Sexual Activity in Perspective

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2012 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

Many of us struggle to understand the nature of certain things because we have a tendency to focus on them in isolation from the whole of which, in the real world, they are a part. And because we tend not to re-integrate what we have come to understand within the context of the whole, the result is a body of disintegrated knowledge that allows us to maintain ideas that, when fully unpacked, lead to contradictions and absurdities. We remain unaware of these inconsistencies because we fail to do the unpacking. As an example, the typical biology student will maintain that he is alive because every cell in the body is alive (not vice versa). But for some reason, it never occurs to him to reflect upon his own experience of himself as a single, unified, living thing -- and not a multiplicity of billions of living things -- and ponder the incompatibility between that experience and his reductionistic biology.

This same tendency to consider "the part" in isolation from the whole without re-integrating that part within the whole -- to which it belongs in the realm of the real -- seems to show itself in all areas of knowledge, for instance, in the area of morality, particularly sexuality. But if we are to make any real sense of the morality of sexual acts, sexuality has to be understood within the context of the "whole" of which it is a part. So I'd like to begin by looking at the hierarchy of material substances within the physical universe as a whole.

We know naturally that there is a hierarchy of material being in the physical universe. This means that some substances are superior to others, that is, they have more power. The lowest level on the hierarchy is the mineral, the level of inert matter. On this level, a thing is moved by something outside itself, which in turn moves something outside of it; this kind of motion is transient. Up from the mineral level is the vegetative level, characterized by self-movement or immanent activity. Plants grow from within (incretion), they reproduce, and they engage in nutritive activity, taking inert matter from the soil, for example, and transforming it into living matter. Up from the vegetative level is the animal level, specifically characterized by a more immanent activity, namely sensation and sense appetite. Here, the animal knows material singulars, such as this tree, that piece of meat, the cat on the road, etc., without destroying it in the act of perceiving it. Up from the animal level is the human level, which is specifically characterized by intellectual knowledge, which is the knowledge of the natures of things. Human beings possess universal ideas (i.e., art, education, truth, love, person, etc.,), not merely particular images. As such, they come to know things as they are in themselves.

To understand this more fully, consider that an animal -- that has the power to sense material singulars -- really only pays attention to what has reference to itself and its own appetite for survival. I have to be very careful after having finished painting an Icon that I do not leave it where a cat could get at it, because the cat will smell the egg used in the paint and begin licking the icon, thus destroying it. My dog chewed the spine of a 1941 edition of The Basic Works of Aristotle that I purchased many years ago in an old used bookstore, because she perceived "meat" in the cover. The cat does not know the Icon as it is in itself, but only insofar as it has a reference to its appetite (self), so too my dog has no clue what a valuable book is, much less the works of Aristotle. If that cover was made of a material that does not arouse the appetite, she would have paid no attention to it.

But human intelligence is the ability to grasp what a thing is not insofar as it has reference to me and my own appetites, but as it is in itself. I know the other not insofar as he is of some benefit to me, but simply as he is in himself, namely, a human kind of being of the same nature as myself. And because I know him as he is in himself (his nature), without reference to me or my needs, I can will the best for him for his own sake, not for my sake -- whether I choose to do so is another matter altogether. So too, works of art, ancient historical texts, or aspects of the natural world are all things that I can know, appreciate and reverence for their own sake without them having any direct reference to me and my sense appetites.

But what is interesting about the hierarchy of material being is that there is a hierarchy within each level of the hierarchy. Some chemicals are more stable than others, and some plants are more stable, more beautiful, and more complex than others (most of us would much rather receive a rose than a bacteria). There is clearly a hierarchy within the animal kingdom; a horse, for example, is superior to a worm. Now, what we notice when we examine this more carefully is that the lower a being is within its own hierarchy, the more it approaches the highest being in the level below it. For example, students will often argue that the Venus Flytrap is a sentient creature (an animal) because it appears to sense the presence of a fly and traps it. It is indeed a plant, not an animal, but it is so high up on the hierarchy of vegetative life that it is easy to believe it is a sentient creature. Some animals are so low on the hierarchy of animal life that it is difficult to discern whether or not they are merely plants. Similarly, the higher primates have a remarkable resemblance to the human, making it very easy to mistake their behaviour for intelligent behaviour.

There is a kind of hierarchy on the human level as well, certainly not like what we find on the level below it -- there are no various species of man as there are species of animal. There is, however, a kind of moral or "character" hierarchy established by human persons themselves through their own free choices. And likewise, the lowest on this level will approach the highest on the level below it (the animal level). There are human beings who are intelligent, good looking, and very personable, but who are almost entirely bestial in character. Think of the sociopath who has absolutely no benevolence for others whatsoever, but pays attention to others only insofar as they are of some use to him. We call them predators, wolves in sheep's clothing, or sharks, etc., for they resemble the higher beasts who only pay attention to that which has a reference to themselves and their own appetite for pleasure and survival, and experience no remorse for destroying others for their own benefit. On the other end of the scale is the saint who is willing to give his own life that others may live.

What does this have to do with marriage? Animals do not marry. They do not and cannot love another for the other's own sake, but only with the kind of love that is a passion of the sensitive appetite, and that passion is a love of something for the sake of what it does for the animal (i.e., food, drink, warmth, etc.). The human person, on the other hand, is inclined to marry. Young people today, although they might not completely understand what marriage is, have a genuine desire to marry. But what is it precisely that they desire in their desire for marriage? They have a hard time articulating what it is, but when pushed, they eventually do so; she wants someone to give himself entirely and completely to her, and she wants to give herself entirely and completely to him. Marriage has something essentially to do with intelligent love, and so it is a giving of the self. All specifically human love is a giving of the self, whether it is a giving of one's time, one's attention, one's property, etc. But not all love is a total giving of oneself, nor must it be. But it is very possible for a person to want to give his entire self -- which includes his own body -- to another and to desire that the other receive that total self-giving, and to want that other to reciprocate so that he may freely choose to receive her complete and total self-giving. If this complete and mutual self-giving is to be a genuine giving of the self, and not a taking (a mere passion), then it means that this love is a loving of the other for the other's own sake, not for the sake of the self.

That is precisely what marriage is: a mutual and total giving of one's entire self (body) to one another. It is an irrevocable self-giving precisely because it is total; for if I hand an umbrella to another but hang on to a part of it, I can revoke that giving by pulling back, for I've only given a part while hanging on to another part. But if I give all of it without hanging on to even a part of it, I cannot retrieve it. If a couple genuinely give themselves entirely to one another, that self-giving is an irrevocable gift, for no part of me has been held back. That is why a genuine marriage is an indissoluble one body union that results from a mutual and total giving of the self. The two have given one another an irrevocable identity of "spouse", which cannot be undone any more than one can undo one's identity as a parent -- not even the killing of one's child erases the identity of parent. And because marriage is a mutual and total giving of one's bodily self to another, it is till death, for only death can take my body from another or the other's body from me. Thus, to intend a temporary union is not to intend a marriage. Moreover, because a couple that intends to marry intends a one flesh union, the intention not to have children renders the marriage invalid; for a child is the fruit of the one flesh union of husband and wife. To intend not to have a child is to intend not to be one flesh. Now this intention not to have a child is not the same as not intending to have a child; for a post menopausal woman who wishes to marry can indeed be married, but she will not intend to have children, for it is impossible. But that does not mean she intends not to; for she does not need to intend not to, because it is impossible for her to conceive new life.

Now because marriage is a one flesh union, the couple must be able to actually achieve a one flesh union. In other words, they must be able to receive one another's bodily self giving, and they do so in the act of sexual union. If the couple are not able to perform the sexual act, they are unable to be "one flesh".

The act of sexual union is a marital act, it is the physical expression of what the couple have brought about on the level of their wills, namely a complete and mutual self-giving, given for the sake of the other, not for the sake of the self. And so if the sexual act is to be a genuinely human act -- and thus a fulfilling act --, it must be the expression of that very unique and exclusive conjugal love, and at least open to the procreation of new life, that is, it must not be accompanied by the intention not to have children. In other words, although a couple may not necessarily intend a child in the act of sexual intercourse (if they engage in the act during an infertile stage of the her cycle), they ought not to intend not to conceive; thus a contracepted act of intercourse is not an act of marriage and is thus morally deficient.

The problem with the current cultural understanding of the sexual act is that it is the result of trying to understand it in isolation from the whole, that is, the entire human context. A part can only be understood in relation to the whole, and sexual activity is not a whole unto itself, but only a part of a larger meaning, namely marriage, which in turn is part of a larger meaning. The vehement pleasure associated with sex has diverted our gaze much like the misdirection of a good magician, diverting the audience's attention away from what is really taking place before them. The result is that the meaning of the sexual act is reduced from a genuinely human act of marriage that embodies the two intelligible human goods of "one flesh union" and procreation that constitute marriage, to a quasi animal act that is simply a response to a sense appetite (the pursuit of pleasure). And just as all brute animals only pay attention to that which has a reference to themselves in some way, the pursuit of pleasure as the principal end of the sexual act changes the meaning of the act to one that involves knowing and loving the other for what the other does for the self sensually. In other words, non-marital intercourse is an abuse of the sex act, for it is an abuse of a person, and because the sexual act is the act of marriage, non-marital intercourse is an abuse of marriage.

Marriage is not a private, but a public affair. The reason is that the family is the fundamental unit of society, just as the living cell is the basic unit of the organs of the living body. Friendships are private matters, and the state has no business concerning itself with the private friendships of its citizens. But marriage, by virtue of its life giving character, is an institution, an organization that exists for the public welfare, and so the state has the right and duty to make laws governing marriage. But to do so properly, that is, in a way that will not reduce marriage to a private friendship with insurance benefits, the state must understand the specific nature of marriage and hold it up as the normative ideal that young people naturally desire and aspire after. Not everyone can be married, because not everyone has the psychological maturity and moral capacity (i.e., the virtues) to actually give himself or herself completely and entirely to another. Some are just too low on the moral hierarchy of human existence and live in ways that closely resemble the beasts who do not and cannot marry -- although discerning that can be very difficult, because many are very cunning and hide their true character. But many can be married and want to be, and one of the most serious responsibilities of the civil community is to create the social and legal conditions that will nurture and help preserve that aspiration in the youth. The very survival of the civil community depends upon it.