Wednesday, 07 December 2016 18:12

Human Sexuality and God’s Grace

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Human sexuality is God’s gift to mankind as an expression of the mutuality of spousal love. Its telos, or end, is to further the couple’s love through their children. At the moment of creation, God proclaimed His plan, explaining, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). If “one flesh” refers to the manner in which spouses become one entity, a unity, then the sexual dimension is clearly included. From its very beginnings, the Church proclaimed the truth about sexuality—protecting it, on the one hand, from the devaluation it experienced in the sexual excess of the pagan culture, and on the other hand, from the Manichean and Gnostic views that condemn sexuality as something purely physical, below the inherent dignity of man. The Church presented the beauty and goodness of human sexuality within the bond of marriage to both pagans and Manicheans. Properly understood, sexuality unites a couple in Christian chastity and modesty.

Given that we live in a pagan culture that tries to redefine sexuality, reducing it to mere sexual activity, a form of entertainment and unbridled pleasure, it is imperative that today, too, the Church articulates a Christian understanding of sexuality. In today’s culture of roulette, too many human relations are not—nor do they seek to be—deep or stable. Yet this is the sexuality of beasts, not of humans. This is not the communio personarum, the communion of people that St. John Paul II celebrates. When relationships are reduced to an encounter between two egos, to some vacuous meeting, it profanes the dignity of self-donation. Such individuals experience no mutual donation in love, no love that seeks to surrender itself once and for all to the other. For real love “Seeks to be definitive; it cannot be an arrangement ‘until further notice’" (Catechism, 1646). In today’s hook-up culture, individuals are not open to each other, not open to life, and even less open to God. 

We can find vestiges of a false Christian spirituality haunting certain views of sexuality. Because today’s world is hyper-sexualized, because we are bombarded by ads and movies that exalt sex as a form of entertainment, because the sinister effects of pornography have invaded so much of our culture, we are tempted to respond with a deep suspicion of human sexuality, identifying it with something purely worldly or mundane.  

Yet the Church is the great defender of human sexuality in its sacred and deepest meaning, as rooted in God. God frees sexuality from the distortion that subjects some to its powers and from the suspicion with which others view it.  This view of human sexuality is not one that considers it as something that can be lived in any way conceivable, but rather as a fundamental aspect of a marriage, a sacrament that represents the type of love that Christ has for His Church. To live this type of union with integrity and commitment, married couples must rely on the type of support that only the sacraments can offer. They must trust that the grace of the sacraments will illuminate all aspects of their marriage, including their sexuality. St. John Paul teaches that strengthened with the sacraments, “Christian husbands and wives will be able to keep alive their awareness of the unique influence that the grace of the sacrament of marriage has on every aspect of married life, including therefore their sexuality: the gift of the Spirit, accepted and responded to by husband and wife, helps them to live their human sexuality in accordance with God's plan and as a sign of the unitive and fruitful love of Christ for His Church,” (FC 33).  God’s grace is present insofar as we exercise our human sexuality such that spouses serve as true lovers, following the model of the crucified Christ. 

When lived according to this model, the couple’s sexuality is not something that they should view as shameful or embarrassing. It is not indecent or impure; rather, “The actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions promote that mutual self-giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and a ready will. (GS, 49). Thus we see that sexuality is something sacred, established by God to bring about human communion, an act of love fully open to the gift of another life. In this understanding, there is not only a corporeal union, but a complete union on many levels—emotional, psychological, and physical. As St. John Paul II said, “Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter- appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, the unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul,” (FC, 13).  Reducing human sexuality to a mere physical activity deprives it of the richness offered in the multiplicity of human dimensions; it treats a human as just another beast. 

Yet we must keep this in mind: none of us is living in our original state of purity. Even though our Baptism has swept away the original sin of our progenitors, we still live with the tendency toward the disordered fruits of concupiscence: egoism, pride, a lust for power, and others. We must, then, engage in a purification process, a “Redemption of the body,” in the words of John Paul II. The more each spouse can grow as a child of God, the richer and deeper the exercise of their mutual sexuality. Imagine the graces poured out upon those couples who fully surrender themselves to each other in God; this surrender enriches the couple’s lives at every level.

Pope John Paul II described the proper human attitude toward conjugal sexuality as starting with “Persistence and patience, humility and strength of mind, filial trust in God and in His grace.” In order to attain this, he recommends, “Frequent recourse to prayer and to the sacraments of the Eucharist and of Reconciliation” (FC 33) in order to live out human sexuality according to God’s plan. 

We have, then, established the sacred nature of human sexuality. But which Church teachings affirm this? St. Paul preached that our bodies, when we live in the grace of God, are temples of the Holy Spirit (1Cor 6:19). When the married couple approaches one another other, they should, then, experience a sense of reverence. As they physically become one flesh, they enter into the intimate sanctuary of the other person. The sexual act can either enrich a true conjugal love, or it can deeply wound those who seek only the satisfaction of their own ego, and thus enter it without the respect and delicacy that comes with true intimacy.  

In this exchange, each spouse must both give of him or herself and receive the other. Both spouses are mutually enriched by the gift of the other.  As the marriage vows remind us, I give myself to unto you, and I receive you as my own. Or, as stated in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, “The meaning and value of (the spouses) physical union is expressed in the words of consent, in which they accepted and offered themselves each to the other, in order to share their lives completely” (AL, 74). In this mutual enrichment, the joy of loving and feeling oneself loved, the sharing of feelings and tender expressions, as well as God’s great joy unites the couple in a nuptial mystery. The pleasure experienced is a good pleasure, as it stems from a good act, the mutual loving donation of the spouses. There is nothing disordered in this act. 

The Catechism affirms, “The Creator himself . . . established that in the [generative] function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment. They accept what the Creator intended for them. At the same time, spouses should know how to keep themselves within the limits of just moderation” (Pius XII, 10/29/1951; CEC, 2362). God united pleasure with sexuality, but this pleasure is neither the center nor the goal of conjugal relations. Because of this, as Pope Francis said, “Training in the areas of emotion and instinct is necessary, and at times this requires setting limits. Excess, lack of control or obsession with a single form of pleasure can end up weakening and tainting that very pleasure and damaging family life” (AL, 148).

It becomes clear, then, that through the grace of the sacrament of marriage, the mutual donation of the spouses in the exercise of sexuality, “is elevated and assumed into the spousal charity of Christ, sustained and enriched by His redeeming power” (FC, 13). 

We still must ask whether conjugal sexuality is an opportunity to grow in God’s grace. Our Holy Father Pope Francis offers us this response in Amoris Laetitia, “Sexual union, lovingly experienced and sanctified by the sacrament, is in turn a path of growth in the life of grace for the couple” (74). He goes on to deepen his response as he addresses the attitude with which the couple should live this union such that they grow in grace. The mere physical act of an intimate encounter does not cause an increase in grace. And so we must ask, what attitude toward sexuality is spiritually rich? 

As a response, any good act must be practiced with God’s favor in order for it to lead towards an increase in God’s grace. In addition, no disordered or sinful act will ever result in an increase in grace. Trying to trick God with birth control, an intrinsically disordered act, with intimate relationships that push all boundaries of morality, or with sexual relations that lack a spirit of donation will never lead a couple to an intimacy with God. 

A spirit of total and sacrificial donation for the other must be present. In the sacrament of marriage, spousal love should seek to echo Christ’s love for his Church, as he loved the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy (cf Eph 5:25). The act of becoming one flesh, as a distinct expression of conjugal spirituality, is intended to be a manifestation of authentic love. It is a generous, unconditional surrender that entails dying to oneself and complete donation to the other. In this light, we come to understand Pope John Paul’s Familiaris Consortio that states, “Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross” (13). 

One last point is the requirement that both spouses sincerely seek both the human and the supernatural good of the other. Purity of intent is key, as well as complete surrender, to the point of saying, “You are more important than me.”

I’ll finish by stating the obvious. Sexuality is tremendously important to matrimonial life, but it is not the central point of a marriage. Both spouses are called to love one another in Christ-like charity. This love is cultivated in each and every sphere of the couple’s daily life. If both members of the couple are not loving in the mundane details of their life together, if they are not aware of each other’s needs in a spirit of servitude,if they cannot exercise self-control over their own egotistical tendencies, if they cannot manifest their love and gratitude to one another on a regular basis, they will not experience the profound depths of becoming one flesh. As Christ says in the Gospel, “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Lk 6:45). John Paul II refers to sexuality as the “language of the body,” as a corporal expression of love. We can, then, speak of the conjugal act as the body speaking of what the heart is full of. The physical union of spouses cannot manifest love, nor can it say anything important about love, if this very love has not been sought and cultivated in every moment of the spouses’ daily lives. 

In order to manifest love in their quotidian lives, couples are gifted with the grace of the sacrament of matrimony. John Paul II affirms this in a precious and profound text with which we’ll close this article: “The Spirit which the Lord pours forth gives a new heart, and renders man and woman capable of loving one another as Christ has loved us. Conjugal love reaches that fullness to which it is interiorly ordained, conjugal charity, which is the proper and specific way in which the spouses participate in and are called to live the very charity of Christ who gave Himself on the Cross” (FC, 13).  

Fr. FelixI belong to the Servant Brothers of the Home of the Mother since its foundation in 1990, and have been a priest for 25 years. I am licensed in Pharmacy from the University of Madrid and hold a doctorate in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Cross University in Rome. I am committed to the lay apostolate and give retreats for youth and adults.

Fr. Félix López is author and editor of the Blog "God’s Plan for the Family".

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