D) The Twentieth Century: Unrealistic Optimism (?) And Pessimistic (?) Realism

D) The Twentieth Century: Unrealistic Optimism (?) And Pessimistic (?) Realism
With the twentieth century, signs appeared of a desire to renew theological and ascetical reflection on marriage. Early "personalist" writers such as Herbert Doms and Bernard Krempel sought to underline the human value of intercourse as an expression of conjugal love, though on the basis of a very inadequate level of anthropological analysis. Doms saw the essence of marriage in the physical union of the spouses, and its end as their fulfillment and realization as persons. He denied that, in order to be unitive, married intercourse must retain its intrinsic orientation to offspring, maintaining that "the conjugal act is full of meaning and carries its own justification in itself, independently of its orientation towards offspring."[63] Krempel ignored offspring as an end of marriage; its end is the "life-union" of man and woman, the child being simply the expression of this union.[64]
This is an example of personalism working at a very superficial level. Perhaps it was in reaction that Pius XI's encyclical Casti connubii (1930), while giving new prominence to the importance of love in marriage, insisted that "love" is secondary to the main end of procreation. In line with the accepted tradition, the encyclical teaches that the satisfying of concupiscence is also an end which the spouses may seek, but does not broach the issue of the relationship between concupiscence itself and marital love. In matrimony, it says, "there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the satisfying [sedatio] of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as the due ordination of intercourse to the primary end is respected."[65]
As the twentieth century progressed, it ushered in a new (and perhaps not sufficiently qualified) emphasis on the dignity of the physical sexual relationship in marriage. This no doubt left many moralists not too happy with the earlier opinion that there is venial sin in having conjugal intercourse just for pleasure. Rather than seeking a possible solution of the matter through a deeper analysis of the relationship between love and the sexual urge, the tendency was to side-step the issue. So we read in the last pre-Vatican II edition of a widely used manual: "[I]n practice there is no need to worry spouses if they exercise the conjugal act in an ordinary and upright way without actually thinking of a particular end. The reason is that the conjugal act performed in a natural way fosters marital love and this love favors the good of offspring - in view of which, as all the authors teach, conjugal intercourse is licit".[66] This begs the question of whether intercourse, in order to be a truly natural expression of marital love, needs to be purified as far as possible from the concupiscence that accompanies it.
By contrast, the late-twentieth-century magisterium offers startlingly new perspectives on this whole issue. Pope John Paul II opened his pontificate with a detailed and surprising weekly catechesis, now commonly known as the "Theology of the Body."[67] This extended from September 1979 to November 1984. It offered an extraordinarily profound view of the purpose and dignity of human sexuality and the conjugal union. It also dwelt on the presence and dangers of lust within marriage.
In July 1982, treating of both virginal celibacy and marriage as "gifts of God," John Paul II took up those difficult passages in St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians: "it is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of the danger of incontinence, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband"; and "to unmarried persons and to widows I say, It is good for them to remain as I am. But if they cannot live in continence, let them marry. It is better to marry than to burn."[68] The pope posed the question: "Does the Apostle in First Corinthians perhaps look upon marriage exclusively from the viewpoint of a remedy for concupiscence, as used to be said in traditional theological language? The statements mentioned ... would seem to verify this. However, right next to the statements quoted, we read a passage in the seventh chapter of First Corinthians that leads us to see differently Paul's teaching as a whole: "I wish that all were as I myself am, [he repeats his favorite argument for abstaining from marriage] - but each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind, and one of another" (1 Cor 7:7). Therefore even those who choose marriage and live in it receive a gift from God, his own gift, that is, the grace proper to this choice, to this way of living, to this state. The gift received by persons who live in marriage is different from the one received by persons who live in virginity and choose continence for the sake of the kingdom of God. All the same, it is a true gift from God, one's own gift, intended for concrete persons. It is specific, that is, suited to their vocation in life. We can therefore say that while the Apostle, in his characterization of marriage on the human side ... strongly emphasizes the reason concerning concupiscence of the flesh, at the same time, with no less strength of conviction, he stresses also its sacramental and charismatic character. With the same clarity with which he sees man's situation in relation to concupiscence of the flesh, he sees also the action of grace in every person - in one who lives in marriage no less than in one who willingly chooses continence" (Theology of the Body, 295).
The least that can be said from a reading of this passage is that John Paul II, while not explicitly rejecting the concept of remedium concupiscentiae, suggests that the traditional teaching on the matter has remained one-sided precisely because of a failure to weigh the sacramental implications of marriage.
Some months later in 1982, the pope's catechesis turned more directly to the sacramentality of marriage. Once again he showed a clear reserve regarding the concept of marriage as a remedy for concupiscence, and insisted rather that the sacramental grace of marriage enables the spouses to dominate concupiscence and purify it of its dominant self-seeking.
"These statements of St. Paul [quoted above] have given rise to the opinion that marriage constitutes a specific remedy for concupiscence. However, as we have already observed, St. Paul teaches explicitly that marriage has a corresponding special "gift," and that in the mystery of redemption marriage is given to a man and a woman as a grace".
Within this mystery of redemption, as the pope sees it, the sacramental graces of marriage, sustaining conjugal chastity, have a special effect in achieving the redemption of the body through the overcoming of concupiscence.
"As a sacrament of the Church, marriage ... [is] a word of the Spirit which exhorts man and woman to model their whole life together by drawing power from the mystery of the "redemption of the body." In this way they are called to chastity as to a state of life "according to the Spirit" which is proper to them (cf. Rom 8:4-5; Gal 5:25). The redemption of the body also signifies in this case that hope which, in the dimension of marriage, can be defined as the hope of daily life, the hope of temporal life. On the basis of such a hope the concupiscence of the flesh as the source of the tendency toward an egoistic gratification is dominated... Those who, as spouses, according to the eternal divine plan, join together so as to become in a certain sense one flesh, are also in their turn called, through the sacrament, to a life according to the Spirit. This corresponds to the gift received in the sacrament. In virtue of that gift, by leading a life according to the Spirit, the spouses are capable of rediscovering the particular gratification which they have become sharers of. As much as concupiscence darkens the horizon of the inward vision and deprives the heart of the clarity of desires and aspirations, so much does "life according to the Spirit" (that is, the grace of the sacrament of marriage) permit man and woman to find again the true liberty of the gift, united to the awareness of the spousal meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity" (Theology of the Body, 348-49)
This dense passage teaches in summary that through the specific grace of matrimony, spouses can purify the conjugal act of the grasping and self-centered spirit inherent in concupiscence, and so recapture the truly donative experience and pleasure of marital intercourse. This marks a step forward in magisterial teaching of extraordinary significance. (We will return to this below.)
New stances and insights continue to be presented by the magisterium of these last decades. They show that while the Church is expressing a deepened appreciation of the dignity of sexual intercourse in marriage - as an act of love-union and mutual self-giving - it has not weakened its teaching that our whole nature, and sexual desire in particular, was seriously impacted by the Fall.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches clearly and emphatically that, as a result of original sin, an operative evil is to be found in human nature - not least in the sexual attraction between man and woman, also inside marriage. In a section entitled "Marriage under the regime of sin," the Catechism insists, "Every man experiences evil around him and within himself. This experience makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation" (1606). "According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin". "As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman. Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator's own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust" (1607).
A relationship of lust! Strong words indeed, to describe a distortion that tends to affect relations between the sexes from adolescence to old age - even, as the context makes clear, in inter-spousal relations. As is evident, the Catechism gives no support to the idea that concupiscence is in some way "remedied" - in the sense of being eliminated or reduced to nonimportance - by the simple fact of getting married: just the contrary.
With deliberate directness, the Catechism puts forward ideas not likely to gain easy acceptance among our contemporaries. Some may take them as showing that the Church is still imbued with Augustinian (or Thomistic) pessimism about sexuality. That must be firmly contested: what is being taught here is not pessimism but realism. In pointing to real difficulties that accompany and can threaten sexual love, these texts rather call Christians to deeper reflection on ways of solving these dangers, so that love itself can grow.