Catholics receive everything as a gift from God: the material and the spiritual. There is no sense that what is material or physical is bad and that only what is spiritual is good — or that they need to be in conflict. Both were made by God for our benefit.
The material world is beautiful and useful, filled with things to inspire, delight, sustain and heal us. Our own bodies are not just containers for our souls. Rather, they are an essential part of our being that permit us to relate to the world and each other. With our bodies we can eat, sleep, drink, dance, run, make music and poetry and, among other things, make love. Human beings came to be in a lush garden and will be feasting for an eternity amid beautiful sights and sounds! We do our best to capture some of that beauty in our Church architecture, art and music.
What is material reveals a great deal about God and also what God expects from us. God is a lover, and he made our bodies to reveal that we are to be lovers or “spouses” — that is committed, unconditional lovers who treasure new life.
Our bodies show that we are meant to be in relationship, to give ourselves to others as a gift and to receive others as a gift. Our bodies and the sexuality that come with them are to be treasured and never abused. Moreover, we give not only our bodies when we interact with others, we also give gifts that flow from our spirits; the body and soul are an integrated whole that allow us to touch another’s soul when we touch another’s body.
Sexuality allows males and females to enjoy intimate, loving relationships and to share in the profoundly important and meaningful project of having and raising children together.
God blessed the marital union of Adam and Eve and directed them to cling to each other and to “be fertile and multiply” (Gn 1:28). That directive extends to all born males or females since. We are to fill the world with love and life. Male and female are able to do so as equal partners who complement each other and cooperate with each other to create new life. It is only in marriage that males and females can build the trusting community they need to flourish and can welcome and care for the new lives they may create. Any use of sexuality outside of marriage abuses the gift of sexuality.
Chastity is the virtue that enables us to respect and not use others. Lust treats the bodies of others as objects to satisfy our desires. Chastity, or discipline over our sexual desires, allows us to see others as persons of infinite value who should never be used.
Chastity within marriage certainly means fidelity, but it means much more than that. It means engaging in sex not for one’s own selfish pleasure but to affirm one’s spouse. Any use of sexuality not directed toward one’s spouse is a misuse of sexuality. Pornography, for instance, is a betrayal of one’s spouse; it is voluntary experience of sexual pleasure not in service of marital unity.
Marriage is a communion of persons where each spouse should be working to help the other achieve goodness and even holiness. Day by day, spouses should be learning to work together; to work on their life as a common endeavor; to tolerate lovingly the imperfections of the spouse — especially those that don’t seem correctable; to struggle to improve their own characters; to work out their problems in a loving way that always honors the other; and to forgive readily when a spouse disappoints.
Spouses will find that engaging in the marital act is an extremely effective way of giving themselves to each other, of remaking the pledge they made on their wedding day to join themselves body and soul to each other. The marital act can help deepen the intimacy that the spouses should be developing in the rest of their lives together. Those who trust each other, who share each other’s joys and sorrows, will find the marital act all the more meaningful and unitive.
Respecting the procreative power of the act is also essential for true marital love. Expressing the willingness to be a parent with another expresses a lifetime commitment to another like nothing else, since children require a lifetime commitment. It is all too easy to say “I want to have sex with you.” Saying “I am willing to be a parent” to someone really expresses the willingness to entwine one’s life with another. The male provides the sperm; the female provides the egg; God provides the soul. When couples are using a contraceptive they are not giving of themselves completely. Moreover, their contracepted sexual act simultaneously invites God to create a new life and seeks to prevent him from doing so.
God loves love; he loves marriage; he loves babies. The Holy Spirit has guided the Church to help spouses understand what marital chastity means so that they may attain marital happiness and establish a family that will contribute to the well-being of the family members and society.
Janet Smith is a moral theologian who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.