, we expect.
Does Church teaching mean that married people are obliged, on pain of mortal sin, to have an unlimited number of children? Happily, no. All Catholics(4) admit that changing times have demanded development in the Church's doctrine. As early as 1930, a pope taught that parents could limit their families, using the then still-primitive "rhythm method" of skipping sex on fertile days. Since then, techniques for determining fertility have become ever more effective; the reliability of Natural Family Planning approached 98%, as the World Health Organization (reluctantly) admits. What NFP amounts to is finding out when you're fertile, and sending hubby to sleep in the doghouse on those days.
Most women are likely to conceive for between eight and ten days a month. Which leaves two thirds of the month as a free-fire zone.
Since 1930, the Church has expanded its understanding of when one may choose to postpone pregnancy. As Paul VI wrote in , and as the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church repeated, a couple may choose to delay or avoid pregnancy for "just reasons." That is, not for frivolous motives—but in accordance with prudence,(5) which governs every other virtue, including generosity to the poor, and the proper times to preach the Gospel.
Good news: This means that most of the Catholics who choose to have smaller families are acting in accord with the Church's teaching—except when they use chemical or mechanical methods which change the nature of the sexual act. To utilitarian Americans, this seems like a pointless distinction: The end justifies the means. When we want to lose weight, we get liposuction. When we want the kids to sit still, we give them Ritalin. When we want more milk from a cow, we genetically engineer it using alien DNA from a grasshopper. Descartes taught us long ago that the point of science was to become the "master and possessor of nature." But the Church sees Creation as covered with big, greasy divine fingerprints, which we're not supposed to wipe away in our rage to tidy things up. And because sexuality is even more sacred than eating, we must treat it with more reverence than we do, say veal cattle. The best way to explain the Church's official theology is to compare spacing children to losing weight. You can achieve that through dieting—or you can try bulimia. If you think they're equivalent, you probably better go back to your gastroenterologist.
Learn about Natural Family Planning from one of the many Web sites available, especially the and the . Practicing NFP usually entails a woman checking her temperature and checking the cervix for signs of mucus (doesn't sound too romantic, but neither are rubbers or vasectomies, come to think of it).
Most women are likely to conceive for between eight and ten days a month. Which leaves two thirds of the month as a free-fire zone. Compare that to the average married American couple—which has sex once a week, for about 10 minutes—and NFP Catholics are making out like bandits.
NFP also helps if you're trying to conceive. Devout Catholics even today sometimes decide to have very large families, trusting God to sort out the details. They report that it's loads of fun, on top of the hard work, to fill one's rural home with Brigids, Patricks, Marios and Philomenas—little blurred Xeroxes of either parent, who can be taught to sing, play harpsichord, mow the grass or cook your dinner. Big families often form home-schooling groups with other, even bigger families—gathering periodically to stage a Midsummer's Night Dream, feast outdoors on picnic tables, or act like soccer hooligans in the yard. You'll often see these folks at Latin Masses, pouring out of a battered minivan, the little girls all in veils—and the boys with looks full of mischief, in which they are thoroughly versed, having had many sisters handy to torment. We should be grateful to these people—they're propping up the social security system.
John Paul II emphasizes the human love between the spouses as a mirror of the divine love in the Trinity.
1. Native speakers of Middle English may insist that "foul" really means "bird." To them we answer: "You've been dead for hundreds of years. Lighten up already."
2. The heresy of Jansenism, put briefly, holds that God is an angry hostage-taker who (to quote a like-minded thinker, Jonathan Edwards) "holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire." It's hard to love this God, but since He's the one with the box-cutter, we're better off placating Him. This view became enormously popular in France and Ireland.
3. Malcolm X picked up this phrase from his early reading of Wotyjla—a fact which has gone totally unreported by the anti-Catholic American media, simply because it happens to be manifestly untrue.
4. Except those on the radical right, who regard Pope John Paul II as a treacherous liberal. Don't ask.
5. Sure, it says in the Bible, "Be fruitful and multiply." It also says, "Take ye no thought for the morrow." But the Knights of Columbus still sell insurance.