Section 1 - Implications: A First Circle of Connections

Section 2 - A Second Circle of Connections: Contexts

Section 3 - A Third Circle of Connections: The Logos in the Cosmos

Section 4 - A Fourth Circle of Connections: From Within Creation

Section 5 - A Fifth Circle of Connections: Human Being

Section 6 - A Sixth Circle of Connections: The Trinity

Section 7 - A Seventh Circle of Connections: The Eucharistic Universe

Section 8 - Dimensions: Death

Section 9 - Dimensions: Love and Sex

Section 10 - Conclusion



Faith in a World of Connections

Anthony J. Kelly CSsR

Sex and Love

Section 9

Dimensions 2 - LOVE AND SEX

If I began reflecting on death by noting how seldom it is being treated in recent literature on the great connections we have been considering, something similar is the case in regard to sex. One must wonder at the fragility of any comprehensive vision of the ‘All and the Whole' when two such elemental facts of life are so little addressed. The least we can suspect is that a potentially new sense of human existence is running the risk of being stunted, rendered unearthly, by such neglect. A death-less, sex-less vision of the cosmic emergence would be simply unreal.

1. A Conflict

 Sex has been around a long time; and in this post-Freudian unrepressed era, it is certainly a highly differentiated, even dominant, feature of Western culture. But there the oddness of the situation begins, and the reality becomes a vast and perplexing question. Why has sex been so unrelated to the universal picture?   That is a strange question. For, in the unitive and generative capacities of sex, reality is experienced as ecstatic, life-affirming, relational. Sexual union involves the couple in the stream of the generations. It places them within the universal and planetary generative process. It is an act of communion both affirming, and affirmed by, a larger cosmic embodiment. The creative range of spirit is earthed in the relational structure of the sexual body. The point of the aphorism is inescapable: ‘the body is spirit incognito' (Sandor McNab).[1]

Of course, the poetry and love-songs of the world know all about that. Nature smiles on lovers. Religion blesses marriage. And a baby's smile disarms the cold heart. Everyone feels better. Love, life and the beauty of the world are of a wonderful piece.  And yet, the problems. For those prepared to think about the wider implications of our sexual existence, the cosmic and ecological dimensions of sexuality are swallowed up in the urgent issues of overpopulation (as well as the increasing sterility of the ‘developed' world), and the practical management of the power of sexuality in ourselves and others – especially in the young.  Disease, unwanted pregnancies, sexual exploitation, economic distress, troubled marriages, and family breakdown dominate the discussion.

One aspect of the problem is that this seemingly most intimate and ecstatic activity of our embodied nature has often become grotesquely objectified. Experts discourse on techniques; advertising's lurid images displace the elementally earthy reality into fantasy; the porno-movie is the turn on; the dominant concern is the performance, enacted to the criteria of a voyeuristic culture. How does such artificiality allow intimacy with either person or nature to survive?

The structure of the modern economy, moreover, does not easily allow for the intimacy of the generations, of the family, of the couple. The motivations of individual achievement and success dominate the soft concerns of ‘private life'. Relationships – to place, to people, to the intimate other –  must yield to economic demands. Here, permanence of commitment is so often harried by mobility of career. The impersonal market place provides the measure of success: the ‘rule of the household' (i.e., economy) does allows the generative values of the household itself. When a weak family structure is the condition imposed by the all-demanding economic scene, the family tree has, necessarily, very disturbed roots. The intimate identities of the home are replaced by the criteria and illusions of economic performance.

Because of the unrelatedness of modern technological life to nature as a whole, it is little wonder that sexual activity emerges as ‘the only green thing left' in the sterile experience of the technopolis. Cut off from larger bondings, uprooted from the process of nature, the range of intimacy tends to be compacted into sexual activity. Culture begins to suffer an erotomaniac fixation. Where past times struggled, often harshly, for some form of sublimation of the sexual drive, our own time has been uniquely liberated for reduction of everything to the sexual. In a de-natured and de-sacralised world, there is precious little of the sacred to recommend any sublimation.

The currently regulated ‘sex industry' is a social  manifestation of such fixation. Its wider legitimation is promoted by much of modern advertising and ‘adult entertainment'. If you do not accept your place in a society of voyeurs, it is likely that you will feel subject to a cultural sexual harassment of a most pervasive and intrusive kind. But, of course, conscience stirs; or, at least, nostalgia for a more wholesome past: child abuse, child pornography, paedophilia are beyond the pale; and various other forms of sexual aggression and exploitation are the subjects of insistent lamentation – even if, within the limits of a permissive culture, it is difficult to formulate why the line should be drawn at any point.

When so much of experience is so intensely concentrated in the sexual, the larger problems of our relationship to nature, hitherto deferred or ignored, begin to come home in a sexual guise, to shatter the innocence of sexual liberation. Tragic limits make their presence felt as in virulence of the AIDS epidemic. Sex becomes dangerous, and whole departments of public health are taken up with stratagems to make it ‘safe'. With the decriminalisation of homosexuality, a special confusion enters the cultural scene as the neutral category, ‘sexual preference' enters the political language. Sex is further removed from any natural definition. And when all this is set in the context of the global problems of overpopulation, another simple confidence is lost. Sex is no longer nature's continuing self-renewal, but the source of apparently destructive excess.

Yet complication grows further. It is often suggested that the attitudes that have occasioned the ecological crisis of our day are linked, in one way or another, to the repression of the feminine in male-oriented culture and to the oppression of women in the patriarchal structures of our history.[2]  Consequently, a good deal of ecological reflection calls for a recovery of a sense of the nurturing, mothering, feminine reality of nature, as in the Gaia symbol. But this reconsideration of the feminine is occurring precisely at the time when the generative capacities of nature, and, more concretely, the maternal function of the actual women of our time are looked on with considerable misgiving.

The resultant ambiguity reaches its ultimate extreme in the complex issue of abortion. The incidence of legally terminated pregnancies ranges from one in five, to one in three, depending on the country considered. Not only is abortion regarded as a right – to be so freed from the constraints of nature –  it has become, in the West at least, the emblematic issue of the feminist liberation. Both the character of such a movement and the kind of liberation it offered would doubtless have been different if its emblematic issue of feminist liberation had been, say, world peace, or ecological harmony, or the economic recognition of the family. But it was not so; and while the wider concerns of womens' liberation are in no sense vitiated, a polarising clash of symbols has entered into the sexual identity of our culture.  On the one hand, there is the elemental symbolism of the feminine as the bearer and nurturer of life; and, on the other, there is abortion as symbolic of feminist liberation from the oppression of nature and culture.

Given the prevalence of legalised abortion in most countries today, the present generation, and those of the foreseeable future will grow up with a sense of being survivors. Inevitably, sooner or later, it will dawn on them that they were amongst the eighty-to-sixty per cent who were allowed to be born; the rest of their generation was terminated. I do not see how we can evade a piercing question: what sense of life is being bred into such a generation? Perhaps they feel a strange kinship with endangered species. More to the point, what kind of ecological commitment can the world hope for from them?

Ecological conversation, busy no doubt with the intractable matter of overpopulation, is usually reticent on the abortion issue, even though a consistent pro-biotic ethic would seem to demand more open and thorough discussion.[3] Perhaps ecologists feel that there is enough polarisation involved in their stance without exposing that particular nerve. But can the issue cannot be indefinitely deferred. It does not seem a good preparation for a more tender and interactive relationship to nature as a whole when life at its most vulnerable is so intimately exposed to legally sanctioned extinction.

Through all this, the troubling area is the inner ecology of our culture. If there is no healing there, one must doubt our beneficent capacities in regard to the ecological wholeness of life. The issue was brought home when the first media reports of Romania's revolutionary break with a brutal regime hailed the re-introduction of abortion as a significant move in catching up with the West.

I am easily persuaded that people generally do not positively desire abortions; and that they are forced down this path by a deep violence in our culture. I suspect, too, that the most eager promoters of abortion on demand are themselves becoming appalled at their success. But somehow, that's how we are, and that's what the direction society has taken. In the meantime, the abortion issue remains one of extreme polarisation. However, if a wiser comprehension of the issue cannot emerge, ecological concern will drift in ambiguity. It can easily become a frenzied overcompensation, driven by the guilt we dare not face. As long as abortion remains an unexamined ‘given', it may be as well not to love our ecological neighbour as we love ourselves.

To return to the broader issue: human sexual relationships model a larger ecological relationship with nature as a whole. It seems to me that we cannot face the broader issue with any integrity without being prepared to address the particular. The profound confusion our culture is experiencing regarding sex, the most intimate relationship between men and women and their real or potential offspring, mirrors a larger ecological unease.

Paradoxically, we cut ourselves off from the great eros of life and existence by settling for the merely erotic. The passionate, or compassionate, range and depth of our immersion in the whole is blocked by fixation on sex in the narrowest sense. The essential dimension of the problem is perceptively expressed in the following words:

Our relationship to our bodies, to our land, to our sexuality is singular, cut from the same model. We cohabit either lovingly or carelessly. And our erotic impulses are fully satisfied only when we are within an environment in which we are continually stimulated to care and enjoy. Eros is fully engaged only when we make the cosmic connection. Sexual love is both most passionate and most ordered when it assumes its rightful position within a nexus of erotic relationships that make up the natural world. Earthly love begins when we acknowledge our participation in an ecological bonding that joins all the species of life in a single commonwealth. Thus it is only when we deal with the dis-eased character of modern sexuality and the ecological crisis as a single problem that is rooted in erotic disorder that we can begin to discover ways to heal our alienation from our bodies and from nature.[4]

The cultural problem of erotic disorder looms as the great challenge for the generations to come. I fear that their judgments will be harsh on the ‘permissiveness' that masked the erotic incoherence of recent decades. With all the more reason, then, I will try to sketch the features of a more hopeful and wholesome tradition, even as it struggles to find more telling expression in today's world. My remarks will deal with two limits of sexual experience: its sacredness, in relation to the transcendent; and its earthiness, in relation to nature.

2. Sex and Sacramentality

With regard to the sacred character of sexuality, there is an explicit and complex tradition characteristic of Christian faith.  The classical expression here is the affirmation of marriage as a sacrament', a ‘visible sign of invisible grace'.  The experience of the divine is mediated through the very earthy, very bodily, very biological relationship of sex. Thus, the sexual relationship of the human couple is considered to embody the meaning and presence of the God who is Love (1 John 4:8). How much John's frame of reference extends to Christian marriage when he writes, ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God' (1 John 4: 7) might well be doubted. Still, it is out of such essential Christian convictions that a profound theology of marriage can eventually emerge.[5]

The being-in-love of man and woman, in its intimacy and generativity, participates in the all-creative Being-in-Love that is the Trinity itself. The marriage of man and woman is far from being a somewhat banal sub-set of human relations.  It is most deeply understood as a deeply interpersonal and embodied relationship existing within a field of cosmic and even ultimate relationship.  It draws its meaning from the interrelationships of the persons of the Trinity to one another.  It is concretely related to the manner in which the human is related to the divine in Christ.  It is an elemental aspect of the relationship of the personal to the natural within the genesis of the human world .[6]  Whatever the ambiguity of sexual relationships and social strains on marriage today, the sacramental vision of marriage, and of sexuality in general, continues to be part of the Christian tradition.  It is the locus of all kinds of connections, relationships and responsibilities.

The present situation is, of course, far more complex than the above doctrinal description. For example, Paul Ricoeur, as one among many, has pointed to the historical complexity of our religious views on sexuality and marriage. This primal natural relationship has been subjected to a long process of de-sacralisation, or secularisation, if you prefer. Paradoxically, religious faith was a main cause of this.  The One God of Israel, the transcendent God of call and promise, triumphed over the ‘nature religions' of the Baalim, with their rituals of sacred sex. Faith in the one true God meant that sex was just sex, just, but wonderfully the procreative part of God's good creation.  In contrast to faith, it was not a sacred way of entry into union with the divine.[7]  Similarly, the classical achievement of Greek philosophy, in its passage from mythos to Logos, was another influence in this secularising process. The many gods of nature were banished in favour of the one and absolute Good.

Through such instances of religious and philosophical detachment from nature, the door was opened to a distorting orientation to creep into Western culture. Spirit, as opposed to nature and body, became the focus of union with the divine. Material nature ceased to be the dwelling place of God. For the higher eros of the spirit was distracted from its transcendent goal by physical passion.[8] Marriage, the just ordering of sexual instinct, had its place in the ethics and needs of temporal existence; but it belonged to the passing nature of this world.  Matter, in the insistent materiality of the sexual, had nothing to say about what really mattered.

To leave such a diagnosis without qualification would mean settling for a caricature, valuable in dramatising the distortion, but hardly presenting the complete picture. For religious faith, despite its sense of the transcendent character of God, even because of it, was preparing the ground for a more gracious sense of the immanence of divine within a holy creation. In the concrete reality of its history, two sets of attitudes were in conflict. On the one hand, there was the dark side of the sexual. It was manifest in its capacity to turn every man into a rapist, every woman into a harlot, and God into a demonic force of nature.  But then there was a contrasting sense of wholeness and even holiness in regard to the sexual. The impressive biblical resources for a gracious vision of sexuality can be summarised as follows.

First, there is the original vision of Genesis.  The Creator, in forming human beings in the divine likeness, made them sexual: ‘male and female he created them' (Gn 1:27). Secondly, the exuberant sexual imagery of the Song of Songs has been a classic evocation God's relationship to his people: ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart..., for love is as strong as death... many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it' (Cant 8:6-7). A celebratory experience of sexual desire and ecstasy was revelatory of God's presence. Thirdly, the New Testament ratifies the integrity of marriage in the light of Genesis (Mt 19:4-7) – ‘what God has joined together, let no one separate'.  It also extends the sense of the radical goodness of sexuality as revelatory of God's love in its description of Christ's sponsal relationship to the Church: ‘Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her' (Eph 5:25-33) –  indeed, a ‘great mystery' indeed (v. 32).

From such biblical affirmations, there developed the understanding of marriage as a sacrament in the way described above. Yet, there is every reason to feel that we are only at the beginning an engaging theology of marriage. The challenge that emerges is that of combining a deeper sense of participating in the mystery of creative Love with an enjoyment of interpersonal intimacy, even if this is earthed in the ‘labour pains' of the whole of creation (Rom 8:22).

A renewed sacralisation of sexuality has to struggle against an inadequate symbolisation of God's transcendence.  If the Creator is understood to be remote from creation, and certainly removed from the sexual dimension of creation, any profound theological grasp of spiritual significance of sexual union is precluded. Christian tradition knows many a caricature of God as the  transcendent ‘Father', blessing the human sexual union merely as part of the saving plan of getting more souls for heaven.  In that process, the Father provides some decently regulated consolation for his human children, as a reward for their dedication to the procreative task. But in this version of things, a kind of unbiblical spiritualism seeps into our understanding of sexuality. Sexual relationality is left awkwardly extrinsic to that trinitarian relationality which is the matrix of all interpersonal and natural relationships.

Sexual reality drifts, as a consequence, to the periphery of the field of the Spirit's action throughout creation. It is an awkward dimension in the ‘Christogenesis' of the cosmos. What is called for is an enlarged, more integrated Christian vision.  It must inspire a new appreciation of how the sacramentality of marriage and, proportionately, of all sexual relationships characterised by mutual fidelity and generativity, might be more clearly located in the couple's experience of the Holy Spirit.

If this holy and whole-making Spirit is adored as the field of self-transcending love pervading the whole becoming of the cosmos, a theology of marriage looks different. Marriage is born out of the call to  join, to participate in, what is coming to be, to share in the engendering of the great communion of life in Christ. Marriage is not so much made ‘in heaven', but made in response to the universal ecstasy of life toward its fullness and wholeness of communion. It is a couple's entry into the ‘unity of the Holy Spirit'.  Through this union in the Spirit, man and woman become generative members of the Body of Christ. In Christ, and through is Spirit, they are a celebratory and sacramental embodiment of an anticipated homecoming of all creation in the mystery that unites them.[9]

Christian marriage, then, is not best seen as a structure imposed on the couple from above, as though it were ‘made in heaven'. More earthily and experientially, it is a union inspired from the generative reality of creation.  The Spirit acts from within the earth.  The holy ‘Breath' breathes through the love of all the earth's generations.  God's self-giving love acts within the world in its search for communion and in its desire for fulfilment. The ‘we' of the couple is founded in the larger ‘we' of creation.  It finds its deepest promise in the way the trinitarian community says ‘we', in the unity of the Holy Spirit. In this manner, it is a participation in the ‘we' of the blessed wholeness of ‘all things' in Christ.

3. The Desire of Creation

 Admittedly, without a deeper appreciation of the revelatory character of sexual experience, these remarks sound like so much more abstract theology. Still, I think there is evidence of a growing wisdom.[10] The sexual relationship needs to be understood within a universe of deeper and broader connections.  Sexual eros must be linked into the deep eros of creation in its thrust toward life and fuller being. In that larger erotic cosmic context, sexual love is a special instance of the fundamental desire for ultimate belonging which is distinctively human. The crucial point would appear to be this: it is not a matter of having less desire in our lives, nor of reducing such desire to the narrowly sexual. It is rather a question of earthing the sexual in a larger life of desire and relationship. Here the individual ego must give itself into, yield to, even die into, a deeper, broader self-realisation in the universe as God's creation.

If everything is reduced to sex, the totality of desire has nowhere to go. Yet, if sex is left out of desire, then desire is disembodied. Consciousness oscillates between an apathy in regard to its transcendent connection, and an obsession with regard to the genital. Hence, the challenge: to liberate the deep eros of our existence into its true proportions. Simone Weil makes an arresting point in this regard:

If people were told: what makes carnal desire imperious in you is not its pure carnal element. It is the fact that you put into it the essential part of yourself –  the need for unity, the need for God – they wouldn't believe it. To them it seems obvious that this quality of imperious need belongs to the carnal desire as such. In the same way it seems obvious to the miser that the quality of the desirability of the gold belongs to the gold as such, not to its exchange value.[11]

Sexual desire is, then, too often made to carry the whole passion, the whole erotic charge, of  existence. When that is the case, diminishment is the result. In a Christian perspective, the ultimate symbol of self-realisation in the universe is not orgasmic – sexual desire, fulfilled and spent, in an endless (and unsustainable) cycle of organic energy.  The key symbol of life and the fulfilment of desire is rather the paschal mystery of Christ's death and resurrection. It is the joy of giving oneself to and for the life of the other.  It leads to the death the self-regarding ego for the sake of a life of full relationality in the Spirit. The death of Jesus is born out of his desire to communicate life to the full, and impatient with anything less. Though sex and the cross of Christ make strange bedfellows, they must come together in any serious consideration of sexuality.

The larger picture allows that the mystics and prophets and martyrs of the world are, in reality, the most eros-filled of human beings – men and women of untrammelled desire.

The deepest eros of our lives – what we really want and have always wanted – remains unsatisfied with anything less than a fulfilled self-transcendence. The dynamics of human consciousness reach beyond the successive ego-structures of provisional existence, to the mystery which is the home of our being. The following quotation from Sebastian Moore underscores this point, and leads to the central issue:

Desire is love trying to happen. It is the love that permeates all the universe, trying to happen in me. It draws into its fulfilling meanings all the appetites of our physical being. It turns the need for shelter into the sacrament which is a house. It turns the need for food and drink into –  well, Babette's Feast! And it turns sexual passion into – ah, there we have a problem... The sentence ends with ‘marriage', and this is true. But the biggest ethical gap in the Christian tradition is the failure to say anything much as to how that taking up of sexual passion into authentic desire, of which marriage is the institutionalising, happens. [12]

The communion wafer is hardly recognisable as appetising bread. Sickly-sweet sacristy wine falls far short of even the ‘rough red' of our ordinary consumption, to say nothing of the delight of a more festive vintage draught. If the sacramentality of the eucharist suffers from such artificiality, so, too, does the sacramentality of marriage artificially constructed on a kind of fleshless notion of sex. On the one hand, the shadow language of our usual colloquialisms is too improper for public discourse. On the other, such language we have is either so personal or so private or so sacred or so clinical. The confused registers of sexual expression is a symptom of a deeper oddness: unease with the place of our sexual existence in the integrity of creation.

No doubt, any reclamation of the sexual self often masks the subtle play of egoism. On the cultural level, it can play into the hands of an imperious, erotic incoherence. And, of course, the Church's moralising often mirrors such confusion. By offering guidance on sexual morality while leaving the fundamental issues unexamined, it acts more like a chaplain to the incurable than as the bearer of life's greatest invitation. The manner in which Christian moral doctrine has both affected, and been affected by, the bias of Western culture is a long and complicated story, some elements of which I have touched on above.[13] Embedded in every context of discussion is the position of Stoic philosophy on pleasure. Pleasure was not lawful in itself, but only as an adjunct to the worthy end, in this case, of procreation. The conclusion drawn, especially when you allow for the different forms of distrust of the body as they have appeared in Manichaeism and Neo-Platonic thought, was that sexual enjoyment had no intrinsic value; it had to be legitimated by its biological end. Hence the logical impossibility of allowing for marital intimacy as an end in itself. The activity of sex, the intimacy of sexual relationship, was trapped as it were in a single justification: the value of procreation.[14]

Between understanding sex merely as recreation or only as a means of procreation lies the great and perplexing gulf that we have been exploring. A significant marker in the development of Christian thought (and feeling) is Vatican II's treatment of married love.[15] Authors now speak of a paradigm shift in this regard, from a primarily biological and juridical notion, to one that is more interpersonal, spiritual and existential.  It results in a new ordering of values. I suspect that an infusion of ecological and cosmic considerations will be needed if such this paradigm-shift is to be productive.  In fact, some developments in the theology of marriage could result in a further uprootedness of marriage and sexuality from its ecological and cosmic connection.  It is one thing to reject the naturalistic ‘biologism' of earlier accounts.  It is another so exalt the level of the personal and interpersonal over the instincts and structures of nature, that the place of the physicality of  ‘nature' becomes increasingly obscure and extrinsic to a comprehension of human and sexual relationships.[16] It would be tragic if a new theology of marriage and sexuality was really only apprenticing itself to a de-natured culture.  Though this is a bleak prospect, it is not a necessary outcome.

It is of historical interest that Pope John Paul II, early in his pontificate, devoted his weekly audiences  from November 1979 to January 1980) on ‘the nuptial meaning of the body'.  He based his remarkable reflections on the second and third chapter of Genesis.[17] Though he spoke as no other pope had ever done on the positive meaning of sexual existence, the stark fact of ‘The Fall' of our first parents had eventually to be faced: cosmic disharmony, occasioned by the human rejection of Creator, enters creation; and the psychosomatic relatedness of existence in the presence of God is skewed by the appearance of the demon lust.  The result: sex is uprooted from its original place in God's universe.

Despite his appreciation of the Pope's profound reflections, Sebastian Moore insisted on taking them further.[18] Whilst we cannot expect a pope to be an ecclesiastical D.H. Lawrence, we are uncomfortably aware that even the best doctrinal treatment of sex is hampered by considerable abstractness. For even despite the Fall, sexual relationships continue to be somehow sacramental and revelatory. Granting the disharmony that pervades our experience, is it entirely fair to interpret such tensions primarily as the failure of the lower instincts to obey the higher, the spiritual, the soul-values of our existence? It could be that the incoherence of our relational existence has a deeper cause. That would be found in the failure of these so called ‘higher' levels to befriend and learn from the lower.

After all, in the presence of God, our first parents, the ‘would-be gods' of the Genesis story, come to feel shame at their nakedness, i.e., the animality and sexuality inscribed into their nature, and into nature as a whole. They feel the consequences of trying to escape out of their sexual creatureliness into a ‘spiritual', godlike sphere. As a result, what they have disowned now reasserts itself as ‘lust'.  Sexual desire has nowhere to go; it is uprooted from the whole mystery of life.  To that degree, sexual desire is violently denatured, and experienced as out of harmony with the natural world of God's creation.

Thus, ‘original sin' is a tragic split in the original mystery of the relational selves we were meant to be. With redemptive grace comes a healing reconnection of the spiritual with the sexual in human consciousness.  From this point of view, grace is the gift that restores nature by making us participants in a larger cosmic whole.  It puts our souls back into our bodies, and puts our bodies back into the great process of nature itself.  Finally, it reveals nature as a whole within the universe of divine creation and connection.

Such glimmerings, however tentative in formulation, do lead to real questions. Whatever answers may eventuate, discussion has to be enriched by asking a question.  It is not first of all, What does the God who ‘is love' reveal about sex?, but, What does good sex tell us about the love of God?  You can put it another way. Take this question: How can the sexual union of man and woman be said to be one of the sacraments?  There are many and inspiring answers.  But they all need to feel the force of another formulation of the question – put in this way, for example: What in wholesome sexuality is truly sacramental?  Responses to these alternative questions tend to suggest that the couple does not so much transcend nature in their ‘interpersonal relationship', that the God-given universe, as a field of connections and relationships, draws such a couple to be embodied in its desirous, erotic totality.  When spirituality necessarily speaks about the control of unbridled passion, a more real consideration might deal with the problem of how jaded, fixated passion might be released into the dimensions of true desire.  Moreover, ethical reflections on ‘natural law' deduce norms for the regulation of sexual instinct and desire.  But they would be bloodlessly abstract if they did not presuppose the experience of participation in a sexual universe in order to learn what nature had to say.

Either way, it hurts.  We accept a world of unredeemed sexuality and to make moralising gestures toward it.  Or, we recognise the experience of good sexuality, as it occurs, and go with what it reveals – and demands. Death to the ego for the sake of the other – of spouse, child, the generations, the ecology of the biosphere – and in final surrender to the mystery intimated in it all.  No faithful spouse or good parent will deny that such an attitude of self-dispossession is disproportionately difficult.  ‘Nature' should feel a lot more ‘natural'.  At times, it is: the joy and ecstasy of sexual love. But falling in love eventually demands that we stand in it, and follow it through, to whatever end is revealed. In such a context, everything theology might say about the sacramentality and the spirituality of marriage can be heard with new perception.

There are many particular issues that are beyond both my competence and the limited scope of this brief reflection. Nonetheless, I would like to offer short remarks on two further points.

For instance, at one extreme, I have not mentioned chastity, let alone celibacy, or virginity. With reason. Such words lead quickly into embarrassed silences. The public supposition is that the sexual instinct is ungovernable.[19] The best that can be offered is damage-control –  ‘safe sex' and so forth. We have to suspect a disconcerting absence of values at this point, perhaps even the occurrence of some kind of deep mutilation in the moral tradition of humanity. Still, other forms of vigorous and even terrifying renunciation are in fact being demanded (and even imposed) in the name of higher social values of one kind or another. Note the variety and intensity of campaigns against nicotine, alcohol, drugs, overeating and so on. The asceticism of ‘fitness' can be so extreme as to cause concern on the part of medical authorities. But most of all, the wholesale change of lifestyle foreshadowed by ecological concerns presumes the desirability of some enormous re-definition of what was previously non-negotiable in regard to the simple (or artificial) pleasures of life! 

What, then, of the values of chastity, i.e., the moderation of sexual activity, of celibacy, i.e., a chosen form of abstention from sexual activity, and virginity, i.e, the maintenance of wholesale renunciation of sexual relationships for the sake of some higher ideal? The derisory manner in which such long-standing and widespread values[20] are regarded looks like a classic case of ressentiment, as Scheler and Lonergan employ the term. Such a form of disaffection amounts to a continual feeling of hostile reaction to a scale of values which one desperately needs, but feels unable to implement. The value in question is continuously belittled; it is turned into a non-value, something inhuman, for it represents a threatening challenge. Note the ways in which the ecologically committed are often dismissed as mere ‘Greenies', or activists for human rights labelled as interfering busybodies or critical feminism is regarded as strident nonsense, or Aboriginal sacred sites are located in the realm of the absurd, and you come close to the power of ressentiment.

The counter-cultural questioning of the destructiveness of a culture is always troubling. The more diseased it is, the more a culture goes on the defensive when confronted with a larger vision. What a society most needs, hurts, unsettles, and makes ‘impossible' demands. In regard to this reaction of ressentiment in general, Lonergan writes,

perhaps its worst feature is that its rejection of one value involves a distortion of a whole scale of values and that this distortion can spread through a whole social class, a whole people, a whole epoch. So the analysis of ressentiment can turn out to be a tool of ethical, social and historical criticism.[21]

It seems to me that this is the case in regard to chastity and its associated values and lifestyles. Given the sexual misery of our age, chastity is the value we most need, but feel most incapable of realising or expressing. How much the demeaning of such a value has resulted in a distortion of the whole ecology of human values, how much that distortion has spread through whole social classes, or peoples or the epoch itself, would be a matter of some debate. Still, I doubt that many would disagree that there is a problem of considerable magnitude; and that the situation of sexual incoherence I briefly described in the first section of this chapter is real enough.

On the other hand, by raising the question of sexuality within an ecological and cosmic context, we are confronted with the intimate challenge of ‘ordering' with fresh imagination, passion, and, indeed, discipline the ‘disordered' sexual energies of our culture. If its erotic fixation presents us merely with a world of sex-objects, a fresh imagining of the sexual world would disclose universe enticing us out of ourselves into communion and self-surrender. In each particular relationship of sexual love there is an sacramental implication of a larger mystery of universal love, inviting us to join.  Likewise, we are being challenged to new degree of sexual passion, something that consumer-sex so little tolerates with its range of disposable sex-objects, its fixation on performance and its cult of the orgasm. Sexual passion, in this broader perspective, is a matter of being embodied in the passion of all being for life and wholeness.  It delights in the divine joy-in-being from which the universe arises.

There is the question of appropriate discipline.  A genuine asceticism aims to integrate the sexual into self-transcendence, that it might be transformed into other-regarding, life-promoting love. Far from being repressive, such discipline is a way of welcoming and befriending sexual energies.  For such energies are sacramental, holy – healing and whole-making.  They are part of  creation's insistent summons into a larger body of connections, within a universe of relationship and communion.

Still, some kind of new asceticism is a necessity. A paradoxical witness in this connection are the variety of celibate life-styles as they have appeared in Eastern and Western forms.[22] As an element in the ecology of our sexual existence, it is important to understand religious or ascetic celibacy, not as a rejection of sexuality, nor as demeaning marriage, but as dramatising a transcendent dimension latent in all sexual relationships.[23]  As a free renunciation of exclusive, genital relationship to the other, such celibacy still participates in the desire for ultimate union that flares through the universe.  By concentrating its energies on the transcendent meaning of human existence, celibacy anticipates the final intimacy that every person is called to – by dying into the infinite depths of God.  In this regard, celibate existence witnesses to our common destiny. Within the ecology of our sexual nature, the necessarily rare celibate vocation intends and, in a sense, secures, those ranges of value that pervade all relationship: self-transcendence, generosity, a sense of the mystery of the other beyond one's own needs, the discipline inherent in all mature relationships, self- sacrifice for a more inclusive community.[24]

Though I have not intended to give a disquisition on religious life, the value of celibate witness should, I believe, be noted. By contesting the eroticism of our culture, it invites us all to a deeper appropriation of sexuality as a mystery of relationship, and as a relationship to the universal mystery itself.[25]

4. A Developing Tradition

I have not directly faced the contraception issue, because I do not think it is best directly faced. It is always about something else: How are actual human beings related to the concrete good of ‘nature' or the biosphere generally?  The issues are of extreme complexity and the literature inexhaustible. Hence, I will limit myself to a brief comment.

The theology of marriage can hardly be separated from the Catholic moral tradition associated with it. In such a theological tradition, a perception of the ‘natural' structure of sexuality was fundamental. It was felt that the meaning of marriage is obfuscated if the generativity of sexual relationship is unnaturally blocked. Human sexuality has to respect the rhythms of life and not be distorted by any artificial manipulation. Now such a position seems like an impractical dream. In the face of overpopulation problems, a more personalist understanding of marriage, and the economic and psychological pressures of modern life, the cost of maintaining such a tradition has been extreme. The debate ensuing on the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968 continues.[26]

One thing is worth noticing, namely, the similarity between arguments against this official Catholic position and those used against environmentalists struggling to maintain the ecosystems of a rainforest or a reef. In both cases, the antagonists are quick to subordinate ‘nature' somewhat hurriedly to other values, and to ostensibly more realistic concerns.

Admittedly, there are difficulties with an idealisation of nature, sexual or otherwise. The basic problem, it seems to me, is that Catholic thought, as well as common forms of ecological doctrine, have both tended to relate the human ‘organically' rather than transformatively to nature.[27] How nature might be subsumed into a higher integrity through human action tends to be ignored. But before saying more about that, we note the profound and challenging issue struggling for expression in the hard teaching to which we have referred. In trying to express how human love should be embodied, Catholic tradition was implying something profoundly and disconcertingly important about our relationship to nature and its processes.  Even while accenting the interpersonal dimension of marriage, even as it allowed for ‘natural family planning', Catholic theology has usually insisted on placing sexual activity in the context of ‘natural law'.  Conscience was more than a private spiritual matter; it had to include a consciousness of biological integrity which, on its own level, was to be inviolable. Human sexual intimacy had to embody a larger intimacy with the given biological processes of the natural world. What contemporary culture sees as most private and personal, the Catholic tradition places in the dynamic of cosmic participation in which the rhythms of generativity and the organic structure of our embodiment must be respected. 

The cost of implementing such a vision has appeared disproportionately high. Neither the demographic explosion, nor economic pressures, nor the sexual confusion of modern culture permit a calm reception of such a doctrine, let alone a ready implementation of it. Still, it seems to me, there is something struggling for expression here of deep ecological importance. It is this: in the measure we can slowly learn to relate to one another in human intimacy in a way that respects the biological integrity of the other, we begin to express a model for understanding our relationship to nature generally. Our sexual relationships are an expression of the kind of ecological commitment we are in fact choosing to live. The words of Wendell Berry, a great ecologist who owns no special responsibility to the Catholic position, express this point with vigour:

There is an uncanny resemblance between our behaviour toward each other and our behaviour toward the earth.  Between our relation to our own sexuality and our relation to the reproductivity of the earth, the resemblance is plain and strong and apparently inescapable.  By some connection that we do not recognise, the willingness to exploit one becomes the willingness to exploit the other.  The conditions and means of exploitation are similar.  The modern failure of marriage that has so estranged the sexes from each other seems analogous to the ‘social mobility' that has estranged us from our land, and the two are historically parallel. It may even be argued that these two estrangements are very close to being one, both of them having been caused by the disintegration of the household, which was the formal bond between marriage and earth, between human sexuality and its sources in the sexuality of creation.[28]

The emerging challenge has to do with respecting sexual integrity as an indicator of an inestimably greater challenge, that of respecting the integrity of nature as a whole, and of the human place within it.  But any attempt to be more specific soon reveals a hive of complexities, and the present limited reflection needs to stir up an angry swarm. Nonetheless, I make the point: the Catholic tradition of a sacramental and ethical understanding of sexuality is an improbable source of ecological responsibility as a radical demand. Sex and ecology are seldom brought together in any discussion, possibly because we dread where it would lead.

At first glance, at least, we veer close to a contradiction if we think we can be thorough-going ecologists while manipulating the human organism and human biology in any way we wish. Such biological interference may unmask a strange exclusion of human sexuality from the realm of the natural, perhaps because one may feel that human population is the main danger to ecological well-being. On the other hand, we could be all for the integrity of human sexuality, yet ignore the biosphere sustaining human and other life; and so refuse the specific role of human creativity within the realm of nature. The more philosophically inclined will point out that both concerns can only be resolved in much a deeper and far more embracing notion of how nature and the human are related – perhaps more in terms of the artist working within the limits and possibilities of a given medium.

What happened in such a formulation of the Catholic doctrine on the integrity of sexual nature was that the neuralgic point of something far more vast was being touched: How are we to relate to the biosphere generally? In defying the canons of a contraceptive culture, Catholic teaching in this area has sounded like a voice from the past. The unsettling possibility lies in it being a message from the future, when the sexual, the sacramental and the natural come together in new integrity. Not to mention that possibility is, in my view, to foreclose on the possibilities of imagining the world otherwise. To speak of ‘natural family planning', and the consequent ban on contraception, makes the powerful point that I have outlined above. Sexual relationship models our relationship to nature generally. It is governed by ‘natural law'. It demands the asceticism of wholeness and integrity; a disciplined affirmation of the value of life and its processes. This is a precious insight.

What remains a problem, as I mentioned above, is the philosophical and physicalist notion of nature embedded in current ecclesiastical formulations. In the tradition stemming from Aquinas, natural law is not something imposed from the outside, as it were, but enters moral consciousness through ‘right reason', i.e., in the use of the best resources of human intelligence.  Such intelligence works most deeply and tacitly, through what is termed, ‘connaturality', i.e., an affective inclination toward the whole, concrete human good. To that degree, natural law occurs within the reflections of the human mind and in the aspirations of the human heart. It is not something simply objectively inscribed in the physical or biological world, even though the structures and processes of that world are a value to be respected.

Now, it is exactly here that new considerations have emerged. As a more personalist approach to the sexuality emphasises the unitive aspect of sexual relationship, it points to the natural foundation of this aspect in an empirical notion of nature. Where before ‘nature' was a philosophical notion revealed in the essentially procreative structure of sexual organs, biological science reveals the nature of human intercourse as one characterised by randomness in its generative outcomes: most sexual acts are infertile. There is no metaphysical natural law linking intercourse to conception, as ‘natural family planning' knows.

When a metaphysically constructed natural law yields to one derived from ‘right reason', and when such reason is further illumined by data from the biological sciences, a new context emerges. And the discussion goes on, not a little obscured by ‘natural law' being used in at least three different senses! How then does the human couple live out its connection to, and within, the biological process? How does such a couple subsume into its relationship the generative potential of intercourse? Natural family planning represents one sophisticated human intervention. But does that represent the full range of the transformative relationship with nature – as it emerges to human exploration – and subsumed into the service of the actual human good? What does ‘artificial' contraception mean? What is truly ‘natural', especially in light of current economic and demographic pressures?

Once the notion of nature begins to operate outside an undifferentiated religious or philosophical context, what was accepted as natural to the right reason of one era appears impossibly unnatural to the right reason of another. A new discernment of the will of God acting in all creation, and of a divine wisdom calling human history into express collaboration with the Lord and Giver of life, becomes necessary.

These general remarks, deferring as they must to the more thorough analyses of ethics and moral theology, must include one further consideration. Again it is a matter of utmost concreteness and urgency. We are being invited, I feel, to consider human fertility in an actual context formed by the limits and needs of a empirically understood natural world.[29] Human generativity must serve life as a global value. It has an ecological responsibility. Respect for the biological process as it has been instanced in the Catholic tradition of sexual morality, must now make a quantum leap into a more comprehensive commitment to the global biological process, into the realm of nature under severe ecological stress.

A ‘pro-life' commitment needs now to unfold into concern for the ecological well-being of the planet, as well as for the future well-being of the generations to come. Here, above all, natural law is being revealed in new responsibilities and as suggesting new limits. World population is predicted to double in the next fifty years. Naturally – I use the word advisedly – the human race has to explore other dimensions of generativity: there are more ways of inhabiting the planet than by populating it to death. We are in a new historical situation, and one would be singularly lacking in wisdom to offer simple solutions. The necessary change in life-styles and scales of values might well be immense. The only thing that is clear is that human history is being called to a momentous new responsibility.

Notwithstanding the limits and opportunities that the law of our actual historical nature might suggest, the human sexual relationship remains as a participation in the whole mystery of life. This is, as I see it, the enduring value of the Christian tradition to which I have referred.

In the complex history of its contestation of all views which are either contrary to life, or reductive of sexuality to mere gratification, such a tradition has consistently opted for the essentially self-transcending dynamism of sexual existence. Agape meets Eros, not to belittle or contradict it, but to associate sexuality with the ‘life principle', generating and nourishing life, in all its connections. Radically, through their sexual co-existence, men and women participate in the energy of the Spirit as the life-giving and all-connecting mystery working through all creation. Such a sacramental vision of sexuality is in sharp contrast with Thanatos, the ‘death principle' of dissolution and self-absorption which so deeply marks the erotic vertigo of our culture.[30]

The unitive and generative aspects of sex, in a developing Christian tradition, continue to be affirmed as sacred, a sacrament of God's healing and renewing presence. By reclaiming our sexual nature in a more wholesome way, the future  can be graciously embodied in our generation – not just physically, but in all the resources of intelligence, love and care which we can bring to bear.

[1]. From the frontispiece of Sam Keen, The Passionate Life: Stages of Loving (New York: Harper and Row, 1983).

[2]. Primavesi, From Apocalypse to Genesis,  24-61 makes a good case, without, however, addressing the emblematic importance of the abortion issue.

[3]. A significant exception, again, is LaChance, Greenspirit , 95, 106, 109, 120f.

[4]. Keen, The Passionate Life…, 231-232.

[5]. For the fundamental context, Kelly, Trinity of Love, 142-164.

[6]. For a general remark on this point, see Catherine La Cugna, God For us. The Trinity and Christian Life (New York: Harper, San Francisco, 1991) 406-408.

[7]. Paul Ricoeur, in H. Ruitenbeeck, ed., Sexual Identity (New York: Dell, 1970) 13-24.

[8]. For an abundance of interesting material, see Peter Brown, The Body  and Society. Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press,1988).

[9]. For a more ‘Spirit-ual' understanding of marriage, see Heribert Mühlen, Entsacralisierung (Paderborn: Shoeningh, 1970) 473-505.

[10]. As a good example, see the provocative and insightful remarks of Sebastian Moore, Jesus the Liberator of Desire (New York: Crossroad, 1989) 89-107. In what follows, my indebtedness to this work is as obvious as it is grateful.

[11]. From Simone Weil, First and Last Notebooks as also quoted on the frontispiece of Keen, The Passionate Life.

[12]. Moore, Jesus The Liberator of Desire, 93.

[13]. Moore, Jesus The Liberator of Desire, 94-100.

[14]. For references and further details here see the very comprehensive Theodore Mackin, The Marital Sacrament. Marriage in the Catholic Church (New York: Paulist Press, 1989) 95-97.

[15]. see David Thomas, ‘Marriage', in The New Dictionary of Theology, Joseph Komonchak et al., eds. (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1987) 624-628, and Vincent Genovesi, ‘Sexuality', 947-954.

[16]. Note how the theology of marriage tends to develop away from its natural location even in the document that most wishes to respect such integrity: ‘marriage is not then the effect of chance or the product of evolution or of unconscious forces; it is the wise institution of the Creator to realise in humankind his design of love'. (Humanae Vitae, par. 8.) The concern of these reflections is to explore how the ‘design of love' is indeed immanent in the Spirit-guided evolutionary dynamics of nature. For a general comment, B. V. Johnstone, ‘From Physicalism to Personalism', Studia Moralia XXX/1, 1992, 71-96.

[17]. See Mary Durkin, ed., Feast of Love: Pope John Paul II on Human Intimacy (Chicago:  Loyola University Press, 1986). See also Mackin, The Marital Sacrament, 554-555.

[18]. Moore, Jesus The Liberator of Desire, 95-107.

[19]. Illuminating information on the ideals and practices of another and a far distant culture is found in Brown, The Body and Society.

[20]. For a larger context of discussion, not only in Christianity, but also including the experience of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam, see Diarmid O'Murchu, Religious Life: A Prophetic Vision (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1991) 118-141.

[21]. Lonergan, Method…, 33, 273.

[22]. O'Murchu, Religious Life…, 14-59; 118-141.

[23]. O'Murchu, Religious Life…, 193-211.

[24]. On this subject, see Thomas King, SJ, Teilhard de Chardin (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1988) 158-174.

[25]. O'Murchu, Religious Life...,  227-241.

[26]. See Janet E. Smith, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1991).

[27]. Here I refer the reader back to ‘A Second Circle of Connections, Section 6, ‘Models of Ecological Action'.

[28]. Wendell Berry, ‘The Body and the Earth', Recollected Essays, 1965-1980 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981) 304.

[29]. See Sebastian Moore, ‘Ratzinger's “Nature” isn't Natural. Aquinas, Contraception and Statistics', Commonweal 26 January, 1990, 49-52.

[30]. I know the use of these terms differs from Freud's original employment of them in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), in which the sexual instinct was, of course, located on the side of eros. But what would such an uncompromising realist have made of the erotomania of our day