The conjugal act. I wince when I hear that phrase or see it in print. It is a wooden expression that trumpets discomfort with sexual expression, even distaste. A standard textbook phrase, it reduces marital sexuality to genital activity and an exchange of body fluids. The shrinkage is subtle but real.
Last month, Chiesa broadcast an encomium to Neocatechumenal families. It regretted their omission from vocal participation in the Synod because “they are the most engaged in putting the model of Catholic marriage into practice.” It printed an ostensibly confidential extract of a catechesis developed for internal use by Fr. Mario Pezzi, the Neocatechumenal Way’s high priest.
His attention to the centrality of the family is welcome. Less welcome is the language Fr. Pezzi uses in support of that centrality.
Aristide Maillol. Desire (1906-08). ©Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
Fr. Perri quotes José Noriega, of the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Study on Marriage and the Family, on the superiority of The Way. Noriega praises The Way for its “rediscovery of the holiness of the conjugal act.”
This is buttressed by co-founder Kiko Argüello’s assertion: “Responsible parenthood means accepting not to limit the number of children, it means accepting the plan of God.” In other words, Argüello rejects the contraceptive intention of what the Church refers to as natural family planning.
Set aside the unscriptural assumption that marriage is ordained to produce as many children as a woman can bear. The magisterium has never determined the number of children a couple should have. Neither has it invoked any commandment that couples have as many as physically possible.
Stay, for now, with rediscovery of the holiness of the conjugal act. The phrase repels in its priggishness and its implications. The rediscovery celebrated here skirts the premises of ancient fertility cults which sacralized sex and promoted fecundity. Seeking sanctity through sex takes us out of the gospels and drops us—at an acceptably Christianized angle—into The Golden Bough.
The mutuality of marriage occurs in countless ways: across a dinner table, in the kitchen, on the phone. It encircles everything from holding a job to holding one’s tongue. Conjugal self-giving embraces a universe of kindnesses, cautions, strains, and accommodations that make up a shared life. True conjugal acts are too many and various to list. Marital grace dwells in the totality of a life lived in tandem. For some, it abides in simply holding things together.
Cagnaccio di San Pietro. Onion Tears (1928). Camera di Lavoro, Trieste, Italy.
Holiness inhabits the individual, the person who acts. The schoolbook “conjugal act” is one of others that we, the embodied, perform. It is neither more nor less holy than the act of cognition, digestion, or any other bodily activity. Nor is it the only drive subject to the will. The vital processes of alimentation and elimination are each conducted within a framework of learned control.
Noriega’s wording, too easily mistaken as pious, is essentially pornographic. Like pornography, it falsifies sex. It strains to make sex ethereal, an attribute visible mainly from the planetary distance of the Vatican. Angelized sex is pornography’s mirror image.
Every animal species engages in coitus. Only human beings engage in lovemaking. We are the only ones who can bring to sex tenderness, intelligence, consideration, delicacy, playfulness, even humor. (“Happy combat” Michael Novak once called it.) Lovemaking is an activity of the whole person. But Fr. Pezzi will have none of that:
There is no love without the cross. So “making love,” as young people say, is pure falsehood. This is not a matter of love but of concupiscence, of attraction, etc.
These are the words of an executioner, accusatory and miserly. They are also askance of the mark. There is no life without the Cross.
Married or single, loved or unloved, we all live in the shadow of the Cross. The solitude of it is acute, inescapable. Aversion to the solace of sexual attraction denies the generosity of divine intent. Derision for the deep longing inherent in that phrase making love adds nothing to the Church’s credibility in sexual matters.
Jules Adler. Rough Weather on Open Seas: Sailors of Etaples (1913). ©RMN-Grand Palais, Paris.
With non-conjugal sex fast becoming the norm, the vocabulary of moral theologians and homilists could benefit from a taffy-pull. Evangelization originates in compassion for the world, not disdain for it. Language that suggests sexual desire is an obstacle to self-giving love convinces only stranglers who equate spousal sanctity with the reductionist duality of abstention or pregnancy.
The sexual revolution succeeded. Young people are unmoored and adrift in a permissive wilderness. If the Church is to lead them toward a humane understanding of the gift of sex, her spokesmen must first respect it for its intrinsic goodness, not solely for a procreative function shared with every species on the planet. Their counsel has to acknowledge sexual desire for the sweetness that it is—a fructifying promise—before it can plausibly direct it toward covenanted love.
I sorrow for any couple condemned to performing conjugal acts.