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A Beacon Of Light… The Dignity Of Conjugal Love

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By FR. RICHARD D. BRETON JR.

(Editor’s Note: Fr. Richard D. Breton Jr. is a priest of the Diocese of Norwich, Conn. He received his BA in religious studies and his MA in dogmatic theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn.)

  • + + Recently, I have had several inquiries regarding the dignity of conjugal love within the context of marriage. And because there is such confusion regarding sexuality today, I thought it would be advantageous to reaffirm the Church’s teaching regarding marital love.
    So often there exists confusion regarding marital love between couples, young and old, who are exposed to misinformation. Culturally, we have become so attached to the Internet and what is expressed on social media that we fail to get the true teachings from the Church herself.
    In her official teaching, the Church has always taken a positive view of sexuality in marriage. Marital intercourse is “noble and honorable,” established by God so that “spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2362).
    Understanding the unique and beautiful gift of conjugal love, however, requires a quick review of what we mean by a moral act. The Church teaches that a moral act is the knowing choice of a human person. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
    “Freedom makes man a moral subject. When he acts deliberately, man is, so to speak, the father of his acts. Human acts, that is, acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience, can be morally evaluated. They are either good or evil” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1749).
    The morality of human acts is dependent on three parts: the object chosen, the intention, and the circumstances of the action.
    In examining any moral action, it is imperative to first look at the object chosen, or what is the action. It must be determined if the action is good or bad. This is accomplished in the use of the will, in conjunction with the use of one’s reason.
    Second, a determination of the intention of the act must be made. Is it geared toward the good or not? Why is it being done? Is it to deceive someone or something?
    Third, we look at the circumstances or consequences of the action. Will the consequences bring about something good or the opposite? In this case, does it bring about the creation of life, or stifle it?

Open To The Gift Of New Life

Now that we have established a somewhat quick review of what constitutes a moral act, we can delve into the morality of sexual actions in marriage. (Remember, the Church is firm in her teaching that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman who has received the Sacrament of Marriage; anything to the contrary is not marriage).
What do we mean by a sexual act? A sexual act is any deliberate use of the genitals. These actions follow the same criteria as above; however, they also must be unitive and procreative. Unitive means that any sexual action in marriage, between a male and female, must be accomplished through genital-to-genital intercourse. This is how males and females express their union as husband and wife.
Second, the sexual act must be procreative. In every sexual act, there must exist the intention of creating life. It makes sense then, that only a man and a woman can accomplish, and complete, the goal of being participants in the procreation of life, since their reproductive systems were created with this complementarity. The sexual act must be open to the gift of new life at all times.
With this having been explained, now we can ask the question: What types of sexual acts are morally acceptable between husband and wife? The answer to this question can be found in the writings of Pope St. Paul VI. It was Pope St. Paul VI who presented the Church with a much-needed teaching of the importance of human life. As the world was being sucked into the sexual revolution, emerging at that time, Paul VI issued his encyclical entitled Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968.
Here we can see how Pope St. Paul VI explains the acceptable moral acts between husband and wife:
“The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. This particular doctrine, often expounded by the Magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act….
“The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life — and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called” (Humanae Vitae, n. 11-12).
So, only sexual acts open to the unitive and procreative aspect of creating life are acceptable.
So, what about the use of foreplay in marriage? Again here we must mention that each and every act of marital love must stand on its own with regard to its moral culpability. In the situation of an act of foreplay, it is deemed acceptable or not depending on if its outcome is unitive and procreative toward new life. Here we could mention the examples of oral, anal, or manual stimulation. If these actions are used as a way of stimulation and lead to genital intercourse, then, they are acceptable. If these actions are used as a means to achieve sexual orgasm without completion of genital intercourse, then they are wrong.
These in themselves are intrinsically evil because they in no way have the ability to advance life. Each of these examples fails in ensuring that the genital-to-genital action of union and procreation are present. Unnatural sexual acts (oral sex, anal sex, and manipulative sex, i.e., masturbation of self or of another) are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral because these acts are not unitive and procreative.

The Harms Of Pornography

There is, however, today a real problem that exists in married life. The complete availability and openness of pornography has caused such confusion within the realm of married life and beyond. Sadly, many married couples, men, and women, often turn to pornography as a means to satisfy themselves during the lull of conjugal love. Some couples may not know how to deal with a spouse’s higher or lower sex drive, and so, in the absence of “true” sexual acts they often turn to these self-gratifying actions.
In many cases there may have existed a struggle prior to married life with pornography. This struggle can cause a rupture in the sexual life of marriage because it opens up the possibility of the partners being viewed as objects instead of spouses. This struggle is often confessed and is the topic of spiritual direction because it has become rampant in today’s society.
The gift of sexuality has become so distorted by society today and is one-sidedly geared toward self-gratification, rather than toward the unitive and procreative purpose of creating life. In the end, many married couples struggle with not knowing how to deal with these sexual questions and concerns. This struggle is so real that it is frequently confessed and is the topic of spiritual direction among young couples.
And yet, couples are so afraid to seek help. There is this false conception that seeking help, or asking questions, is not cool. Being cool or not, doesn’t matter. What matters is, maintaining and keeping married life fruitful. Not seeking counsel in matters like this, has the potential to damage and break up the marital bond. On the other hand, we need to ensure that there is proper catechesis in marriage preparation, so that we can ensure this doesn’t happen.
May the graces received in the Sacrament of Marriage assist couples in experiencing true conjugal love, whereby, they assist in the procreation of creation!

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