The Catholic Church on Marital Intercourse: From St. Paul to Pope John Paul II

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So we have a problem. What is most desirable in our ordinary bodily life has nothing to do with how we image God. In the past, some theologians have even thought the body was evil, a hindrance to the spiritual life. As "flesh," it warred against the spirit. Following Plato, some early Christians believed the body was the prison of soul, to be discarded when we arrive at the heavenly court.


All such dualism excludes the body, and even more so its sexual activity, from having anything to do with our salvation. In today's sex-sated and health-conscious culture, many still think the body to be unimportant in God's saving plan. Unlike dualism's total disdain for the body, many contemporaries minimize the salvific dimension of our bodily and sexual actions. Only the spirit counts.

1. The Theology of the Body and Concupiscence |

Even sexual activity derives its moral meaning from our intentions, not from what we do with our bodies. Stressing the intentions of one's sexual activity is healthy when it reminds us of the need to live our sexuality with purity of heart. This takes a bad turn, however, if it implies that the moral goodness of sex can be divorced from the body. The human body is the thread that ties together the Catholic vision, and sexual actions enter into the mystery of creation and redemption. For Christians, salvation does not entail escaping from a hostile material world.

On the contrary, as the Creed instructs us, "we look for the resurrection of the body. Human persons are more than spirits: we are, in fact, the only persons who have bodies.


Catholicism insists that the divine and human, the spirit and the body, go together. As the pope puts it: "in the body and through the body, one touches the person himself in his concrete reality. God has created us to transcend our materiality, which we realize through the body. The body itself manifests the spirit; it is the visible expression of the whole person. God wills to save us, to bring us to himself, through the created material world he has given us.

Because God created us in his image with a body, we can express and receive love through that body. It gives us the means by which to show our love and by which others receive our love.

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Adam's Original Choice Out of deference to the example of Christ, who told the Pharisees that divorce was not allowed "in the beginning" Matthew , the original design of God's creation must be our point of departure. To discover the full meaning of our sexuality, then, the pope says we must "return to the depths of the mystery of creation," to this "gospel of the beginning. Christ continues to direct our attention back to the beginning where we can see the total vision of the human person revealed. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve provide the true model for sexual living. Humanity's origins will help us to discover how we should speak the truth with our body.

According to the account of creation in Genesis , in the beginning Adam was alone, but amidst the wonder of creation experienced an agonizing loneliness Genesis Experiencing this original solitude, he recognized that his humanity was radically different from the rest of creation. No other being offered Adam the possibility "to exist in a relationship of mutual giving," as the pope writes. Alone he was incomplete. Adam recognized that he could only express his love for another in and through his body, but lacked someone else to love in that way, since his own body separated him from the rest of material creation.

Like the divine persons, in whose image he was created, Adam was destined to live with others. He yearned to receive the bodily gift of another person and to give himself bodily to another. Adam was created for Eve, just as Eve was created for Adam. Although each is an individual with inherent dignity, the Lord calls man and woman to live together as a communion of persons, because we discover our own humanity only with the help of another human being. As God says, "It is not good that man should be alone" Genesis Thus, man recognizes and finds his own humanity "with the help" of woman Genesis , just as woman discovers her humanity with the help of man.

In the pope's analysis, the unity of Adam and Eve replaced the solitude of Adam. God created man and woman "for marriage. The pope maintains that man and woman are "two complementary dimensions, as it were, of self-consciousness and self-determination and, simultaneously, two complementary ways of being conscious of the meaning of the body.

Man and woman are attracted to each other because of both their spiritual and bodily relationship. Loneliness and longing give way to discovering the immense joy of loving union expressed through the body. Adam, on first seeing Eve, expressed wonder, admiration, and fascination. When he awoke from his deep sleep, Adam did not refer to Eve's powers of thinking and willing, but he cried out, "This one, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" Genesis Upon becoming a "male," Adam was exuberant to find his fulfillment in the "female.

Only through his wife can a man fully discover his masculinity, just as only through her husband can a woman fully discover her femininity. Man and woman express their married love by "becoming one flesh" Genesis in their conjugal relations. This mutual bodily gift of Adam and Eve tells us that it is only in the unselfish giving of ourselves to another that we can find ourselves.

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Body Language Our sexual actions are a kind of "body language" through which man and woman speak to each other. Through this language of the body man and woman carry on that dialogue which had its beginning on the day of our creation. This precious gift of being able to "speak sexually" discloses God's plan for us. God gives us this sexual language to use as He intended. Whenever we speak sexually, the pope says, our expressions are "subject to the demands of truth, that is, to objective moral norms. A simple rule to judge the goodness of our sexual activity, therefore, is to determine whether it reflects the truth about sexuality as God planned it.

Before the Fall, Adam and Eve did not experience disorderly sexual desire. Sexual harmony existed in this state when the first humans "were naked" and yet "were not ashamed" Genesis Their mutual experience of the body, that is, the man's experience of femininity and the woman's of masculinity were expressions of chaste desire. Far from being disturbing, nakedness provided Adam and Eve with the opportunity to image God by truthfully showing their love through their bodies. In their nakedness they were totally free to give themselves bodily as a gift.

The Fruits Of Sin Sin introduced a fundamental disquiet in all human existence. Because of this concupiscence, the inclination to evil that resulted from the first sin, our sexual body language is now constantly threatened with being separated from the truth. Original sin opened up the possibility that we could use our body language dishonestly. When misused, our sexual activity falsifies what creation tells us about what it means to be male or female. Deceitful sexual activity frustrates communion between persons.

Instead of being illuminated by the heritage of original grace, our own sexuality now shares in the heritage of original sin. The shame attached to nakedness symbolizes sexuality gone askew. Almost immediately after the first sin, "they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons" Genesis Of Adam's ashamed cry, "I was afraid because I was naked" Genesis , the pope has written: Through these words there is revealed a certain constitutive break within the human person, almost a rupture of man's original spiritual and somatic unity.

He realizes for the first time that his body has ceased drawing upon the power of the spirit, which raised him to the level of the image of God.

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Adam and Eve clothed their nakedness because they no longer trusted each other, hiding visible femininity and masculinity. Lust should not be confused with passion or desire. As an act of self-love, lust treats the other as an object to satisfy one's own instinct. Because we are heirs to this tendency to replace desire with lust, all men and women are distinguished from the Adam and Eve of original innocence.

Within ourselves we are torn between telling the truth and lying with our bodies: the heart is what the pope calls "a battlefield between love and lust. When lust entered the human situation, our embodied masculinity and femininity almost lost their ability to express love. The nuptial meaning of the human body was compromised. The relationship of mutual giving became one of mutual appropriation.

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  • The original ability of Adam and Eve to express their mutual communion was shattered. Their bodies no longer expressed their persons and their love but became instruments of their lust.

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    The Theology of the Body According to St. John Paul II

    The difference between the sexes "was suddenly felt and understood as an element of mutual confrontation of persons," as the pope puts it. We are all heirs to this fallen sexuality. Even in our fallen state, however, we should not use sexual activity, the language of conjugal love, to distort the truth of God's plan for us. To be faithful to creation, we should never corrupt our body language by using our sexual powers and organs for actions that are untrue. Why not? A New Creation Despite the Fall, the pope argues that a truthful language of the body can still be spoken since it is "inscribed in the depths of the human heart, as a distant echo of original innocence.

    Even with its concupiscence, fallen humanity is nonetheless "capable of discerning truth from falsity in the language of the body and. Christ has made us capable of integrating our sexual desire with our persons through the "redemption of our bodies"; that is, we can once again live our sexuality as God intended it in the beginning.