Monday, 6 June 2016

Amoris Lætitia: sex sanctified

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3406 words, 17 min read

An aspect of marriage that Pope Francis speaks about extensively in Amoris Lætitia is sex and he does so by presenting a very positive view. He speaks about sex in a way that recognizes both its beauty and its importance in the context of a couple’s relationship, also beyond its procreative function. This is a topic that was very prominent during the two Synods that preceded the exhortation, where the Synod Fathers have called for a new way of speaking about sex and of making it clear that it is valued broadly and positively by the Church. Since Pope Francis has, I believe, taken up that challenge masterfully and has written with great clarity and freshness about the subject, I would next like to share with you my favorite passages from Amoris Lætitia in which he speaks about this topic.

Sex comes up very early on in the text, in §9, which is effectively the second paragraph of the exhortation, since the preceding ones present more meta context (about the process, an outline, ...). Here, Francis goes back to the origins of the family in Scripture and introduces it as Genesis does:
“At the centre we see the father and mother, a couple with their personal story of love. They embody the primordial divine plan clearly spoken of by Christ himself: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female?” (Mt 19:4). We hear an echo of the command found in the Book of Genesis: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Gen 2:24)”.”
Francis then points to it being a couple’s potential to beget life as a result of their love for each other that makes them an icon of God himself, a vehicle for salvation and a reflection of the inner life of the Trinity:
“The couple that loves and begets life is a true, living icon – not an idol like those of stone or gold prohibited by the Decalogue – capable of revealing God the Creator and Saviour. For this reason, fruitful love becomes a symbol of God’s inner life (cf. Gen 1:28; 9:7; 17:2-5, 16; 28:3; 35:11; 48:3-4). [...] The ability of human couples to beget life is the path along which the history of salvation progresses. Seen this way, the couple’s fruitful relationship becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of love. The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection. Saint John Paul II shed light on this when he said, “Our God in his deepest mystery is not solitude, but a family, for he has within himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love. That love, in the divine family, is the Holy Spirit”. The family is thus not unrelated to God’s very being. This Trinitarian dimension finds expression in the theology of Saint Paul, who relates the couple to the “mystery” of the union of Christ and the Church (cf. Eph 5:21-33).” (§11)
The “becoming one flesh” that is referred to right at the start of AL is then unpacked and presented as being both physical and spiritual:
“The marital union is thus evoked not only in its sexual and corporal dimension, but also in its voluntary self-giving in love. The result of this union is that the two “become one flesh”, both physically and in the union of their hearts and lives, and, eventually, in a child, who will share not only genetically but also spiritually in the “flesh” of both parents.” (§13)
Further on in the exhortation, Pope Francis underlines that Christian Scripture presents marriage as a gift from God and that this gift also contains sexuality:
“Contrary to those who rejected marriage as evil, the New Testament teaches that “everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected” (1 Tim 4:4). Marriage is “a gift” from the Lord (1 Cor 7:7). At the same time, precisely because of this positive understanding, the New Testament strongly emphasizes the need to safeguard God’s gift: “Let marriage be held in honour among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled” (Heb 13:4). This divine gift includes sexuality: “Do not refuse one another” (1 Cor 7:5).” (§61)
Francis also points to this position already having been put forward by Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes:
“The Second Vatican Council, in its Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, was concerned “to promote the dignity of marriage and the family (cf. Nos. 47-52)”. The Constitution “de ned marriage as a community of life and love (cf. 48), placing love at the centre of the family... ‘True love between husband and wife’ (49) involves mutual self-giving, includes and integrates the sexual and affective dimensions, in accordance with God’s plan (cf. 48-49)”. (§67)
This then leads to a reflection on the sacrament of marriage, where the link between the love of wife and husband for each other and of Christ for his Church is again made (§72) and where links are also shown to Christ’s incarnation and to the joys of Paradise:
“By becoming one flesh, they embody the espousal of our human nature by the Son of God. That is why “in the joys of their love and family life, he gives them here on earth a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb”. Even though the analogy between the human couple of husband and wife, and that of Christ and his Church, is “imperfect”, it inspires us to beg the Lord to bestow on every married couple an outpouring of his divine love.” (§73)
Next, Pope Francis speaks directly about the role of sex in the context of the sacrament of marriage and emphasizes that it is sanctified, leads to growth in grace and has meaning in the context of complete, mutual self-giving:
“Sexual union, lovingly experienced and sanctified by the sacrament, is in turn a path of growth in the life of grace for the couple. It is the “nuptial mystery”. The meaning and value of their physical union is expressed in the words of consent, in which they accepted and offered themselves each to the other, in order to share their lives completely. Those words give meaning to the sexual relationship and free it from ambiguity.” (§74)
Francis then goes on to spell out its divine, unitive nature:
“[B]y manifesting their consent and expressing it physically, [the man and the woman who marry] receive a great gift. Their consent and their bodily union are the divinely appointed means whereby they become “one flesh”.” (§75)
Next, he speaks with nuance about the relationship between sex and procreation:
“Marriage is firstly an “intimate partnership of life and love” which is a good for the spouses themselves, while sexuality is “ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman”. It follows that “spouses to whom God has not granted children can have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms”. Nonetheless, the conjugal union is ordered to procreation “by its very nature”.” (§80)
Following a beautiful reflection on St. Paul’s Hymn to Love, Pope Francis underlines through Pope Pius XI’s words the link between conjugal love and Christ’s love for us:
“[Conjugal love] is the love between husband and wife,115 a love sanctified, enriched and illuminated by the grace of the sacrament of marriage. It is an “affective union”,116 spiritual and sacrificial, which combines the warmth of friendship and erotic passion, and endures long after emotions and passion subside. Pope Pius XI taught that this love permeates the duties of married life and enjoys pride of place. Infused by the Holy Spirit, this powerful love is a reflection of the unbroken covenant between Christ and humanity that culminated in his self-sacrifice on the cross. “The Spirit which the Lord pours forth gives a new heart and renders man and woman capable of loving one another as Christ loved us. Conjugal love reaches that fullness to which it is interiorly ordained: conjugal charity.”” (§120)
Later on in AL, Francis speaks both about the good effects of sex on a married couple and about the meaning of it being used as a parallel to heavenly love, in which context he also points to the importance of pleasure and passion:
“The Second Vatican Council teaches that this conjugal love “embraces the good of the whole person; it can enrich the sentiments of the spirit and their physical expression with a unique dignity and ennoble them as the special features and manifestation of the friendship proper to marriage”. For this reason, a love lacking either pleasure or passion is insufficient to symbolize the union of the human heart with God: “All the mystics have affirmed that supernatural love and heavenly love find the symbols which they seek in marital love, rather than in friendship, filial devotion or devotion to a cause. And the reason is to be found precisely in its totality”.” (§142)
Pope Francis then revisits the idea of sex as a gift and quotes from St. John Paul’s writings on the theology of the body, in which he denies a negative view and one restricted solely to procreation:
“God himself created sexuality, which is a marvellous gift to his creatures. If this gift needs to be cultivated and directed, it is to prevent the “impoverishment of an authentic value”. Saint John Paul II rejected the claim that the Church’s teaching is “a negation of the value of human sexuality”, or that the Church simply tolerates sexuality “because it is necessary for procreation”. Sexual desire is not something to be looked down upon, and “and there can be no attempt whatsoever to call into question its necessity”.” (§150)
This leads Francis to following John Paul II’s lead further into a view of sexuality that neither deprives it of spontaneity nor denies the need for self-control, leading to a recognition of its nature being love and self-giving:
“To those who fear that the training of the passions and of sexuality detracts from the spontaneity of sexual love, Saint John Paul II replied that human persons are “called to full and mature spontaneity in their relationships”, a maturity that “is the gradual fruit of a discernment of the impulses of one’s own heart”. This calls for discipline and self-mastery, since every human person “must learn, with perseverance and consistency, the meaning of his or her body”. Sexuality is not a means of gratification or entertainment; it is an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity. As such, “the human heart comes to participate, so to speak, in an other kind of spontaneity”. In this context, the erotic appears as a specifically human manifestation of sexuality. It enables us to discover “the nuptial meaning of the body and the authentic dignity of the gift”. In his catecheses on the theology of the body, Saint John Paul II taught that sexual differentiation not only is “a source of fruitfulness and procreation”, but also possesses “the capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the human person becomes a gift”. A healthy sexual desire, albeit closely joined to a pursuit of pleasure, always involves a sense of wonder, and for that very reason can humanize the impulses.” (§151)
The train of thought then concludes with a repeated rejection of a negative view of sex and Francis links it to goodness and happiness:
“In no way, then, can we consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family. Rather, it must be seen as gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses. As a passion sublimated by a love respectful of the dignity of the other, it becomes a “pure, unadulterated affirmation” revealing the marvels of which the human heart is capable. In this way, even momentarily, we can feel that “life has turned out good and happy”.” (§152)
While sex is presented as an inherent part of marriage and as a gift from God, Francis also speaks about the dangers of its misuse as a means of egoistic consumerism:
“On the basis of this positive vision of sexuality, we can approach the entire subject with a healthy realism. It is, after all, a fact that sex often becomes depersonalized and unhealthy; as a result, “it becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts”. In our own day, sexuality risks being poisoned by the mentality of “use and discard”. The body of the other is often viewed as an object to be used as long as it offers satisfaction, and rejected once it is no longer appealing. Can we really ignore or overlook the continuing forms of domination, arrogance, abuse, sexual perversion and violence that are the product of a warped understanding of sexuality?” (§153)
This is a point he also made very early on in AL, where he decried all forms of violence directed towards women in the family:
“Unacceptable customs still need to be eliminated. I think particularly of the shameful ill-treatment to which women are sometimes subjected, domestic violence and various forms of enslavement which, rather than a show of masculine power, are craven acts of cowardice. The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union.” (§54)
Following from its nature as self-giving, Pope Francis next warns against an abuse of sexuality between husband and wife:
“We also know that, within marriage itself, sex can become a source of suffering and manipulation. Hence it must be clearly reaffirmed that “a conjugal act imposed on one’s spouse without regard to his or her condition, or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife”. The acts proper to the sexual union of husband and wife correspond to the nature of sexuality as willed by God when they take place in “a manner which is truly human”. Saint Paul insists: “Let no one transgress and wrong his brother or sister in this matter” (1 Th 4:6). Even though Paul was writing in the context of a patriarchal culture in which women were considered completely subordinate to men, he nonetheless taught that sex must involve communication between the spouses.” (§154)
And he again points to St. John Paul who spoke out clearly about the dangers of domination perverting what ought to be a communion build on the recognition of mutual dignity:
“Saint John Paul II very subtly warned that a couple can be “threatened by insatiability”. In other words, while called to an increasingly profound union, they can risk effacing their differences and the rightful distance between the two. For each possesses his or her own proper and inalienable dignity. When reciprocal belonging turns into domination, “the structure of communion in interpersonal relations is essentially changed”. It is part of the mentality of domination that those who dominate end up negating their own dignity. Ultimately, they no longer “identify themselves subjectively with their own body”, because they take away its deepest meaning. They end up using sex as form of escapism and renounce the beauty of conjugal union.” (§155)
Like he did in Laudato Si’ with regard to a misinterpretation of passages from Genesis that have been taken as license to exploit the Earth, Pope Francis next presents an exegesis of a passage from St. Paul that could be misunderstood as giving men power over their wives:
“Every form of sexual submission must be clearly rejected. This includes all improper interpretations of the passage in the Letter to the Ephesians where Paul tells women to “be subject to your husbands” (Eph 5:22). This passage mirrors the cultural categories of the time, but our concern is not with its cultural matrix but with the revealed message that it conveys. As Saint John Paul II wisely observed: “Love excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife might become a servant or a slave of the husband... The community or unity which they should establish through marriage is constituted by a reciprocal donation of self, which is also a mutual subjection”. Hence Paul goes on to say that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph 5:28). The biblical text is actually concerned with encouraging everyone to overcome a complacent individualism and to be constantly mindful of others: “Be subject to one another” (Eph 5:21). In marriage, this reciprocal “submission” takes on a special meaning, and is seen as a freely chosen mutual belonging marked by fidelity, respect and care. Sexuality is inseparably at the service of this conjugal friendship, for it is meant to aid the fulfillment of the other.” (§156)
Concluding this section of Amoris Lætitia, in which Francis warns about distortions of sexuality, is a passage that reaffirms, with the help of Benedict XVI’s beautiful words from Deus Caritas Est, the intrinsic importance of sex also as a safeguard against a dualism that would result in a loss of the value of both body and spirit:
“All the same, the rejection of distortions of sexuality and eroticism should never lead us to a disparagement or neglect of sexuality and eros in themselves. The ideal of marriage cannot be seen purely as generous donation and self-sacrifice, where each spouse renounces all personal needs and seeks only the other’s good without concern for personal satisfaction. We need to remember that authentic love also needs to be able to receive the other, to accept one’s own vulnerability and needs, and to welcome with sincere and joyful gratitude the physical expressions of love found in a caress, an embrace, a kiss and sexual union. Benedict XVI stated this very clearly: “Should man aspire to be pure spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity”. For this reason, “man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift”. Still, we must never forget that our human equilibrium is fragile; there is a part of us that resists real human growth, and any moment it can unleash the most primitive and selfish tendencies.” (§157)
Speaking about marriage preparation, Pope Francis introduces a new aspect to his presentation of sexuality, which again builds on St. John Paul II’s thought, who links it to the wedding liturgy and who thinks of sex as its continuation:
“[young people] need to be encouraged to see the sacrament not as a single moment that then becomes a part of the past and its memories, but rather as a reality that permanently influences the whole of married life. The procreative meaning of sexuality, the language of the body, and the signs of love shown throughout married life, all become an “uninterrupted continuity of liturgical language” and “conjugal life becomes in a certain sense liturgical”.” (§215)
Finally, Pope Francis mentions sexuality again in one of the last paragraphs of the exhortation, where he speaks about it in the context of family spirituality and where he links it to the resurrection:
“If a family is centred on Christ, he will unify and illumine its entire life. Moments of pain and difficulty will be experienced in union with the Lord’s cross, and his closeness will make it possible to surmount them. In the darkest hours of a family’s life, union with Jesus in his abandonment can help avoid a breakup. Gradually, “with the grace of the Holy Spirit, [the spouses] grow in holiness through married life, also by sharing in the mystery of Christ’s cross, which transforms difficulties and sufferings into an offering of love”. Moreover, moments of joy, relaxation, celebration, and even sexuality can be experienced as a sharing in the full life of the resurrection. Married couples shape with different daily gestures a “God-enlightened space in which to experience the hidden presence of the risen Lord”.” (§317)