These reflections have revealed in a quite vivid way the radical difference between the two ways of approaching and experiencing the entire sexual sphere. The first, which was expressed by Grisez and Popcak, and which also seems to be the default position of our culture and perhaps even of fallen humanity itself, is that the sexual sphere bears an innate “autonomy” and follows its own laws, being, at least to a degree, necessarily divorced from the law of persons and of the spiritual realm. We could say that this is a presupposition that sexuality obeys its own “law of stimulation.” It is presupposed, for example (and almost without exception), that the proper way of preparing for intercourse is by mutual stimulation of the body. If one looks on the internet at Catholic blogs and forums and even professional writings, it is almost assumed without question that the sexual act is preceded by mutually-stimulating engagement of the body of each person, though there are significant exceptions.i The justification for this is that these acts of foreplay (the term is quite impersonal and also deeply irreverent) are necessary or helpful to sexual intercourse itself. And as long as one remains in this paradigm of autonomy and stimulation, this may well in fact seem to be the case. (Yet there is another option, as I will say in a moment.)
But once the shift is made from viewing the sexual sphere in its own right, isolated from the other realms of the person and following its own laws, it immediately becomes apparent that the whole reality of sexuality, even in its physiological unfolding, cries out to be integrated with, and to occur totally within, the spiritual, affective, intellectual, and volitional union of two persons in the sight of God. This leads, not to a law of autonomy but to a law of integration, not to a law of stimulation but to a law of reverent amazement and tender desire. And here many of the moral questions that preoccupy married couples, and which cause tension and confusion in their experience and living of the sexual embrace, dissolve like dew in the light and warmth of the sun. Hopefully this became apparent already in my reflections on the proper living of the sexual embrace with authentic tenderness. The questions of stimulation, of foreplay, of the role of the orgasm, of the mutual affirmation of persons, all fall quite spontaneously into place when sexuality is truly lifted up into the spiritual and personal realm, and suffused through and through with authentic tenderness.
Basically, the danger in the first presupposition of the autonomy of the sexual sphere (and indeed more than a danger, since there is already a subtle disorder present), is losing sight of the person: both of the person of one’s spouse and of one’s own person, and, even more deeply, of the person of God himself. In viewing the sexual sphere in this way, God is indeed lost, and the focus is not on bringing God into the embrace of spouses, on calling upon him in love and desire for his presence to permeate and sanctify the union of husband and wife. Rather, the focus is on the body and its experience, even as, simultaneously, there may be an effort to juggle the intensity and autonomy of the body with the personal realm. But such juggling is impossible. As I have said many times, all that is possible, the true path of harmonization and integration, is a true and deliberate lifting up through restrained and tender love, in which the whole intensity of the bodily experience is restrained in its tendency towards autonomy, and instead integrated utterly, without reserve and in every detail, into the interiorly chaste and virginal embrace of man and woman within the sheltering and affirming love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It is clear that, if one has engaged for a long time in sexual relations according to the first paradigm, then it may well be quite difficult to enter immediately into the reality of tender affirmation in which the sexual embrace can flower in the ways that I have described. After all, one’s experience of the sexual sphere, and of the arousal of the body itself, is effected, not only by automatic physiological responses, but by the whole interior landscape of one’s consciousness and subjectivity. And here a true and total “evangelization” of our imagination and affectivity is called for. This, indeed, is where the two ways of viewing the sphere of sexuality perhaps most vividly reveal their contrast.
In the first, sexual arousal is seen as a fundamentally biological response to sense stimuli—whether through direct or imaginary touch. Thus, the only way of truly preparing the body for the sexual embrace is through various forms of stimulation, whether verbal or imaginative or direct. If the sexual movement is viewed and experienced in this way, then indeed the coming together of man and woman is fueled fundamentally by the intensity of the processes occurring in the body, and operates according to the “law of stimulation.” But this very need for the operation of a law of stimulation is only present when there has already been a “dulling,” not on the level of stimulation, but rather on the level of sensitivity.
Here we come to the essential point. When one has been desensitized to the authentic beauty and holiness of the sexual sphere as God intended it—and to the awesome beauty of one’s spouse, entrusted into the shelter of one’s love—then the only way to go is the way of physical and psychological stimulation. And, indeed, more and more stimulation will be necessary, for the body and imagination have a way of inherently protecting themselves against ever increasing stimulation, of numbing themselves and coming again to a state of equilibrium. On the other hand, however, the fallen body also has a voracious appetite for pleasure, a limitless sexual drive, that will never be satiated, and will need more and more stimulation, more and more excitement, in order to experience the same physiological response.
But if one protects, and indeed deepens, one’s sensitivity to the sexual sphere in its God-ordained meaning—and in particular one’s sensitivity to the inner, personal, virginal sphere at the heart of all human love and indeed at the heart of all creation—then the need for stimulation entirely disappears. The whole realm of sexuality then unfolds quite spontaneously and freely within the mutual attunement of man and woman to one another. It unfolds within the reverent amazement that their personal mystery as man and woman awakens in each other, and within the tender desire that their mutual drawing near awakens, not only in the spirit, but also in the body.*
I want to emphasize that I am not offering a “method” of arousal or sexual union in anything that I have said previously, nor in anything that I am going to say. No, I am simply trying to unveil—even in this place—the inner virginal form of all love and intimacy. When one is sensitive and alive to this dimension of existence, then the whole experience of sexual intimacy finds its authentic place and its true transparency quite spontaneously within this. What, again, is this inner virginal form? As the fruit of all the reflections present in this book, I can speak from a place of great fullness about the nature of love and intimacy, in its inner essence, whether this intimacy is expressed in the explicit living of the sexual sphere in its temporal expression or in the embracing of the radical virginal expression that will be consummated at the end of time.
The virginal form of love is this: it is the whole interior realm of “I” and “you” in their rich interrelationship, in the beautiful complementarity by which persons unseal in one another capacities lying dormant, so that “I” and “you” may be drawn together in the embrace of mutual surrender that creates a “we” of abiding communion in the sight, and within the sheltering embrace, of the divine “Thou.”
That is a very rich sentence. It might be good to re-read it. I will also offer a shorter version. What I am saying is simply this: in the end, this is all that remains: “I” and “you” made one as “we” within the embrace of the divine “Thou.” And yet this divine “Thou” is himself the eternally consummate embrace of “I” and “You” in the “We” of everlasting communion and perfect mutual belonging! Thus the union of two human persons in authentic communion, in a truly personal and thus inherently virginal intimacy, is a true reflection of and participation in the very inner life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!
This leads me to my final point. In order to re-awaken and unseal this reverent amazement for the beauty and holiness of the sexual sphere—of the living human person incarnate in a body created for love and intimacy—it is not enough to focus on the sexual sphere itself. Rather, the most important thing is to plunge into the depths of loving attunement between heart and heart, between “I” and “you,” between man and woman, bathed in and permeated by the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is necessary, in other words, to pray, to worship, to love both God and one another in every moment of life and in every circumstance, with a tender and contemplative receptivity to be touched ever anew, in the core of one’s heart, by the beauty that ravishes and, in ravishing, unseals the true gift of one’s being to the other in cherishing and affirming tenderness.
To conclude, let me tie these strands together. The distortion of the “law of stimulation”—expressed in acts such as foreplay—is particularly dangerous because authentic love and intimacy do inherently bear the form of play. But this is a play of a radically different kind than that expressed in “foreplay.” Indeed, the particularly destructive nature of foreplay is precisely that it mocks the authentic nature of love, and yet precisely as a diabolical “mirror opposite” of the authentic nature of truly playful love. We need only think of the ways of flirting that make two persons objects for one another, or of the so-called expressions of tenderness between husband and wife, which, while claiming to be “playful,” are actually a profound distortion of true play in a subtle stimulation and sexual excitement. As I will mention in the following reflections, the highest flowering of our existence truly does lie in the experience of playful intimacy. And yet this playful intimacy is not a “playing with” one another in excitement, pleasure, stimulation, or fun, but the mutual gaze of reverent awe, in which both cry, in humility and tender attunement, “How beautiful you are!”
In other words, true play is but the inner form of adoration and prayer and worship, of gratitude and awe and listening and receptivity, of surrender and delight and contemplation. There is, in other words, a deep playfulness that is born in the human heart in response to the encounter with authentic beauty and goodness, and one finds oneself drawn into the circulation of a ceaseless dance of mutual self-giving, bathed in humility and wonder and fascination. This is what I mean by the very rich term play. It is a true sharing in the innermost life of the Trinity, in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are eternally united in the utmost intimacy within a ceaseless dance of playful contemplation and reverent surrender.
*Even the very movement of sexual arousal, in God’s plan—truly recaptured through grace and purity of heart—can be born entirely from the choice of the will in conformity with mind and heart, and not be subjected to the uncontrolled movements of body or emotion. The nakedness of the human body, and even touch of the genital organs, is not in itself a cause of arousal, unless there is first a shift in the inner disposition of the person which initiates this movement. This is obvious to many people, who are aware that the role of the will is much greater in this sphere than our culture presupposes. This means that, even if a person, due to both the woundedness of our fallen nature and to habit, tends to experience arousal as a strong force acting against the free choice of their inner person, this tendency can be entirely overcome and integrated with the free choice and surrender of person. This may be a long process for some, but grace can truly make us new down to the very deepest movements of our being, permeated by the light and love of God.
i. I would like to quote some vibrant examples from the Catholic tradition to show that the widespread trend to view unnatural sexual acts such as foreplay and anal or oral sex as moral or even necessary is a radical revolution of the previous understanding of theology and of the Church herself. Of course, I do not intend the strong words of these witnesses to the tradition to be received as a condemnation or a shaming of those persons who, unknowingly, have engaged in such acts. Rather, I hope only to give confidence to such persons, as to all of us, that the path of tenderness and restraint and mutual affirmation of which I have spoken indeed aligns with God’s intentions for the sexual embrace. I hope, as in everything that I have shared and written, only to unlock the door into the true joy of love and intimacy for which every heart longs.
Saint Thomas Aquinas:
“Marital relations are contrary to nature when either the right receptacle or the proper position required by nature is avoided. In the first case, it is always a mortal sin because no offspring can result, so that the purpose of nature is completely frustrated (unde totaliter intentio naturae frustratur). But in the second case it is not always a mortal sin, as some say, though it can be the sign of a passion which is mortal; at times the latter can occur without sin, as when one’s bodily condition does not permit any other method. In general, this practice is more serious the more it departs from the natural way.” (In Libros Sententiarum, IV, 31, 2, 3) “Lastly comes the sin of not observing the right manner of copulation, which is more grievous if the abuse regards the ‘vas’ [vessel or orifice] than if it affects the manner of copulation in respect of other circumstances.” (Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 154, article 12)
Saint Alphonsus Ligouri’s teaching is very clear:
“Or whether it is always [a] mortal [sin], if the husband were to insert [his] penis into the mouth of [his] wife?” And his answer: “[T]he truth is in the affirmative [citing several authors] … not only because, in this act, on account of the warmth of the mouth, there is proximate danger of pollution [climax], but also because this [act] is considered [to be], in itself, an abnormal type of pleasure against nature (as has been said of any type of shameful sex).” He adds: “And besides, whenever another orifice [or vessel] is sought by the husband, other than the natural orifice, which has been ordained for copulation, it is considered [to be] an abnormal type of [sexual] pleasure.”
This clearly applies not only to oral, but also to anal, manual, and any other kind of sexual stimulation. To minimize Alphonsus’ teaching by saying that it only condemns oral and anal sex, but allows the “external” forms of touch and stimulation is a clear example of the reductionism that asks “what can I get away with?” rather than asks about the authentic good. They are all precisely what he is condemning: “an abnormal type of pleasure.”
He also asks: “Then, if the husband withdraws after climax, but before the climax of the wife, whether it is possible for her to immediately excite herself with touches so as to climax?” He answers in the negative: “The reason: because the climax of the wife is not necessary to procreation; also, because this sexual pleasure of the wife, in as much as they are separated, does not occur as one flesh with the husband.” The clear contrast with the position of Germain Grisez here is striking.
Alphonsus continues: “Whether it is a mortal sin for the husband to begin copulating in a disordered [or perverse] orifice, then afterward consummate the act in the proper orifice?” Answer in the affirmative: “The reason is that this manner of his sexual act (even without climax) is truly sodomy, whether or not it is consummated, just as an act of copulation in the natural orifice of another woman is truly fornication, even if there is no climax.”
Allow me also to quote Alice von Hildebrand:
It is precisely because the marital bed is sacred that one should approach acts within it with enormous reverence. Degrading and perverse sexual behavior—even it is it done by a married couple, who do not practice contraception—should be condemned, as an assault on human dignity. The pornification of marriage should be resisted as vigorously as the pornification of our culture. … I cannot describe what Dietrich thought of pornography: the very word triggered an expression of horror on his noble face. The same thing is true of sodomy. He had such a sense for the dignity of human persons that any posture, which sins against this dignity, was repulsive to him.
Though the Church herself has not spoken as explicitly about these matters as have the saints and doctors of the Church (the most explicit is what I quoted in an early end note from Pius XII), the whole trend of her teaching is very clear in this regard.
Here is Paul VI:
Moreover, if one were to apply here the so called principle of totality, could it not be accepted that the intention to have a less prolific but more rationally planned family might transform an action which renders natural processes infertile into a licit and provident control of birth? Could it not be admitted, in other words, that procreative finality applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act? … 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. (Humanae Vitae, n. 3, 11-12).
The Catechism produced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says: “Each and every sexual act in a marriage needs to be open to the possibility of conceiving a child.” Note that this says each and every act, not just the final moment of each and every act.
Pastoral Letter of the U.S. Bishops, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan”:
Sometimes one hears it said that as long as the marriage as a whole is open to children, each individual act of intercourse need not be. In fact, however, a marriage is only as open to procreation as each act of intercourse is, because the whole meaning of marriage is present and signified in each marital act. Each marital act signifies, embodies, and renews the original and enduring marital covenant between husband and wife. That is what makes intercourse exclusively a marital act.
Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia, n. 80, quoting many other documents:
Marriage is firstly an ‘intimate partnership of life and love’ which is a good for the spouses themselves, while sexuality is ‘ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman’ It follows that ‘spouses to whom God has not granted children can have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms.’ Nonetheless, the conjugal union is ordered to procreation ‘by its very nature.’ The child who is born ‘does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment.’ He or she does not appear at the end of a process, but is present from the beginning of love as an essential feature, one that cannot be denied without disfiguring that love itself. From the outset, love refuses every impulse to close in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning, even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life.
I would like to conclude with a long quote from Father John Gow, who summarizes the situation with a fair amount of clarity:
I am referring to the question of whether unconsummated acts of oral-genital stimulation and anal penetration are permissible for married couples as part of sexual foreplay. Of course, all orthodox Catholics know that consummated acts of this sort—those deliberately terminating in orgasm—are mortal sins of impurity. For, together with masturbation, homosexual acts, “withdrawal,” contraception and bestiality, those practices belong to that general category of perverse sexual acts which by their very nature exclude the possibility of procreation.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in discussing “the sin against nature” (under which heading he understands the whole ensemble of deviant acts listed near the beginning of my previous paragraph), has a couple of terse remarks that could really only refer to impure and unnatural forms of foreplay. In ST IIa IIae, Q. 154, art. 11, at the end of the corpus, he speaks of a man and woman “not observing the natural manner of copulation, either as to undue means, or as to other monstrous and bestial methods of copulation.” Since these “monstrous and bestial methods,” being clearly the worst of the “either/or” alternatives he has in mind, would have to include consummated (orgasm-attaining) acts of oral and anal sex, what could the previous alternative be (“undue means”) other than unconsummated acts of the same sort?
The very end of the next article (Q. 154, art. 12, ad 4) is similar, but clearer. Here Thomas again brands as an unnatural sin the behaviour of a man and woman who “do not observe the right manner of copulation.” But he adds that such a sin “is more grievous if the abuse regards the receptacle (vas) than if it affects the manner of copulation in respect of other circumstances.” …
And how grave are such sins? These same articles of the Summa make it clear that St. Thomas sees unnatural male-female acts as being the least grievous form of the “sin against nature” except for masturbation. But, like all orthodox Catholic moralists, he considers even unconsummated masturbation to be per se mortally sinful (“grave matter”, in theological language). So does the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says that masturbation, defined simply as deliberately seeking isolated sexual pleasure from one’s own organs (i.e., with or without reaching orgasm) is “gravely disordered” (no. 2352). So it is clear that Aquinas, even though he does not spell this out, would logically consider even unconsummated oral and anal sex between husband and wife to be mortally sinful, thus creating a need for sincere sacramental confession prior to approaching Holy Communion.
Fortunately (in my opinion), a few contemporary Catholic authors are now explicitly endorsing the teaching that Aquinas expresses in veiled, oblique language in the Summa. For instance, Fr. Thomas G. Morrow has stopped holding his breath waiting for the magisterium to speak on this issue. Instead, he has boldly “taken the plunge” and published an article expressing what millions of devout and chaste married Catholics have undoubtedly intuited over the centuries without ever talking about it (Cf. “Rethinking Marital Foreplay,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review, May 2010, pp. 58-63). According to Fr. Morrow, oral and anal foreplay partially simulate unnatural mortals sins, are therefore acts of lust that treat one’s spouse as a pleasure object rather than as a person, and consequently do not measure up to true standards of conjugal love and respect for human dignity. Thus, he concludes, such acts “should be considered illicit, in (or out of) marriage” (p. 63).
After all of this, I would suggest turning our eyes back to the breathtaking beauty of human love and intimacy in the light of the Trinity, even and in a special way in the sexual sphere. The language of most of these quotes (though not all) has been about what is allowed or not allowed, about what is licit or illicit, but the truth is that these are not external rules imposed from the outside on the spontaneity of human desire and activity. Rather, they are gifts of great clarity meant to help protect the human person from acts that would hurt oneself or others, and indeed to unseal within us a true insight, and an ever deepening understanding, of the ravishing beauty of authentic love and intimacy. It is here, and here alone, permeated by a reverent amazement and a humble tenderness, that we can experience and live the full beauty of intimacy—in every aspect of our existence—as God has so lovingly intended for us as his children, who are called into his own life of love, not only for this life, but for all eternity.