I feel I can speak for many people that Catholic teaching on sexuality comes across most of the time as a big laundry list of NOs. For example: no masturbating, no fantasizing about sex, no acting out same sex attraction, no extra-marital affairs, no contraception, etc.
There is nothing wrong with that, on one hand. It can assist in the practical matter of identifying and avoiding sin, if one assents to Church teachings.
On the other hand, it can leave people feeling bewildered as to why on earth anyone would want to engage with such a stringent Church, one that may seem practically impossible to follow. As one reads more deeply into the teachings on sexuality, their many nuances will amount to an entire lifetime of discipline, consequent periods of both appreciation and~~possibly~~frustration, and, most importantly, living in authentic communion with God.
Last night, while re-reading Humanae Vitae, I was struck by a particular section. It states that conjugal love
…is fecund. It is not confined wholly to the loving interchange of husband and wife; it also contrives to go beyond this to bring a new life into being. ‘Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.’
A lot of that statement is kind of radical. What really grabbed me was the mention of “loving interchange.” In other words, while loving interchange is present to varying degrees in the act of sexual union between a husband and wife, the Church is saying, “This is not enough.”
In the Catechism (paragraph 2333) we read,
Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out.
This is quite a different understanding of “sexual identity” and “sexual fulfillment” than what the culture teaches us today. The Church does not view sex as a means to personal gratification, pleasure, or even self-fulfillment. She views sexuality as “oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life,” and consequently, to the harmony of a couple and thus society. Thus, we are not our own. Naturally, the Church is not teaching that we cannot have fulfillment; rather, She teaches that, when human sexuality is correctly ordered, we ourselves flourish.
When two people become united in conjugal love, it is not for the sake of fulfilling our superficial desires as individuals (although it is designed to fulfill our deepest real desires). Marriage, according to the Church, is a sign of the communion of Persons that is the Holy Trinity. It is a creative and self-giving union in which the spouses make of themselves a complete and total gift to the other. It is through this creative self-giving that the gift of marriage is realized in the generation of children. By this type of self-giving and creative love, society is strengthened and the Holy Trinity is revealed in the world. Marriage is a sacrament, and that means it is a visible sign of God’s grace.
Not every marriage functions in this way. It is not guaranteed purely because it is between a man and a woman. A marriage in which a man and a woman are using each other for pleasure and emotional fulfillment is dramatically different from what is described above. In fact, the example that immediately comes to mind from a movie is the relationship between the characters played by Tom Cruise and Kelly Preston in Jerry Maguire (imagine they are married).
On the other hand, I immediately think of this scene from Fiddler on the Roof when thinking about the sacramentality of marriage. Love, in this movie, is not about personal fulfillment. In fact, it is action, it is generative, it is society-building, it is self-giving…and frankly, they look exhausted and are not always happy with each other. But by the end, it’s apparent that the love they have for each other is deep, abiding, creative, and fruitful. As their children proceed to marry and procreate, it is as though their marriage is the stalk of a tree with branches that extend outward and in many directions.
Finally, just to twist around our culture’s viewpoints even more into a bunch, children are not actually to be chosen for our fulfillment; rather, they are a “gift from God” and “contribute to [our] welfare.” For parents, this is always an edifying reminder.