New Book Outlines What the Church Really Says About Married Sex
VATICAN CITY — A new book has been published encouraging married Catholics to make love more often in an attempt to overcome the Church's perceived negativity toward sex and to address Pope John Paul II's concerns over declining birthrates.
The book, called It's a Sin Not To Do It, aims to reach out to Catholics and non-Catholics by using frank, everyday language in order to overcome misunderstandings over Church teaching on marriage and sex.
The book was written by two Italian theologians, Roberto Beretta and Elisabetta Broli, who write regularly for the Italian bishop'’ news-paper, Avvenire. The authors hope their work will help counter Italy's low birthrate, cited by John Paul as “a serious threat that weighs on the future of the country.”
“We want to show that the Church doesn't fear sex, as is usually perceived,” Beretta said. “In fact, the Church doesn't have anything against the ‘pleasure’ of the flesh in itself, neither the sexual act nor making love.”
The book, which quotes early Church Fathers, theologians and philosophers, contains chapters entitled “Sex is Obligatory,” “Catholics Make Love More Often” and “The Catholic Kamasutra.”
The work was published in October without the permission of the Vatican, but has so far not received any criticism from Rome. Beretta insists that all the chapters draw on Catholic orthodoxy, biblical doctrine and Church history, in particular the Second Vatican Council and the Pope's “Theology of the Body.”
One chapter contains a frank interview with Cardinal Ersilio Tonini in which he emphasizes that the Church has always defended the “nobility of sexuality” and regarded it as a “treasure.”
For Beretta, such an emphasis is urgently needed in a society which trivializes sex, leading to “impotence and frigidity.” One particular paragraph advises priests to urge spouses “to make love more often” rather than “dwell on prohibitions and limitations.”
Drawing on references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,the authors write: “Sex between Christian spouses is not only permitted, not only advised, but absolutely obligatory.” Allowing for exceptions, they argue that marriage is a legal contract, meaning that the act of making love is also a contractual obligation.
The Catechism states: “The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element that ‘makes the marriage.’ If consent is lacking, there is no marriage” (No. 1626).
It also teaches that the marital “consent that binds the spouses to each other finds its fulfillment in the two ‘becoming one flesh'” (No. 1627).
But at one time, the book notes, some Church leaders erroneously gave extensive and strict instructions on when married couples should not have sex. Sixth-century French bishop Caesarius of Arles, for example, taught that sex should not take place on Sundays, feast days or days leading up to receiving holy Communion. Beretta and Eroli say such teaching is not based on the Gospel.
It is a view echoed by Father Richard Hogan, associate director of Priests for Life. In an essay entitled “John Paul II's New Vision of Human Sexuality, Marriage and Family Life,” Father Hogan wrote, “God never told married couples when they should make love. That is totally up to the couple. What He does say (is) that when married couples love, they are to give themselves totally to one another.”
Tony Daly, who with his wife directs the Catholic Marriage Center in Wales, believes any attempt to popularize the truth about marriage “is to be welcomed,” although he said the title of the new book is “unfortunate, misleading and untrue.”
Daly said the message of the book should “not come as too much of a surprise” to anyone who has studied post-Second Vatican Council teachings on marriage and sexuality. Much of the ground it covers has been discussed clearly elsewhere, he added, though “old impressions of the Church's view on marriage and sexuality unfortunately linger on.”
Daly agreed with the book's argument that society is making sexuality banal with negative consequences. “Insensitivity, lack of knowledge and selfishness in the husband can lead to the constant frustration, disappointment of feeling of ‘being used’ by the wife,” Daly said. “Lust often predominates over true love, resulting in less sex in marriage and consequent relationship problems, including frigidity.”
Daly agrees with Beretta and Eroli that infrequency of sex can lead to impotence (“even more so is the use of contraceptives”) and hopes the book will extol the merits of natural family planning, which “exhibits all the aspects of true self-giving love.”
However, he believes the book will only have a lasting effect on raising birthrates if it “helps couples to see children as gifts from God and not as burdens, hindrances to careers or restrictive to desired lifestyles.”
Catholic marriage counselors generally welcomed the pretext for writing the book, though they are unable to comment more fully as the book has only had limited distribution so far.
Andy Alderson of the Cincinnati-based Couple-to-Couple League agrees that “many people have the wrong idea about what the Church really teaches about marriage, family and sexuality.” However, he said, John Paul's “Theology of the Body” and respected Catholic writers on marriage and sexuality are helping to overcome this.
The secular press, relying on an out-of-date view of the Church, has labeled Beretta and Broli's book “controversial,” mainly because of the explicit nature of some of the chapters. The authors concede that some parts may be offensive to some Catholics.
“We are aware that, perhaps for certain Catholics, our book could constitute a small scandal, given the arguments,” Beretta said. “But we are equally sure that many more people — above all, non-believers, though not only them — are waiting to see a presentation of the Church's message on sexuality presented in a more positive way.”
Concluded Beretta, “Without compromising any moral demands, there is at least the prospect of greater freedom in people's lives. It's this which, in our small way, we've tried to do with our book.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.
- November 14-20, 2004