Intimacy, love, and responsibility

The other night as I was swiping on mascara and applying a goodly amount of dry shampoo to my roots, one of my kids asked where I was going. 

“Oh, nowhere, actually, I’m giving a talk, erm, on the internet, honey.” 

It’s truly the age of miracles.

Anywho, I hopped on Instagram live last night and gave what I intended to be a quick little Q&A on what the Catholic Church teaches – and doesn’t teach – about married sex, specifically about what is or isn’t allowed during periods of abstinence. 

People are perennially raising the question of “how far is too far?” in pretty much every online group dedicated to NFP – at least the ones I’ve been part of – and it’s for good reason.

Many, many Catholics don’t have a reliable and accurate source of detailed information about sexual ethics. When we have questions about matters of a sexual nature and are trying to live the fullness of our faith and striving for virtue, the practical resources that exist are few and far between.

Why have things changed? Well, contraception, namely. That and a prevailing cultural obsession with what passes for sex but which we know to only be a shallow appromixation of the thing itself, so far removed as to be more akin to a watermelon flavored piece of bubblegum than to a ripe, unweildy melon grown in dark, nutrient rich soil, tended to for patient months. 

For as sex-saturated as our culture is, what it knows and understands about the true nature of sex is precious little, indeed.

So many of us have questions. Questions which perhaps our parents were unable to address for us, failed to model for us in one way or another. 

The possibility for the organic transmission of collective wisdom wilted in the face of a proliferation of competing voices in the marketplace of influence, eager to endear themselves to young minds in particular. How many of us learned about sex from MTV or Cosmo magazine rather than from our mothers and fathers? How many more hours of lectures from health teachers and university professors have we endured on sexual deviances, “safe” sex, disease transmission, et cetera ad naseum. 

Father could preach a dozen homilies a year on sexual morality and not even move the needle in terms of having any sort of influence over that sphere. I don’t know many people who’ve heard a dozen homilies on matters of sexual morality in their lifetime.

Of course, we Catholics have a 2,000+ year wealth of resources at our virtual fingertips thanks to the Magisterium and the internet. But it’s not always easy to find direct answers to specific questions, and for all the convenience and accessibility the internet has given, it has also flattened the hierarchical topography of things, if you will. In this digital democracy of ours, everyone is their own expert, free to twist and strain to interpret settled doctrine through the lens of their own experience. 

So that’s how we get self-styled experts who pop into Facebook groups with homegrown manifestos claiming to have “discovered” a loophole for masturbation that all the great theological minds of the past two millenia somehow glossed over.

At any rate, the focus of this particular Instagram live was to address some of the most FAQ’d FAQs about married sex, namely, what constitues “too far” when it comes to times of abstinence within marriage.

Having been raised in a prevailingly Protestant culture, and so holding a sort of reductionist view of sex as a necessary evil, or else as something dirty that we’re finally “allowed” to do once married, many of us (so many!) come into marriage having sort of white-knuckled our way through dating and engagement with varying degrees of “success” in the chastity department. I speak of the stuff of the True Love Waits movement, the purity pledges and promise rings and the “holdout till the wedding night “mentality. 

There is some inherent rightness in the purity movement, but it falls flat in its failure to acknowledge the goodness of sex along with the goodness of abstinence. 

For many of us, inadvertant or not, sex became tinged with shame, something we associated with continual slip ups and mistakes and crossed lines. Hard to flip that switch to all systems go once we enter into marriage, and so many do so with little to no pratical instruction on what sex is. We know what we aren’t supposed to do, what we shouldn’t have done. 

Many of us struggle with knowing what is allowed, what is truly loving, and what is good and beautiful about this awesome and weighty gift of marriage.

It can be a surprise to discover the beauty of what the Church affirms and believes about the dignity of the sexual relationship within marriage. I read a few lines from “Love and Responsibility” from Karol Wojtyla, more recently Pope St. John Paul II, a lesser known predecessor to his Theology of the Body. A lot of the philosophical underpinnings for his later teachings on sex and love can be found within its covers, and of particular interest to my audience last night, judging from the emails and DMs I awoke to this morning, is Wojtyla’s understanding of the temptation to egoism within the sexual act, a self centeredness that he identified as being particularly difficult for the man to overcome.

He adjures spouses, but husbands in particular, to be attentive to the arousal curve which can differ so greatly between husband and wife. Encourages husbands to work towards mutual climax, if possible, to not forget about their beloved’s needs and feelings amidst the intensity of sexual pleasure.

We also touched on the “how far is too far” question, reframing it in terms of what is most loving and most just towards the spouse. Are we asking the question out of charity, because we fear our husbands or wives won’t feel loved during periods of marital abstinence? Or out of sexual frustration and a desire to push the line without crossing it?

My tech failed a bit, so the upload quality isn’t great, but it’s linked here if you want to give it a listen. I also wanted to list out some resources for further study.

Love and Responsibility

Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love

Humanae Vitae 

Satisfaction in the Marital Conjugal Relationship 

Castii Connubii 

One Comment

  • Fr Joel Sember

    I listened to a chastity speaker once who answered the question, “How far is too far?” by saying, “That far.”
    His point was, when you start asking the question of what you can get away with, you’ve gone too far because you are no longer focused on responsible love and the good of the other.

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