The Dehumanisation of Marital Sex

Cormac Burke FAITH Magazine January – February 2011

In a timely piece following upon Pope Benedict's recent remarks concerning condom use outside marriage, Mgr Cormac Burke convincingly brings out the serious spiritual consequences of contracepting the marital act, especially concerning the act's unitive dimension. Mgr Burke is a former Judge of the Roman Rota, and now lectures at Strathmore University, Nairobi, Kenya. His best known books are Covenanted Happiness and Man and Values, both published by Scepter Press.

1. Humanae Vitae initiated a new analysis of the conjugal act

Humanae Vitae, Paul Vl's 1968 Encyclical is principally recalled as reiterating the Church's perennial condemnation of artificial birth-control. But it is much more than that. It opened up the way for a deeper human understanding of, what in sexual intercourse between husband and wife, justifies its being termed the conjugal act.

Certainly Humanae Vitae condemned contraception in unambiguous terms. "The Church teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life" (no. 11). It is correct to say that there is nothing new here. But then, in pivotal words, Paul VI gives the root reason for this teaching: "This particular doctrine... is based on the inseparable connection ... between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act" (no. 12). Now here indeed (and this is all-important to our present theme) we do have something new. Here in fact a new principle is enunciated which permits a much deeper anthropological and theological analysis of the conjugalact: the principle that its unitive significance and its procreative significance are inherent to it, in inseparable connection.

This insight of Paul VI is now firmly established in magisterial doctrine. The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: "The conjugal act has a twofold meaning: unitive (the mutual self-giving of the spouses) and procreative (an openness to the transmission of life). No one may break the inseparable connection which God has established between these two meanings of the conjugal act by excluding one or the other of them" (no. 96). Paul VI stated the principle without submitting it to further analysis. Over the intervening 40 years, however, this analysis has been carried on in papal magisterium, notably in John Paul II's catechesis on the "theology of the body". Here, in John Paul's footsteps, we will try to pursue this analysis further, following ananthropological more than a theological line of reasoning.

2. What gives distinctive meaning to the conjugal act?

The conjugal act is meant to be an act of union, expressing and reaffirming the singular "oneness" of the spouses. But what is there in the marriage act that can be said to make the spouses "one"? What is it about the act that unites them in a distinctively conjugal way?

The unitive significance of the act cannot be reduced to the pleasure that normally accompanies it. After all, that pleasure is not always experienced by both spouses, or in the same measure. If the distinctiveness of the conjugal act consisted simply or essentially in the pleasure it procures, then an act between the spouses that gives no pleasure to one would be a failed conjugal act and would, at least for that person, signify nothing.

It is not the pleasure but something else that gives significance to the conjugal act. The conjugal act may or may not be accompanied by pleasure, pleasure that is always transient. But the significance of the act is not transient; it lasts. And it is shown by what happens in that marital encounter, which is not just a touch, not a mere sensation, however intense, but a communication, an offer and acceptance, an exchange of something that uniquely represents the gift of oneself and the union of two selves.

Here, of course, it should not be forgotten that while two persons in love want to give themselves to one another, to be united to one another, this desire of theirs remains humanly speaking on a purely volitional level. They can bind themselves to one another, but they cannot literally give themselves on the physical level and become one organism. The greatest expression of a person's desire to give one's self[1] is to give the seed of one's self. Giving one's seed is much more significant, and in particular is much more real, than giving one's heart. "I am yours, I give you my heart; here, take it", remains mere poetry, to which no physical gesture can give true body. But, "I am yours; I give you my seed; here, take it", isnot poetry, it is love. It is conjugal love embodied in a unique and privileged physical action whereby intimacy is expressed - "I give you what I give no one" - and union is achieved: "Take what I have to give. This will be a new me. United to you, to what you have to give - to your seed - this takes on the character of a new "you-and-me", fruit of our mutual knowledge and love". In human terms, this is the closest one can come to giving one's self conjugally and to accepting the conjugal self-gift of another, and so achieving spousal union.

In this consists the singular quality of intercourse. Other physical expressions of affection do not go beyond the level of a mere gesture; they remain a symbol of the union desired. But the conjugal act is not a mere symbol. In true marital intercourse, something real has been exchanged, with a full gift and acceptance of conjugal masculinity and femininity. And there remains, as witness to their conjugal relationship and the intimacy of their conjugal union, the husband's seed in the wife's body. [2]
 3. 'Knowing' one another

"Adam knew Eve his wife" (Gn 4:1-2). This is how the Bible first describes conjugal intercourse; and it can further help our understanding. John Paul II observes:

"it is significant that the situation in which husband and wife unite so closely as to become one flesh has been defined as knowledge. In this way..., through the term knowledge used in Genesis 4:1-2 and often in the Bible, the conjugal relationship of man and woman - that they become, through the duality of sex, "one flesh" - was raised and introduced into the specific dimension of persons" (General Audience, March 5, 1980).

"In speaking here of knowledge, the Bible indicates the deepest essence of the reality of married life... Becoming 'one flesh', the man and the woman experience in a particular way the meaning of their body. In this way, together they become almost the one subject of that act and that experience, while remaining, in this unity, two really different subjects. In a way, this authorises the statement that 'the husband knows his wife' or that both 'know' each other. Then they reveal themselves to each other, with that specific depth of their own human self. Precisely this self is revealed also by means of their sex, their masculinity and femininity. Then, in a unique way, the woman 'is given' to the man to be known, and he to her" (ibid.).

It would be a parody to reduce this biblical mutual "knowledge" to a mere sharing of sensation. This in effect is what the proponents of contraception do. In contraceptive sex, the spouses do not "reveal themselves to each other" (and this should be especially evident in the case of the use of condoms). They do not "know" each other or possess each other [3]. For they have not actually given that which physically encapsulates the gift of themselves. By excluding the mutual gift of their procreative potential they cannot become the one unified subject of the act. They are not thereby united; rather they are "using" each other. Their sexual act will hinder, not foster respect for one another and actually becomes a force for division rather thanunion. Neither the sense of possessing the other, nor that of surrendering oneself to the other, can be present; only the experience of an appetite satisfied - but in a way that effects no union, which is empty and non-communicative, marked by one-sided appropriation rather than conjugal sharing.

4. To be unitive, the conjugal act must be performed in a 'truly human' way

Vatican II affirmed the noble function of marital intercourse inasmuch as it expresses and fosters the conjugal union of the spouses. "The actions within marriage by which the couple are intimately and chastely united are noble and honourable" (Gaudium et Spes, 9). It adds however an important rider: "The truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify" (ib.). Intercourse between spouses, if performed in a way that is not 'truly human', does not signify or foster the self-giving love proper to matrimony. It is not noble; nor is it moral. Forced intercourse, imposed by one spouse on the other, would evidently not be human in this sense[4]. Even though in such a case, the physical nature ofintercourse - the union of the genital organs and the passing of the semen - remains intact, its spiritual and personalist nature is negated. Such an act effects no full self-gift or true sexual union[5].

By their use of contraceptives the spouses' physical act -of apparent self-donation - is turned into a lie[6]. Contraceptive intercourse is not true sexual intercourse at all, and neither expresses nor effects any conjugal union. It is not an act of mutual love; it has been dehumanised[7].

There are many forms of bodily contact which can express different degrees of affection or love. Holding hands is perhaps the most elementary form. A simple hug would seem to express more; and a kiss even more. The marital embrace is the greatest physical expression of mutual spousal belonging and union. But the spouses, or one of them, can deliberately denaturalise this act in such a way that it no longer unites them or expresses their love.

Intercourse always consists in mutual communication. Human intercourse can be effected by looks or gestures, and particularly by means of words. But the words must be human, must make sense, and must be heard and received by the other person. Loving intercourse by means of the word is not real intercourse unless the word is accepted and reciprocated. If in an apparent attempt at conversation two people were to speak words at each other, but deliberately interposed an impenetrable sound panel between them, it could constitute some ridiculous sort of pantomime but would be a denial of any real desire for communication. If this is not the language of human communication, less still is it that of married love or union.

Intercourse implies that something is exchanged and accepted - be it verbal interchange of a word proffered and taken in, or sexual interchange of seed transmitted and received. It should be clear that contraceptives of whatever type dehumanise sexual intercourse, destroying both the procreative meaning and the unitive aspects of the conjugal act; the "inseparable" connection between the two aspects of the act is broken; its intimate structure is gone. It is so denaturalised as to no longer be the conjugal act; hence its unitive - no less than its procreative - purpose and meaning are also nullified.

This is true of all contraceptives (lUDs, pills, etc.), but is especially evident in the use of condoms (even if contraception were not the direct purpose of their use). Condomised intercourse is simply not human intercourse; in fact it is not sexual intercourse at all. In some way there may be the sensation of intercourse, but in no way the reality. Neither the objective sense of possessing the other nor of surrendering oneself to the other is present; only the feeling of a tension released - but in an ultimately empty, non-communicative, non-unitive, way.
5. The two narratives of Genesis

The interdependence and inseparability of the unitive and procreative aspects of the conjugal act emerge from this anthropological analysis; an analysis which encounters strong confirmation in the biblical account of the divine institution of marriage, i.e. of marriage 'as it was in the beginning'.

It is striking that we have not one but two narrations of the institution of marriage in Genesis (1:27-28; 2:18-24). The only logical conclusion to be drawn from this is that, in one and the same institution, God assigned two complementary purposes to marriage; but wished, in separate narratives, to stress first one end and then the other, so that we could better understand the synthesis, harmony and interdependence of these two ends.

The first narrative is clearly procreative in emphasis, and presents the power of procreation as a divine blessing: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply" (Gn 1:27-28). The second narrative emphasises rather the unitive aspect of marriage: "'It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him'... [So God fashioned the woman and brought him to the man]. Then the man said, 'This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man'. Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Gn 2:18,23-2). This dual narrative ofthe one institution is of inestimable importance in showing the complementarity (and not the opposition) between the two ends of matrimony as taught by the Church: "the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses and the transmission of life"[8].

6. One flesh

At this point, further consideration of the biblical statement that the spouses 'become one flesh'[9] may lead us deeper into the God-given mystery of conjugal sexuality. What is meant by these words, and what consequence can be drawn for our purpose?

Pius XII already commented on the unitive significance of this powerful biblical expression: "In its natural structure, the conjugal act is a personal action, a simultaneous and immediate cooperation on the part of the husband and wife, which by the very nature of the agents and the proper nature of the act is the expression of the mutual gift which, according to the words of Scripture, brings about union 'in one flesh'" (Address, October 29, 1951: AAS 3 (1951), 850).

It is clear that "una caro" cannot be taken literally as implying that husband and wife become one single being. Yet it does mean something very real. Spouses in love would naturally like to be fused into one; but this cannot actually be attained, for they always remain two separate persons. It has been common enough to hold that this "one flesh-ness" of the spouses is shown in the child that may derive from their union. This is suggestive but not altogether satisfactory (among other reasons, because their union does not necessarily give rise to a child).

In anthropological terms the expression seems better explained by holding that in their marital intercourse the spouses become 'one principle of life-giving power'. In this sense, and in this sense alone, they are made truly "one" in their intercourse[10]. For that, however, their intercourse itself must be true, i.e. it must not violate the inseparable connection between its unitive and procreative aspects, which gives its essential conjugal meaning to the marital act. Violation of this connection falsifies their intercourse; it no longer unites in any conjugal sense; it is no longer the marital act.

In relation to the morality of conjugal intercourse, John Paul II applies the test of its truthfulness; that it should respect and reflect its double and inseparably connected aspects, unitive and procreative. "In the conjugal act it is not licit to separate the unitive aspect from the procreative aspect, because both the one and the other pertain to the intimate truth of the conjugal act. The one is activated together with the other and in a certain sense the one by means of the other" (General Audience, Aug 22, 1984).

7. The marital use of condoms [11]

These reflections can help solve an apparently new moral question that has recently arisen: whether spouses can licitly engage in condomised sex when their motive is not contraceptive but simply to protect one of them against possible HIV infection. The general argument that the use of condoms is morally permissible in such a case is that, since the purpose is prophylactic and not contraceptive, their use does not contravene Humanae Vitae - whose scope would be limited to a condemnation of contraception.

As we have seen, the scope of Humanae Vitae goes much further; and provides a clear answer to this recent hypothesis. Condomised intercourse may not be a contraceptive act in purpose, i.e. to avoid possible conception. But it is anti-sexual (or contra-sexual) in nature, impeding that bodily intercourse by which the spouses express their being one. It is not a 'completed' sexual act in any human sense. It is so incomplete that it is not sexual intercourse at all, any more than coitus interruptus is. Coitus interruptus involves the beginning of a true sexual act, but its completion is deliberately frustrated. One might consider calling condomised sex coitus impeditus; but that will not do, for there is not even the initiation of a trueconjugal act[12].

Condomised sex is as unnatural as oral or anal sex. It is not sexual intercourse but sexual abuse, a pantomimic sexual act deprived of both its unitive and its procreative significance.

Animals too have intercourse; but it is not human. Intercourse is only human when it signifies a personal union - a union of the persons of the spouses - in one flesh. Now, in contraceptive intercourse there may be pleasure, but there is no conjugal union. It is an instance of two people sharing sexual satisfaction together. But it is in no way conjugal intercourse expressive of the real union of their persons. On the contrary, it is no more than solitary sex performed a deux; in other words, mutual masturbation. It undermines respect; it does not and cannot unite; it separates.

Complete sexual pleasure is legitimate, constructively formative and a gift of God when, and only when, it accompanies natural marital intercourse. Christian morality has always held that to seek satisfaction in the genital organs independently of lawful conjugal intercourse is gravely sinful. This applies fully to contraceptive sex between spouses for it is a gravely corrupted act, which can give a sexual release or satisfaction to one or both partners, but not - we repeat - in a conjugal way. As an act, it remains intrinsically self-centered, non-donative, non-unitive. Both physically and psychologically, it gravely violates the very nature and dignity of the conjugal act; and equally violates the respect that the spouses must show to each other in their marital intercourse.

In summary, then, we see the power of that principle enunciated by Humanae Vitae: the two meanings of the marital act cannot stand apart. If you separate them, you destroy both meanings; i.e. if you "disconnect" or divorce sexual intercourse from its inherent procreative meaning or function, you deprive it of its unitive meaning and function. The consequences of this de-humanisation of sexuality, prophetically foretold by Paul VI[13], have become so sadly evident over the past four decades.

In relation to condomised intercourse in particular, it is beside the point to argue that (e.g. in cases of avoiding possible HIV infection), the intention is not contraceptive. That may be true, but the more important fact is that the act is not unitive; it is in no way expressive of the uniqueness of conjugal sexual intercourse.

So, it is not simply that a condomised act is wrong because it is contraceptive. It is wrong because it is denaturalised, being both contra-ceptive and contra-unitive. It has lost its very nature as a physical act of union. It is no longer intercourse between husband and wife such as to signify and enact their mutual conjugal self-donation.

8. Failure to distinguish sexual love and lust

The Catechism of the Catholic Church warns that lust always threatens sexual love, also the love between husband and wife: "the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination" (no. 400). Lust is that powerful and self-centered aspect of sexual attraction that obscures the relationship and respect between man and woman, husband and wife. In the present state of our nature, lust can quickly make itself present when there is a sexual attraction. "Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes" (no. 2351). Lust centres on obtaining pleasure and tends to reduce the other person from thestatus of a person to be respected and loved to that of an object to be seized and enjoyed.

In our present state of human nature, lust accompanies our sexuality and, if not countered, prevents sexuality from being a school and a means of love, and turns it into an obsessive form of self-centeredness that tends to make others into objects of gratification or exploitation, and not persons to be respected or loved.

Contraceptives give priority to lust on the part of one or both spouses. This means that the other, at least in the enaction of the sexual act, tends to be reduced to being a means of sensual satisfaction, and not treated as a person and spouse.

Love and respect for one's partner indeed often demand restraint and, if necessary, sacrifice. What is needed is a campaign of human sex; educating people in how love and respect go together; and hence how married love, if true, facilitates restraint and self-sacrifice whenever the presence of lust tends to make conjugal intercourse self-centered and exploitative.

9. The call to chastity

"Safe-Sex" has become an obsessive slogan in Western societies, and it figures high on the agenda Western agencies press on the emerging world. It is more and more presented as a sort of moral obligation - but the 'morality' involved relates to "safety", not to sexuality. Sexual conduct of any form is considered to be perfectly acceptable. What is unacceptable, what indeed must be regarded as irresponsible and even immoral, is "unsafe" sex; unsafe because it might do serious harm to one's own bodily health or to that of one's 'partner'. That is the only danger, the only clearly wrong" thing in all of this matter. With that proviso - that it does no harm to the health of the body - sexual conduct is a neutral area. The idea is absent that sexual conduct can do harm to the health of one'sspirit, of one's humanity; that it can overthrow a person's human balance, turning him or her obsessively in on self, seeing in others no more than sex-objects, incapable of any deep or lasting love or of the respect that is the very hallmark of love.

Chastity, in the various forms and with the varied demands it makes according to one's state, is presented by the Church not just as a religious obligation but as a natural imperative if mutual respect is to be preserved between the sexes, and love be safeguarded against the undermining force of lust.

The Church believes that people have a natural capacity to distinguish between generous love and self-centered lust. It teaches that chastity is a necessary preparation for marriage; that mutual respect provides the framework within which true love can grow between a couple, giving them the clarity of sight to judge extent and genuineness of their love. It also teaches that chaste mutual respect is a condition of harmony and happiness in marriage. Spouses too, if they are not chaste in mutual relations, reduce each other to the level of an object to be enjoyed and not of a spouse to be revered within the plans of God.

The safe-sex approach is fundamentally insulting to humanity in general. It implies that young people cannot be chaste or respect each other before marriage; and insistently sends them the message that any desire to relate to others in a pure way or to live a chaste love, is impossible in practice and foolish in outlook. It is equally insulting to married people to affirm that they cannot be expected to live that same mutual respect, that they are impelled to reduce each other to the level of an object to be enjoyed and not kept and revered as a spouse to be honored.

The proponents of "safe-sex" are emphatic that the Church, in preaching chastity, is "impractical", out of touch with human nature, and an obstacle to human progress and people's welfare. Of what progress are they speaking? Is it progress for humanity when sexuality is deprived of all sense of mystery and sacredness, when sexual attraction is no longer sensed as a force directed to a life-long communion of two persons, when sexual activity is to be as promiscuous as among animals, when sexual intercourse is reduced to a meeting of two bodies which is quite compatible with a one-sided or mutual contempt for the persons involved -the very level of prostitution?

Under the heading of "Continence Protects the Dignity of the Conjugal Act", John Paul II insists: "Continence consists in the capacity to dominate, control and direct drives of a sexual character... The role of conjugal chastity, and still more precisely that of continence, lies not only in protecting the importance and dignity of the conjugal act in relation to its procreative meaning. But it also lies in safeguarding the importance and the dignity proper to the conjugal act as expressive of interpersonal union" (Audience, Oct 2,1984; emphasis added). No interpersonal union is expressed or effected by a contraceptive act between husband and wife. It is a non-unitive act where each one uses the other as a source of pleasure but neither shows a truly human respect for noris united to him or her.

Chastity is possible, both before marriage and in marriage. And chastity is always the safeguard of love and respect. Benedict XVI echoes the positive call of the Church to both the married and the unmarried: "Have great respect for the institution of the sacrament of Matrimony. There cannot be true domestic happiness unless, at the same time, there is fidelity between spouses. Marriage is an institution of natural law, which has been raised by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament; it is a great gift that God has given to mankind: respect it and honour it. At the same time, God calls you to respect one another when you fall in love and become engaged, since conjugal life, reserved by divine ordinance to married couples, will bring happiness and peace only to the extent that you are ableto build your future hopes upon chastity, both within and outside marriage" (Address to Youth, May 10, 2007).


[1] I am aware that the reader may initially take the reference here to "seed" in the usual (though restricted) biological sense of the male semen. This would be a hindrance to following the argument being developed. I refer not just to "seed", but to "seed of oneself". By this I mean the complementary procreative element, whether male or female, which the spouses offer to each other in intercourse, and the giving-accepting of which constitutes the maximum expression of their corporal union. The discourse here is anthropological (based on the unity of body and soul) and not simply biological. The reader, who understands this, will also understand that our argument has no interest in nor is affected by marginal and non-typicalcases (as, for instance, the older man who marries and may not be capable of actual insemination).
[2] This anthropological analysis is developed at length in my article "Married Love and Contraception": Osservatore Romano Oct. 10, 1988; cf

[3]"biblical knowledge can be explained as 'possession'" John Paul II, General Audience March 26, 1980.

[4] Humanae Vitae makes the point quite clearly: "a conjugal act imposed on one's partner 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" (no. 13).
[5] The post-conciliar Code of Canon Law (1983) has inserted this phrase, humano modo, in defining what form of intercourse consummates marriage. Canon 1061,1 states that a marriage is "consummated, if the spouses have in a human manner engaged together in a conjugal act in itself apt for the generation of offspring... by [which] the spouses become one flesh". The introduction of the "humano modo" here has served to confirm the already common jurisprudential doctrine that marriage is not consummated by a contraceptive act between the spouses.
[6] "Contraception contradicts the truth of conjugal love", John Paul II, Address, September 17, 1983.

[7] Some may wish to dismiss these arguments as if they rested on a purely 'biological' concept of human sexuality. Behind this dismissiveness lies the dualism that is more and more common today: the tendency to disconnect body from spirit and to reject the Catholic approach that the body is part of the person and that its physical functions are meant to reflect and fulfil the aspirations of the soul. Pope John Paul's "Theology of the Body" is a profound refutation of this destructive dualism.
[8] CCC, no. 2362. cf. C. Burke: "Marriage: a personalist or an institutional understanding?": Communio 19 (1992), 278-30.
[9] Gn 2:24. It is on this same strong expression that Jesus bases his teaching that man must not separate what God has joined together: Mt 19:4-6.
[10]"the procreative and unitive goods of marriage are tightly bound together. The one-flesh unity of spouses is possible because human (like other mammalian) males and females, by mating, unite organically — they form a single reproductive principle. ... Masturbatory, sodomitical, and other sexual acts that are not reproductive in type cannot unite persons organically: that is, as a single reproductive principle. Therefore, such acts cannot be engaged in for the sake of marital (that is, one-flesh, bodily) unity as such. They cannot be marital acts" (Robert P. George: "Marriage, Morality, and Rationality" in The Meaning of Marriage, Spence, 2006, p. 151).
[11] cf Luke Gormally, Marriage and the Prophylactic Use of Condoms, (Faith, March-April 2006, 16-24.
[12] Hence one understands that, even if their complaint remains merely at the sense-level, many couples, especially many men, complain of the 'something missing' in the experience of condomised sex.
[13] "Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings — and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation — need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods mayforget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.... [So] In preserving intact the whole moral law of marriage, the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilisation" (HV 17-18).

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