There is no doubt that by its nature sexual pleasure is an intrinsic part of the conjugal act. The Catholic Church, far from being prudish on the topic, teaches that sexual pleasure is a gift from God to be enjoyed by the spouses. Therefore, the problem dealt with in this study is not whether sexual pleasure, which naturally comes with the conjugal act, is morally questionable. The appropriate issue to be raised, rather, is how the spouses regard sexual pleasure. In view of that, an investigation must be undertaken regarding the attitudes or outlooks that the spouses may possibly have concerning the pleasure experienced during the sexual act. This matter is treated accordingly in this study.
This study basically draws on Karol Wojtyla’s analysis of the verb “to use” and the attitude of love as opposed to “using” in his work Love and Responsibility. There are accordingly two attitudes or outlooks regarding sexual pleasure in the context of the conjugal act derived from Wojtyla’s analysis: First, sexual pleasure as an end, and, second, sexual pleasure as a celebration of love. These are discussed in the first and second chapters respectively. Finally, the third chapter is a concise discussion on Church teaching regarding sexual pleasure as a supplement to the main topic.
I. Sexual Pleasure as “Using”
In Love and Responsibility, Wojtyla asserted that a person is not only the subject of action but can also be the object of an action. There are actions of a person that are aimed towards another person, who becomes the object of that action. In the context of the dealings between persons of both sexes, especially in the sexual relationship, “the woman is always the object of activity on the part of a man, and the man the object of activity on the part of the woman.”(1) This remark plays an important role in the attitude of the husband and the wife regarding sexual pleasure in their conjugal act. Is sexual pleasure seen as a shared gift, a good sought for the sake of the other and sought together by both spouses? Or is sexual pleasure considered as an end so that one uses the other as means towards achieving that end?
A. The first meaning of “to use”
In his analysis of the verb “to use,” Wojtyla presented two meanings. Let us here discuss the first meaning, which is “to employ some object of action as a means to an end – the specific end which the subject has in view.”(2) The means is put in a subordinate and subservient position to the end and the agent or subject. This situation is in itself not problematic, as this pervades the human person’s relationship with nature and its resources and even with animals, so long as the use of these does not cause destruction or suffering on the part of these various beings. There is a problem however, when the first meaning of “to use” is applied to the relationship of persons with other persons.
While the problem of considering other persons as means to an end is extensive and has many implications in different human relationships, let us focus on the problem as it is applied to the sexual relationship of husband and wife. Certainly the principle is that a person cannot and must not be the means to an end for another person. For this reason, Wojtyla restated Kant’s moral categorical imperative as follows: “Whenever a person is the object of your activity, remember that you may not treat that person as only the means to an end, as an instrument, but must allow for the fact that he or she, too, has, or at least should have, distinct personal ends.”(3) The problem arises when one or both spouses disregard this principle in their sexual relationship. At this point Wojtyla aptly remarked, “Does not a woman constitute for a man, in the sexual relationship, something like a means to the various ends which he seeks to attain within that relationship? Equally, does not a man constitute for a woman the means towards the attainment of her own aims?”(4) Such exploitation is precisely the application of first meaning of the verb “to use” in the sexual relationship between spouses.
B. The second meaning of “to use”
The second meaning of the verb “to use” sheds light on the problem of sexual pleasure in the marital act. Wojtyla said that “to use” also means “to experience pleasure, the pleasure which in slightly different senses is associated both with the activity itself and with the object of the activity.”(5) In other words, “to use” in this second sense means to enjoy. In the sexual relationship of spouses, moreover, one or both persons enjoy in the pleasure that sexual activity brings forth. Furthermore, a person as the object of conjugal activity becomes the source of sexual pleasure.
Where, then, could the danger of sexual exploitation occur in the light of the second meaning of the verb “to use”? Wojtlya noted:
For man, precisely because he has the power to reason, can, in his actions, not only clearly distinguish pleasure from its opposite, but can also isolate it, so to speak, and treat it as a distinct aim of his activity. His actions are then shaped only with a view to the pleasure he wishes to obtain, or the pain he wishes to avoid. If actions involving a person of the opposite sex are shaped exclusively or primarily with this in view, then that person will become only the means to an end – and “use” in its second meaning (enjoy) represents, as we see, a particular variant of “use” in its first meaning.(6)
This means that, for one or both spouses, the sole aim of their conjugal act is sexual pleasure. Because of this “utilitarian” outlook on sexual pleasure, the person sinks to the level of a means or a tool: not only the other person or the object of the action, but also the first person or the subject as well.(7) In this situation, the spouses run the risk of ruining not only their sexual relationship, but the entire marriage as well.
It is important to note that seeking pleasure – in this case sexual pleasure – for its own sake, making it the highest value to be attained in marriage, is a grave danger for both the man and the woman. Wojtyla asserted, “It is easy to go on from the experience of pleasure not merely to the quest for pleasure, but to the quest of pleasure for its own sake, to accepting it as a superlative value and the proper basis for a norm of behaviour. This is the very essence of the distortions which occur in the love between man and woman.”(8) “To use,” therefore, is always a threat to the relationship of the spouses, as it misrepresents sexual pleasure into apparently the “highest” good in marriage, to the denigration of both the husband and wife.
II. Sexual Pleasure and “Loving”
In married life, specifically the sexual relationship of the spouses, the husband or wife cannot be the means to an end, especially sexual pleasure. To use the other person for the sake of one’s own ends is detrimental to the whole relationship of the couple. The analysis of the meanings of “to use” has led only to a negative solution to the problem of sexual pleasure in the conjugal act: the other cannot be a means or object to be used for one’s ends. Concerning this point Wojtyla stated, “A human being cannot be solely or mainly an object to be used, for this reason, that the role of a blind tool or the means to an end determined by a different subject is contrary to the nature of a person.”(9) Precisely because of the realization that the other – the spouse – is a person, one is led to the opposite of “using,” and that is “love.”
A. Love and the bond of common good
Love is not only the opposite of “using” but is also the only clear alternative to it. According to Wojtyla, a bond of a common good is essential to any love between persons:
Obviously, I may want another person to desire the same good which I myself desire. Obviously, the other must know this end of mine, recognize it as a good, and adopt it. If this happens, a special bond is established between me and this other person: the bond of a common good and of a common aim. This special bond does not mean merely that we both seek a common good, it also unites the persons involved internally, and so constitutes the essential core round which any love must grow. In any case, love between two people is quite unthinkable without some common good to bind them together. This good is the end which both these persons choose.(10)
Furthermore, the bond of common good between two persons prevents the possibility of treating the other as means to an end, as an object to be used, that one of them may be subordinated to the other. Instead both persons are in this case on equal footing, that is, both are subordinated to the common good which they aim.
The condition of love, therefore, is “the common attitude of people towards the same good, which they choose as their aim, and to which they subordinate themselves.”(11) This principle is exceptionally important in married life, and in a special way to the sexual relationship of husband and wife. In order to guarantee that a spouse does not become merely a means to the other’s selfish end, both spouses must therefore share the same end: “Such an end, where marriage is concerned, is procreation, the future generation, a family, and, at the same time, the continual ripening of the relationship between two people, in all the areas of activity which conjugal life includes.”(12) The objective purposes of marriage – procreation and union – open the possibility of love to both man and woman. Both taken together is the foundation of love, particularly in that special area of activity in conjugal life which is the sexual act.(13)
B. Love and the personalistic norm
However, the mere definition of these objective purposes does not instantly solve the problem regarding sexual pleasure in the context of conjugal life. Sexual relationship, it seems, “presents more opportunities than most other activities for treating a person – sometimes without even realizing it – as an object of use.”(14) This is specifically true in the case of sexual pleasure.(15) There must be an actual principle that prohibits the possibility of a person being treated as a mere object for sexual “use” by another person, a principle that precludes sexual pleasure in the sense of “using.” This principle is the assertion or acknowledgement of the value of the human person.
This principle comes with a norm that Wojtyla calls the “personalistic norm,” and has both a negative and a positive aspect. He affirms, “This norm, in its negative aspect, states that the person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end. In its positive form the personalistic norm confirms this: the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.”(16) The negative form of the personalistic norm is an opposition to the principle of utility or “using” in both the first and second meanings of the term. On the other hand, the positive form of the personalistic norm is a confirmation of the Gospel commandment to love. Wojtyla maintains that the personalistic norm, in both its negative and positive aspects, is in fact the basis or foundation for the commandment to love, which in simple words says, “Love persons.” To this statement the personalistic norm can thus be formulated as follows: “A person is an entity of a sort to which the only proper and adequate way to relate is love.”(17)
C. Sexual pleasure and the value of the person
In marriage, therefore, love as the alternative to “using” is brought about by the bond of common good (procreation and union as the objective goods of marriage), and is founded on the personalistic norm. Fundamentally, this love consists in “affirmation that the person has a value higher than that of an object for consumption or use.”(18) Thus, love in the sense of affirming the value of the person – the spouse – should underlie the sexual pleasure felt by both spouses in the conjugal act. Sexual pleasure, then, enriches and vitalizes the love between husband and wife. Furthermore, Genovesi rightly asserted, “Once spouses freely and mutually agree to sexual intimacies, there is clearly neither reason nor need to fear or attempt to limit the intensity of pleasure and passion they share in the embrace of marital love. To the contrary, spouses should mutually seek to enhance their physical sexual pleasure, for which they are grateful both to God and to each other.”(19) Rather than consider sexual pleasure as a selfish enjoyment in using the other, in the context of love it becomes a joyful celebration of the tender, compassionate, and loving relationship shared by the spouses.(20)
A final analysis must be made at this point on the subject of the attitude of “using” regarding sexual pleasure. The perversion in this attitude lies in the fact that the person sees his or her good or sole end in pleasure itself, “to such an extent that pleasure overshadows all else: the value of the person, and the value of a genuine unification of two persons in love.”(21) Love, as a virtue essential to spouses, is replaced by an obsession with sexual enjoyment. Wojtyla sees in this disregard for the affirmation of the person as well as concern for the person’s true good as a “love” that is deceptive, a “sinful love”:
“Sinful love” comes into being when affirmation of the value of the person, and intentness on the true good of the person, (which are at the core of true love), are absent, and instead a hankering after mere pleasure, mere sensual enjoyment connected with “sexual experiences” invades the relationship between man and woman. “Enjoying” then displaces “loving.” The moral evil embodied in sin consists, of course, in the treatment of one person by another, or of each of the partners by the other, as an “object of enjoyment.”(22)
What must be made of sexual pleasure in the conjugal act, then? For sure, it must not be understood as a separate end of the conjugal act. Otherwise, the spouses begin to treat the other, or one another, as objects to use – as means to the distorted end of sexual pleasure.
In order to have a correct understanding of sexual pleasure, in light of the attitude of “loving,” we must consider Augustine’s distinction between the two attitudes of uti and frui,(23) as concluding words for this section. Uti is the attitude of firm resolve on seeking pleasure for its own sake, with no concern at all for the other which has become the object of pleasure. This corresponds to the attitude or outlook of “using” regarding sexual pleasure in the conjugal act. On the other hand, frui is the attitude of finding joy in a totally committed relationship with the spouse, the object (not of use, but of the action of loving) as this is what the nature of the object demands: the only proper way to relate to a person is love. Corresponding to the attitude or outlook of “loving,” frui may be brought about by the sexual pleasure that the conjugal act brings, so long as the sexual pleasure enjoyed is not seen as the end of the act but is considered as designed by the Creator to be enjoyed and shared by both spouses by virtue of the genuine love they have for each other, that is, with the affirmation of the value of the person, and concern for the true good of the other person.
III. The Church on Sexual Pleasure
A few remarks must be made regarding the teaching of the Church on sexual pleasure. This is in order to augment the ethical discussion considered above. As mentioned, the Church is not puritanical in its teaching regarding sex, the sexual act and the pleasure that springs from the act. It recognizes the inherent goodness of sex as something created by God. It puts sex in its proper place that is in the context of married love.
In Pius XII’s Allocution to Midwives, dating back 1951, the former pope speaks directly about seeking pleasure in the conjugal act:
The same Creator, who in his bounty and wisdom willed to make use of the work of man and woman, by uniting them in matrimony, for the preservation and propagation of the human race, has also decreed that in this function the partners should experience pleasure and happiness of body and spirit, Husband and wife, therefore, by seeking and enjoying this pleasure do no wrong. They accept what the Creator has destined for them.(24)
He upholds that God willed not only the objective goods of marriage, that is procreation and union, but also the pleasure derived from the conjugal act, so that married couples may gratefully seek it. Sexual act and sexual pleasure are intrinsically good since they come from the Creator Himself. Fr. Robert Barron indicates, “Accordingly, there is nothing perverse or morally questionable about bodies, sex, sexual longing or the sexual act.”(25) Indeed, sexual pleasure should be experienced and enjoyed by the spouses in a rightful manner, in the way it was intended by God.
For this reason, Pius XII stressed nevertheless a just moderation in seeking sexual pleasure. As with any bodily pleasure, spouses should not let themselves be abandoned to sensual impulses. He states, “For the pleasure is subordinate to the law of the action whence it is derived, and not vice versa the action to the pleasure. Moreover, this law, so very reasonable, concerns not only the substance but also the circumstances of the action, so that, even when the substance of the act remains morally right, it is possible to sin in the way it is performed.”(26) Here he is insisting that sexual pleasure may be lawfully enjoyed in the married state only.(27) However, even when the pleasure is lawful (when it is derived from the conjugal act of spouses), it is possible that it may lead to sin, in terms of “sinful love” as we have tackled in the preceding chapter. This must be the case when one or both spouses have the attitude of “using” and not one of “loving.”
Therefore it is necessary for sexual pleasure to be “drawn out of itself by the magnetic attraction of love,” in order to rescue it from self-preoccupation.(28) The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II:
Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and a woman commit themselves totally to one another until death.(29)
Sexual pleasure, as intrinsic to the conjugal act, is also realized in a truly human way in the loving commitment of the spouses to each other. It is likewise not a mere biological process that can be exploited for its own sake. The mutual love of the husband and wife, concerned for the true good of the spouses, is what “rescues” sexual pleasure from what the Catechism calls lust: a “disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.”(30) Lust corresponds to the attitude of “using,” where sexual pleasure is sought as an end isolated from the context of love for the other person (used as a mere means or object) and from the objective goods of marriage.
The Catechism declares, “The acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable; the truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify, and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude.”(31) This corresponds to the “loving” attitude or outlook toward sexual pleasure. Both husband and wife consider the pleasure coming from the conjugal act as a joyful celebration of their love, received gratefully from God, and which in turn nurtures and enlivens their relationship as a whole.(32) This attitude can be considered truly human since it seeks the true good of the person, to whom the only proper way to relate is love.
There are two possible attitudes or outlooks that a married person can have towards sexual pleasure: either an attitude of “using,” or an attitude of “loving.” One cannot have both at the same time, for one necessarily cancels the other. The first attitude considers sexual pleasure as the sole end of the conjugal act, and for this reason a spouse treats the other as a mere means to attain that end. The other person is treated as an object of use, an object exploited for the sake of selfish enjoyment. On the other hand, the attitude of “loving” does away with the view that sexual pleasure is an end of the conjugal act. Rather, it is an intrinsic part of the conjugal act, given by God as a gift for the spouses that they may joyfully celebrate their love for each other.
- Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, trans. H.T. Willetts (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1981), 24.
- Ibid., 25.
- Ibid., 28.
- Ibid., 26.
- Ibid., 32.
- Ibid., 33.
- Ibid., 39.
- Ibid., 43.
- Ibid., 28.
- Ibid., 30.
- See Vincent J. Genovesi, SJ, In Pursuit of Love: Catholic Morality and Human Sexuality, 2nd ed. (Philippines: Jesuit Communications, 2003), 243. “It is marital love that brings spouses together in the intimacies of genital expression and draws them beyond themselves into a generous openness to children.”
- Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 30.
- Cf. Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler, The Sexual Person: Toward A Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press), 129. “Pleasure unites with the relational dimension of humanity to draw us toward another person in the most profound way through sexual activity. It is a good created by God and given as gift to humans. Like all gifts, it can be used for good or evil.”
- Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 41.
- Ibid. Emphasis mine.
- Ibid., 42.
- Genovesi, Pursuit of Love, 245. He also emphasized the insight that should pervade spousal erotic love, that is, “my happiness and pleasure are conditioned by yours, my spouse. I am only pleased if you are.” Also see Salzman and Lawler, Sexual Person, 129.
- See Genovesi, Pursuit of Love, 246-248. Here Genovesi discusses how sexual pleasure – indeed the entire sexual life of the spouses – is affected by all other aspects of married life. According to him, the genital sex of spouses should celebrate and highlight their ongoing love. Sex is a re-expression of tender spousal love (a love that, we have said, affirms the value of the person), while strengthening and vitalizing this love. Conversely, sexual intimacy is affected when marriage as a whole lacks the mutual warm, caring and deep affection that it should have. This topic, although not directly related to our purposes, is nevertheless a noteworthy one. Also see Ronald Lawler, OFM Cap., Joseph Boyle, Jr., and William E. May, Catholic Sexual Ethics: A Summary, Explanation, and Defense (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1996), 63-64.
- Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 164.
- See Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 44.
- Pius XII, Allocution to Midwives, October 29, 1951, quoted in The Christian Faith: Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, eds. J. Neuner SJ and J. Dupuis SJ (Bangalore: Theological Publications, 1992), 738.
- Robert Barron, “Sex, Love, and God: The Catholic Answer to Puritanism and Nietzcheanism,” Word On Fire, October 24, 2012, accessed August 5, 2015, http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/sex-love-and-god-the-catholic-answer-to-puritanism-and-nietzcheanism/455/.
- Pius XII, Allocution to Midwives.
- See Lawler, Boyle, and May, Catholic Sexual Ethics, 62-63.
- See Barron, “Sex, Love, and God,” paragraph 3.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, definitive edition (Manila: Word & Life Publications, 1994), § 2361. Hereafter cited as CCC.
- CCC, § 2351.
- CCC, § 2362.
- See Salzman and Lawler, Sexual Person, 126.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. definitive ed. Manila: Word & Life Publications, 1994.
Pius XII. Allocution to Midwives. 29 October 1951. In The Christian Faith: Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church. Edited by J. Neuner, SJ and J. Dupuis, SJ. Bangalore: Theological Publications, 1992.
Genovesi, Vincent J., SJ. In Pursuit of Love: Catholic Morality and Human Sexuality. 2nd ed. Philippines: Jesuit Communications, 2003.
Lawler, Ronald, OFM Cap., Joseph Boyle, Jr., and William E. May. Catholic Sexual Ethics: A Summary, Explanation, and Defense. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1996.
Salzman, Todd A., and Michael G. Lawler. The Sexual Person: Toward A Renewed Catholic Anthropology. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2008.
Wojtyla, Karol. Love and Responsibility. Translated by H.T. Willetts. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1981.
Barron, Robert. “Sex, Love, and God: The Catholic Answer to Puritanism and Nietzcheanism.” Word On Fire. October 24, 2012. Accessed August 5, 2015, http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/sex-love-and-god-the-catholic-answer-to-puritanism-and-nietzcheanism/455/.
Br. John Vincent V. Portugal, RM is taking up his second year of studies for the Degree Bachelor in Theology (BTh) in preparation for priesthood.