As a convert, I am sometimes asked what brought me into the Catholic faith. Conversion cannot be reduced to a simple formula, but the answer for me, at least in part, was being deeply struck and attracted by the truth and beauty of the Church’s understanding of marriage. We often hear that the Church’s teachings on marriage and sex drive people away, but this certainly not my own response as a husband and father.
When it comes to such topics, it is easy for people to reject the Church’s teachings out of hand. This is certainly the case with Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which for 50 years has been much maligned but seldom read.
Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church is not opposed to sex. Rather, an examination of some of Humanae Vitae’s key teachings — including the four characteristics of married love and the inseparable connection of the meanings of sex — reveals the Church’s high regard for sex, viewed in its proper context.
FOUR CHARACTERISTICS OF MARRIED LOVE
Section 9 of Humanae Vitae speaks of four foundational “characteristics” of marriage.
1. Married love is fully human and involves free will. It is not the love of angels (who lack bodies), nor the instinct of animals (who lack spiritual souls). Rather, it unites husband and wife in both body and spirit. It is lived out in bodily form in the day-in and day-out lives they share together. This love is uniquely expressed and made possible in the bodily act of the marital embrace.
2. Married love is total. It is a unique kind of love that results in bodily and spiritual oneness and mutual belonging. Given to each other by God, husband and wife are called to share everything with the other and to put the other first. Most especially, the oneness to which husband and wife are called is made visible in the very flesh of their children.
3. The third characteristic — faithfulness for life — is implied by the previous two. If married love is spiritual, embodied and total, it cannot be partial or limited. If husband and wife belong mutually each to the other, they cannot bestow themselves to another. Likewise, they cannot give themselves “only for a time.” Married love implies the gift of one’s whole life.
4. Finally, married love is fruitful. It is the very nature of married love to be directed toward children and the family. When we stop and think about it, the male body makes no sense if considered separately from the female body, and vice versa. The complementarity of man and woman just as obviously rests on the possibility of having children together. Without this ordination to bearing and raising children, the love of husband and wife risks closing in on itself. Scripture therefore relates the creation of man and woman directly and immediately to the first commandment of the Bible: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28).