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Marriage: How the Churches Corrupt

Bob Sharpe on sex, contraception and loving relationships.

A century or more ago, people began to reject Christian metaphysics. Dissenting voices like that of Nietzsche apart, however, they continued to accept Christian morality as offering a noble aspiration for mankind. Thus the view that it is better to suffer evil than to do it, is quite widely regarded as one of the great contributions of Christianity to moral thought. I shall not dissent as far as that idea is concerned. But I do want to question the general assumption that Christian teaching, whatever its oddities, is never actually evil. That attitude persists – though many people nowadays assume that the Church’s line on, say, contraception doesn’t apply to them, they seem to assume that obeying it is a morally acceptable option. Although it may not be morally wrong to disobey the Church nevertheless it is not morally wrong to obey it. The general view seems to be that it is a neutral question. So whilst Roman Catholics who follow that teaching may be irrational, they are not wrong.

I suppose that one thing which ought to strike us immediately is the great variety in human relationships. Marriages certainly vary. We are accustomed to the thought that human beings differ as individuals; indeed that is a cliché. We think this diversity is something to be valued, something which racism, among its other defects, denies. Human beings vary widely and any class or race contains both the stupid and the imaginative, the quarrelsome and the forgiving, the noble and the resentful.

It ought to be obvious that a corollary of this is that relationships between people are likely to vary as well. For if they were to be similar it would only be on the basis of some common denominator. But the difference between a deep relationship and a shallow one is precisely the fact that the former answers to the specific rather than the general in the individual. In as much as I see, value and respond to the specific qualities of my friend then my relationship deepens from being just a matter of common manners and etiquette to something more profound. Whether affection is a sine qua non I am not sure. I can imagine that a deep relationship might be one of hostility but it seems odd to say that I can have a deep relationship with somebody I loathe precisely because it seems to preclude spending enough time in that person’s company to find out their peculiarities. It might, of course, be reasonable to see a deep relationship as highly ambivalent.

The point about this preamble is that it is a mistake to suppose that there can be a basic ideal pattern of marriage; indeed to suppose that there can be moral patterns at all smacks of immaturity in the following way. Adults ought to constitute their relationships out of a compound of sympathy and imagination. Rules are for the tyro and this holds as much for morality as elsewhere.

Because people vary, good marriages vary. One obvious way is in the role sexuality plays. Although another couple’s marriage is not only obscure to the outsider but, frequently, even more obscure to the partners (after all they live it rather than analyse it), I do not doubt that there are good marriages, marked by love, trust and understanding, in which sex plays a small role, just as there are good marriages in which it is essential and central.

The idea of marriage I shall understand promiscuously, as philosophers are wont to say nowadays, (though the metaphor is risky here). What I shall say is intended to apply to all relationships in which sexuality is significant, whether the couple are married or no, whether or not it is expected to be permanent, and whether they are homosexual. I exclude only casual relationships.

There is not much to be said for pulling one’s punches here and so I propose to put my position in as combative a way as I can in order to confront Christians with what I see as the failure of the Churches to understand marital relationships. I argue that the misunderstandings inherent in conventional Christian views about marriage are so profound as to produce a doctrine that is evil. Does this mean that to hold them or to advocate them is wicked? That I think depends. Consider an analogous case, that of racist doctrines. A stupid man or a man who was so under the thumb of a dominant political party that he could not allow that blacks should have equal access to health, education and the redress of the law would not be wicked but merely misguided. A stupid man or a man who was so terrified of defying the church that he could not consider any alternative to its teaching would not be wicked, merely misguided. We can, as well, easily imagine that somebody might believe the Church’s teaching on marriage but not put it into practice. Since I take the view that we have a moral obligation to use contraception when it is available and appropriate, I assume that somebody who believes in the Papal teaching on contraception but actually uses contraception would be holding evil ideas but acting well, all else being equal, though perversely acting inconsistently or out of weakness of will. On the other hand, to believe in evil ideas is always a bad thing; consider, too, that you may always be prone to advocate them and that can have a bad effect on others. No doubt, too, you will suffer from unnecessary guilt. Then again there may be simple souls who do not realise the implications of what they are doing and for them acting on Christian doctrine will not be wrong for they are not acting badly so much as acting foolishly. But for an intelligent Roman Catholic the situation must be different. For such people could surely see what is wrong with their actions if they were prepared to think it over.

So far I have said nothing about marriage with which many Christians will not agree. They will agree, too, that both the Anglican marriage service and the Roman Catholic official teaching on the subject show a seriously flawed understanding of what a loving relationship can be. So the badness of the moral teaching derives from a failure to understand the nature of very many good relationships between couples. Many Christians will also agree with me in rejecting the first reason for marriage given in the Book of Common Prayer. The first follows St. Paul in describing marriage as a necessary provision for the incontinent; it is as though its only justification is that, outside marriage, the man or woman would be licentious and promiscuous. This wretched view of the place of sexual love has had, as many would acknowledge, a disastrous effect on Christian thinking through the ages and its evil effects are evident today, especially in the attitudes of some converts to Roman Catholicism. I shall not discuss this view in any detail. There are no persuasive arguments in its favour and it has few supporters.

The second approach, which I shall describe as ‘functionalist’, regards sexual intercourse as primarily a means to the procreation of children with the side effects that it can strengthen the bond between man and woman. This view has a little more to recommend it, but only a little (it is again to be found in the Book of Common Prayer). However, entwined with the idea of natural law it leads to the conclusion that intercourse is only permissible when procreation is intended. It is this, of course, which is connected with the idea that contraception is a moral evil.

A more appetising view of sex is what I shall call the expressionist view which the more attractive Christian thinkers, those not in the grip of a life-denying puritanism, advocate. (The New Catholic Encyclopaedia is eloquent on its behalf). This view takes sexual intercourse to be an expression of love between two people; its intimacy makes it especially important in this respect. Now in reply to this, I do not, of course, deny that sexual intercourse can be expressive but it is obvious that it is only one of many ways of expressing love, from giving flowers, making phone calls or writing notes to the act of marrying itself. The act of expression is thus externally related to the love which it expresses. Other forms of expression are available and so, if this picture was correct, the choice of a means of expression would not change the relationship.

Implicit in my criticisms is, of course, a conception of a loving relationship which recognises its character. Essential to this is the belief that there are good relationships in which the sexual bond is internal to the nature of the bond. In other words the sex isn’t just an expression of a loving relationship but is an integral part of that relationship. That means that for many people, probably the majority, the absence of sexual intercourse changes the relationship and that for the worse.

Now I am inclined to think all other relationships to be different from marriage as far as this is concerned. If a child loves her mother deeply and is in the habit of bringing flowers when visiting, then a failure to do so can be disturbing. But if the child brings something else or explains that she has not had time to buy flowers then it would be, we will agree, irrational for the mother to be hurt and worse for her to be resentful. But a failure to make love when one’s partner wants and needs it is more significant. For resentment is a natural and justifiable reaction from your partner and that points to the central place of sex in such a relationship. Unless there are reasons, temporary or not, such as infection or menstruation or other matters of health, as to why intercourse should not occur, then resentment is difficult to avoid. If one partner knows that love-making is essential to the security, the confidence in being loved and the general feeling of well-being of the other, then to refuse it is cruel. It is, of course, sometimes a means of manipulation and is the worse on that account. I can imagine a defender of the Papal view saying that sex should be avoided where procreation is not intended. But if it is wrong for a partner to take offence, it is also wrong to place him or her in a position where he or she is likely to do wrong. Even if you are inclined to take the Papal view seriously, which I am not, there is a case for breaking a rule rather than keeping it and causing another to sin.

The case is, in so many ways, parallel to that of jealousy. Jealousy is often thought nowadays to be an immature and reprehensible reaction to another, denying him or her the freedom which, we all agree, is the highest human value. (Were I reading this aloud the irony would be evident). The truth is surely that jealousy is not only a predictable but a valuable reaction. Infidelity in a relationship properly produces a storm of jealousy and if it does not, we naturally assume that the injured partner does not care too much. Either the relationship is shallow or casual or on the rocks.

In Berlioz’s wonderful opera Les Troyens, Dido learns that, in obedience to the dictate of the Gods, her lover Aeneas is to leave her to go to Italy. In a paroxysm of rage, she turns on him with the unforgettable words

Monstre de piété! Va donc, va!, je maudis et tes dieux et toi-même.1

That, I think, is the entirely proper response of the lover who is expecting and looking forward to a night of passion only to be told that, on the instructions of the Church, there is nothing doing.

There is, indeed, an argument relevant here which is probably stronger than any other I can put forward. What reasons could anybody have for believing in the doctrine of natural law or the Church view on marriage or contraception which are so strong as to outweigh the basic moral judgement that it is quite wrong to eschew contraception and not make love to your partner when you both need to. If I were a Christian I would regard contraception as one of the great blessings science and technology has brought to mankind, along with antibiotics and other discoveries.

As I have said, I do not deny that there are many loving relationships in which sexuality is incidental or even perhaps irrelevant. As one gets older one becomes aware not only of the enormous variety of relationships but also of the variety of the ways in which people seem to flourish; one also becomes aware, of course, of the strains which relationships create. That the Churches have failed to see this variety is evident from the prevailing view of homosexual relationships. My only claim is that many very good relationships are as I describe and that they have given our culture paradigms, perhaps unexpressed and unanalysed but models nonetheless, of what a loving relationship should be. Sometimes, of course, these models are themselves ladders which, once ascended, need to be thrown away. The difficulty is often that a relationship cannot be changed without disruption. As Milan Kundera remarks somewhere, beginning a relationship is like signing a contract. Certain expectations are created in those first few words and the expectations become binding. Nor do I wish to deny that some people may flourish as celibate, necessarily outside the monogamous relationships I am mainly concerned with. However I imagine that such people will be exceptions and I certainly would vehemently reject any suggestion that celibacy is superior.

The difference between the relation that is intrinsic and the relation which simply has causal consequences for other aspects of the bond is not one of kind but one of degree. What I claim is that the repercussions of sexual abstinence are not single or limited but pattern themselves over the relationship in such far reaching and intimate ways that the relationship is changed. It would be strange if not unthinkable that the relationship should change if you decide to give your lover chrysanthemums rather than a rose for a birthday. If it does, the likelihood is that the omission signals a change which has already begun to take place. The gift expresses that change. But we all expect a relationship itself to change if the couple stop making love. For sexual intercourse is not an optional way of expressing love. One reason is that it is the end goal of the activity of caressing and, as a general rule, neither party will be completely satisfied with anything short of it. In this respect it is as much part of our nature as the need to eat and drink. Our bodies demand it. Mutual desirability is normally part of the groundwork of a decent relationship. The awareness that the other partner can, if he or she chooses, desist is liable to be devastating.

The immediate consequence of the fact that sexual intercourse is intrinsic to the bond, when added to the evident fact that not only can the earth not support a large increase in population but neither can the loving bond between two people usually negotiate a large family, is that to avoid the use of contraception is morally wrong and to advocate that people should eschew it is wicked. But the wickedness of the doctrine that contraception is wrong derives from the consequences of that doctrine. What is intrinsically evil is the conception of love which produces such consequences. If human beings were very much less fertile than they are and the average family size, despite the most strenuous attempts, never edged above replacement, then there might be no need for contraception and it would be pointless trying to ban it. Such a scenario is more than a possibility if males continue to become less fertile. But in such circumstances, where a couple was having sexual intercourse hundreds of times a year without producing children, nevertheless, it could still be mistakenly viewed as functional or expressive and it would still represent a serious moral error to see it in that light.

The intrinsic nature of the relationship between a bond and sexual intercourse is perhaps best understood with reference to some familiar ideas in philosophical aesthetics. If you alter or delete a passage in a poem or part of a painting, your vandalism generally has implications and the finer the piece the larger the consequences. A cut, say, in a mature quartet by Mozart will mean that the interrelationships and the balance of the parts is no longer the same. But a major alteration may mean that it ceases to have the character it had before. In the same way a loving relationship which was sexual and ceases to be so is very likely to change radically and most often for the worse. So if a couple have regularly had intercourse in an attempt to have a family and then, when the family is complete they cease, we cannot expect the relationship to stay the same. If it does, it suggests that the sexuality was not central. Perhaps where there was, for example, intense jealousy, abstinence might be an improvement. But such cases will be exceptional.

Amongst the harms that may befall a couple is the misery brought about by sexual frustration. Any partner has a duty to the other, before many other things, to do what he or she can to prevent this. For frustration can have moral consequences; firstly people in a loving relationship tend to be happier and almost without exception, happier people are better people. Many writers have described how, with the loss of regular sexual intercourse, a couple loses that intimacy, that undemanding and unstressful concern for each other which is so important to the partners. A strangeness and distance creeps in. A relationship which was once central to their lives becomes peripheral. Perhaps it is not surprising that the celibates who originally promulgated church teaching should not have the imagination to appreciate this. It is perhaps not easy for them to see either that marriage is a vale of soul-making. A deep relationship requires one taking responsibility for another; his or her well-being comes to matter more to you than your own and, unlike a parent-child relationship, this relationship is reciprocal. But like having a child, taking a partner is giving a hostage to fortune; you have placed your well-being at the mercy of chance. Many of us would say that without a partner or a child we remain shallow. This is not true of everybody of course but it is true of many. Often a spinster or a bachelor will seem to the parent or to the married not to have grown up. Of course, there is also another side to this. Married couples sometimes seem to build a wall around themselves. Their relationship is so dense and compact that it finds little room for others. What they do for others has become, in a sense, external to them.

‘Blasphemy’ is not part of an atheist’s vocabulary. But if it is blasphemy to speak slightingly or lightly of sacred things, and if what is sacred is of the deepest intrinsic value, then the Christian view of marriage is, in large part, blasphemous.

© Prof. R.A. Sharpe 1995

Bob Sharpe is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wales, Lampeter and is the author of ‘Contemporary Aesthetics’ (Harvester 1983) and ‘Making the Human Mind’ (Routledge 1990).

1 “Monster of piety! Go, then, go! I curse your gods and you too!”

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