One Body: Reflections on Christian Sexual Ethics
Alexander R. Pruss
I will sketch an approach to Christian sexual ethics. In doing so, I will make use of several high-level assumptions from Revelation. These assumptions should be plausible even to those Christians who do not take Scripture or Tradition to be infallible, and are even plausible to non-Christians.
The sketch will offer a framework in which one can then address controversial questions, such as about contraception or reproductive technologies, rather than answering these questions. I will use ingredients from the work of Thomas Aquinas, C. S. Lewis, Karol Wojtyla, John Finnis, Robert George, Vincent Punzo, Benedict XVI, and others.
After discussing the assumptions from Revelation, I will say a little about love in general, and especially the notion of forms of love. I will next discuss what defines the romantic form of love, and proceed to an analysis of sexual union as a consummation of romantic love, and the openness to life and commitment within which that sexual union consummates romantic love.
The first assumption is that the duty to love everyone (and maybe everything), and to act in that love, includes all of morality. Thus, any genuine moral duty can be derived by analyzing the nature of love and examining ourselves and the world. Both parts are necessary. If we do not analyze the nature of love, we might erroneously think that we can do evil to others so that a greater good might come of it. But love is focused on particular actions, and to do evil to someone is contrary to love, even if the evil is done for the sake of a greater good. And if we do not examine ourselves and the world, when we may harm our neighbor out of ignorance while trying lovingly to promote his or her good.
The second assumption is that all the forms of love—romantic, filial, friendly, collegial, fraternal, etc.—are forms of the very same thing, love or, as the Greek Scriptures have it, agapê. As both a linguistic and a theological fact, agapê is not a distinctive form of love beside the romantic, filial, and so on. The word agapê has at least the same range of meanings in biblical Greek as “love” does in English—and maybe even more. Our love for God, God’s love for us and the love we should have for neighbor are routinely referred to as agapê. But so is the love between spouses, and the very clearly sexualized love of the Song of Songs. Even the love for the best seats in synagogue is referred to as agapê on one occasion. Biblical Greek does not, thus, distinguish agapê from other loves. Much of the time, the New Testament uses the language of agapê more or less interchangeably with that of philia. And so the Scriptures present us with the idea of the forms of love as unified by all being forms of love or agapê.
The third assumption is that romantic love is consummated through a sexual union as one flesh. This union is primarily biological rather than psychological in nature, as can be seen from the fact that St Paul talk of a union as one body between a man and a prostitute.
The final assumption from Revelation is that romantic love is natural to human beings. It is not a mere creation of a particular culture. The way romantic love is expressed obviously differs between cultures, but romantic love satisfies a yearning to cleave to another that is a normal part of human life.
There are, at least, three intertwined aspects to all forms of love: appreciation, benevolence (willing the good to the beloved), and a striving for union.
This is a controversial claim. Anders Nygren has, famously, argued that agapê is to be distinguished from erôs. In erôs, we seek reciprocation—which is surely central to the unitive aspect of love—but agapê is selfless.
On theological grounds, Nygren’s claim is clearly false: God’s agapê for us is exhibited largely through his giving us the grace to reciprocate his love.
We can also argue philosophically for the need for the interconnection of the three aspects in intrahuman love as follows. Without appreciation of the beloved, our benevolence is apt to degenerate into a proud and superior philanthropic attitude. Simply willing the good, without appreciating the other, would not be love. And what kind of a reason could we have for pursuing union with the other if we did not see the other as having a value? As Socrates argues in the Symposium, being united with someone or something is only good if the someone or something is good.
Similarly, the pursuit of union is needed in love. It can be demeaning to be the recipient of another’s benevolence. C. S. Lewis writes: “spiteful people will pretend to be loving us with Charity precisely because they know it will wound us.” One way to protect the recipient from being shamed is for the recipient to be like the beggar of Jewish humor—the schnorrer—who thinks of the benefits received as his due, and of himself as doing a favor to his benefactor by providing the benefactor with an opportunity to fulfill duties of almsgiving. A typical story is that of the schnorrer who comes to his now-bankrupt regular benefactor along with all of the other creditors to demand his ten cents on the dollar. As a recipient of “charity”, the schnorrer is not shamed, but only because he feels no need to be grateful, as it is he who is doing the benefactor a favor. This is no solution to the problem.
But if, on the other hand, the benefactor not only gives good things to the other, but seeks union with the other, then the benefactor is on a more equal plane with the beloved, and is vulnerable to being rejected by the beloved. Nor can a recipient who seeks union with the benefactor take the benefactor’s actions for granted. There is no shame in being helped by someone who desires union with one.
Similarly, an appreciation of the other without a pursuit of union is impoverished. If one does not desire to possess the beloved, to be joined with the beloved, does one fully appreciate the beloved? Appreciation naturally flows over into a desire for possession and union.
And of course, if we pursue union and appreciate the other but do not seek the other’s good, we do not have love, but a self-defeating selfishness. For genuine union with the other involves pursuit of the other’s goals, and an appreciation of goods is incomplete when it does not motivate us to further those goods. And it is only if, with a mixture of humility and surprised joy, we see our being united with the other as good for the other that we can hope that the other will fully (and not merely by being deceived, say) be joined to us.
All the forms of love exhibit these three aspects, though in different ways. There is least difference in respect of benevolence: we will the good to persons we love romantically, filially, fraternally, etc., and it is possible to will many of the very same goods in all these cases (and in each, it is possible to give up one’s life for the other). There is more differentiation in respect of appreciation, but even there the differences are not so radical. One appreciates the beauty of one’s romantic beloved’s face, but one can also appreciate the beauty of one’s father’s face.
I think the best way to differentiate the forms of love is by means of the union they impel one to. But first I need Aquinas’s distinction between two types of union: formal and real. (The terms are deceptive to the modern ear: formal union is quite real and always present in love, while real union may only be something to be aspired to.)
Formal union is the union of mind and will implied by the fact that one loves someone. This consists of an “indwelling” of lover in beloved and beloved in lover that is mutual even if the love is unreciprocated. The lover enters the beloved by intellect, because the lover strive to understand the beloved from the inside, seeing the beloved’s goals and nature from the beloved’s own point of view. In love, this understanding leads to willing the other’s good, and not just the abstract good of the other, but the other’s particular good as it is found in the goals that the other pursues. The beloved comes to be in the lover’s my mind, because the lover thinks about the beloved, but at the same time the lover is in the beloved because, as Aquinas says, “the lover is not satisfied with a superficial apprehension of the beloved, but strives to gain an intimate knowledge of everything pertaining to the beloved, so as to penetrate into his very soul.” In the lover’s will, goods and bads happening to the beloved are treated as happening to the lover, and the beloved’s will as if it were the lover’s own. Thus it is as if the beloved were in the beloved by means of will. Moreover the lover acts for the sake of the beloved as if the beloved were him or herself, and so the beloved comes to be in the lover. Hence, simply by loving someone, one dwells inside the person intellectually and in will, and the beloved dwells in one’s intellect and will.
Formal union, thus, is always present in love, because it simply comes from the benevolent and appreciative aspects of love. But there is a further union to which love calls us, and this Aquinas calls real union. Real union is a way of being together with the other person, not just in mind and will, but externally. This may involve intellectual conversation, hugging, writing an article together, caring for physically, sexual union, etc. Love can exist without real union—lovers can, after all, find themselves separated. But in love, one always at least seeks real union.
And one does not seek just any real union. One seeks a real union appropriate to or expressive of the form of love. With a colleague, this union may be an intellectual conversation, but it will not take this form with an infant. One will unite with infant by hugging, but probably not so with a stranger. What differentiates the forms of love is not so much the benevolent or appreciative aspects, nor even the formal union part of the unitive aspect, but the kinds of real union that the relationship calls for. Indeed, we can think of some kinds of real union as paradigmatic of the form of love, and as consummating the form of love.
It is important that our love for people have a form that is appropriate to the beloved, to ourselves, and to the relationship. It is inappropriate to love an adult child with the form of love that one has for an infant—that would be a distortion.
We are well aware of the fact that people can love others in the wrong way, and that creates a problem for an ethic of love. For if doing right is simply acting in accordance with love, then how can one love in the wrong way? If the sum total of morality is found in love, the answer to this question has to be grounded in a demand of love. This demand is, I take it, that the love take a form that is appropriate to the lover, beloved and their relationship. This is one way in which love is responsive to reality: love needs to take a form which fits the reality of the situation.
This suggests, too, that the forms of love, while falling into broad categories such as romantic, filial, friendly, etc., have sub-forms, such as the exact kind of filial love appropriate between a mother of such-and-such interests and proclivities and such-and-such a child. In love, we need to sensitively discern the situation and understand the persons involved, and make the form of the love be appropriate to that. Love, thus, is not open to changes of form, but actively seeks to ensure that its form fits the people and their relationship. This dynamism on the part of love is what allows for commitment. It would not be appropriate to promise an unchanging love to a changing human being. The form of love appropriate between two young and healthy newly-weds and expressed through a companionship that is both sexual and otherwise, needs to be different from the form of love expressed by an elderly person’s changing the soiled underclothes of a bed-ridden spouse. Yet there is a continuity: the couple hasn’t lost their love, but their romantic love has matured to a different form or, better, sub-form.
The next question we can ask is about romantic or erotic love. How is this form of love distinguished from other forms of love? Like all the other forms of agapê, romantic love includes an appreciation of the other, a will to further the other’s good, a formal union, and tendency to a real union. If I am right that the main distinguishing feature between forms of love is in the distinctive kind of real union that one seeks in the love, then we now need to identify that distinctive kind of real union.
Couples romantically in love with one another talk with one another, share their feelings, have meals together, go to movies together, hold hands, and so on. Yet no one of these unitive activities define romantic love, since they can be present in other forms of love. One can appropriately hold one’s child’s hand, go to the movies with one’s brother, have a meal with a homeless stranger, share one’s feelings with a friend, and talk with a colleague.
Could it be that it is a combination of such activities that constitutes the real union that romantic love is directed towards? I don’t think so. Here is one reason to think this. Some of the activities listed above are only associated with romantic love not intrinsically, but culturally. Obviously, it cannot be intrinsic to romantic love to seek the real union that going to the movies involves, for then we would have to say that for tens of thousands of years lovers were yearning to go to the movies—and only in the last hundred years or so has that yearning been satisfiable. Likewise, that holding hands is an appropriate expression of affection is culturally defined. Romantic love is one of the basic and natural human loves. While some of its expressions are culturally defined, romantic love itself goes beyond culture.
One might try to allow for some variance in the expression of romantic love by defining romantic love in terms of the kinds of real union that are culturally appropriate to romantic love. But that, of course, would be viciously circular—we would need a concept of romantic love to understand what is culturally appropriate to romantic love.
Moreover, the suggestion I was exploring neglects the physicality involved in romantic love. While in other loves, such as parental love for an infant, there may be even physical interaction than in romantic love, in romantic love there is a particularly significant component of appreciation of the other as a physical being, a person of body and soul. This, however, is still not enough to differentiate romantic love, because admiration for an athlete involves appreciation of the other as a physical being.
Granted, in romantic love, the other is appreciated not just as a physical being, but as a sexual being. But even this does not characterize romantic love clearly enough. Consider the scientist who studies nudibranchs, which are shell-less hermaphroditic marine mollusks. The scientist is taken with the physical beauty of the nudibranch—say, the orange frilly underside and glowing purplish body of the Spanish shawl. But, more than that, the scientist deeply appreciates, in a scientific way, the intricate hermaphroditic reproductive system of the nudibranch. Thus, the scientist scientifically appreciates the nudibranch as a sexual being. But this is not romantic love. Similarly, if a scientist is in charge of setting up a moon colony, she may appreciate a particular candidate—of either sex—as a sexual being who is likely to promote the procreative goals of the colony. But that, too, is not romantic love. Not only must the object romantic love be appreciated as a sexual being, but the appreciation needs to be sexual in nature. There needs to be the relevant kind of first-person engagement.
What does it mean for the appreciation to be sexual in nature? The mere co-occurrence of sexual arousal does not make something be sexual in nature. Rather, I want to make the following suggestion. A romantic lover one appreciates the beloved, in an essentially first-person way that could be expressed by him or her in words like: “I appreciate this person as someone with whom it would be good for me to unite sexually.”
If so, then we simultaneously get an answer to the question of what it is that differentiates romantic appreciation from other forms of appreciation, and what is the real union distinctive of romantic love. In both cases, there is a focus on or directedness towards sexual union—the lovers yearn for this.
Parenthetically, it’s worth noting that this does not imply that modern Western dating practices are right to be directly focused on sex. For it may be that sexual union calls for more than sex—indeed, I shall suggest that it calls for marital commitment.
But what is this sexual union the yearning for which helps define romantic love? Presumably sex is a crucial part of the story. But why should sex help fulfill the yearnings of a basic form of love? Presumably, the real union in a basic form of love has to be something non-trivial, something significant. We don’t have any basic form of love that is consummated through tracing a circle on the back of the other person’s hand. So what aspect of sex gives sex the kind of significance that makes it a fit way for romantic lovers to unite? Is it because of pleasure? Emotional closeness? Physical contact? Reproduction?
Pleasure and emotional closeness can be had in entirely unromantic and non-sexual contexts. Nor is it even the case that sexual pleasure or the emotional closeness that results from sex is somehow more intense than other pleasures or other kinds of closeness. For that is in general not true. A particular instance of sex might be either more or less intensely pleasurable than a particular instance of intellectual conversation. Likewise, the emotional closeness that can result from sex need not be greater than other instances of emotional closeness.
While the lovers might sometimes be disappointed if reproduction doesn’t occur, it seems that their sexual union still has significance in that case—there still seems to be a real union for which the lovers yearned. So if there is a connection to reproduction, it cannot be a simple one.
And, of course, saying that physical contact is what makes sex be the appropriate kind of real union is too vaguely euphemistic to be helpful. Physical contact occurs in all kinds of activities—wrestlers wrestle one another, siblings hug each other, good Samaritans carry the wounded, and so on. That something like physical contact is important in sex seems exactly right—but what matters here is the particular form of contact.
How do we define that particular form of contact? We might try to define it simply in terms of contact with body parts from a certain list. But that’s not right—for the doctor can make contact with any body part without that being sexual. We might combine a list of body parts with a requirement that the contact should be for the sake of arousal or gratification of sexual desire. Or we might have a combination view, on which certain kinds of contact count as sex regardless of intention, and certain ones count as sex depending on intention. This last option was operative during the Paula Jones litigation.
But approaches that involve lists of organs, too, are unsatisfactory. For it does not explain why it should matter to the lovers that these particular body parts be made contact with. There is no significant real union in a woman’s inserting a finger into a man’s ear (though if done affectionately, the act might contribute to union). Why should there be any more significance in intercourse, say?
Let’s step back. The problem is of explaining what sexual union is and why it is significant to the lovers. We do, however, have a pretty clear intuition that at least when intercourse occurs in the right circumstances and for the right motivations between a man and a woman, then there is a real union as one flesh that the lovers seek. So maybe we should think specifically about what happens in intercourse and why it is significant.
One striking thing about intercourse between a man and a woman is that it involves not just a random pair of organs, in the way a finger and an ear would be, but matched and cooperating sets of organs. These organs are matched not simply for geometric reasons—one set fitting with the other—since an ear and a finger could fit, too. Rather, the sets of organs are functionally matched. They are organs that are working together in intercourse. But it only makes sense to talk of two systems working together when there is a goal that the systems are working together for. What is this goal? Well, if we had to explain to a Martian which organs are involved in intercourse, I think we would pretty quickly have to say that the organs involved are the reproductive organs. And the goal of their mutual biological striving, which defines the way in which they are matched, is reproduction.
Here I need to get a little graphic—I hope nobody minds. In intercourse, the vagina (a muscular, cylindrical organ surrounding a cavity) elicits the ejaculation of potentially sperm-bearing semen from the male through frictional stimulation. What for? Well, the activity is typically pleasant at least for the male, and often for the female. But if the organs were working together to produce pleasure, then it would be just a coincidence that potentially sperm-bearing semen is being elicited into the female reproductive system. That, however, is surely not a coincidence. On the contrary, that seems to be the biological point. (That it is the biological point does not imply that it is always the point that the couple cares most about—and might not even imply that it is always the point that the couple should care most about.) What is happening in intercourse is human mating—there is a biological striving in the direction of reproduction. This striving occurs whether or not the couple endorses it, even when reproduction is impossible due to temporary or permanent infertility.
So intercourse is an activity that is of reproductive type—it is an instance of human mating. And now it becomes a little bit more plausible why it should matter to the lovers. For there is a value in a bodily striving for a great end, and reproduction—the procreation of a new human person—is a great end. This value is present in the biological activity of intercourse, and it is present even when the striving cannot be completed. An activity of reproductive type is not something trivial.
Moreover, we now see that the significance that intercourse between a man and woman has is a significance that other sexual activities do not have. If what makes intercourse fitting as the physical aspect of the real union romantic love yearns for is the cooperative functioning of the reproductive systems, then these other activities do not yield that union. (A consequence of this would be that no activity that a man and a man, or a woman and woman, could fulfill the yearnings of romantic love.)
Let’s try a somewhat different approach. Sexual union, very plausibly, is a union as one flesh, one body, a union analogous to that which the parts of single body have with one another. Now my heart is not united to the arteries merely by the fact that they are in physical contact with one other, or even by the fact that this contact is permanent. If we glue two cats together by their tails, they may be in permanent contact, but they are not living out a union as one body. Biologically speaking, what unites the heart and the arteries is that they are cooperating for the joint goal of oxygenating my body.
It is very plausible to understand biologically the organic union of parts as a union defined by the parts working together for a common purpose. What, then, can we say about sexual union? If it is to be a union analogous to the biological union of the parts of an organism—and talking of one flesh focuses one on the biology rather than, say, psychology—there will have to be a common striving for a common purpose.
What is the purpose for which the two bodies unite in striving? Well, it cannot be something trivial. For then the sexual union would surely not be something of deep importance. I think the most plausible candidates are: pleasure, psychological unity, and reproduction.
Since we are talking of a very biological striving, and the focus here is on the physicality, it does not seem right to understand the common striving of the bodies in sexual union as being directed at psychological unity. Moreover, strivings for psychological unity are not unique to romantic relationships.
Pleasure, on the other hand, is not something worthwhile on its own. It is good to take pleasure in something good, but when one is taking pleasure in something that doesn’t have value in and of itself, then the pleasure is empty. And surely the lovers are not united as one flesh by a bodily striving for an empty pleasure. That kind of a union would be a parody of their love.
And that leaves reproduction. Which is exactly what we got from thinking about intercourse. The two bodies are, then, united by a common biological striving for reproduction. And so the persons are one flesh.
But of course romantic lovers do not yearn for just a biological union. A merely biological union would not do justice to them as embodied persons, beings of soul and body. They yearn for a union that does justice to a form of interpersonal love. Thus the physical aspect of the union, which is constituted by the joint striving of the reproductive systems, needs to be in harmony with the attitudes of the two as persons.
Here, I want to mention two aspects of this harmony. The first aspect of the harmony is obvious. If Martha is united to George through their bodies’ joint reproductive striving, but Martha and George fight against this reproductive striving, then Martha and George are thereby fighting against that which unites them physically. Their bodies may be united (depending on the way and degree to which they fight against the striving), but because their wills are opposed to what their bodies are doing, they are not united as integrated persons. Martha is disunited from Martha, George is disunited from George, and Martha is disunited from George.
It is not necessary for my integration as a person that I positively will that which my body does. Many of the things my body does are things that only doctors know about, and some are not even known to them. But if I make an act of will against what my body does, then I do disunite myself from my body. And if I simultaneously try to unite with another through that body, then I have disunited myself from that other in disuniting myself from my body.
Thus, an act of sexual intercourse, in order to help constitute the real union that romantic love seeks, must be open to life, in the sense that the couple does nothing to oppose the reproductive striving. The couple cannot fight that which unites them if this is to be an integrated real union of persons.
The second aspect here is temporal. The union of parts in an organism has a temporal dimension to it. Typically, the parts are united with one another for their lifetime. Sexual intercourse, however, is a brief act. There is, then, a temporal dimension that is needed to make it more fully a union analogous to that of the parts of one organism. Moreover, human persons exist through time, and their union as persons requires a temporal dimension. The brief act of intercourse can be, as it were, stretched through time by means of a uniquely personal act—an act of loving commitment, in this case a loving commitment for life, indeed a marriage. It is only in the context of such a commitment until the death of the two individual organisms that the sexual union is fully a personal union of one flesh.
I have very briefly sketched an approach to sexual ethics that starts with general considerations about love, and then concludes to an understanding of specifically romantic love as a love that seeks a real union of two persons as one organism in loving lifelong commitment through a personally integrated reproductive striving.
It follows from the analysis that various sexual acts other than intercourse, whether because they are of the wrong sort or because they lack the interpersonal dimensions of commitment and integration, are not what romantic love yearns for. I haven’t attempted to argue that these acts are wrong. That would take more work (which I do try to do in a book manuscript I have just finished).
What I am offering here is just the basic framework for a sexual ethic, a framework that takes seriously romantic love as a form of love, defined by a particular kind of union. I also would like to offer this framework as a model for one way that an ethics of love might arrive at specific conclusions: one starts with the general concept of love, then one specifies the particular forms of love that are relevant to a given case, and finally one analyzes these forms.