There is a tendency in the Church to interpret the Theology of the Body, in a certain sense, in the direct opposite way from its authentic meaning. John Paul II wanted to re-incorporate the body—particularly in its gender and experience of sex—into the personal realm, desiring for it to be seen not as a merely biological organism severed from the spirit (and thus not to see the spirit, either, as severed from the body). He desired to open up the space for Christ’s words to resound with new clarity and vigor—words addressing the whole person, in his or her inseparable union of body and spirit. And this calls for the body itself to be drawn up into its inherent personal dignity, to be spiritualized and divinized by being made transparent anew to the person and to the Trinity’s love alive in personal relationships. Only in this “drawing up” can the beauty of sexuality and the body also reveal its true meaning, being seen and experienced as a transparent incarnation of the mystery of the person and of the person’s calling to communion. It is precisely in this “elevating” movement, this personalizing movement, that sexuality can be restored to its authentic meaning, and can be “read” and experienced in its authentic truth as a sign and expression, however imperfect, of the great Mystery of the union of Christ and the Church, and of the intimacy of the Persons of the Trinity themselves. The pope, in this way, wanted to help restore the meaning of sexuality to the dignity and beauty that is continually in danger of being submerged by lust, concupiscence, and the law of appropriation, on the one hand, and by the denigration of “Manichaeism,” by a despising of the body and sex, on the other. These two extremes both seek to tear the human person apart, body and spirit apart, divine intimacy and human intimacy apart. And only in the two together: the incarnation of the spirit in the body, and the spiritualization of the body in harmony with the spirit, is unity and transparency in the communion of persons in the light of God restored.
There have been certain persons, however, who have used the pope’s words to justify the very opposite of the truth of his teaching, and things directly contrary to the Gospel and natural law itself.i This is very clear, for example, in the words of certain authors who claim that things such as “foreplay” are licit, as long as “both persons feel loved” and the sexual act climaxes in the ordinary way, which is open to procreation.ii But this radical “minimalism” in the sphere of sex is founded on a profound misunderstanding of the very language of the body and the meaning of sexuality as but an expression of the mutual self-donation of persons in cherishing love. After all, John Paul says that sensuality, and even emotion, are never in themselves adequate grounds for a true and pure love, but only the true gift of myself in response to the innate value of the other as a person, the true act of disinterested affirmation. Only then, by being drawn up into this deeply personal, deeply chaste mutual self-donation, can the sensuality of the body and the surging of the emotions be purified, transfigured, and harnessed as expressions of the deeper gift of the heart. Yet this disordered tendency of such persons goes in the opposite direction; rather than drawing our living of our physical and sexual being beyond the realm of mere biology and the natural physical act towards the virginity of God, it rather divinizes the physical act itself and makes it the focus. And this cannot in the end do anything but submerge the person in the instinctual and animal realm, if not even in the diabolical.
After trying to wade through these misunderstandings, let us return to the effort to “read the language of the body in truth,” as John Paul II says. Let us try to understand the deeply personal, virginal word that the human body speaks, even and especially in the sphere of sex and in the sexual embrace itself. This is very important, for it is necessary, not to reject or repress the body and the meaning of sexuality in our growth into purity of heart, but rather precisely to let them be integrated into the full chaste gift of ourselves to God and to other persons (and to let this chaste gift distill into and be lived within all the concrete contours of our bodily, gendered existence). So let me therefore try to speak, now, of the symbolism of the sexual climax. I have spoken of the physical constitution of the body, and of the act of union, but now this climactic moment of the union, what does this represent and seek to convey? The sexual climax or orgasm is but a symbol of the deep surrender of one person to another, a physical expression of the pouring out of self in response to the goodness of the other person, the spontaneous expression of being deeply touched by them in one’s inner being. But because of original sin, precisely this experience is deeply prone to expressing the exact opposite. And this, precisely, is often what such persons who speak so enthusiastically about sex fail to recognize or express.
In this context, I think of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s words on the two forms of surrender, which can help to make sense of the difference between sexual surrender and virginal surrender, and how the latter far surpasses the former and indeed alone gives the former meaning. Von Hildebrand speaks, in the last chapter of his tremendous book, Transformation in Christ,iii about these two forms of surrender: 1) First, there is a surrender that “lifts us up,” that elevates and enriches us through our contact with a high value outside of us. In doing this, it liberates us of our false autonomy of thinking that we are in control, and even our thinking that everything depends upon our own will-power and effort. Rather, by these great values, we are swept off our feet and lifted up into communion with the deep Reality that lies at the heart of all things, and which enfolds them in itself. 2) However, on the other hand, there is a second kind of surrender which is a surrender to what is lower, to what drags us down and, rather than liberating our freedom, enchains it and enslaves us to passions, to concupiscence or the force of bodily pleasure, etc. In this context, von Hildebrand is speaking about such things as the euphoria caused by alcohol, by the kind of “raving” that is experienced in certain kinds of dancing, the strong emotion of uncontrollable anger, and, clearly, of the tendency that also exists in sexual pleasure as present in this fallen world. In all of these cases of the latter kind of surrender, the debasing surrender, the essential movement—and the great problem—is a “submerging” of the person in what is lower than himself, rather than his lifting up to his authentic dignity and his true freedom as a person created in the image and likeness of God.
Indeed, Hildebrand says that the sexual sphere is particularly prone to this “dragging down.” The only remedy is 1) the Sacrament of Matrimony, which can purify the sexual act to become again but an expression, and one expression among many, of the mutual self-giving and lifelong belonging of spouses; 2) the focus on the dignity of the other person and the desire for their well-being, in which pleasure is never in any way made a goal of sexual union (or even an explicit theme), but is rather simply a substratum which underlies, and is harnessed by and taken up into, the mutual delight of persons in one another and in the true, interpersonal intimacy that they share; 3) openness to life, to pro-creation that can occur through the union of two persons in the sexual surrender, which is essentially another movement of donation, of gift, of openness beyond the self to belong to another—to others—in the expansiveness of love. 4) Hildebrand says, with great beauty and insight, that, in the sexual act, it is necessary that one’s surrender to another person flows from, and remains enfolded within, a primary surrender to God himself. This is a beautiful affirmation of the primacy of the virginal, of the complete intactness of surrender to God in a love beyond sex, which alone allows the sexual embrace to also find its proper place, as a transparent expression of personal, and indeed virginal, love.iv
But the physical intensity of intercourse, and in particular of the orgasm, has a tendency not to liberate the person but to submerge him, even though it was originally intended to express the opposite.v I am not saying that the orgasm is somehow dirty, or animal, or something to feel ashamed of or avoid. Rather, I am simply saying that, due to original sin and the fractured “autonomy” of the body due to sin, it comes about not on the basis of the desire and choice of the inner heart, but as the result of a physiological process. Thus, in fact, it is particularly “instinctual,” even animal, in its intensity, and, insofar as its dynamism is surrendered to without being lifted up into the personal realm, it tends inherently to submerge the liberty and transparency both of personal freedom and of the chaste union of two persons in affirming love. Only by a radical striving for the spiritual truth of love, for a total cherishing of the other person and of the union of hearts that they share in God, can this “submerging” movement be countered and truly incorporate the physical intensity of sex into the realm where it again expresses true love, a free love that is authentic self-giving of two persons to one another.
So what point am I trying to make as a result of these reflections? The true ultimate “climax” of the mutual self-donation of persons does not lie in the physical experience of the orgasm, but in the gift of heart and life. In other words, it occurs, not merely in sexual union itself, but in the donation of one’s whole being and existence to the beloved person, of which the sexual act is but an expression and a sign. This is also because the fulfillment of the spousal meaning of the body is ultimately consummated, not in natural intercourse, but rather in the virginal state of the body, in the complete liberation of the inner person from all that would “submerge” him, so that he may enter into the orbit of the virginal love of the Trinity, and in this place be united to others. (Of course, to the degree that the sexual act also expresses this inner gift, it becomes an incarnation of precisely this “virginal” word, and can “anticipate” the virginal state even in the experience of sexual union. Explaining this will be a large part of the following reflections.) To enter into this sphere of virginal, chaste, personal love—even already in this life—grants an anticipation of the virginal integrity of the new creation, in which the body will totally surpass the realm of the natural act of sex as we now know it, even while experiencing the virginal fulfillment of all that sex sought to express and symbolize, brought to consummation in and through total penetration and permeation by the light and love of the Trinity. Yes, in heaven the very delight of the body will be nothing but a reverberation of the joy of the inner person on contact with the person of the beloved, in a union that is utterly chaste, utterly transparent, not only to the true dignity and value of each person, but to the very radiance of the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So my point: what the physical orgasm was meant to express is ultimately restored, not in the sexual sphere but in the virginal (personal) sphere, even as the sexual itself can be, with deep purification of heart, “recaptured” in the light of the love of the person, and in the true communion of persons in the sight of God. This climax, this consummation, occurs, therefore, not through a biological process that needs to be lifted up into the personal sphere, but through the entrance of persons into the utterly chaste, utterly virginal self-donation of the Persons of the Trinity, in and through the virginal communion of Jesus and Mary, Christ and the Church.
Here is that true surrender of self, that letting go of one’s autonomy, that harnessing of one’s being as an outpouring gift for the other, which does not chain freedom but sets it free, which does not dull or debase the mind but rather clarifies it and fills it with light. Here the whole person—mind, will, and affectivity, spirit and body—is integrated and gathered together in the liberty of God himself, since the person is drawn into a direct and unmediated contact with the Trinity’s own Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, either in himself or in his creation (and particularly in another human person). Here, in the virginal sphere alone, is the fractured human being gathered back into unity and made a pure gift of love again.
i. I am thinking here, as I say in the text, primarily of all the forms of so-called “foreplay,” and of a “divinizing” of the experience of sex, in particular the orgasm. There is a footnote in Love and Responsibility which profoundly reaffirms the rejection of all forms of foreplay and any way of treating another person that does not totally correspond to the very God-designed nature of sexual union. It says: “It is evident that for the corresponding act (of benevolence) to be also an act of love it is not enough merely to want to affirm the other. What is also needed is that the act taken up by the intention of affirming another person is objectively suitable for the role determined by the intention of the agent. Whether it is suitable for this role or not is decided by the objective structure of the person-recipient. Only an accurate recognition of this structure and taking it into account in action, guarantees that a given act has the mark of a genuine act of love. On the other hand, a faulty recognition of the structure of the person-recipient must become the source of unknowing and consequently unintentional action to his detriment. This action is all the more dangerous because in this case using the other occurs in the name of love. The agent is unaware of this pretense, and this safeguards him from fault. Nonetheless, he becomes a doer of the act of anti-love out of love! Only being aware of the possibility of the danger of such disintegration (emotionalization) of love can lead efficiently to excluding this danger.” (trans. by Gregorz Ignatik. Pauline Books and Media: Boston, MA, 2016, p. 13)
This is also the clear teaching of the Church: “By the force of this law of nature, the human person does not possess the right and power to the full exercise of the sexual faculty, directly intended, except when he performs the conjugal act according to the norms defined and imposed by nature itself. Outside of this natural act, it is not even given within the matrimonial right itself to enjoy this sexual faculty fully. These are the limits to the particular right of which we are speaking, and they circumscribe its use according to nature. What has been said up to this point concerning the intrinsic evil of any full use of the generative power outside the natural conjugal act applies in the same way when the acts are of married persons or of unmarried persons, whether the full exercise of the genital organs is done by the man or the woman, or by both parties acting together; whether it is done by manual touches or by the interruption of the conjugal act; for this is always an act contrary to nature and intrinsically evil.” (Pius XII)
In a later end note, I will give more examples of how, despite this teaching on the permissibility or even supposed “necessity” of foreplay, it has been the clear and constant teaching of the Church and the saints that it is inherently and intrinsically wrong to stimulate the sexual organs in any other way than in natural intercourse.
ii. I refer here, for example, to Christopher West. He has done much good for hundreds of thousands of persons in making the radiant truth of the Theology of the Body available, accessible, and attractive to them, and the great majority of his work is beautiful. But in certain places one can sense precisely a kind of absorption in the physical experience of sex, a kind of overwhelming fascination or obsession, which obscures attentiveness to God and to the person and focuses instead on the processes of the body and the intense experience of emotion. I refer, for example, to his approval of foreplay and even of oral sex in his book, The Good News About Sex and Marriage. This same tendency, this same lack of sobriety and inner virginity (at least in his words), can also be seen, though more subtly, in certain places in his commentary on TOB, Theology of the Body Explained: A Commentary on John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them (Pauline Books and Media: Boston, MA). I give one example:
The erotic poetry of the Song of Songs is full of sensual references to foods and fragrances, to smelling, tasting, eating, and drinking each other’s goodness (see, for example, 1:12-14; 2:3-6; 4:10-5:1). This indicates a profound interconnection between spousal love, smelling, tasting, eating, and drinking. Are not the senses (and, in fact, all of the senses) fully engaged in erotic love? What does the passionate kiss of lovers say if not in some sense “I want to taste you; I want to take you into myself and consume you: ‘eat’ you; ‘drink’ you”? Furthermore, does not the very fragrance of the body stir men and women to love? Perhaps we look on the senses with suspicion because they often rouse concupiscence. But to the degree that men and women live from that vivification of the Holy Spirit, all things sensual stir them to love. Yes, our senses—all of our senses—were created by God to inspire love! This is the nature of incarnational/sacramental reality. Analagously, the interconnections between spousal love, smelling, tasting, eating, and drinking are fully revealed in the Eucharistic liturgy. Here, more than in any earthly encounter, Christ invites us to “taste and see” his own goodness (see Ps 34:8). The fragrance of incense, oils, and candles all add to the sensual experience of the union of Bridegroom and Bride. And how is the marriage of Christ and the Church sacramentally consummated? The deepest desire of the Heavenly Bridegroom is that we, his Bride, might eat his flesh and drink his blood. Stunning! (p. 491)
Christopher’s strong affirmation of the goodness of the senses is obviously correct, and even his statement that, for the pure of heart, even the activity of the senses stirs us to love. But one can feel that he is a bit off in his enthusiasm, in his parallel between the passionate kissing of the spouses and the sober encounter with God in the liturgy. After all, God could not touch our senses more soberly, more humbly, more recollectedly than in the liturgy, and could not consummate his marriage with us in a more simple and humble way than by giving us a bit of bread and a sip of wine on the tongue. In this regard, it is quite telling that the Church does not allow persons to receive Holy Communion in whatever manner they wish (for example, through self-intinction). In other words, in experiencing the consummation of this divine marriage, we are to receive the Bridegroom in all the sobriety with which he gives himself, and the aliveness of our senses to stir our hearts to love comes about not through the passionate intensity of kissing (or worse) but through the capacity to see, in and through the littlest things, the great mystery of eternal Love.
For here everything unfolds in an atmosphere of reverence, which is certainly an atmosphere of joy, but of a joy that is sober and collected and awake, a joy that is the first form of surrender spoken of by Dietrich von Hildebrand, and far from the second. It seems that West inclines towards conflating the two kinds of surrender, and towards mistaking the passion of the body for the virginal word of the heart: i.e., the stirring of sensuality for authentic love. But if the sphere of sex, too, is sacred, then it should also manifest, like the liturgy, a similar sobriety, a similar awareness of being in God’s presence, of entering into this space only by God’s express call. And “eating and drinking” each other through a passionate kiss is hardly an expression of this! The pleasurable intensity that imbues his words, therefore, is precisely the tendency that I am pointing out in the text. We will soon see how this same tendency, when taken further, is used to justify many disordered actions.
For the contrary of this focus on pleasure—in other words, for a more sober, virginal, and authentically personal understanding of the role of pleasure in the experience of the sexual embrace—see end note #36 (in addition to the main text of this book).
iii. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ: On the Christian Attitude (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2001), chapter 18, “True Surrender of Self,” p. 481-500. The explicit treatment of sex, and in particular the orgasm, can be found in his book In Defense of Purity (Pekin, Indiana: Refuge of Sinners Publishing, 2010), Part III, sections 1 and 2, “The Intrinsic Dangers of Sex” and “The Reformation of Sex Effected by Wedded Love.”
iv. This relates deeply to what John Paul II says about how the “virginal state” of the body at the end of time will be the fulfillment of its “spousal meaning.” If the sexual embrace is lived in a kind of “flinging away of self,” in a surrender of oneself to the erotic passion of the body and the emotions, then the gift of physical virginity (a positive thing) also expresses a loss of virginity of heart (a negative thing) in which God is lost sight of, and the intactness of one’s being is submerged by the sexual act fueled by concupiscence and passion (however subtly veiled). But if the whole sexual movement is deliberately lifted up into the sober, chaste, and personal sphere, then sex itself can become, as it were, “virginal,” and in this way it comes closest to expressing the life of intimacy proper to eternity, and God’s intentions for sexual intimacy even in this life.
v. The orgasm is often defined in ways like this: it is the climax of sexual excitement, accompanied by intense feelings of pleasure. This is a profoundly inadequate, “bottom-up” definition. I would define it rather as the climax of the sexual surrender, and, ideally, the surrender of two persons to one another, who give themselves together through the fullness of their mutual attunement to each other in abiding tenderness.