This article takes up a question raised in the opening address given by Byron and Francine Pirola at the "Renaissance of Marriage" conference held in Sydney, Australia in 2016. Quotes are from the transcript of that address originally available from: https://marriageresourcecentre.org/rom-speakers/dr-byron-francine-pirola/. Accessed on 22 June 2017.
A Renaissance of Marriage
At the Renaissance of Marriage conference held in Sydney, Australia in 2016 the hosts, Byron and Francine Pirola, in their opening address, raised a question that is very pertinent to the issues dealt with in "Man+Woman". They pointed out that the Church places great significance in marriage, to the extent that it is considered to be a sacrament. But they go on to say:
The Catholic faith has the most complete, the most realistic and the most beautiful understanding of marital union, of sex, and yet we still largely treat it as an awkward cousin… we acknowledge it when required but don’t have much to say about it, and have as little to do with it as possible.
In addressing the conference they then ask:
So here is the question for this group to reflect on over the next two days… how do we start to reshape the practical relationship we have with this topic within the Church and beyond the Church?
This is not a merely academic question. We all know how powerful the culture has been in shaping people's views on sexual matters. As the Pirolas say:
Our kids think all the Church has to say about sex is ‘no’… but they never hear the ‘why’… the ‘why’ is what they need to hear because it is ‘WOW’. And WOW is worth waiting for.
It is a question that receives little to no attention in formal church settings:
Our couples don’t hear much at all about this topic from the Church even though Pope John Paul II said that every time we make love we are reconfirming our wedding vows.
It's not surprising that the clergy would be a bit reticent in these matters, and would want married couples to take the lead. But married couples too find it difficult to know how or where to address these matters.
Our couples don't hear much about this topic either. When was the last time we had a dinner party and talked about this in a respectful and useful way? It's a taboo subject. Now I'm not suggesting we go out and do this every weekend but seriously, when did we talk about it as a couple? For most of us, ourselves included, it's a taboo subject. It's a very sensitive subject.
We might wonder whether it's very much on the minds of married couples. Perhaps they are all concerned but are not sure what to do about it? However, the Pirolas, speaking from many years experience in marriage ministry say:
You would think that people would care deeply about marriage, about their marriage. But by and large we do not. Ask couples “what have you done for your marriage today” and you mostly get blank looks.
We do not tend to think about marriage in a specific and concerted way, but as a kind of background thing that more or less looks after itself. In such a situation it is not surprising that many couples seem to have little idea about how to go about preserving and enriching their marriages. Even falling into serious difficulties often fails to make couples seek more understanding and help. The Pirolas make what I think is a very instructive point:
The vast majority of marriages that end in divorce are not mired by domestic violence, deep conflict or irreconcilable differences. They just drift into indifference. They don’t blow up through some calamity, they just break-down gradually through a lack of care and maintenance, which makes them vulnerable to any bump in the road.
How does all this relate to "Man+Woman"?
There is a significant literature on marriage, from the perspective of marriage guidance, usually with a focus on problems and solutions. The question of parenthood is also well catered for in the literature. While we might like more couples to avail themselves of what is already available, at least there is a fair amount already available regarding those matters that are either more urgent or less sensitive.
But there is a whole dimension that is less well served, partly owing to its more sensitive nature, and also because of its comparative novelty. It has taken a long time for the social and cultural conditions to emerge to make the 'romantic aspiration' for marriage a mass phenomenon. Now as a culture we have a fairly universal higher expectation for emotional-sexual fulfilment in marriage.
We have set the bar higher, but have not clearly recognised the implications of doing so.
There is as yet no widespread expectation by couples themselves and society at large that this higher expectation requires a higher competence. We are not used to talking in such ways. People like the Pirolas, who have been involved for a long time in marriage education, and especially in a church environment, have already clarified and now take for granted this need for higher competence. They also take it as a given that the sexual dimension of marriage has great theological and spiritual significance.
However, it is still only a small minority who have clearly grasped this need. And yet even among those most involved in these efforts there is still the recognition of something lacking in what we have practically to offer in this area. This is the recognition the Pirolas bring when they ask "… how do we start to reshape the practical relationship we have with this topic within the Church and beyond the Church?"
What then do we need?
I believe the current state of the question points to the need for the development of a new body of thought. Without a more adequate body of thought little progress is likely to happen. Note that when I say a 'new' body of thought I am not suggesting that all this is starting from scratch, or that many valuable elements are not already available. Although valuable beginnings have been made, such as Pope John Paul II's 'theology of the body', there needs to be a great deal more elaboration and a great deal more that is sufficiently practical to guide the efforts of Christian sexual formation.
Most of what is needed is not specifically theological, although more theological work is needed, as well as much work on the development of the spirituality of the sexual dimension of life. My purpose here then is to sketch an outline of what I believe to be the developments required in such a body of thought.
How do we talk about it?
When sexual matters are raised in a Catholic setting everyone simply assumes it will be about morality. Addressing the moral issues is indeed a vital and necessary part of Christian formation for sexuality. But it is unfortunate that the subject of sexuality has come to be seen from such a restricted perspective. We might become expert in all the dangers and pitfalls, but what would success look like? What is the good that constitutes the sexual dimension of life?
At this point it is usually pointed out that the main good to come from sex is children. I think that is true, but as the popes of modern times have recognised, sex is also an experience of the spouses, one that has great potential for fostering love. It should by no means be an afterthought.
Sexuality raises the question of the complementarity of man and woman. Yet when the topic of complementarity is raised the focus nearly always shifts to the question of fatherhood and motherhood. And when the spirituality of complementarity is raised attention shifts to spiritual fatherhood and motherhood.
Beyond the Sidestep
Now all these perspectives are important, but an imbalance has arisen. At every step we sidestep, we default to the easier or less sensitive topics. So when sex is raised we speak of the dangers rather than the good itself. Then we speak of procreation rather than the affective dimension. Then we speak of parenthood rather than 'loverhood'.
When the question of the spirituality of marriage is raised almost immediately the notion of sacrifice is introduced. Would any married person disagree that a great deal of sacrifice is needed in marriage? Hardly. This is usually contrasted with the emotional dimension. But emotion is not a mere aggregate of sensations and impulses. It has its own intrinsic order, and an understanding of emotional complementarity is needed to reveal this adequately.
So even while saying a great deal about marriage – all of it true – we can end up with a lop-sided account. Not only that, the underdeveloped part is crucial to the success of the other parts. It is easier to be good if immersed in joyful experiences. It is easier to be a parent, and a spiritual parent, if you have a loving and supportive spouse. It is easier to be a man if you are loved by a good woman, and it is easier to be a woman if you are loved by a good man.
What is the goodness of the emotional dimension of sexuality?
All this makes it harder to articulate clearly what the goodness of sexuality is in its experiential dimension as bodily and emotional. We circle around the topic but find it hard to clarify due to the sensitivities involved, and most importantly, because we are at a stage of history where we simply haven't yet developed an adequate body of thought about it, and the communal and cultural practices to support and foster it.
What about when we raise the good of sexuality from a theological perspective? Although this has not been all that common, at least the principles have been taught. However, theological treatments have mostly been very compact. There can be a lot of truth condensed in a theological account but it is hard to draw out the practical implications.
If you start talking about the 'spirituality of sexuality' people are likely to look blankly and wonder what on earth that could mean.
But even if you did see that there must be some connection between divine love and sexual love, what can you do with that? How can you even think about it? What would the contents of such reflections be? If marriage educators were trying to draw up a program of formation in the spirituality of sexuality what would be the topics? How would it be taught?
It is not only the theological that tends to be very 'compact'. So is the physical experience of sex. From a Christian perspective the sexual act is held to be of great significance. As mentioned earlier, it is a continual renewal of one's wedding vows. So it potentially contains, in 'condensed' form, all the significance of marriage itself. But does it feel like that? How often? To what extent?
There is supposed to be a great deal of significance in it, but it needs to be drawn out. But how? I don't think anyone really expects couples to start talking with others about the details of the physical aspect of their sex lives. But in what suitable ways can the sexual character of the marriage relationship become the subject of conversation?
A Not Unreasonable Reticence
Even couples in private are usually quite reticent on this score. Nor do I think that is unreasonable. The benefits that might be gained by such conversations are much more likely to eventuate in the absence of any undue pressure. To the extent that the reticence of spouses to talk about their sex lives is a problem I think it would be better solved more indirectly, by a gradual, mutual process of growth in which they come to see what benefit it might be.
This reticence has two quite different causes. One comes from the difficulty of intimacy and the sensitivities involved, leading to a lack of insight or perhaps courage in persisting with this kind of engagement. But the other I would see as positive – the indirectness that arises because of the delicacy required. Too much directness can jar on the sensibilities and could lead to a certain prosaic, matter of fact approach and some loss of interest.
The first cause comes from the need for intentional vulnerability. The second cause comes from the need for each spouse to preserve the dignity of his or her person. This requires a balance of engaging and distancing. This distancing is not primarily a negative, but is needed in order to preserve the delicate and special quality of uplift in sexual intimacy. More will be said on this elsewhere.
The sensitive nature of sex means there is quite a gap between our present reality and our aspirations. If the only solution you have is to suggest that you will just have to cross that gap in a single, giant leap it's never going to happen. We have to work out what the steps would be. The proposed journey is a long one and the only realistic solution is one of many small steps.
So far I have been speaking in terms of marriage, but once you begin trying to elaborate these matters you are necessarily drawn into the communal-cultural dimension. Emotional complementarity and the attraction between the sexes do not only pattern interpersonal relations, they also pattern communal-cultural relations.
An Important Absence
The question the Pirolas raise points to an important absence of some kind. But what kind? Something is underdeveloped that should become more developed. But what is it?
In some way it will involve being able to talk about matters that we currently struggle to find ways to talk about. So in a setting such as, for example, a gathering of couples for a dinner party, what appropriate ways could there be for discussion of sexual matters?
I think the first difficulty arises because when people hear the word 'sex' they immediately assume it is about the act of sexual intercourse. Indeed they are likely to be puzzled as to why someone thinks they should talk more about it. So what is the important absence that still remains to be filled?
To clarify that question we need to step back a bit. The sexual dimension of life cannot be reduced to a physical act. Indeed, this 'physical act' is not a mere physical act but is already a fully human act in which is condensed a great deal of significance.
At least, it is in principle. But in order for the deeper reality of this embodied act to become apparent its highly 'compact' significance needs to be drawn out.
It is true that, "The Catholic faith has the most complete, the most realistic and the most beautiful understanding of the marital union, of sex …" but how is this significance to be drawn out, even for the couples themselves?
Clearly we need to be able to talk about it. So what would the contents of such conversations be?
At a first step back from the physical reality of sex is the emotional reality. Our emotions allow us to 'process' our experiences in a fairly immediate, implicit and holistic way. Emotion enables us to feel the significance of things that we cannot put into words. Indeed emotion is a big part of what constitutes the experience itself.
Now I'm sure everyone would prefer sexual intimacy to be an emotionally satisfying experience, not just a release of physical tension, or a series of pleasurable sensations. So the emotional dimension of sex becomes a potential topic of conversation, not as idle chatter, but in hopes of learning something that might help a couple to enjoy the experience more fully.
And much of what affects the sexual experience emotionally occurs in ways a step removed from the occasions of the sexual encounter itself. It involves the relationship as a whole, and how a certain kind of emotional resonance between a couple can foster the sexual dimension of their appreciation for each other.
Importantly, this opens a wide field, most of which is general enough that people could talk fruitfully about it without it seeming to be talking directly about 'sex'.
However, in order to learn from the emotional dimension we need new understanding. So we take a further step back to a more mental engagement with the topic.
In order for this to be helpful we need access to insights we have not yet had ourselves, different ways of seeing things, new perspectives and suggestions. So the input of others is indispensable. And these insights in turn need to connect back to the couple's relationship by way of ideas that can be put into practice.
As we continue to seek understanding of the sexual we also see that these are not matters only affecting individuals and couples. The collective experiences and understandings shape a shared culture that in some way celebrates the sexual dimension of life, for good or ill.
The culture then becomes a resource for the further development of understanding. And it is, potentially, a means by which new experiences can help in the integration of the experiential dimension of sexuality.
An obvious example is dance. There are all sorts of ways that dance can be a celebration and a learning experience that feeds back into an enriched experience of emotional and sexual intimacy. Similarly, movies, music, theatre and poetry can provide further enrichment.
If we continue our engagement with the emotional and intellectual, and with art and culture, we also open up reflection on theological and spiritual questions.
The development of spirituality depends on the fuller and broader human context. By learning more about the different dimensions of sexual meaning and its expression we open up the space in which a 'spirituality of sexuality' can start to become more real.
It is fairly clear that for most people this realm of spirituality is still much too 'compact'. It is a realm that needs to be drawn out and elaborated in understandable and helpful ways. And it's not that easy to do. So far, as a Church, we are still mostly incapable of providing the sort of assistance that people need in this area.
From all this, it should be apparent that there is, potentially, significant scope for ways in which couples could talk about the sexual dimension of life. Yet we need to strike the right balance so as not to deter people due to the sensitivities involved.
The desired balance could be described as suitably indirect but engaging something real.
There is ample scope for a lighter or more serious kind of engagement, and all shades in between. It can be a shifting balance to suit different people, situations and needs.
But you might have noticed I have used the word 'potentially' a lot.
Let us return to the question with which we began, the question posed by the Pirolas to the Renaissance of Marriage conference: "… how do we start to reshape the practical relationship we have with this topic within the Church and beyond the Church?"
I think we need two things.
Firstly, we need a new body of thought that more thoroughly and helpfully elaborates the ways in which the physical, emotional, intellectual, cultural, theological and spiritual dimensions of sexuality can be developed and integrated.
Secondly, we need a new flourishing of cultural forms in which to express and embody the depth and attractiveness of such a vision and understanding of sexuality.
The first can provide enriched means for formation.
The second can provide enriched means for celebration.
We need to embark on a process shaped by the fruitful interaction between celebration and formation. Each expands and deepens the other.
If we think only in terms of formation we are apt to attract only small numbers, and fail to make use of the best asset we have going for us – the beauty of sexuality and marriage when formed by goodness.
If we think only in terms of celebration we will tend to run out of ideas and become superficial. But a culture is like a relationship. It needs an openness to continual deepening, which in turn becomes a source of continual freshness and creativity.
You might be thinking – all that sounds marvellous, but how do we do that? Insofar as I can contribute something to this it will be through this magazine. Over time this will include many ideas about practical implementation. I hope it will provide a resource for those seeking to act in their local communities to begin fostering a renaissance of marriage, and indeed a beautiful culture of relations between men and women.
See also "Competence for Marriage".