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Marriage & Christian Morals

Thomas D’Andrea defends the Catholic view of the philosophy of marriage.

It was with some incredulity that I read recently, in a past issue of Philosophy Now (Autumn ’95), Bob Sharpe’s ‘Marriage: How the Churches Corrupt’. This article shows an ignorance on the part of a British philosophy professor of a nearly two millennia-old set of religious-cumphilosophical teachings that is quite frankly shocking – all the more shocking in that our professor has taken the trouble to make his ignorance public in the hopes of enlightening the readership of Philosophy Now. While perfectly willing to grant that the best of intentions lie behind Prof. Sharpe’s efforts, I find his, a professional academic’s, publicised ignorance in these matters morally blameworthy (I am a bit more hesitant to throw around the term ‘evil’ than Sharpe seems to be): blameworthy to the point that I think he owes his readers a retraction, and that he owes his intelligent Christian, especially Roman Catholic, readers whom he has cavalierly and unqualifiedly branded ‘evil’, an apology. I write this response not with polemical intent, but in the same desire to get at the truth of the matter that I believe motivates Sharpe.

To begin with, his central argument about the ‘immorality’ or ‘blasphemy’ of Christian teachings on marriage and sexuality:

1) There are sex-integral relationships between persons which are highly valuable, even sacred.

2) Christian teaching on sex and marriage denies the possibility of such, therefore,

3) this teaching is blasphemous and evil; its reflective adherents are wicked.

Before responding to this argument several points need to be made about the Catholic understanding of human sexuality. I will restrict my remarks to Roman Catholic teaching about sex and marriage because among Christian churches the Roman Catholic Church is the oldest and the staunchest opponent of artificial contraception (and so a special target of Sharpe’s condemnation). It is also my church and, unlike Tim Chappell (letter to the editor, Winter ’95-96), I don’t find the teaching of a number of other Christian churches on these matters consistent or satisfactory.

In brief, Catholics have always believed, and the Catholic magisterium has always taught, that God created the world, owns it, and wisely and beneficently destines it to a good end. The divine beneficent design behind human sexuality is that it serve the interpersonal communion, both physical and spiritual, of men and women (“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”, as Christ states in Matt. 19:5), and that it also serve as a means to enlarge and preserve the human species (“And God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’,” Gen. 1:28). Catholics naturally believe that contravening the divine design is foolish, harmful, and the pursuit of an illusory good. Therefore they view as a mistake and an objective moral fault (the question of the subjective culpability of the parties with respect to this fault is left indeterminate) sexual activity outside the context of a permanent, public bond of a man and woman united in love and in permanent openness to the children God wishes to send them.

So Catholics will simply part company with many, but not, all atheists and agnostics on the moral licitness of non-marital sexintegral relationships. I have no desire to speak to the differences here, but they obviously hinge, as disagreements on specific ethical issues between different ethical traditions frequently do, on different understandings of the self and different metaphysical cosmologies. But it is worth observing that the Catholic belief that sexual activity is proper to heterosexual marriage alone is not prima facie crazy or even false as Prof. Sharpe presumes. There are good reasons short of specifically religious ones – reasons having to do with the proper nurturing and education of children, with the relation between sexual integrity and personal integrity, with the total and irrevocable nature of human romantic love, and with the tenuousness of intentionally non-procreative relationships – to suggest that this teaching gets the matter about right. But without wishing to argue that positive case here I move to the part of gross inaccuracy in Prof. Sharpe’s article.

Does the Catholic Church view marriage as a sex-integral relationship? Emphatically yes. Consider:

(A) An ‘unconsummated’ marriage, a marriage in which the partners have not yet had sexual relations, is a marriage that the Church can at any time, until it is so consummated, declare null (i.e. not to have occurred).

(B) In Catholic sacramental theology part of the ‘contract’ or covenant of the marriage vow is understood to be the spouses’ mutual surrender of bodily autonomy. Thus throughout the future course of a marriage a spouse may not under pain of sin deny the other spouse’s reasonable request to sexual access (see St. Paul’s remarks in 1 Cor. 7:3-6 and Aquinas’s comments on this in his Summa Theologiae, III, Supplement, q.64, art.1.). ‘Reasonable’ here is left open-ended: the physical or psychological condition of a spouse might be such as to constitute the other spouse’s request as unreasonable and make any forced sexual relations (i.e. especially in the malefemale direction) an instance of marital rape. Thus Pope John Paul II has spoken out publicly against marital rape on a number of occasions.

(C) The Church has never discouraged, but, in the light of (B) encourages, sexual relations between couples who on account of natural causes of age or infirmity, as opposed to intentional human interventions, are sterile (see for example Gaudium et Spes, para. 50).

So much for being anti-sex within marriage. The Catholic Church has always been and remains anti-artificial contraception because it sees in every attempt to thwart conception before, during or after the act of marital sexual intercourse, both a usurping of the role of God who is alone author of life, and a severing of the unitive and procreative aspects of the marital act which it believes God has intended to be indissolubly linked. The Church favours the natural regulation of childbirth where regulation is called for because: a) it involves no active intervention against life but only an intelligent working with the wife’s natural, and therefore God given, fertility cycles, along with a concomitant willingness to accept children if God wishes to send them anyway; and, b) it sees in the periodic abstinence required in natural family planning the possibility of a strengthening of the marriage bond through an increased respect of the partners for each other’s personhood. (Interestingly, recent statistics in the U.S. show that the incidence of divorce is significantly lower among couples who use NFP than those who use artificial contraception and that the former’s rate of marital satisfaction is notably higher.)

A concluding point: Sharpe’s suggestion that the Catholic celibates who originally promulgated Church teaching failed to see that marriage “is a vale of soulmaking” (p.11) borders on the ridiculous. Which Church figures exactly does Sharpe have in mind? His claim certainly would have been news to, for starters, St. Paul whose letters to the first churches are full of such an awareness. See, for example, 1 Cor. 7 where Paul speaks of marriage as a vocation, or Eph. 5:21-33 and Col. 3:18-21 where he speaks of the virtues required of the marriage partners and their beneficial effects – and where he sees in the challenging but grace-endowing union of Christ with his Church the model and image of married life. St. Peter has also a number of similar things to say about the sanctifying or soul-making character of marriage (Peter 3:1-7).

Does Prof. Sharpe have in mind perhaps that great doctor of the Western church St. Augustine whose writings overflow with considerations about the dignity, nobility, and sanctifying effects of the married state? The list could continue, but dead horses need not be flogged.

It is one thing to note, as is the case, that early theological reflection focussed on the excellence of the celibate state without always sufficiently addressing the different excellence of the married state; it is quite another thing to say that early Christian writers were ignorant of the virtue-fostering and sanctifying potential of married life.

It is unfortunate not merely that Prof. Sharpe has lost out for carelessly and falsely accusing the Catholic and Christian practice of marriage, but that he appears never to have made the effort at understanding it. But there is no reason for the rest of us to imitate him in this, let alone for us to brand as ‘evil’ those inhabiting alien ethical traditions we have not yet begun to understand.

© Dr T. D’Andrea 1996

Thomas D’Andrea is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Department of Moral Philosophy of the University of St. Andrews

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