The Catholic Church, in its official teaching, has always taken a positive view of sexuality in marriage. Marital intercourse, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “noble and honorable,” established by God so that “spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit.” (#2362).
The Church’s positive understanding of sexuality is rooted in the teachings of Jesus that were, in part, drawn from the wisdom of the Old Testament. Both the Book of Genesis and the Song of Songs describe the basic goodness of sexual love in marriage. In the New Testament, Jesus began his public ministry with his supportive presence at the wedding feast of Cana, a further indication of the goodness of marriage.
Marital sexuality achieves two purposes. The Church affirms, first, its role in creating new human life, sometimes called the procreative dimension of sexuality. In giving birth to children and educating them, the couple cooperates with the Creator’s love.
Second, sexual union expresses and deepens the love between husband and wife. This is called the unitive, or relational, aspect of sexuality.
The bond between the procreative and the relational aspects cannot be broken. Each sexual act in a marriage must be open to the possibility of conceiving a child. Contraception is wrong because it separates the act of conception from sexual union. (See Married Love and the Gift of Life for more on this topic.)
Recent church teaching has tried to integrate the two purposes of marriage into a single perspective, which sees marital sexual love as essentially procreative. Marital love is by its nature fruitful; it generates new life. The God-created expression of marital love, joined to an openness to new life, contributes to the holiness of the couple. The “call to holiness in marriage is a lifelong process of conversion and growth.” (Catholic Catechism for Adults, p. 408)
Like all the baptized, married couples are called to chastity. The Church defines chastity as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2337). Married couples practice the conjugal chastity that is proper to their state in life.
The late Pope John Paul II wanted to find a new and compelling way to express this positive view of sexuality. He developed a strand of thinking about sexuality and its role in human life called “The Theology of the Body.”
The Pope begins with the idea that each human being is willed for his or her own sake. Out of love God created human beings as male and female, persons of dignity and worthy of respect. Also out of love, God established marriage as the first communion of persons. In marriage, man and woman totally give themselves to each other, and in this self-giving they discover who they are.
The sin of Adam and Eve ruptured this original unity of body and soul. Sadly, we know the results: too often women and men have become objects to be used and exploited. The salvation won for us by Jesus Christ began the process of restoring the lost unity of body and soul. This process is partly completed here; full unity will be restored in the next life.
The Church teaches that human sexuality is sacred. Within marriage, it fulfills its purpose as an expression of deep, faithful and exclusive love that is open to new life. Marital sexual relations involve profound openness and receptivity, a complete and mutual self-giving. Sexuality is an important part of that incredibly rich and mysterious pattern in Creation that comes directly from the mind and heart of God.