In his latest document, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis writes extensively about many aspects of marriage and family life. In amongst a lengthy and rich document is a section that is dedicated to affirming the sexual relationship of the married couple as good and holy.
While this is not all that radical – after all, Saint John Paul II wrote extensively about the sacredness of marital love making – Francis brings a fresh voice and accessible language to this critical insight. In paragraph 150 he writes, “God himself created sexuality, which is a marvellous gift to his creatures. …Sexual desire is not something to be looked down upon, and “and there can be no attempt whatsoever to call into question its necessity”.
So the lovemaking of a couple is not only good, it is necessary for married couples. And before people start howling about old cultural notions of wives being obliged to ‘service’ their husbands in antiquated notions of marital duty, just listen to what he says about erotic desire. …“In no way, then, can we consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family. Rather, it must be seen as gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses.” (n 153)
In other words, sex is good not only because it is the means of procreation, but also because it bonds husband and wife through their erotic desire and shared pleasure.
This has a message for all of us in the Church.
For those of us who swim in a theological sea, it’s good to be reminded of these earthy truths. It can be too easy for us to get caught up in lofty ideals that lose sight of carnal reality of the couples’ sacrament and we must guard against the over-spiritualisation of the sexual exchange, which can tend to view deep emotion and passion as dangerous or even antithetical to the pursuit of holiness.
Likewise, for those of us who have fallen victim of the reductionist cultural view that sex is just a physical act devoid of meaning, it is equally important to be reminded of its spiritual significance. Yes, our lovemaking is also a very human, very fleshy encounter, but as every married couple knows from lived experience, it is also deeply spiritual where we encounter something beyond the physical.
In amongst a long and rich document Francis takes a moment to remind couples that our lovemaking is good precisely because of its passion and urgency which by its very nature draws us in wonder and gratitude towards the origin of our love – the divine. Francis puts it like this: “A healthy sexual desire, albeit closely joined to a pursuit of pleasure, always involves a sense of wonder, and for that very reason can humanize the impulses”. (n151) Said differently, the healthy and passionate sexual expression of husband and wife points them towards God, the author of love and the creator of our sexuality.
And as for passion? Francis says “…a love lacking either in pleasure or passion is insufficient to symbolise the union of the human heart with God” (n142) referencing how the mystics and saints often described their ecstasy in union with God in the language of a love-struck lover.
The Pope says sex is truly “a marvellous gift”. For we who live in the secular culture where the only messages about the Catholic Church are mediated in mainly negative soundbites via the mass media, this is indeed a good news story!