Contraception and Catholic Sexual Ethics
Before addressing the specific topic of Catholic sexual morality, it may be helpful if I outline some very general
assumptions which inform the exposition.
First, we should understand any systematic study of morality as a study of the conditions and requirements of human
flourishing. We flourish as human beings by realising in our lives some share of the basic goods of human existence:
life itself, the knowledge of truth, the appreciation of beauty, skills of work and play, justice and friendship
in our relations with others, and friendship with God.
Secondly, we grow in our ability to flourish as human beings, and the most important feature of this growth is
the development of dispositions to choose rightly - dispositions to readily respond to people and situations and
the challenges and opportunities they present in ways which make for our flourishing and fulfilment. Dispositions
to choose well are traditionally called virtues. Opposed to the virtues are dispositions to choose badly, called
vices: tendencies to respond to situations in ways which do not make for our deepened sharing in basic goods, but
rather damage, destroy and distort our capacities to share in those goods. When this happens we are damaged and
diminished as human beings. Certain kinds of choice always have this effect.
Thirdly, if virtues are dispositions to choose and act well, and vices dispositions to choose and act badly, choice
itself is an exercise of the ability freely and decisively to settle on a course of action intended to realise
what we think of as good. Of course we may be correct or mistaken in thinking something good. A choice to act with
a view to achieving a certain purpose, which appears to us in some way good, does not merely bring about a state
of affairs, more or less external to us, in which that purpose is realised, but also, and perhaps more importantly,
serves to shape our dispositions, so that in consequence we become more inclined to make that type of choice. This
shaping of our dispositions is what we call the formation of character.
Fourthly, we should consider why it is that people overlook the importance of virtue and vice. One of the reasons
why people have in recent centuries failed to see the central importance of virtue and vice is because of underlying
views about the relationship between emotion and feeling, on the one hand, and rational choice, on the other. One
set of views about the character of this relationship rests on mistakes about the nature of human beings. Human
beings have been seen as fundamentally divided between a part characterised by animal passion, which can be curbed,
constrained and channelled, but which is inherently irrational, and, on the other hand, reason, which does not
set the motivational agenda, does not determine what is to be found attractive or repellant, but helps curb and
channel passion and works out the best ways of achieving what we are drawn to achieve. According to this picture
of human beings, we are not moved by an intelligent sense of what is good, but by more or less tameable brute impulse.
This particular dualistic picture of human life has influenced much secular morality in the modern period (but
not just secular morality).
Fifthly, we need to understand that the tradition of moral understanding which emphasises the importance of the
virtues and vices rests on a unitary view of human life. According to this view our spontaneous emotional responses
are inwardly transformable precisely by our understanding of what is good and worthwhile, and what is evil or worthless.
Our emotions are given an inner direction by understanding, and are not just brute impulses to be curbed. False
attraction can be transformed into attraction for what is genuinely good, and our aversions can be made reasonable
from having been unreasonable.
Sex and virtue
I have said that we need a range of specific virtues if we are to choose to act well in ways
which make for our fulfilment as human beings. What do we need in the way of virtue when the choices which face
us arise from sexual desire which engages our bodily sexual powers?
It helps to put the Christian answer to this question into perspective if we begin by considering a characteristically
modern response to it. It is a commonplace among many influential contemporary secular philosophers to deny that
there is any distinctive human good at issue in human sexual activity. If there is no such good then no distinctive
dispositions are required in us if we are to act well in regard to sex. According to this view, sexual activity
no more requires distinctive moral dispositions in us than does driving a motor car. In both kinds of activity
considerations of justice and prudence are relevant. We should not endanger others when we drive, we should respect
their space, we should avoid killing people. And in a similar way, in sexual activity we should avoid endangering
people by, for example, getting them pregnant, or giving them AIDS, and we should respect their rights over their
bodies and not assault them. On this view the objection to rape is that it is common assault. The vice which makes
for most assaults is anger. But the vice which makes men into rapists is not simply anger, even if anger tends
to be involved. The vice, the bad disposition which makes a man a rapist, is lust -- a disorder in our feelings
and desires in connection with sex.
Conventional secular wisdom, according to which you can do what you like with your sexual capacities, providing
you do not harm non- consenting parties to the activity, is completely at a loss in face of what is specific to
sexual disorder -- the vice of lust in its multiple manifestations. Doing what you like can leave you in such a
distinctly disordered condition that you are not rightly disposed to respect the solitary secular injunction not
to harm the non-consenting. The fact that there is a disordered disposition specific to sex, the vice of lust,
argues the need for a good disposition, a virtue, specific to the sphere of sexual feeling, desire and activity.
The inclination of the secular philosopher to say that there is no virtue specific to the sexual sphere follows,
as I remarked, from his denial that there is any specific good at issue in sexual activity. This denial is one
of the glaring hoaxes of modern secular liberal philosophy when you come to consider it. The secular philosopher
talks as if the begetting of children were only contingently connected with sex, something that happens to be the
case as things presently stand, but something we don't need to take into consideration in making sense of sex in
human lives. This position is all the more baffling when one considers the tendency of many thinkers to regard
human beings as just very complicated and sophisticated animals.
If we ask a scientist studying animal forms and behaviour what is sex for in the life of animals he will answer
that it clearly exists for the purposes of reproduction. The fundamental good that sex secures is not primarily
a good of the individual but a good of the species, realised in the generation of new members of that species.
Sexual activity presents an obvious contrast with an activity like eating. If we ask 'why do animals eat?' the
obvious answer is 'To preserve their lives'; but if we ask 'why do animals copulate?' the obvious answer is 'To
preserve the species'. Each answer gives the natural point or purpose of the activity. The built-in focus of sex
as a natural activity is outside the individuals who engage in it. That is why sex is the great engine of social
life in animals.
Human beings are indeed animals, but we are not merely more complicated than other animals. We are animals who
can understand the meaning of our abilities and give them a depth of meaning which other animals are incapable
of realising (in the sense of making real) in their lives. But sex will not bear the weight of having meanings
assigned to it which are at odds with the fundamental point of sex or which seek to displace the central significance
of sex in human life. That central significance is similar to its significance in the life of other animals.
It ought to be clear what the basic point of sex is in human life. The facts about sexual differentiation and sexual
complementarity show that it exists for the sake of reproduction. Such differentiation and complementarity are
required neither for sexual pleasure nor for sex understood purely as a means of expressing affection.
The connection between human sexual activity and the begetting of children is not one that we invent; fertilisation
is a natural causal consequence of normal intercourse. Because there is this natural, built-in connection between
sex and the begetting of children, our chosen sexual activity necessarily involves us in some relationship to the
good of the transmission of human life. We are involved in some relationship to this good, even when we deliberately
make our sexual activity non- generative, either by doing something to it beforehand, or by deviating from the
normal form of the activity, or by doing something afterwards.
If the human good which is at issue in chosen sexual activity is the good of the transmission of human life, what
is required if we are to be well-disposed towards that good? The transmission of human life is not a purely biological
activity, as though fertilisation, pregnancy and birth were sufficient to accomplish the task. For the task is
necessarily also a task of rearing children so that they develop in ways which enable them, through their own free
choices, to flourish as human beings. So they need to be nurtured in a sense of human dignity, in a true sense
of the meaning of life and of the human goods which are worth pursuing, and in the beginnings of the virtues.
The scope of the good which is at issue in human sexual activity is, then, broad and deep in the commitment it
requires. Exactly what commitment it requires I shall shortly discuss. But at this juncture I would like to make
two crucial observations about the disposition, the virtue, which human beings will need if they are to choose
and act well in regard to sex. Recall that a specific disposition is required because of the specific good which
is at issue in sexual activity. Recall that this good is the good of the child, and that the good of the child
is secured not just by his or her begetting. The first observation is that because children are of quite central
importance to any human community it is not possible for us to remain indifferent to whether human beings possess
whatever virtue is required for the good of children. The well-being of each of us depends on the common good --
that complex of conditions necessary to human flourishing. It is particularly clear in our day and age, when there
is so much evidence of child- abuse, that the virtue of chastity is not an optional extra for any human being if
we are to secure a basic condition of the flourishing of children. The second observation is that, given we have
an objective conception of the good of children we will have an objective account of what counts as the virtue
we need if we are to respect and honour the distinctive good which is at issue in sexual activity.
Let me then approach the question of what is required for virtue in regard to sex -- what is required for chastity
-- from some consideration of what is required for the good of children. Fundamental to the good of the child,
I remarked, is the child's sense of his or her dignity. Now human dignity belongs to people in the first place
in virtue of their humanity and independently of achievements or defects. What a child needs at the outset, then,
is to be born into a relationship the character of which is conducive to recognition of the dignity of the child.
This is what the institution of marriage fundamentally exists to serve, more particularly as that institution is
understood in Christian teaching. For the human reality of indissoluble commitment which the grace of marriage
creates and fosters involves a distinctive type of personal commitment: in marriage a man and a woman unreservedly
commit themselves to a self-giving love, in which each is treated by the other as irreplaceable. Marriage vows
demand a very fundamental commitment to recognition of the dignity of one's spouse whatever the circumstances which
overtake him or her.
When Catholic tradition, taking up the language of St Augustine, says that the primary end or purpose of marriage
is procreation it is in fact saying that what fundamentally makes sense of the peculiar institution of marriage,
with its peculiar interpersonal commitment, is the good of the transmission of human life. That is what makes sense
of a sexual relationship acquiring the character of a marital relationship. For it is the good of children which
requires that a husband and wife are committed to an unconditional acceptance of each other, and that their intercourse
should be the expression of this unconditional love. For when that is the case the child who is conceived is conceived
precisely as the fruit of an unconditional love. The child, therefore, belongs within a community of persons founded
on the unconditional love which is consummated in marital intercourse, and it is only such a love which is adequate
to the dignity of the child. In entering the relationship of husband and wife precisely as the fruit of an unconditional
love the child has a claim to be accepted unconditionally. It is only such acceptance which is adequate to the
true dignity of the child. As the fruit of unconditional parental love the child enters the relationship recognisably
equal in dignity to the parents.
What explains the distinctive character of marriage and the character of the commitment of husband and wife is,
then, procreation understood in the broad personalist sense in which Catholic tradition has understood that good.
The basic good of children is realised, St Augustine says, by "the receiving of them lovingly, the nourishing
of them humanely, the educating of them religiously." [De Genesi ad litt.,9.7]
When the Church has spoken of procreation as the 'primary purpose' of marriage she has not been talking about what
she supposes must be uppermost in the mind of a couple as they contemplate marriage, still less what she supposes
must be uppermost in their minds in engaging in intercourse. What talk of 'primary purpose' does is to identify
the fundamental explanation for why we have the institution of marriage: namely, to do justice to the good which
is at issue in sexual activity, and thereby to make proper human sense of sex. Marriage is not about providing
a socially approved context for just any kind of sexual activity which might be taken to be expressive of affection
between consenting adults. If that is what we think sex is about we don't need marriage in order to go ahead with
It should be clear that as a race we need human beings to be disposed to marital sex rather than recreational sex:
that is, we need it to be the case that human beings recognise that virtue in the matter of sex requires that its
genital expression be the expression of an unconditional love between husband and wife, open to the gift of life.
It is because we need human beings to be well-disposed to marital sex (for the good of children) that a disposition
to engage in sexual activities which are deliberately made non-generative is to be counted as a vice; such a disposition
aspires to make sense of sex precisely to the exclusion of children.
The insistence that sex can be genuinely fulfilling only if it is marital sex is at odds both with the strongly
individualistic outlook common in our culture and with the privatization of sex: the tendency to think that each
of us must make sense for ourselves of sex, in accordance with whatever inclinations and attitudes we happen to
have. But sex in human as in other animals is a primary engine of social life and if the dispositions we bring
to it are not conducive to the good of children then they will have a pervasively destructive effect on social
The insistence that good sex has to be marital sex is not a procrustean formula designed to destroy the possibility
of individual fulfilment. In choosing to make their sexual activity truly marital, a man and a woman are thereby
acting in ways which make for their own fulfilment. For, firstly, when two people undertake to treat each other
as irreplaceable, and seek to give themselves unreservedly to each other, what they are committed to is a particular
kind of friendship which, like all true friendships, involves loving the good of the other as one's very own good.
So, insofar as the relationship is a true friendship it makes for the flourishing of each. And, secondly, since
the friendship of husband and wife is essentially open to the gift of new life which embodies their love, they
are involved in a relationship which of its nature demands that they transcend selfishness and egoism. Insofar
as they do transcend selfishness and egoism in raising a family their love is strengthened and deepened. So the
structure of the marital relationship as essentially open to children is the kind of structure which makes for
the true fulfilment of husband and wife. That kind of relationship, whether or not it is fruitful in begetting
children, is clearly a good in itself.
But what is required for intercourse to be open to the gift of life? There was a period during the 1960s when it
seemed to me, along with many other people, that acceptance of the belief that marital intercourse should be open
to the gift of life did not require one to hold that contraceptive intercourse was absolutely impermissible. There
was an argument then current, referred to by Pope Paul VI as 'The Principle of Totality' (in section 3 of Humanae
Vitae), which sought to defend some limited recourse to contraceptive intercourse within marriage, as serving the
unitive function of intercourse, provided the marriage was also responsibly open to the gift of new life, at times
when the parents felt they were well placed to care for another child.
I best remember from the debates of that time the analogy developed by the Dominican theologian, Fr Herbert McCabe,
between marital sex and football. When you are playing football, he pointed out, you don't have to aim all your
shots at the opponent's goal: occasional back-passes make sense as part of a general strategy aimed at winning.
Similarly, he argued, contraceptive intercourse can belong within a pattern of sexual activity which overall is
open to the gift of life. So, the requirement of openness to the gift of life is seen as adequately satisfied by
the overall pattern of the marital relationship, into which children are accepted when parents feel ready for them.
Theologians who argued in this way at the time thought they were simply making room for contraceptive intercourse
within marriage, but it soon became clear that their position made it impossible to offer a consistent defence
of the Church's traditional teaching about the virtue of chastity as it is to be lived outside as well as inside
marriage. That teaching requires all chosen sexual activity to be marital and it requires that for it to be truly
marital every act of sexual intercourse should be of the generative kind, i.e. should not be deliberately rendered
sterile in some way.
Why every act? To understand the answer we need to recall one of the preliminary points I made about moral development.
Our chosen actions do not merely bring about effects external to us, they also form our dispositions and character.
If I lie, I thereby make myself a person who is apt to lie; I undermine in myself recognition of the need to respect
the good of truth when I engage in the activity of stating what is the case. Similarly, if I engage in contraceptive
intercourse I undermine in myself the disposition to recognise that the good of sex is essentially connected with
children. I act on the assumption that it has a separate meaning which makes good and adequate sense of it. This
is to act as if there is a true good of sexual activity apart from marriage. It is important to get this point
clear. To engage in contraceptive intercourse is to choose to make that intercourse sterile, in circumstances in
which it might otherwise have proved fertile, precisely for the sake of having intercourse. One thereby chooses
to suppress the significance of sex as generative -- as a type of activity apt for the procreation of children.
Of course, there are a number of dimensions to the significance of sex in human life; sexual intercourse will often,
for example, (though certainly not always) be expressive of strongly felt affection. But if one rejects its significance
as generative one is in effect saying that other distinct dimensions to its significance in themselves make sexual
intercourse worthy of choice. And that is to say that sex which is not marital sex is worthy of choice. So if one
rejects the Church's teaching that contraceptive intercourse is wrong then the logic of that rejection is that
sex which is not marital sex is worthy of choice. On that view there ceases to be a specific good which is to be
honoured in our sexual activity, and with the loss of the recognition of that good goes the raison d'etre of chastity.
When that happens in the mind of a Christian he's inevitably hard put to find grounds for distinguishing his view
of virtue in the matter of sex from the view of the secular thinker for whom sex for the sake of pleasure or as
an expression of affection requires no distinctive virtue.
This effort of elucidation brings us to the central statement of Humanae Vitae in section 12: "The doctrine
that the Magisterium of the Church has often explained is this: there is an unbreakable connection between the
unitive meaning and the procreative meaning [of the conjugal act] and both are inherent in the conjugal act. This
connection was established by God, and man is not permitted to break it through his own volition."
Sexual activity lacks integrity, lacks the wholeness it is meant to have, unless there is inseparably a procreative
and unitive meaning to what is done. Why does generative behaviour have to have a unitive meaning? Because human
generation needs to be integrated with the commitment to self-giving love. Human generative behaviour is given,
through the sense of this behaviour as unreserved self-giving love, the depth of meaning it needs to have if those
engaging in it are to be adequately disposed to the good of children. Why does unitive sexual behaviour have to
have a generative/procreative meaning? Because if it doesn't this can only be because we have sought to make sense
of sex to the exclusion of the very good which is the distinctive point of sexual activity. And in so doing we
dissociate sex in our own lives from the good which demands that self-transcendence of egoism through which the
commitment of the couple is deepened in authentic love.
This integration of the unitive and the procreative meanings of sexual activity is possible precisely because of
what I earlier referred to as the unitary character of our lives. One of the most obvious facts of sexual experience
is that we are very easily prone to the disintegration of our humanity in sexual activity. Why this should be so
is obvious. There are three aspects to sexual activity: it is reproductive; it produces pleasurable sensations;
it can unite two persons, setting up a bond between them. These three aspects can be related to the three levels
of human life -- the organic, the animal, and the rational. For every kind of organism can reproduce; every kind
of animal has sensation; and, in virtue of our distinctive abilities of intellect and will, we can enter into different
kinds of interpersonal relationship. People's views of sexuality differ in fundamental ways according to whether
they see these three aspects of sexual activity as essentially linked or not essentially linked. They are not of
course essentially linked in the sense of being practically inseparable. One can have pleasurable sensations without
doing anything which is at all apt either for reproduction or for personal bonding, as when one masturbates. One
can reproduce nowadays without any personal interaction with the other parent: this separation occurs with artificial
insemination by donor and with 'in vitro' fertilisation. But the question about whether these three aspects are
essentially linked is a question about whether they can be separated consistent with respect for the good of sex,
or whether they must be kept united. Humanae Vitae insists that the teaching of the Church is that they must be
kept united in all our chosen sexual activity. Our bodily behaviour must be adequately and properly expressive
of the kind of relationship we enter into when we enter into an authentic sexual relationship. lf, in our choices,
we hold together the different aspects of sex (the generative, the pleasurable and the unitive) we show that we
recognise that our humanity is personal at every level, through and through. But if we dissociate one aspect from
another we depersonalise sex, making the body a mere instrument of our dominative, manipulative wills.
Reflections on two objections
Two objections are often thought to count against the reasonableness of the Church's teaching.
1. How can sexual intercourse be said to be essentially generative when most acts of intercourse are infertile?
And if it cannot be essentially generative then the inseparability thesis collapses.
2. The distinction between contraception and natural family planning (NFP) is a distinction which marks no morally
significant difference; both are ways of ensuring that one does not have a child. Nothing of moral significance
hangs on whether one does this by artificial or natural means. Since the Church accepts NFP it is inconsistent
in rejecting contraception.
Each of these objections is worth discussing for the light one can thereby throw on the teaching of the Church.
(1) Certain types of behaviour have what we might call a built-in significance because of the role such behaviour
plays in human life. We can respect that significance or we can seek to negate it.
Normal sexual behaviour is one such type -- it is generative behaviour; it has the built-in significance of being
generative/procreative behaviour because of the central role it plays in human life -- of being a cause in the
generation of human beings. As far as human performance is concerned it remains generative behaviour in being left
to be normal sexual intercourse by those who engage in it, whether or not it is fertile. Fertility is not precisely
a state of affairs brought about by our behaviour but is a function of conditions which are produced independently
of performance, by hormonal changes, for example.
Human beings can negate the built-in significance of certain types of behaviour. The built-in significance of eating
as essentially nutritive is negated if one behaves as the ancient Romans did: taking emetics during a banquet to
provoke vomiting in order to continue enjoying the pleasures of eating. One could not, however, be said to negate
the built-in significance of eating as nutritive if it happened to be the case that because of some condition outside
one's control (say, some gastrointestinal disorder) eating in fact failed to nourish one.
In saying that certain types of behaviour have a built-in significance one does not imply that the significance
they have has to constitute one's conscious purpose in engaging in that behaviour. When I go out to dinner with
my friends I often do not principally have in mind the purpose of nourishing myself. Nonetheless, the significance
a dinner has as an expression of friendship builds on the built-in significance of eating as nutritive -- as something
that nourishes and sustains my life. Negate that significance and the symbolism of a meal (as expressive of shared
love and affection which nourishes a common life) is destroyed.
It is something similar with the built-in significance of normal sexual intercourse. The Church does not teach
that in engaging in intercourse one has to be acting with a view to procreating, an objective one could realistically
have in mind only when one was fertile. What she teaches is that sexual intercourse will not make for an authentic
unity of two-in-one-flesh if those engaging in it set out to negate its built-in significance as generative/procreative
behaviour. And they negate that significance in setting out to render infertile any sexual activity which might
otherwise be fertile. They do not negate its significance as generative (its "procreative significance")
by having intercourse when they happen to be infertile, since fertility is not required for the act to be of the
generative kind. This brings us to the second objection.
(2) In answer to the second objection I want to show how aiming to avoid conceiving children by abstinence during
fertile periods is not merely significantly different from contraception but can be an expression of virtuous respect
for the procreative good.
As I have already noted, for humans procreation means not only bringing a child into the world, but giving that
child a humane upbringing, and, for Christians, a Christian upbringing. The demands entailed in making such provision,
as well as the health of a spouse, can mean that there may be periods in a marriage when it is reasonable to aim
not to have children. That being so, Humanae Vitae says, one must achieve "mastery over one's sexual impulses",
so that what one chooses to do (or refrain from doing) in securing the aim of not having children continues to
be expressive of spousal love in its integral character (as unitive and procreative).
The precise notion of mastery involved here is important. Virtue in relation to sexual desire does not essentially
consist of continence. Continence is a halfway house to virtue. We are virtuous in respect of sexual desire when
its manifestation is rational because informed by an understanding of the requirements of authentic love. Sensual
desire, I remarked at the outset, is transformable from within by understanding, precisely because of the unity
of our being. But in being so transformed it does not cease to be sensual desire. The sensual enjoyment of the
virtuous person is greater, St Thomas Aquinas says, than the sensual enjoyment of the vicious person. The jaded
palate of the libertine is a commonplace of many cultures.
If it is reasonable to seek to avoid having children for some period of time, then sexual desire needs to be responsive
to this requirement. In being made responsive, it is integrated in a person's exercise of procreative responsibility.
The exercise of procreative responsibility is central to what chastity means in married life.
It is important to emphasise that what serves to avoid conception is abstaining from intercourse, when one knows
one is fertile. One may have a method, such as the Billings method, or the sympto-thermal method, for determining
when one is fertile, but it is not the method as such which serves to secure one's objective but the continence
one displays in abstaining from intercourse.
When a couple for serious reasons abstain from intercourse at times at which they might conceive, their abstaining
is itself chosen sexual behaviour, and virtuous sexual behaviour because it is expressive of a recognition of the
demands of the procreative good. But how could it be said to be unitive? The answer lies in noticing that what
motivates and informs the abstinence, with whatever difficulties it involves, is the loving marital commitment
of the couple, a commitment to help bear each other's burdens arising from their joint sense of procreative responsibility.
A commitment so lived is itself unitive, for it makes for the deepening of their love.
The relevant contrast that contraceptive behaviour presents to avoiding conception by periodic abstinence, is that
contraceptive behaviour involves no need to modify sexual desire. Sexual behaviour as such is not rendered responsive
to the requirements of procreative responsibility. One merely takes measures of one kind or another to prevent
its natural consequences. And so, with contraception, human sexual behaviour remains uninformed by the requirements
of responsibility to the good of procreation. Human behaviour intrinsically connected to a basic human good is
engaged in as though it did not have to be shaped by the requirements of the virtue we need in order to honour
Contraception undercuts both the individual and the joint process of development necessary to modifying sexual
behaviour so that spouses act responsibly in regard to the procreative good. This domain of bodily behaviour is
treated as manipulable in its consequences rather than transformable in its character. It is typical of the way
in which the human body in our culture is not regarded as integral to the moral subject, sharing in and expressing
the fundamental aspirations of that subject, but is treated rather as an object to be modified. This characteristic
stance of our culture is symptomatic of the deep dualism which runs through it.
Sexual desire needs to be integrated into the order of personal love. Marital friendship, the love of husband and
wife, requires of each that they love the good of the other. But the defining good of the community of marriage,
a good common to both, is the procreative good, the good of children. So love of one's spouse requires that one
acts in ways which are consistent with each spouse having, in his or her heart, a right relationship to the good
of children. One cannot have such a right relationship if the intentional character of one's chosen behaviour is
anti-procreative. If it is, and continues to be, it destroys the true character of the friendship of husband and
wife; it depersonalises their bodily relationship, and the body of each becomes an alienated object, both to himself
or herself, and to the other. This is the background to so much profound misery in our society.
Chastity and conversion
Christian realism bids all of us recognise that in face of the need for unreserved self-giving
love in marriage, all of us are more or less crippled, more or less slaves to the idols of comfort, egoism, self-
cultivation, and pleasure. We cannot break with these idols because they represent the fragile securities and forms
of self-confirmation to which many of us cling. But as long as we cling to them we cannot live the vocation of
We cannot speak realistically about the Christian vocation of marriage unless we see it as a call to holiness.
The bond of Christian marriage is a holy bond both because it is a graced reality and because it signifies the
union of Christ with His Bride the Church, a union effected by his self-sacrificing love for us.
Husband and wife existentially witness to the relationship of Christ to His Church through exhibiting self-sacrificing
love for the true good of each other. But the capacity for that kind of self-sacrificing love cannot be the fruit
of one's own moral endeavour: it is the fruit of the Holy Spirit poured abroad in our hearts. Unless a man first
knows in his heart that, even though he is a sinner, God has first loved him, he will not find it in his heart
to give himself unreservedly in loving bodily union to his wife when, as it appears, she has been acting as his
enemy. For if you are attached to comfort, pleasure and your ego, there are limitless possibilities for your wife
to appear to you as an enemy. But if the bodily union of spouses cannot be unreserved, and comes to be hedged about
by numerous conditions, it is unsurprising if they become hostile to the good of children.
One cannot talk realistically about chastity inside or outside marriage without discussing both the necessity and
the possibility of personal religious conversion, at the heart of which is the experience of the charity of God
in one's own life. For without the charity which can transform us we can hardly acquire chastity.
The deep reason why so much that is said in the contemporary Church about sex and marriage is shallow and defective
is that we are unwilling to face up to the power of sin in our lives. Everywhere one finds what amounts in effect
to a denial of the reality of Original Sin, of the extent to which we are powerfully attracted by illusory visions
of human fulfilment, and these become idols in our lives. So much sex education, in particular, is designed to
reinforce one form of idolatry: that sex is a key to happiness quite independently of the significance God has
given it in His plans for our fulfilment. The Church is simply not facing the task of evangelization necessitated
by the reality of much contemporary sexual experience if it does not seek to unmask and break the grip of this
idolatry. But that sort of task cannot be tackled in a brief set of lectures, or in a short-term parish renewal
programme. What the people of God urgently need is a rediscovery at the level of parish life of a structured way
of living which makes possible a radical and deep conversion of life and offers them a context in which they can
transmit to their children a faith and a way of living which is a real alternative to what the world presses upon
The Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics
Version: 17th June 2010