Thinking about Sex and Marital SurrenderREV. TADEUSZ PACHOLCZYK
Do Americans think enough about sex?
Sex has a delicate structure of its own. At the heart of the marital act, we can identify a kind of surrender. The inner language of sexuality involves a surrender of our self and our self-will. Prior to the marital act, one already sees how this self-surrender begins to come into play: does my spouse feel up to it tonight? If we become pregnant, will I support her in the morning sickness that may ensue? Am I willing to surrender my desire for intimacy now, if we agree that we ought to wait? Am I ready to surrender myself to the various demands that will come with raising children well and responsibly? Am I open to my spouse's concerns tonight, even more than my own?
Even within the marital act itself, we discover this same aspect of self-surrender. St. Augustine referred to the intensity of sexual intimacy, noting that "when it reaches its climax, there is an almost total extinction of mental alertness; the intellectual senses, as it were, are overwhelmed." The point of climax, then, also involves a language of letting go of oneself, so that we enter a new and ecstatic space where we are no longer in command, where our own self-will no longer prevails.
In the depths of their one-flesh union, in their "union of self-annihilation," they discover this transcendent and mysterious possibility of engendering/receiving a "third." That "third" comes as an equal to the parents in part because the parents cannot selfishly lay claim to the new life as if it were an entitlement, possession or right. With the ultimate origin of that new life out of their control, they cannot subjugate it as "unequal" or "lesser" than themselves, because of the inherent equality of origins between themselves as human beings and their children as human beings. The engendering of new life, in an important sense, always stands just outside their full control. The inner structure of human sexuality thus includes this central and discernible meaning: that the root origin of new human life is meant to ultimately lie beyond our own direct determination, being instead the fruit of a collaborative surrender and union with our spouse and with God.
Once we begin to see this beautiful inner order of human sexuality, we can also begin to appreciate how both contraception and IVF manage to upset the apple cart of sexual relations in married life. When a married couple uses contraception, they say with their bodies that they do not, in fact, surrender to each other. They hold back a deep and critical aspect of themselves, namely, their own fruitfulness and fertility. They refuse to share that part of themselves with each other and with God. Because sex is about total surrender, contraception strikes at the heart of human sexuality by turning it into a partial and warped exchange, where one spouse may use the other to gain certain desired satisfactions. This can amount more to manipulation and domination, perhaps even a form of mutual masturbation, rather than loving surrender.
The entire dimension of loss-of-self in mutual surrender, opening up a self-less space for the arrival of a "third," is stripped away by contraception. Any child who might happen to be conceived (in spite of contraceptive efforts) arrives not as a welcome "third" equal to the parents, but as an unequal, less-than-desired encumbrance. The "third" is perceived as a threat to my desires and plans. I must remain in command, in charge, rather than living in the fruitful mystery of total surrender in marriage. The appearance of this "third" who is outside my game plan may lead to the next step—abortion—reflecting a radical closure of the marriage to any kind of surrender or acceptance, and a firm rejection of any kind of equality between parent and child. So while there should be real surrender in this setting, with contraception there is instead a real form of domination over the origins of another. The apple cart goes topsy-turvy as contraception enters a marriage.
Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk. "Thinking about Sex and Marital Surrender." Making Sense Out of Bioethics (March 1, 2007).
Father Tad Pacholczyk, Ph.D. writes a monthly column, Making Sense out of Bioethics, which appears in various diocesan newspapers across the country. This article is reprinted with permission of the author, Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D.
The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) has a long history of addressing ethical issues in the life sciences and medicine. Established in 1972, the Center is engaged in education, research, consultation, and publishing to promote and safeguard the dignity of the human person in health care and the life sciences. The Center is unique among bioethics organizations in that its message derives from the official teaching of the Catholic Church: drawing on the unique Catholic moral tradition that acknowledges the unity of faith and reason and builds on the solid foundation of natural law.
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Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk earned a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Yale University. Father Tad did post-doctoral research at Massachusetts General Hospital/ Harvard Medical School. He subsequently studied in Rome where he did advanced studies in theology and in bioethics. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2007 Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D.
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