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Catholic Life | Tag Archive | Sex
Tag Archives: Sex

Sex and Fasting: They Call it Abstinence for a Reason

This post is serious, and not sarcastic except for a few hopefully obvious lines.

My parents told us kids a lot about fasting from food and not-a-lot about married people abstaining from sex. This makes sense given the fact that their sexual relationship was none of our business and we didn’t really have any need to think about religious sexual abstinence in our own lives. But we did know that the main reason the Bible addresses married abstinence is for prayer (not avoiding babies, lest the overly-zealous NFP-pushers confuse you).

So while I didn’t actually learn about the Christian tradition of married sexual abstinence until I was in college, I did not feel like I was learning anything. It simply does not make sense to have sex on a day of penance as sex is happy and penitential days are sad. This was intuitive knowledge. It was less obvious to me why there had been so many restrictions on conjugal intercourse on feast days, but the rest of it required no thought on my part. It was simply obviously true, and while I learned various facts from an academic perspective, my faith required no molding.

A few months before I got married my mother made comments about me possibly being a mother within a year. I knew that Josh’s family was likely similarly speculative, and so I told him that if they started asking questions that I didn’t feel like dealing with, I would solemnly tell them that we were so desirous of children that we’d been fasting and praying for them continually from the beginning. This was to be amusing because everybody knows that the implication is that we’d been trying to get a baby from God while never engaging in the act through which God typically grants children. Everyone knows that if you’re fasting you’re not having sex.

I did not learn the truth until I read infertility blogs. Women who thought of themselves as pious Catholics posted publicly about having sex during HOLY WEEK! There was no “we felt called to try to conceive a child during this holy time of penance” or anything else, just a complete lack of concern for anything other than having a baby.

After much denial, I gradually I came to understand that American Catholics really *are* as liturgically clueless as we are so often accused.

When I jokingly mentioned having sex on a Friday I did not think of it as personal. It was a joke and while I don’t ever directly address what I do or don’t do sexually, it doesn’t seem any more intimate to joke about penitential sexual abstinence than it does to Tweet vegetarian recipes with the #FridayFood tag. They may or may not be penitential for me, and I may or may not be fasting in some form or other, but as someone who Tweets random Catholic things it makes sense for me to say things that fit into a context of Christian tradition of penance, right?

While I don’t go around trying to bring back Ember Days or get Western Christians to give up olive oil, I don’t see why anyone would think of sexual abstinence as somehow randomly disconnected from other penance post-Vatican II or whatever. Yes, maybe our catechesis stinks so much that people really think it is fitting to give no thought to the crucifixion on Fridays and Lent is all about giving up chocolate and skipping lunch on Good Friday. But is it possible that our society is really so sexually dysfunctional that we no longer feel the natural connection between penitential days and sexual abstinence?

I don’t care who does what in the bedroom. I am aware of many good reasons for modifying penitential practices to fit into the reality of family life. I just do not understand why people think of standard Christian practice as peculiar or uber-holy or demanding. You don’t have to study Medieval canon law to just know that it isn’t normal to fast from food while indulging in sex. Or do you? Have our norms changed so much that one really must grow up in an extreme-Christian (or at least Eastern Christian) family in order to find abstinence more meaningful than merely skipping meat seven days a year?

These are questions that I don’t really want answered right now. It has been long enough that I’m no longer scandalized by what is apparently the real norm for American Latin Rite Catholics. But not quite enough time has passed for me to accept the Eastern bashing which insists that Westerners are, well, not exactly Christian, when it comes to penance.

So this is the closest I’ll get to a concession for now, and comments are closed.

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Saintly Marriage: Why it Matters

The ideal of celibate marriage is not one that should be accepted by most couples in the form of renunciation of conjugal intercourse. Instead it should properly be understood as a challenge to examine one’s love for one’s spouse in comparison to one’s love for God.

Sexual activity isn’t what really matters. Love is. What is the honest answer to the question of whom one loves? It should be God. And then when someone asks about one’s love for one’s spouse or children, the answer should be a declaration that obviously one loves them appropriately since one loves God. Yet in comparison to one’s love for God, one’s love for one’s spouse must look like hatred.

The greatest challenge of marriage for me so far has been to learn to love my husband more than myself, and yet still less than I love God.

This week has been a great reminder of how very far I am from that. On Monday night I set the alarm so that I could get up in time to go to Mass before work. On Tuesday morning I turned the alarm off and stayed in bed for another half hour. It was lovely to be there listening to my husband’s breathing. Prior to getting married I could make myself get out of a cozy bed while it was still dark in order to go to Mass. But now the hard floor is too wonderful to leave when my husband is there beside me.

Thankfully God loves me more than I love God and I got the unexpected opportunity to go to Mass later in the day. But there could not have been a clearer indication that my love for Josh won out over my love for God. Yes, there are times in marriage when one needs to put service of spouse above spiritual practice, but it was not as if my sleeping husband cared whether I was there beside him. It was all about me.

Today I walked into a Mass that had started two minutes early. As I checked to insure that my cell phone was silenced I noticed that I had new voicemail from three missed calls. I did not check to see whose calls I had missed even though it was unusual to have new voicemail from the morning.

Then suddenly during consecration I realized that it could have been that something was wrong with Josh. I hadn’t seen him online in the morning. I had assumed that meant that he had closed Gmail in order to work without interruption, but it also could have been a sign of something wrong. Perhaps he was locked out of the apartment and his only way of contacting me was the cell phone which I ignore while at work.

I realized that I was being silly. I also realized that the priest had finished the prayer while I had been thinking about Josh rather than God. Unlike earlier in the week, I had not consciously chosen Josh over God, but Saint Paul might as well have been standing beside me with an “I told you so” look.

Marriage is a great gift and beautiful path of salvation. But it is also one of the most alluring temptations of damnation. Women in particular are especially vulnerable to spiritual damage in marriage because many of us are naturally inclined–and all of us our taught–to pour ourselves entirely into marriage. And the harder we work on our relationships, the more we give ourselves to our spouses, and the better our marriages are, the less we are drawn to the Triune God. For our energy is directed to our spouses and we are satisfied with something wonderful; something dreadfully less than God alone.

One obvious help for many married women Saints was wretched husbands who drove their wives constantly back to the arms of God for solace. That is not exactly the sort of aid to salvation that I desire!

And yet as I look at my life it is clear that I am constantly in danger of damning myself through “love” of my spouse! I am not worthy to be the disciple of Jesus Christ. Yes, I continually pray “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word…” but so often I am not really aware of how unworthy I am. For I am too busy loving my husband to notice that I hate my God.

This is why I must look to the ideal example of Our Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph and all the Saints who followed after them in the most perfect of marriages. It is not that sexual intercourse is bad, but rather that forgoing it for the glory of God is emblematic of the pure devotion to God which characterizes all the Saints. And the great love for God which makes spousal love seem like hatred by comparison is precisely what I lack.

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Wedding Nights

I will admit that I started posting about celibate marriage now because I thought that others were disputing the traditional nature of something which seemed indisputable to me. I enjoy the abstract consideration of just about every theological topic and find that blogging not only allows me to clarify my understanding, it also gives others the opportunity to point to what I am missing.

But I have been working on draft posts about celibate marriage for much longer because I think that the misunderstanding surrounding the Church’s teaching on marriage causes very real harm in very real, very normal marriages.

One of the most common errors that I have seen embraced by Catholics is the idea that a marriage must be consummated in order to be valid. I do not regularly talk with people in real life about their sexual relationships, but many times when the topic of natural family planning comes up for newlyweds,  someone will say something about how the couple must engage in sexual intercourse on their wedding night in order to consummate the marriage and make it valid.

This is a theological error which is deplorable due to its consequences in real life.

It is certainly good for a newly married couple to consummate their marriage at whatever appropriate time they so desire. But it is quite bad for them to be pressured into a poorly timed first sexual encounter due to the mistaken idea that they are not really married until they consummate their marriage!

The spiritual benefit of not rushing consummation should be obvious from the readings offered for the wedding liturgy. There is a reason that the Church suggests a reading from the book of Tobit where the couple spend the first three nights of marriage in prayer rather than in “their own wedlock.” In fact, the Douay-Rheims offers this translation:

Then Tobias exhorted the virgin, and said to her: Sara, arise, and let us pray to God today, and tomorrow, and the next day: because for these three nights we are joined to God: and when the third night is over, we will be in our own wedlock. For we are the children of saints, and we must not be joined together like heathens that know not God.

Sure, Tobias had to be more than a little scared in order to make such a point of honoring God rather than lust, but the point is simply that every Catholic should see the goodness of offering oneself to God prior to giving oneself to one’s spouse sexually!

The practical reason for not rushing consummation is, if anything, more obvious. Most couples in our culture go through elaborate wedding rituals which leave them to start married life in a state of pure exhaustion. While exhausted sex may be fine later in marriage, a couple who has engaged in an entirely chaste courtship should be only vaguely familiar with each other in terms of physical intimacy. I am convinced that “betrothed love” allows for greater physical intimacy than that which is otherwise appropriate, but there remains a large distance between what the newly married couple should be familiar with and consummation.

It is nothing short of a tragedy that so many couples who deeply desired to love each other well are led to hurt each other and their marriage by exhaustedly hurrying through what should be a long delightful process, and in the name of making sure that they are really married!

There are, of course, couples for whom consummating the marriage immediately is appropriate for many reasons. But I have heard so many stories of young women who look back on their wedding nights as one of the worst parts of their marriages. And many of them were under the impression that this misery was actually required by the Church!

Stepping back to take a look at what the Church actually teaches about marriage should enable us to correct this problem and appropriately encourage soon-to-be-married couples to do exactly what is appropriate for them to most fully express their married love. For many that would mean not consummating their marriages on their wedding nights.

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The Theology of the Body Fostered the Sex Abuse Crisis

Or at least you’d think so if you read Eugene Cullen Kennedy’s “Rigali’s new old time religion: The theology of the body or how to keep catholics feeling guilty.”

At Vatican II the church rediscovered its traditions of understanding rather than over-controlling the human person. The notion that this Rigali endorsed movement will bring back the old days is the scary part for it means a return to the constricted and repressive attitudes toward human sexuality that caused so much suffering for so long for so many good people. That world of confused thinking about human sexuality was also the incubator for the sex abuse crisis from which so many still suffer.

Which is strikes me as odd because one of the things that I noticed most about people who learn the theology of the body via Christopher West is how very new they think it is. Meaning that John Paul II’s theology of the body is so very different from the “old time religion” with its supposed endless list of “don’ts.”

But the part of the article that really got me was  where Kennedy described John Paul II’s view that “Love can, as it were, keep company with desire as long as the latter is subordinated to the former and does not do what healthy human passion does: ‘overwhelm all else.'” Does any adult really want a sexual passion which “overwhelms all else” in their relationship? And if they do, do they really want a religion to teach them that they should pursue an overwhelming sexual passion? Thus saith the LORD, passion, and nothing else shall save you!

If that is the case, then there has got to be a more appropriate religion than Catholicism. If you want overwhelming sexual passion to be your standard of healthy relationships, then you don’t just need a new Catholicism, you need a new religion.

So can we please return to a more sensible discussion of the Church’s teaching on sex and human reality? Because dramatically misconstruing John Paul II’s take on human sexuality is not going to provide any clarity or consensus. It is certainly possible that John Paul II’s particular approach will not resonate in 100 years, and that the current popularized version is quite off-base. But there is no point in talking about either if we are not going to at least understand what is actually going on. And insinuating that John Paul II somehow went against Vatican II isn’t going to help any more than implying that the theology of the body was the cause of the sex abuse crisis!

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Please Answer: Sex and Marriage

“Sex is marriage and marriage is sex.”

I will post on this after Easter, but for now I would love to have your view.

Do you agree or disagree?

Do you identify as a member of any religion?

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