Humanae Vitae’s Singular Vision

The marital act has both a unitive and a procreative meaning – this, we are told, authoritatively in Humanae Vitae, whose fiftieth anniversary is tomorrow, but not only there. And we are also told that these meanings are inseparable.  So couples who think they are getting the unitive dimension on its own, by using contraception, are deceived and not getting it at all.  They have changed what appear to be acts of love into a mere coordination of egoisms (as Wojtyla says in Love and Responsibility).

A single marital act, however, seems enough for the procreative meaning of the act to have its full force – namely, when a child is conceived.  The couple comes together just once and, as it happens, they have successfully procreated.  So, if the unitive and procreative meanings are inseparable, does it follow that a single marital act can be enough, too, for its unitive meaning to have full force?

I want to argue that it does, not merely for its own sake, but to help refute a heresy of the day.  According to that heresy, when couples get married they should want two things: to beget and raise children, and to enjoy a lifetime of sexual satisfaction. Call this second thing “sexual companionship,” “a good sex life,” or “continual intimacy” – or whatever. The heresy is to say that this second thing, or the marital act’s contribution to this, is what is meant by the unitive dimension.

Some people even say that a married couple has a right to “sexual satisfaction.”  But since pregnancy, childbirth, and the stresses of parenting are plainly at odds with this “sexual satisfaction,” it looks like contraception is needed to balance the two, in what gets called “responsible parenthood.”

For this heresy, once is not enough – no number of times is ever enough.  The sex act has a purely progressive meaning, as contributing to an ongoing life of sexual fulfillment.  The next act is always necessary to continue this satisfaction and, even, to prove it.  The past act must appear to count for nothing.

But once is enough as regards the most important unity in marriage, whereby they become two in one flesh: “A valid marriage between the baptized is called ratified only if it has not been consummated; it is called ratified and consummated if the spouses have performed between themselves in a human fashion a conjugal act which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring, to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh.” (CIC 1061 §1)

And clearly there are many couples for which once was enough for every kind of unity.  You probably know couples – my uncle and aunt were like this – he was a soldier, and she his high school sweetheart. They got married just before he was deployed to Europe during World War II.  He spent three years away.

Assume for argument’s sake their honeymoon night was one night only.  Wouldn’t the consummation of that one night – or their marriage as viewed through that lens – have been enough for him to claim, for all those years, every form of marital union? So he would have a strong reason to refuse to visit prostitutes, or to flirt with the girls in French towns?

The case is even stronger, of course, if a child is conceived.  In the movie The Natural, Iris (the Glen Close character) sends Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) a note, saying to the messenger, “I have his son in the stands. He doesn’t know his son is here.” When Hobbs (in the on-deck circle) reads the note, and realizes that his one act with this woman fourteen years before had conceived a child, he does not weigh having a son with her against lack of sexual satisfaction with her, through their years of separation – as if the lack in the one respect could touch the unity in the other respect.  We would despise him if he did. Rather, in the movie, he must deliberately reject as a false, competing ideal the sexual companionship promised by Memo (Kim Basinger).

The “once is enough” attitude is retrospective as well as prospective. A pure-hearted man, during courtship, longs to be joined with his beloved.  When he gains her, he takes custody of that union in his heart.  What before was longing, becomes gratitude afterwards.  Gratitude is never static.  But each subsequent union on this understanding is free rather than compelled.  There is no need to constitute anything – continual sexual satisfaction – because the one-flesh unity of the marriage already exists, which the couple will naturally want to memorialize and restate.

I said that it “seems” that the procreative meaning can attain its full force in a single marital act.  Actually not: because procreation for human beings is not the mere conception of a new life but also the raising and educating of that being over something like twenty years.  Thus, the procreative meaning is not something inert; it must be elicited by the deliberate will of the parents, cooperating together.  But in the same sense it can fulfill the unitive sense, if the parents deliberately choose to see that growing child as the embodiment of their one-flesh union.

We cannot discuss the good direction of the will and “seeing” things in the right way without bringing in the virtues.  That is why it is a calumny to say, as some do, against the magisterial teaching of John Paul II, that he failed to appreciate the difficulties of married couples needing to abstain.

What I have called the heresy of sexual satisfaction, he refers to as “concupiscence.”  He concludes his famous catechesis on theology of the body with a lengthy discussion of the virtue of “continence” in the service of “conjugal chastity,” which “gradually reveals itself as a singular capacity to perceive, love, and practice those meanings of the language of the body which remain altogether unknown to concupiscence itself.”

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available.