Natural Family Planning: Nature's Way - God's Way

51. The Role of Continence in Conjugal Life

Spouses are surely aware of the inevitability of periodic continence in their. conjugal life, that is of periods of time during which sexual intercourse is either not possible or not advisable. Circumstances frequently impose a genital pause. Such are, for example, times of illness, the period of the immediate postpartum, periods of physical separation (because of traveling, for example) and times for spacing births. Even if such situations are not always ideal (cf. GS 51, 1), they must be foreseen and accepted.

Furthermore, spouses can agree to observe such periods of sexual abstinence, either for religious and spiritual motives (1 Cor 7, 5), or for the sake of improving the marriage; for example, to acquire an increasingly deep understanding of each other. Total mutual knowledge of the spouses is not identified with sexual experience alone, nor can it be reduced to it. The life- story of a couple is not made up exclusively of their sexual life. If it were, everything would happen on the superficial level of a corporal component which would be detached, almost, from the rest of personhood. The couple is capable of a language of love not confined to the sexual act. Unfortunately, some people seem to have no other way of knowing each other than through sexual relations. "Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived" (Gn 4, 1). Is this the only way husbands can know their wives?

Once sexual abstinence is agreed upon by the spouses, however, they ought to transform it into a positive experience. Abstinence as such does not possess any sanctifying virtues. It necessarily leaves a void which cries to be filled and compensated for on other levels, by some sort of activity in the family, or apostolic or spiritual activity.

St. Paul, speaking of times of sexual abstinence in the lives of married couples, says that these periods should be decided upon "by mutual consent for a time, to devote themselves to prayer" (1 Cor 7, 5). To designate such time he does not use the word kronos, meaning mere chronological succession, but kairos, which indicates a time of salvation. Through docility to the Holy Spirit, a couple will be able to discern these moments of grace and, according to the advice of the Apostle, they will establish a link between sexual abstinence and religious activity.

Periods of sexual abstinence also serve to intensify the so-called love of affection. During these times, the spouses can rediscover the meaning of interpersonal relations, achieved through words, gestures, tenderness, and other manifestations of affection, each spouse being ever more attentive to the other, speaking heart to heart till they touch one another's heart.

Human sexuality and its dynamics are not limited to genital activities. If a couple desire to space births for reasons of the marriage, and so abstain during the days when the two organisms are ready to cooperate with God the Creator, they can learn to love each other in a different way, and to become more humane in their most instinctive responses. To the question: "How much body is needed for an optimum of spirit?" Teilhard de Chardin replied: "A gradual increase in affective love with a gradual decrease in sexual relations."

In fact, as some psychologists have shown, sexual pleasure is not the only guarantee of conjugal happiness. Even to renounce the use of sexuality, when freely accepted and properly motivated, can create a period of interpersonal growth, a deepening of the couple's relationship, perhaps even its purification (through control over addiction to sexual pleasure).

Affective love, which is -different from physical genital love, is a basic requirement of marriage, and perhaps its strongest bond. It enables the couple to overcome crises and difficulties, and it appears to be the secret of happy marriages. If the two partners are full of affection for each other and know how to show it by meaningful gestures, and if they are happy to be together as human persons for reasons other than simple erotic stimulus, they will reach an understanding of each other that goes deeper than the one deriving from mere physical union.

According to John Paul II, continence in marriage is an indispensable condition not only for responsible parenthood, but also for conjugal love: On this plane (of responsible parenthood) the spouses, the parents, may meet with a certain number of problems which cannot be solved without deep love, a love which comprises also an effort of continence. These two virtues, love and continence, appeal to a common decision of the spouses and to their will to submit to the doctrine of the Faith, to the teaching of the Church (Oss. Rom. Nov. 4, 1979).

Unfortunately, in the consumer society in which we live today, the body is facilely considered an unlimited source of sexual pleasure, to be used as freely and intensely as possible. People speak of the right to sexual pleasure, which is vaunted as the great secret of a happy marriage. With this orientation the sexual relation runs the risk of being no longer an interpersonal relation, but of taking on all the characteristics of an economic exchange: sexuality becomes a consumer item, and the person a thing.

Against this, Freud understood quite well that sexual life cannot be reduced to the mere search for pleasure. Frankl wrote: "For one who seeks sexual pleasure as if it were an end in itself, pleasure departs." It is a law of psychology. People today are frightened by the words chastity, continence, and self-control. As a result many find themselves in the situation of the governor Felix before the prisoner Paul: "As Paul talked on about continence and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and exclaimed: 'That's enough for now! You can go!' (Acts 24, 25)

Self-giving and continence in marriage

The full realization of sexual communion supposes in the couple the capacity for self-giving in the fullness of one's person. Two persons who are not fully integrated or unified can only with difficulty be united, since the unintegrated sectors of their persons, that is, the sectors which are not fully possessed, are not included in the gift of self. When it is a question of interpersonal giving, the juridical axiom, "nemo dat quod non habet" (no one gives what he doesn't have), changes to "nemo dat quod non est" (no one gives what he isn't). What we have we can divide among many; but when a person gives himself in his corporality, he gives what he is, and his gift is indivisible and therefore exclusive. Now, dominion over self, which is required for authentic interpersonal giving, can be helped by periods of sexual abstinence, to the great advantage of love itself.

A condition for the giving of self is possession of self. Self-dominion is possible to the human person by reason of his being able to stand at a distance from what is immediate: man can distance himself from his own impulses and desires; he can create a space between a desire and its fulfillment. This capacity is a condition for all genuine spiritual and human understanding.

Man's behavior, unlike that of animals, is not predetermined by instinctual patterns. While the rule of the animal is momentary satisfaction, the human person possesses a stupendous capacity to temper his genital reactions and his instincts, so as to place them at the service of his vocation and mission.

While animals are like machines with an automatic pilot, the human person instead possesses a great ability to modify his sexual behavior, to organize and to change it according to his plans. But the animal is sure of itself, while the human person lacks that sureness which would come from a strict determinism. For a person the difficulties are greater than for an animal; but the possibilities are also greater.

But does not continence risk creating tensions and frustrations that dehumanize the couple? Harmful frustrations will occur only if the various needs and impulses are simply repressed, forced underground, so to speak, into a subconscious life. This will no t happen if they are integrated into a plan of life. To be sure, renouncing one's desires and demands will provoke a certain amount of tension. But the mature person is able to transform it into tension of growth, accepting it, giving it positive orientation towards progressive growth, and connecting it with the fulfillment of his ideals. In other words, there are "normal," constructive conflicts which, if accepted and properly resolved, cause the person to grow in humanity.

The more mature the couple, the more they will know how to accept tensions that are at once unavoidable and indispensable to growth. Conjugal chastity is not given to spouses whole and entire on their wedding day. Like the other moral virtues, chastity is the result, never fully achieved, of a slow, gradual and at times difficult process, that must always forge ahead: castitas semper maior. The human person is capable of transforming instinctive pleasures into higher forms, no longer dominated by libido, but inspired by loftier sentiments. Even the human spirit and the heart have their pleasures! There is in every person a love for the moral good, an affective force prompting the person from within to temper and check his instincts and desires, to keep his distance from them. This allows him to achieve growth towards maturity and to free himself from selfish ways. The more one forgets himself and makes a gift of himself, the more does he fulfill himself: "Man truly discovers his true self only in a sincere giving of himself," as Vatican 11 declares (GS 24, 4). There is a footnote to this passage which quotes the text of Luke 17, 33: "Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his-life will preserve it." In marriage the tension rising from sexual renunciation can help the couple overcome certain selfish attitudes which impede the perfect integration of the person and consequently his capacity to give himself fully.

Continence and the grace of Christ

On their journey towards conjugal chastity, a journey that is long and strenuous but unifying and integrating, the couple find help in a final dynamic element, the grace of Christ, which operates also in the psychic structures of persons, provided they are open to its liberating action. Christ comes to meet the spouses through the Sacrament of Matrimony and remains with them, pledging to help them. In this way they are strengthened and, as it were, consecrated (GS 50, 3). Helped by Christ, they find the strength to be fully human even in the sexual area. The "You must" becomes a "You can." The ability of the spouses to conduct a human sexual life that includes periodic continence is enhanced by their relationship with Christ.

When St. Thomas, along with other theologians, asked himself whether marriage is a sacrament, he objected: "The sacraments receive their efficacy from the passion of Christ. But in marriage, which involves pleasure, man is not conformed to the passion of Christ, which was painful." He replies as follows: "Although marriage does not conform one to the passion of Christ as regards suffering, nevertheless this conformity is produced as regards charity, by which He accepted the passion in order to unite the Church to Himself as His spouse" (Suppl. 42, 1 ad 3um). Marriage is not the sacrament of sexual pleasure but of love. Spouses cannot give themselves to each other completely, with respect for each other, without dying to themselves, that is, without renunciation: love and sacrifice are intimately connected.

A glance at history

One cannot deny that in the history of Western Christianity there are currents of Platonic spirituality hostile to the body. Underlying these currents is a non-biblical dualism which sees in the genital expression of human sexuality a kind of structural defect in man, originally not foreseen by the Creator. In this perspective of sexual pessimism the word chastity can easily be considered not as integration but as rupture or evasion, Conquering sexual allurement is the supreme expression of the triumph of spirit over flesh. The expression "perfect chastity" denotes exclusively virginity or consecrated celibacy, as if chastity had no place in the lives of married people.

But one must admit honestly that the sexual pessimism encountered in history depends also on non-Christian or outright non-religious elements. When the Church announced the message of salvation in the Greco-Roman world, she found secular currents that attacked sexuality as demeaning to man. Theories hostile to the body and to the exercise of sexuality derived from Persian dualism, the mystery cults, and Stoicism. Paul found, especially in Corinth, an asceticism which held in contempt the body and the world. Precisely in response to this dualistic anthropology, Paul gave us his theology on the vocation of the human body and proclaimed the nobility of the human person in his body and his consecration in Christ.

Later, with the arrival of bourgeois society, a sexual pessimism arose that was in no way inspired by religious motives. It suffices to think of the great influence of J.J. Rousseau and of the Philanthropists of the eighteenth century, when a climate hostile to sexuality spread in Europe. In the nineteenth century A. Comte justified the sexual act solely by generation. It is not surprising that the use of sexuality, always a history of cultures, of moral systems and of religions, problem in the has given rise to problems in Christianity also.

The Church has been able to emphasize in an original way the fundamental and transcultural ambiguity inherent in the use of sexuality. This she has done by sustaining a permanent tension and a constant dialectic between the value of marriage willed by the Creator and sanctified by Christ, and the value of continence in imitation of Christ. The simultaneous affirmation of the goodness of marriage and continence underlines - but does not create - the fundamental ambiguity linked to sexuality, and as a result it relativizes its exercise even in marriage itself. From this flow the possibility and the positive meaning of periodic continence. The tension between marriage and continence has succeeded in creating unilateral exaggerations in the past, and it can still do so today, but it must be maintained since it is a specific element of the Christian message.

The two vocations or choices of life - marriage and continence for the kingdom of heaven - aid each other, each helping the other to a better understanding of the other's deep roots. That a vocation be genuine, there must be a choice, and that is possible at least between two paths. Continence sheds light on the value of marriage as a responsible choice willed by the Creator and sacramentalized by Christ, but not a norm obliging everyone. Marriage sheds light on continence, which is not a rejection of, nor contempt for, a depreciated state of life, but a conscious and free renunciation of a desirable value that is accessible to all; nor is continence a dehumanizing failure, but a personal choice permitting openness and availability.

Moreover, when the vocation to continence is despised, so too is the vocation to marriage. If the response to the vocation to continence becomes rare, marriage faces the risk of being reduced to the merely natural or material level. On the other hand, spouses who are faithful to their pledge of love and who have experienced in their marriage the value of periodic continence practiced in a certain sense "for the kingdom of heaven" (cf. I Cor 7, 5), often become in their children the source of consecrated virginity: "He who is able to receive this, let him receive it" (Mt 19, 12).

by Edouard Hamel

Edouard Hamel, S.J., was born in Quebec in 1920. Since 1962 be has been teaching moral theology at the Gregorian University I n Rome. Among his publications are the following: Loi naturelle et loi du Cbrist, Bruges, 1964; Les dix paroles, Bruges, 1969. He has also contributed to the following collections: Fondamenti biblici della teologia morale, Brescia, 1973; Ortodossia e revisionismo, Rome, 1974; Christlich Glauben und Handeln, Duesseldorf, 1977; In libertatem vocati estis, Rome, 1977; Problems doctrinaux du marriage chretien, Louvain-la-Neuve, 1979. Fatber Hamel is a past member of the International Tbeological Commission.


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