II In the Light of Love
1. The Traditional Doctrine
Our analysis of the nature of sexuality in the light of the moral law has shown us that it is a form of love which belongs in that life-long relationship which is marriage: such a relationship alone provides the support that both parties need for undertaking the heavy burdens of parenthood, it alone provides a background for the development of mature and happy children, the basis for the highest and deepest union and friendship that exists between persons, and the support of these persons in their old age.
Since the contemporary Magisterium understands sexuality primarily as a form of love, let us now attempt to analyze it as such in more detail. What is sexual love then? In brief:
- a) it is a form of love;
- b) it is radically a form of sensible love;
- c) it is a form of sensible love that should be informed by rational love and
- d) by Charity
- e)it is a form of marital love.
In more detail:
a) as a form of love it involves union and fruitfulness;
b) as a form of sensible love it relates to a person as an object, seeking pleasure, physical union, and the procreation of offspring;
c) as informed and elevated by rational love, while continuing to seek pleasure, it relates to a person no longer as an object but as a person, or in other words according to the dignity of the person, since “person” contains the notion of dignity, as shown in chapter two. As such it is ordered towards giving, the union of two persons, and the promotion of the good of these two persons as well as the good of the new person who is the intended fruit of this union;
d) as further informed and elevated by Charity, as it must be between Christians, it is undertaken for the sake of God; it is, in its spiritual dimension, a union with God; and it aims at procreation for the glory of God, “who has made everything for Himself” (Proverbs 16.4).
Finally, e) since sexual love belongs within the marital relationship, it follows that it must also share in the qualities of this relationship: it must involve intimacy and union, not just with a body but with a person in all his or her various dimensions: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual; it must involve affection, giving, and dedication. In the context of sacramental marriage it should in addition be the fruit of holy prayer (see Tobit 6.16, 17, 22 and the Roman Catechism quoted below in chapter 10).
2. The Novel Doctrine
Let us now see how the contemporary Magisterium understands sexuality. In Familiaris Consortio (11) it is described as a “total physical self-giving, the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving”.
This phrase has advantages and disadvantages. Its advantages are that it shows how sexuality must be anchored within marriage, and how marital love should be characterized by selflessness.74 («Toute la doctrine catholique du marriage…implique et exalte le renoncement des époux a l’égoisme… » conclusion to the article on Marriage at column 2316, Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, Paris VI librairie Letouze et Ane 1927.)
Its second disadvantage is that it is prima facie non- Catholic.
Let us attempt to show this by way of the more basic concept of “self-giving love.” This has often been taken as an expression of spousal love: both of the mutual assistance of the spouses and of the marital act. In the first case it expresses the service, dedication, and selflessness of the spouses to each other; in the latter case it expresses the giving and taking of power over each others’ bodies (I Cor. 7.4.) 75.(Though of course in the context of a “special, holy, and pure
love”, and with modesty and moderation (cf. Roman Catechism on
Matrimony, the sections on Fidelity and the Use of Marriage
We must however observe that the concept of self- giving love (like the concept of total self-giving love) is imprecise. For it is metaphysically impossible for one human person to give himself to another human person76: one can only give oneself to a being who can receive one and take possession of one. But a spouse is unable to receive a spouse or take possession of a spouse as a person. Rather he can only receive the spouse to the extent of his capacities (recipitur in modo recipientis) and take possession of him or her only to this extent: in other words only in a human and limited manner77, that is to say by accepting the day-to-day service of the other and by taking power over the other’s body in the marital act.
This impossibility may alternatively be expressed in terms of the doctrine in the perennial philosophy of the incommunicability of the human person. Here we see another point of divergence between this philosophy and Personalism.
Consequently, one spouse can only give himself to the other spouse in a human and limited manner, in a self- giving only in a secondary sense (see the end of the section on love in chapter 2). It is possible to give oneself, and give oneself totally, to God alone, for in His omnipotence God alone exercises, and can exercise, total dominion over a person, and hence He alone is able to receive him and take possession of him as a person, and in a total sense.
Let us proceed to evaluate the concept of ‘total self- giving love’ metaphysically, physically, and morally.
If between two human persons self-giving love is metaphysically impossible, then total self-giving love is so a fortiori ratione. In the marital act, total self-giving love is in addition physically impossible, since as a radically sensible form of love, it essentially involves the seeking and taking of pleasure, without which the act itself would be impossible.
Moreover, in the moral domain total self-giving love is legitimate to God alone, in accordance with the body of the other to a third party. Which is why one spouse cannot alienate his right over the Commandment to love God with ‘thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind’ (Lk. 10. 27) but to love the neighbour to a lesser degree, that is to say ‘as thyself’. To attempt to love another human being in an absolute sense is idolatry and therefore wrong: spousal love should therefore be characterized by restraint. Indeed spouses not only avoid the sin of idolatry thereby, but also practice the virtues of temperance, modesty, and reserve, respecting themselves and each other, and safeguarding their personal privacy physically, psychologically, mentally, and spiritually. Reserve has a particular importance in the spiritual domain where the intimate relation between God and the soul is concerned.
But someone may object here that spousal love may indeed amount to a total self-giving, if it is understood to refer to a total self-giving to God in Charity within marriage, for marriage is indeed one of the ways in which man is able to love God. But this love, this self-giving, to God within marriage cannot be total, for a spouse can only love God with a divided heart: “He that is with a wife is solicitous for the things of the world: how he may please his wife. And he is divided” (I Cor. 7, 33). Pius XII in his encyclical Sacra Virginitas (1954 s.20) comments here: “The Apostle…is asserting clearly that their hearts are divided between love of God and love their spouse.” (cf. also ss.15 and 24.)
A further objection may be made to the above thesis, in arguing that since marriage is a symbol of Christ’s union with His Church, it must share in its qualities, amongst which is the totality of self-giving. In this connection Pope John Paul II writes in Familiaris Consortio: ‘the couple participates in and is called to live the very Charity of Christ Who gave Himself on the Cross…the content of [this] participation [is that] conjugal love aims at a totality’(32). In reply, for one thing to be a symbol of another thing it must share in some of its qualities, but not all, otherwise it would not be a symbol of it but identical to it. The Roman Catechism, as we shall see in the later chapter on marriage, specifies the relevant qualities of the love in question as its intimacy, immensity, and holiness. The couple is called to imitate these qualities of Christ’s love for His Church, but not others such as its totality, which is anyway excluded by the arguments outlined above.
In summary, self-giving love (in its strict sense) and total self-giving love are possible, as we have said, only in relation to God, and possible only directly: without the mediation of another human person. This is why they can only exist within a life of perfect chastity, which therefore constitutes a more perfect symbol of Christ’s union with His Church even than marriage78. In this regard it is instructive to read in the Encyclical Sacra Virginitas of Pius XII: ‘The greatest glory of virgins is undoubtedly to be the loving images of the perfect integrity of the union between the Church and her Divine Spouse.’79
The original author of this blog passed away in July of 2016. RIP Father Carota.