Chivalry Is Not Dead: Sacramental Sexuality in an Age of Lust

“Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. … A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once.”
— G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

I remember, a few years back, sitting around a little round table in a crowded Minneapolis bar with two former co-workers. They were talking about their work and home lives—their wives and children (one each at the time) and the challenges of unwinding after a day at work. One of the two enjoys computer games, but said he had to wait until after his wife—and especially his daughter—went to bed, because he didn’t want them walking in on the particularly violent or sexual scenes in the game. The other agreed, saying very matter-of-factly that it was the same with viewing online pornography—you always had to be looking over your shoulder, not because your wife doesn’t know, but because it’s better for everyone if she doesn’t see.

Only natural?

They spoke very openly about it, as though everyone does it and it’s perfectly normal. I know only too well that these are common—even rampant—habits in our society, but I’m always dismayed when men pretend that they are natural, insurmountable, or even desirable as part of being an adult male. Another co-worker used to speak of men “in their natural state” as being herd bulls, biologically inclined to breed with as many females as possible—and he marveled that I could appear so happy in an intentionally lifelong and monogamous relationship.

The idea that men are nothing more than rutting bulls ignores God’s intention in the matter, to be sure, but it also ignores anthropology and common sense. From a common-sense perspective, the drive to breed is not what motivates a lustful or promiscuous male—in fact, many go to great lengths not to leave offspring behind. From an anthropological standpoint, the idea that there were ever primeval human males, free of cultural constraints, who could breed with whomever they wanted, whenever they wanted, flies in the face of what scientists currently think about evolution. Current theory suggests that culture predates the modern human species by millions of years. In other words, even if you are convinced that God has nothing to say in the matter, we were already “artificially” overcoming our biology well before we were human.

That’s not to say that our presumed prehuman ancestors were lifelong and faithful spouses—it merely makes the point that we have been re-writing the rules of strict call-and-response biology for eons now, so claiming that we can’t do it today, or in this particular case, is a cop-out.

Pope John Paul II once wrote, “There are people who try to ridicule, or even to deny, the idea of a faithful bond which lasts a lifetime. These people—you can be very sure—do not know what love is.” We can be faithful, lifelong spouses—knights in shining armor—and the Church shows us how.

Higher calling

The great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton discovered in the Catholic Church the wonder and hope and beauty that had inspired him as a child and helped him to understand the world. The romance of the Church struck him as a more Truth-filled worldview than the coldly scientific view of the cosmos that many of the great thinkers and writers of his day espoused. No doubt many of his contemporaries saw him as a hopelessly devoted to a way of life that was quaint at best, and dangerously outmoded at worst.

We live in the same world as he did—you could argue that we fight the same battle as the knights of the middle ages. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell paraphrases another scholar of stories, Ortega y Gasset, in talking about the famous, foolish romantic Don Quixote:

Don Quixote was the last hero of the Middle Ages. He rode out to encounter giants, but instead of giants, his environment produced windmills. Ortega points out that this story takes place about the time that a mechanistic interpretation of the world came in, so that the environment was no longer spiritually responsive to the hero. The hero is today running up against a hard world that is in no way responsive to his spiritual need…

Now it has become to such an extent a sheerly mechanistic world, as interpreted through our physical sciences, Marxist sociology, and behavioristic psychology, that we’re nothing but a predictable pattern of wires responding to stimuli. The nineteenth century interpretation has squeezed the freedom of the human will out of modern life.

But like Quixote, if we take a hard look at the world around us, we can see the marauding giants—especially with regard to marriage and sex. Divorce, in particular, is so widespread that many children shrug it off as commonplace, and men and women joke that marriage isn’t worth it because the wedding is too expensive and lasts longer than the commitment. Roughly half of marriages end in divorce, and the results aren’t significantly different for Catholic couples, because even with traditional Catholic marriage preparation, many couples simply go through the required motions and never actually come to understand the why behind the Church’s teachings. Why does the Church oppose living together or having sexual relations before marriage? Why, in the 21st century, does the Catholic Church stand essentially alone in opposing artificial means of birth control?

According to Christopher West, the well-known Catholic speaker who has dedicated his life to spreading Pope John Paul II’s Theology of Body teachings, in the past two millenia, the Catholic Church has written roughly 6,000 pages on marriage and sexuality—and 4,000 of those were written by John Paul II since the 1970s. Obviously he saw giants, too, and knew they must be fought and slain. He armed the Church with a renewed understanding of the essential relationship of marriage and sexuality to what it means to be human and created in God’s image. Until recently, however, relatively few people had been exposed to these teachings.

Through the efforts of West and other impassioned lay leaders, bishops and parish priests, awareness is growing—and marriages are changing for the better. My own marriage is a case in point. My wife and I came late to understanding and embracing the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. We’ve been married 13 years now, with four kids, ages 11 to 5. Catholic marriage preparation wasn’t easy for me—while I admired the strength of my bride’s faith, I didn’t have a strong religious upbringing. Although I had been raised with many of the same values and was quite proud of the fact that we had both “saved ourselves” for marriage, I wasn’t a fan of some of the Church’s teachings, especially on birth control.

I’m sure the married couples who discussed Natural Family Planning with us at our Engaged Encounter weekend told us that NFP is a scientifically safe and sound way for couples to determine a woman’s fertility each month in order to achieve or avoid pregnancy. I know they told us it was completely aligned with the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality—and while I argued with them about how NFP was different from contraception, inside I had two thoughts, one positive and one negative:

  • I thought that NFP might help me to better understand what made my wife tick as a Catholic and as a woman—
  • But I was sure it was going to take time to figure out and I wasn’t anxious to have a child right away or to wait any longer than we already had after the wedding.

We tried—briefly—to teach ourselves NFP from a book, and quickly scrapped that idea. We agreed to start our life together using artificial methods of family planning until we had a chance to take an NFP class. We quickly became very comfortable with our artificial method and easily justified not exploring NFP further. We also quickly became pregnant with our first child and had visions of switching to NFP and winding up with several more in rapid succession.

During the next 10 years, my wife coaxed me back to the Church, we had three more children, and my conscience began to nag me. Our children had all been large at birth, and when our youngest arrived at 12 pounds 2 ounces, the doctor suggested we stop having babies. That was fine with my wife, who was feeling emotionally drained and exhausted—so the timing was less than ideal for me to start reading up on NFP, to decide after a decade to confess to our priest that we had been using artificial birth control, and to push her to try something completely new.

She wasn’t convinced at first, and I was nervous, so for a year or more we discussed and prayed, took a class through the Couple to Couple League, and slowly came to share the Church’s understanding that married love is supposed to mirror God’s love: free, total, faithful and fruitful; sacrificial and life-giving.

Finally, we made the switch, and that one change changed everything else. First and foremost, we (and especially I) learned self-control. Christopher West likes to point out that what many in our culture promote as sexual freedom—in particular, the capability that artificial birth control gives us to experience sex whenever we want to, without concerns about fertility cycles, pregnancy, parenthood, love or commitment—is actually sexual addiction. We get so accustomed to being able to indulge our urges whenever we want to that we can’t say no, and we feel frustrated, angry or unwanted when our partners want to abstain.

This is not God’s vision. He gave us free will so we can love freely. He allows us to say no to Him so that our yes means something, and same holds true between spouses: if we can say no, our yes mean something; if we can abstain together, our embrace becomes a mutual choice and a free and total gift.

For us, every month is like a honeymoon now: we watch and anticipate together, we don’t pressure each other as much, and we pray together about our marriage and our family more than ever before. We communicate better in general and feel more deeply in love, because we understand each other and what God meant us to be to each other.

Truth works

People often have the idea that the Catholic Church is against sex, when in fact, the opposite is true. Properly understood, sexuality is sacred to the Church—it is considered so beautiful and good, so important and such a gift, that it is to be honored and preserved. Indeed, some use the term sacramental sexuality to underscore the nature and meaning of sex in Catholic marriage. Each of the Church’s sacraments has form (the spoken words) and matter (the material sign of the sacrament)—so in the case of Baptism, the form is the particular rite read by the pastor and the matter is water; in the case of the Eucharist, the form is the Words of Consecration and the matter is the bread and wine.

What many Catholic spouses don’t realize is that, in the case of the sacrament of marriage, the form consists of the questions of consent and the vows, but the substance of the sacrament is the “one flesh” union of husband and wife, mirroring the free, total, faithful and fruitful love of God. This understanding elevates sexuality to its true importance in the Church—as close to an experience of the life-giving love of the Trinity as we can have here on earth. Indeed, West opens the first chapter of his book, The Good News About Sex and Marriage, with this quote from Pope John Paul II: “The ‘great mystery,’ which is the Church and humanity in Christ, does not exist apart from the ‘great mystery’ expressed in the ‘one flesh’…reality of marriage and family.”

Shortly after we made our switch to NFP, our pastor connected us to a team of couples who put on Theology of the Body retreats for engaged couples in the parish. St. Michael Catholic Church requires these retreats in addition to diocesan marriage preparation for couple who wish to be married in our parish, and the results we’ve seen over the past two years have been inspiring.

Many of the young couples who attend these retreats are living together or are sexually active, few have been exposed to Theology of the Body teachings, and most know very little about Natural Family Planning. Using Christopher West’s video series God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage (and his book mentioned above) as a framework, several married couples bear witness to the truth about sex and marriage in the Catholic Church throughout the morning and afternoon. Anonymous evaluations completed by participants ask about their religious upbringing, spiritual life, sexual activity, living arrangements and plans for children—regardless of their current situation, following the retreat, most of the couples indicate that they are planning on (or at least considering) abstaining until marriage, moving apart, and using Natural Family Planning.

The Truth resonates, not only with the engaged couples, but with the witnesses, too—we all grow in understanding, faith and love by sharing these powerful teachings. In fact, some have characterized NFP as marriage insurance: while the divorce rate among Catholics in general is similar to the national average—about 50 percent—the rate among couples using NFP is 1 to 2 percent. I believe this is in part because Natural Family Planning is a couple-based method of family planning that demands mutual participation, requiring spouses to act in loving but chaste ways at times and to learn and practice self-control.

Self-control is essential in an age of lust, when so much around us insists that “men will be men,” and that we should do what feels good. When we first married, I thought that our love and lifelong commitment was justification enough for our private lives—like many well-meaning spouses, I overlooked the possibility of lust in marriage; of using my spouse rather than loving her selflessly. In recent years, it has been my personal experience that learning to control myself in our married relationship has strengthened my self-control in private—I am not tempted as strongly to selfish or lustful behaviors, and I am able to resist these temptations much more easily.

It is no accident that great warrior traditions from the world over insist that our greatest enemy is ourselves, that our greatest battles are within. As men, we are called to love our wives as Christ loved the Church: to death. Jesus came to serve and to die for his Bride, and we must do the same. This is the heroic calling—the great and noble deed — that we seek as Catholic men, husbands and fathers. Chivalry is not dead. It lives in the romance and teachings of the Church, and in the life-giving love and example of our Creator.

Resources

Suggested reading on marriage, sexuality and the Church:

  • The Good News About Sex and Marriage by Christopher West
  • The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan by Blessed John Paul II
  • Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
  • Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

Blogger’s Note: I originally wrote this article in summer of 2009; it was published in the local Knights of Columbus newsletter. In the years since, we’ve added another cub to the pride—hard to believe she’s five already!

9 thoughts on “Chivalry Is Not Dead: Sacramental Sexuality in an Age of Lust

  1. Since my two closest friends are Catholic, I really appreciated your knowledge and insight about NFP. It helps me better understand the faith that they put in God concerning this part of their lives. It makes more sense to me now. Thank you.

    Like

  2. Laura, thank *you* for reading and commenting! It took my wife and I ten years of marriage and four kids to begin to come to terms with these teachings, and the four years since have been better than we could have imagined. Catholic or not, this changes married sexuality for the better!

    Like

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