This very important question concerns millions of Catholic couples. It concerns the subject of impotence. I understand that Catholic teaching requires that all acts of sex among married couples culminate in intercourse. Since sexual impotence is very common among many couples I would like to know your opinion of what such couples are to do when they are no longer able to have intercourse, but are still able to have sex that does not involve intercourse. I understand that allowing for the possiblity of conception is an important aspect of sex, however if conception is impossible due to impotence than what is the point of forbidding such couples from maintaining the only type of sexual intimacy that they have left in their lives? Joe
Impotence and Sexuality
You ask an honest question: “if (intercourse and) conception are impossible due to impotence, then what is the point of forbidding such couples from maintaining the only type of sexual intimacy that they have left in their lives?”
First we need to clarify your question. What is the “only type of sexual intimacy that they have left in their lives?” In the broad sense, sexual intimacy could include the whole gamut of wholesome non genital expressions of warmth, tenderness and affection. It could include holding hands, hugging, holding one another, kissing. This non exhaustive list of expressions of affection can legitimately express the gift of self in authentic marital love and could be included in the broad definition of sexual intimacy. Certainly the Church’s moral teaching does not forbid this kind of non genital sexual intimacy for a couple dealing with the disorder of impotence or for any married couple. But I suspect that your question has to do with why genital sexual intimacy is considered immoral for a couple unable to bring the foreplay of sexual arousal to its intended completion in the marriage act of sexual intercourse. Put another way, what could be wrong with a husband trying to arouse in his wife as much sexual pleasure as he can in the regrettable situation where impotence prevents his own sexual arousal and the act of sexual intercourse between the two of them? Though not exactly the same issue, there are enough parallels between the Church’s teaching on why masturbation is wrong, that it can shed a great deal of light on the question about why deliberate genital sexual arousal is wrong when the condition of impotence is present. To help present the deeper issues involved I will be quoting from Christopher West’s book, Good News About Sex and Marriage –Answers to Your Honest Questions About Catholic Teaching from Servant Publications.
“Most psychologists speak of masturbation as a normal, healthy thing. They even indicate that it’s unhealthy not to masturbate. Why doesn’t the Church just get with it?”
“We must realize that without the perspective of God’s plan in the beginning, and without understanding that Christ came into the world to restore that plan, we’ll inevitably be looking at our experience of sexual desire through the lens of our fallen humanity. From this perspective, masturbation does seem like a “normal” and even “healthy” thing.
It’s “normal” to be sexually aroused, right? It’s “normal” to want to “relieve” sexual tension, right? If you have an itch, you don’t just let it drive you crazy – you scratch it, right? So it could actually be “unhealthy” to let sexual tension build up without “relieving” it, right?
There’s a certain logic here. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to understand why masturbation is wrong within this paradigm. What’s needed is a paradigm shift. What’s needed, not just to understand the masturbation issue but in order to understand the truth of sexuality and, in turn, the true meaning of love and life – is a complete paradigm shift.
We’ve inherited a worldview (modern rationalism) that’s closed in on itself. …We can’t see beyond the physical and the visible to the spiritual and invisible. … We encounter another body, and rather than seeing the revelation of a person created in the image and likeness of God, we see a thing to use and consume for our own gratification.
We encounter the deep waters of sexual desire, and rather than seeing our call to share in the divine mystery by swimming in the pure waters of life-giving love with an “other,” we dive headfirst into our own stagnant swamp…
As we’ve noted, sex is symbolic. It’s meant to be an efficacious sign of God’s free, total, faithful, fruitful love. It’s meant to be a human participation in the divine Communion of Persons.” (page 79).
We need to shift into the paradigm of the God-given truth, beauty, goodness, sacredness and meaning of sex. In this paradigm every act of sexual intercourse between spouses is meant to be a reflection of divine love and to renew and affirm the marriage covenant by being free, total, faithful and open to new life. With regard to the question of the morality of deliberate genital sexual arousal by one or both spouses of the other, or, of oneself, when there is no possibility of sexual intercourse, the meaning of the word, total, is critical. I return to the explanation from the book referred to above.
“Total. The climax of the sexual act shouts loudly and clearly, “Take me. I’m totally yours. I’m holding nothing back.” That ecstatic moment reflects the unreserved surrender of our persons and the unreserved receptivity of the other.
…But stimulation of each others genitals to the point of climax apart from an act of normal intercourse is nothing other than mutual masturbation. There’s no gift of self, no marital communion taking place at all.” (page 90)
A husband suffering from impotence may object, “What do you mean, there is “no marital communion taking place at all.” “Isn’t there some marital love value in my intention to give my wife some sexual pleasure apart from our regrettable and unintended impossibility of having sexual intercourse?”
I reply that the focus on deliberately arousing genital sexual pleasure in one’s spouse when sexual intercourse is impossible due to impotence, even when motivated by the subjective intention of “giving something good to my spouse,” is a misplaced focus and does not accord with the God-given nuptial meaning of genital sex. In God’s plan for redeemed human conjugal love, the focus ought to be on the gift of self in a free, total, faithful and fruitful marriage covenant. There are many morally upright ways to express the gift of self apart from genital activity and venereal pleasure. The extraordinary and virginal marriage of Mary and Joseph offer us an example of this. But the deliberate arousal of genital sexual pleasure in one’s spouse is moral only when it is part of expressing the free, mutual, total, faithful, open-to-new-life, loving, objective, nuptial meaning of the “two become one flesh” God-designed marriage act (Gen. 2:24). Sexual pleasure is meant to be a God-given consequence or “side effect” of the marriage act. When arousing sexual pleasure becomes the focus and/or the end of spousal “sexual intimacy,” apart from the marriage act, it is a disorder and in need of redemption. The true and worthy end of loving, mutual, interpersonal, self giving far transcends the intoxicating and fleeting side effect of sexual pleasure. Thus, sexual intimacy ought to be understood, valued and appreciated within the paradigm of the God-given meaning of redeemed human sexuality.
God can work directly, or through the Church and/or through the medical profession to bring about a healing of impotence. And God will work everything to the good for those who love Him (Rom. 8:28). Let us place our trust and love totally in God.
Fr. John Warburton, OSJ
Fr. John Warburton, OSJ
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