04. "Totality" in the Conjugal Self-gift

            We have taken a first major step in specifying the nature and content of the conjugal gift of self which c. 1057, 2 presents as the object of matrimonial consent. In donating - in a mutual participatory way - one's procreativity, one shares with another a relationship already distinguished by a most singular intimacy. Nothing, as we have seen, can so signify the desire for union as that "sharing" of the character and potential of sexuality which is expressed in the conjugal act. As we read in Familiaris Consortio, "Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another... is by no means something purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such" (FC, no. 11.)

            In examining in the first place the donative sense of the conjugal act, what we have done in effect is to reinterpret the "bonum prolis" (understood as "openness to life" - a characteristic or property of marriage - and not necessarily as actual procreation.) in a personalist key. Doing so has shown us how modern insights, properly analyzed, do not break with tradition but rather link into it and enrich it. We could now reflect briefly on the "bonum fidei" and the "bonum sacramenti", so as to underline how these other traditional "bona" are also essentially constitutive elements of the conjugal gift of self.

For all time; with one person

            Sexual intercourse loses its distinctive nature as a unifying love-act, when it is deprived of its orientation to life. Then the sexual relationship between two persons becomes a trivial though perhaps exciting thing. Such a relationship is not marriage. Nevertheless, it is as frequent as it is unfulfilling in today's society, where the prevailing view of sexuality is of a casual activity in which people can engage without affecting their persons - and their interpersonal relationship - in more than a surface and inconsequential way. Many people today choose a sexual partner as they might choose a friend: with no special obligations that would exclude a third party from a contemporary relationship of the same kind, or would necessarily bind the two persons together over any unlimited period of time. Such informal - temporary or trial - relationships impede personal fulfilment and tend to leave individuals isolated in self-centred insecurity [1].

            The sexual self-gift that the spouses make to one another cannot be reduced to mere procreativity. If the gift of sexuality is to be truly human and conjugal, it must be characterized by two further elements or properties: indissolubility and uniqueness.

            What is implied in the matrimonial "sese tradere" is the gift of the fullness of spousal sexuality. Now this gift cannot be full unless, besides being open to life, it is exclusive and permanent. It is in the light of the nature of sexuality, as it was created by God, that we can better grasp this truth.

            God created man in a duality: male and female. The differences between the sexes speak of a divine plan: a complementarity between man and woman that prompts them to a reciprocal self-gift, with a mutual self-gift that is expressed in a totally specific and unique way in the generative act. Precisely because of its orientation to the union of the "procreative elements" - the masculine and the feminine - it is capable of expressing the uniqueness of the conjugal relationship; thus meriting to be termed "the conjugal act".

            However, there is no real donation of self unless the gift is permanent. As Pope John Paul II said to the Roman Rota in 1982: "If a gift is to be total, it must be made without any reservation or way out" (AAS 74 (1982), 451.). A gift of self for a time - for a day or for five years - is not a real gift of self; it is at most in the nature of a loan. In a loan, one holds on to one's right to something; one wants to be able to claim it back. One does not really give it. One can only speak of a true gift when this is irretrievable; in other words, when there is a donation that cannot, with any legal basis, be reclaimed. The person who gives loses all right of ownership. While the person who reserves some right over a thing, with the intention of being able to claim back the object of his consent, does not in fact consent to a true gift.

            In the conjugal donation, one either gives oneself permanently, or one does not give one's self at all. Therefore whoever consents to marriage necessarily gives irrevocable consent. "The intimate partnership of life and love which constitutes the married state. . . is rooted in the contract of its partners, that is, in their irrevocable personal consent" (GS 48). To offer consent that can be revoked or retracted is not to consent to marriage. As St. Thomas says, "non enim consensus ad tempus matrimonium facit" (Suppl., q. 49, art 3, ad 4.).

            This anthropological analysis which we are making - with juridic intent - suggests that the sexual-conjugal instinct urges man and woman to a total self-commitment and donation, which responds precisely to the intimate aspirations of human nature. So we can understand the logic of the permanence or indissolubility of marriage, which corresponds to the aspirations of human love itself: "I love you for ever; I'll love you always". To want a lasting conjugal union is a profoundly natural thing. Indissolubility therefore does not constitute just an obligation; it attracts, because it represents a value, a good, for those who have retained a normal sense of life (cfr. decis. coram Burke of April 19, 1988: R.R.Dec., vol. 80, pp. 251-256.).

            "Only from such a viewpoint can one find intrinsic justification - in keeping with personal dignity - for the perpetuity of the bond (and on the positive juridic level for the indissolubility deriving from it); otherwise, the perpetual bond would appear as an imposition of an extrinsic law, justifiable for as long as the law is in force, or (if it is a question of a divine law) for as long as one believes in it" (Lo Castro, Gaetano: Tre Studi sul matrimonio, Giuffrè, Milano, 1992, p. 34.).

            Familiaris Consortio also says that sexuality "is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and a woman commit themselves totally to one another until death. The total physical self-giving would be a lie if it were not the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving, in which the whole person, including the temporal dimension, is present: if the person were to withhold something or reserve the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future, by this very fact he or she would not be giving totally"; and later it describes indissolubility as "being rooted in the personal and total self-giving of the couple" (no. 20).

            There is in fact no middle term between permanent and transient. There is no middle choice between the lasting and unbreakable relationship of marriage, and what is no more than a temporary sexual liaison: between a spouse, to whom one gives oneself for life, and a sexual partner, changeable at will. If the norm for the human sexual partnership is that it can be not only entered upon but also broken as one or other partner wishes, then "marriage" has no particular meaning; or, rather, means nothing of any importance. It gives a legal form to transient alliances, but there is no reason - beyond social convention - why people should respect it, or why they should not prefer to remain in a non-formalised relationship.

            Man has always been spurred toward the conjugal commitment, at the same time as, in his fallen and diffident nature, he fears it; perhaps seldom more so than today. In the anguish of this existential situation - fear of commitment, on the one hand; fear of remaining alone, on the other - there is no way of predicting how each person will choose. Nevertheless the desire for a conjugal commitment corresponds to a deeper level of human need.

Undivided conjugality

            Conjugal fidelity or exclusiveness derives from the same logic, and corresponds equally to the nature of human love. One's "self" is indivisible and unrepeatable; one therefore cannot give it to several persons at the same time; one can only give it to one. "I give you my self" is the affirmation that characterizes conjugality. But if one spouse intends to give the same gift of his conjugal self also to other persons - if he proposes to divide his conjugality (to divide the "undivisable"...) - , then it is at the most a part of his conjugal self that he gives to each one. In other words, whoever gives his sexuality to different persons contemporaneously, gives it dividedly to each one, and does not give it wholly to any.

            D. von Hildebrand notes: "Conjugal love itself, and not just true matrimony, excludes every type of polygamy. It is of the essence of conjugal love to be directed to one object alone" (Il Matrimonio, Brescia 1931, p. 41.). As the same author remarks, while there is nothing wrong with loving several friends with the love of friendship, it would be repugnant to wish to love several women with conjugal love.

            The value - that is, the specific goodness - of the "bonum fidei" consists in the fact that each of the parties to marriage is the only spouse of the other. As we know, valid matrimonial consent requires the intention of binding oneself precisely in such an exclusive relationship. If that intention is excluded, the consent in invalid: a principle that no one doubts. More difficult and controverted is the question whether consent is valid when one party has the positive intention of violating faithfulness, at least in certain situations. To my mind, the "bonum fidei" is excluded only if the intention of the person in such a case is to reserve the right to have a conjugal relationship with a third person; that is, if he or she has the intention of conferring conjugal rights on another. The simple intention of having or maintaining a sexual relation with another, despite its evident immorality, does not necessarily prove the exclusion, in law, of the one-spouse-only aspect that constitutes the essence of the "bonum fidei" (cfr. Sentence, Feb. 8, 1990, coram Burke, in Monitor Ecclesiasticus, vol. CXV (1990-IV), pp. 502-520; cfr. The Jurist 51 (1991), 138-154.).

            Therefore, if one excludes unity or indissolubility, one does not effect the spousal gift of self. My conjugal "self" does not become yours: at the most it becomes partially or temporally yours. The conjugal "traditio suiipsius", bono fidei vel bono sacramenti excluso, is not possible.

            It is worth emphasizing once again that, in speaking of the properties of procreativity, exclusiveness, or perpetuity, we are speaking of values of marriage, of elements that make it attractive to human nature and understanding. It will be remembered that St. Augustine, in his defence of marriage against the pessimist views of the Manicheans, described its essential properties as "bona": as "values", as good things. Since these "bona" are good things, they are desirable; and it is natural to want them. It is natural, because it corresponds to the nature of human love. The exclusion of one of these matrimonial values shows an unnatural, even a pathological approach to marriage, in deep and striking contrast with the native understanding man has of the conjugal union. Exclusion is surprising, precisely because it is not natural. That is why the Church, while accepting the possibility that exclusion can indeed occur, always requires that it be adequately proved, before marriage can be declared invalid on grounds of simulation.

The donation of sexuality

            Our analysis of what is involved in the "sese tradere/acceptare" - hallowed by the Council - leads to the conclusion that what the parties consent to is the (permanent and exclusive) exchange not of self but of personal and conjugal complementary sexuality ("in the teachings of the Council, the personal totality of what is reciprocally given cannot be understood except as referring to sexuality": P.A. Bonnet: L'Essenza del Matrimonio Canonico, Cedam, 1976, p. 157): i.e. of sexuality in that respect in which it is most personal to each one, and in which it conjugally complements the sexuality of the other.

            "What matrimonial consent essentially involves is the human nature of a man and a woman taken not absolutely but in the relativeness of their sexuality" (Bonnet: op. cit., p. 180.). In the words of another writer: "A man and a woman become husband and wife when, by means of a particular type of covenant-commitment, they really donate to one another all of their masculinity and all of their femininity, in such a way that they come to form a unity - becoming one thing - in the conjugable aspects of their persons" (Viladrich, P. J.: "L'Habitat Primario della Persona in una Società Umanizzata", Anthropotes, 1988, IV, n. 1, p. 178.).

            The right that each spouse acquires is not, and cannot be, a right over every aspect of the other's person or life. Some of these are in fact absolutely inalienable, such as personal dignity, freedom, responsibility, etc. (cfr. U. Navarrete: "Structura iuridica matrimonii secundum Concilium Vaticanum II", Periodica 57 (1968), pp. 135-137. Independently of the degree of mutual understanding, compenetration and moral unity which the spouses may achieve, consent clearly does not confer any juridic right over these personal aspects. Each spouse, along with the obligations inherent in the conjugal commitment, retains the inalienable duty to work out his or her own salvation. The fulfilment of this duty can and ought to be powerfully helped by marriage, but cannot be relinquished within it.

            Consent involves the conjugable dimensions of a person; through it, what is a matter of natural inclination is converted into something due. The rights deriving from the marriage covenant, are rights over the conjugal aspects or attributes of the person; i.e. over his or her conjugal and complementary sexuality. Thus St. Thomas teaches that the object of the wife's matrimonial consent is not so much her husband, as conjugal union with her husband; and similarly the husband's consent is to conjugal union with his wife ("non est directe consensus in virum, sed in coniunctionem ad virum, ex parte uxoris: et similiter, ex parte viri, consensus in coniunctionem ad uxorem": Suppl., q. 45, art. 1.).

            Consent, in other words, has as object the person, in his or her conjugable aspect: concretely in his or her sexuality, in that natural inclination which can be given the character of something owed in justice, through the marital covenant.

            Marriage is necessarily characterized by a sexual commitment. The rights and duties created (accepted and conferred) by matrimonial consent must be exclusive and perpetual. But, we repeat, they must above all be sexual; that is, they must correspond to the procreative or co-creative character of sexual complementarity from which, as we have seen, derives the capacity of sexual intercourse to express the uniqueness of the conjugal relationship and donation. Conjugal sexuality, which is of course not limited to the physical copula (Many acts of course express the marital relationship. But, as we have seen, this relationship is so uniquely expressed by sexual intercourse between the spouses that the conjugal copula is properly called the marital act.), is so uniquely expressed by it that the violation of the procreative nature and orientation of the copula radically de-sexualizes, i.e. de-naturalizes, conjugality. That is why the first and most fundamental right given by marital consent is the right to true sexual intercourse, in the integrity of its nature, which includes its natural consequences.

            Our analysis of the sexual commitment or donation which fundamentally characterizes the conjugal covenant, could be summed up in the following way:

            a) A person may intend to share his sexuality with several persons and, in doing so, to enter into a permanent relationship with them characterised by sexual rights and obligations (as in polygamy). In such a case there is a sexual donation and union, though not in a way that amounts to Christian marriage. The sexual donation he makes is real but defective, i.e. he is not prepared to make and limit it to just one person. He rejects uniqueness or exclusivity (The rights exchanged might be termed "quasi-conjugal"; they are not conjugal.).

            b) He can also intend to grant true and exclusive sexual rights to another, but to do so only for a time or subject to voluntary dissolution. In this case too he in some way gives his sexuality (or rather, as we have said, he lends it) and exchanges sexual rights and obligations, though again he does not do so in a way that amounts to true marriage. Permanence is excluded.

            c) But if what he rejects or excludes is precisely the sharing of procreativity, then he is not giving his sexuality at all, nor is he giving any right to sexuality. In the first two cases, there is a true - though limited - sexual union. In the third case, there is no true sexual union or sexual donation, and therefore there is not even any true human gift of one's own sexuality (One sees that contraception destroys conjugality in a much more radical way than the exclusion of unity or permanence. It is precisely in view of the importance of the "intentio prolis" that S. Thomas says the "good" of offspring is "essentialissimum" among the "bona" of marriage: Suppl. q. 49, art. 3.).

            The sexual complementarity between man and woman can characterize their relationships in differing ways. But there is only one such relationship in which sexual distinctiveness is absolutely necessary. It is not really essential for friendship or for love or for mutual help; all of these can also be provided by persons of the same sex. That is why in the last analysis it is procreativity which explains, specifies and gives such uniqueness to the sexual relationship, that it is revealed as a constitutive element of conjugality itself.

            As we have shown earlier, an act of contraceptive intercourse is neither truly sexual nor distinctively conjugal; it is not and cannot be the conjugal act. By it the spouses do not "know" one another, and do not become "one" (This applies a fortiori to a relationship between homosexuals. The idea of a homosexual "marriage" makes no sense. Homosexual "intercourse" is even more of a denial of the meaning of sexuality than contraception. The physical act expresses and fulfills no conjugal urge or aspiration, and is marked in fact by a total incapacity to signify or achieve a self-gift which could be considered matrimonial. It involves a (mis-) use of the corporal faculties that contradicts the essential nuptial meaning of the body.).

            Only an act of true sexual intercourse - i.e. one which is not maimed in its nature - makes the spouses one flesh. It is this natural truth which underlies the juridical principle formulated in canon 1061 that only such an act of true intercourse - i.e. one that is "per se aptum ad prolis generationem" and performed "humano modo" - consummates marriage (Is marriage consummated by a natural act "per se aptus", but accompanied by a permanent intention of aborting, or of frustrating the effects of intercourse in some other way? Of course it is not. The question of consummation does not arise because the marriage would be invalid "ob exclusum bonum prolis". One cannot speak of consummating an invalid marriage.). The jurisprudential insistence that marriage confers a "ius ad actos per se aptos ad prolis generationem" gives expression to no merely physical or biological claim but to a truly personalist right: i.e. the right to become "one". Canon 1081 of the 1917 Code therefore seems also to have expressed a personalist truth about marriage consent. It did not however express it very aptly. A right "in corpus" - over the partner's body - does sound "physicalist" and lacking in human quality; whereas a right over personal sexuality - also in its necessary procreative dimension - expresses a right over the specific means by which man and woman fulfil their conjugal desire to join themselves in a unique marital union of their persons.

            The suggestion is at times made that the union between the spouses is one of spirit rather than of body. In fact both realities should be involved in the conjugal union. Above all, however, one should not exaggerate the contrast between the "una caro" and the "unus spiritus". Both expressions are metaphorical, since a real union - of bodies or of spirits - is not effected. A union of sexual complementarities, however, can be achieved (a union which is physically and really incarnated in the child.). It should also be obvious that while sexuality is a matter of the spirit no less than of the body, the gift and union of corporal sexuality involves a greater "commitment" than a desire for union that remains on a purely spiritual level, without "taking flesh".


[1] Psychiatric studies show that the choice to live together, instead of marrying, easily induces deep-rooted anxiety and insecurity: cfr. Nadelson-Notman: "To Marry or Not to Marry: a Choice": American Journal of Psychiatry, 138 (1981), p. 1354.