147. This calls for a pedagogical
process that involves renunciation.
This conviction on the part of the Church has often been rejected as opposed
to human happiness. Benedict XVI summed up this charge with great
the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness
the most precious thing in life?
Doesn’t she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator’s gift
offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?”
responded that, although there have been exaggerations and deviant forms of
asceticism in Christianity, the Church’s official teaching, in fidelity to
the Scriptures, did not reject “eros as such, but
rather declared war on a warped and destructive form of it,
because this counterfeit divinization of eros…
actually strips it of divine dignity and dehumanizes it”.
148. Training in the areas
of emotion and instinct is necessary, and at times this requires setting
limits. Excess, lack of control or obsession with a single form of pleasure
can end up weakening and tainting that very pleasure and damaging family
can certainly channel his passions in a beautiful and healthy way,
increasingly pointing them towards altruism and an integrated self-fulfilment that can only enrich interpersonal
relationships in the heart of the family.
not mean renouncing moments of intense enjoyment,
but rather integrating them with other moments of generous commitment,
patient hope, inevitable weariness and struggle to achieve an ideal. Family
life is all this, and it deserves to be lived to the fullest.
149. Some currents of spirituality
teach that desire has to be eliminated as a path to liberation from pain.
believe that God loves the enjoyment felt by human beings: he created us and
“richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). Let us be
glad when with great love he tells us: “My son, treat yourself well… Do not
deprive yourself of a happy day” (Sir 14:11-14).
likewise respond to God’s will when they take up the biblical injunction: “Be
joyful in the day of prosperity” (Ec 7:14). What is
important is to have the freedom to realize that pleasure can find different
expressions at different times of life, in accordance with the needs of
sense, we can appreciate the teachings of some Eastern masters who urge us to
expand our consciousness, lest we be imprisoned by one limited experience
that can blinker us. This expansion of consciousness is not the denial or
destruction of desire so much as its broadening and
The erotic dimension of love
150. All this brings us to
the sexual dimension of marriage.
himself created sexuality, which is a marvellous
gift to his creatures.
If this gift needs to be cultivated and directed, it is to prevent the
“impoverishment of an authentic value”.
Saint John Paul II rejected the claim that the Church’s teaching is “a
negation of the value of human sexuality”, or that the Church simply
tolerates sexuality “because it is necessary for procreation”.
Sexual desire is not something to be looked down upon, and “and there can be
no attempt whatsoever to call into question its necessity”.
151. To those who fear that
the training of the passions and of sexuality detracts from the spontaneity
of sexual love, Saint John Paul II replied that human persons are “called to
full and mature spontaneity in their relationships”, a maturity that “is the
gradual fruit of a discernment of the impulses of one’s own heart”.
This calls for discipline and self-mastery,
human person “must learn, with perseverance and consistency, the meaning of
his or her body”.
Sexuality is not a means of gratification or entertainment;
it is an
interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her
sacred and inviolable dignity.
As such, “the human heart comes to participate, so to speak, in another kind
of spontaneity”. In this context, the erotic appears as a specifically
human manifestation of sexuality. It enables us to discover “the nuptial
meaning of the body and the authentic dignity of the gift”. In his catecheses on the theology of the body, Saint John Paul
II taught that
differentiation not only is “a source of fruitfulness and procreation”, but
also possesses “the capacity of expressing love:
that love precisely in which the human person becomes a gift”.
A healthy sexual desire, albeit closely joined to a pursuit of pleasure,
always involves a sense of wonder, and for that very reason can humanize the
152. In no way, then, can we
consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a
burden to be tolerated for the good of the family.
Rather, it must be seen as gift from God that enriches the relationship of
As a passion sublimated by a love respectful of the dignity of the other, it
becomes a “pure, unadulterated affirmation” revealing the marvels of which
the human heart is capable.
In this way, even momentarily, we can feel that “life has turned out good and
Violence and manipulation
153. On the basis of this positive vision of
sexuality, we can approach the entire subject with a healthy realism. It is,
after all, a fact that sex often becomes depersonalized and unhealthy; as a
result, “it becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the
selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts”.
In our own
day, sexuality risks being poisoned by the mentality of “use and discard”.
The body of the other is often viewed as an object to be used as long as it
offers satisfaction, and rejected once it is no longer appealing.
Can we really ignore or overlook the
continuing forms of domination, arrogance, abuse, sexual perversion and
violence that are the product of a warped understanding of sexuality? Or the
fact that the dignity of others and our human vocation to love thus end up
being less important than an obscure need to “find oneself”?
154. We also know that, within
marriage itself, sex can become a source of suffering and manipulation.
must be clearly reaffirmed that “a conjugal act imposed on one’s spouse
without regard to his or her condition, or personal and reasonable wishes in
the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in
its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife”.
The acts proper to the sexual union of husband and wife correspond to the
nature of sexuality as willed by God when they take place in “a manner which
is truly human”. Saint Paul insists: “Let
no one transgress and wrong his brother or sister in this matter” (1 Th 4:6). Even though Paul was writing in the context of a
patriarchal culture in which women were considered completely subordinate to
men, he nonetheless taught
must involve communication between the spouses: he brings up the possibility
of postponing sexual relations for a period, but “by agreement” (1 Cor
155. Saint John Paul II very subtly
warned that a couple can be “threatened by insatiability”. In other words,
while called to an increasingly profound union, they can risk effacing their
differences and the rightful distance between the two. For each possesses his
or her own proper and inalienable dignity. When reciprocal belonging turns
into domination, “the structure of communion in interpersonal relations is
It is part of the mentality of domination that those who dominate end up
negating their own dignity.
Ultimately, they no longer “identify themselves subjectively with
their own body”, because they take away its deepest meaning. They end up
using sex as form of escapism and renounce the beauty of conjugal union.
156. Every form of sexual submission
must be clearly rejected.
This includes all improper interpretations of the passage in the Letter to
the Ephesians where Paul tells women to “be subject to your husbands” (Eph 5:22). This passage mirrors the cultural categories
of the time, but our concern is not with its cultural matrix but with the
revealed message that it conveys. As Saint John Paul II wisely observed:
“Love excludes every kind of
subjection whereby the wife might become a servant or a slave of the husband…
The community or unity which they should establish through marriage is
constituted by a reciprocal donation of self, which is also a mutual
subjection”. Hence Paul goes on to say
that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph 5:28). The biblical text is actually concerned with
encouraging everyone to overcome a complacent individualism and to be constantly
mindful of others: “Be subject to one another” (Eph
marriage, this reciprocal “submission” takes on a special meaning, and is
seen as a freely chosen mutual belonging marked by fidelity, respect and
care. Sexuality is inseparably at the service of this conjugal friendship,
for it is meant to aid the fulfilment of the other.
157. All the same, the rejection of
distortions of sexuality and eroticism should never lead us to a
disparagement or neglect of sexuality and eros in
The ideal of marriage cannot be seen purely as generous donation and
self-sacrifice, where each spouse renounces all personal needs and seeks only
the other’s good without concern for personal satisfaction.
We need to
remember that authentic love also needs to be able to receive the other, to
accept one’s own vulnerability and needs, and to welcome with sincere and
joyful gratitude the physical expressions of love found in a caress, an
embrace, a kiss and sexual union.
Benedict XVI stated
this very clearly:
“Should man aspire to be pure
spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then
spirit and body would both lose their dignity”.
For this reason, “man cannot
live by oblative, descending love alone.
He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love
must also receive love as a gift”.
Still, we must never
forget that our human equilibrium is fragile; there is a part of us that
resists real human growth, and any moment it can unleash the most primitive
and selfish tendencies.