All posts by Dr. Aaron Milavec

Aaron Milavec, Professor Emeritus, has served as a seminary and university professor for over twenty-five years. He brought his fresh approach to the Didache to the attention of biblical scholars by originating a new program unit of the national Society of Biblical Literature, "The Didache in Context," which he chaired 2002-2005. Meanwhile, his website,, promotes pioneering research and scholarly exchange on issues of the early church. His thousand-page commentary, The Didache: Faith, Hope, and Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E., received a 2004 Catholic Press Club award recognizing the best books in theology. To date, Aaron has published fifteen books in theology and ministry. brief bio = CV = research = support = renewal = GLBTQI =

Catholic Family Planning and Exponential Population Growth

Catholic Family Planning and Exponential Population Growth

aaronemma200xAaron Milavec  (blog)

Given the exponential growth in the world population, the question naturally emerged in 1968 as to whether unchecked human growth is sustainable during the next hundred or two hundred years.


Many dismissed this on the grounds that there was ample space for housing developments nearly everywhere (even in Hong Kong); hence, the earth could easily sustain two to three times our present population. Pope Pius VI in Humanae Vitae agreed with this optimistic view of the future.

But now we know what we could not know in 1968. Four points and a conclusion:

ee2#1 According to the United Nations, one in every five humans depends on fish as the primary source of protein. (United Nations, 2004) On the other hand, marine ecologists fear that the biggest single threat to marine ecosystems today is overfishing. Our appetite for fish is exceeding the oceans’ ecological limits with devastating impacts on marine ecosystems. The cod fisheries off Newfoundland, Canada, collapsed in 1992, leading to the loss of some 40,000 jobs in the industry. The cod stocks in the North Sea and Baltic Sea are now heading the same way and are close to complete collapse. As population grows, the pressure for more and more effective fishing increases, and no government can, in conscience, limit the growth of industrial fishing so that sustainability can again be achieved. For this crime, we and our children’s children will suffer. . . .

oilpricegraph#2 The story for oil shows exactly the same phenomena. Recently developing countries like India and China are legitimately moving toward increased industrialization to feed, clothe, and house their teeming populations. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2010 World Energy Outlook estimated that conventional crude oil production has peaked and is depleting at 6.8% per year. US Joint Forces Command’s Joint Operating Environment 2010 issued this warning to all US military commands: “By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day.” (www) So no government is currently rationing oil products; rather, every nation is trying to out-produce everyone else so that their people can enjoy the luxurious lifestyle that manufactured goods promise. But who is speaking for those who will be living when the industrialized landscape has to begin shutting down due to oil depletion? For this crime, our children’s children will suffer. . . .

#3 Governments have admitted that acid rain is a serious international environmental problem and many countries have taken steps to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. But air pollution does not stop at national boundaries. As the industrialization of India and China moves into high gear, this pollution produces smog in their cities. This is the immediate effect. Meanwhile, these invisible poison gases enter the atmosphere and, much later, forests and fish living thousands of miles away are put at risk due to the falling of acid rain. Some of the most dramatic effects on forests have been observed in Europe. In 1983, a survey in West Germany showed that 34% of the country’s total forest is damaged by air pollution. This included about one half of the famous Black Forest. Switzerland, despite its careful management of its forest reserves, has recorded damage to 14% of her forest trees due to the pollution that originates outside its borders. For this crime, we and our children’s children will suffer. . . .

graphC02#4 Finally, scientists can measure climate change by studying the levels of CO2 in our atmosphere. As the atmospheric CO2 goes above 350 parts per million by volume, scientists have recorded the melting of ice sheets, rising sea level, abrupt shifts in forest and agricultural land, and increasing intensity and frequency of extreme events like floods, wildfires, and heat waves. But who is speaking up for the planet earth and the limitations on the CO2 levels that it can safely absorb? For this crime, we and our children’s children will suffer. . . .


So now, in view of what we now know, what should be our reaction to the “family planning” proposed by Pope Francis in the leading question that he offers us for our consideration:

Question 7 f. How can a more open attitude towards having children be fostered? How can an increase in births be promoted?

This question make my blood boil! The world population at the time when Humanae Vitae was published was 3.5 billion. Today’s world population is 7.2 billion. This is more than double. Let’s face it. Our Mother Earth CANNOT SUSTAIN another fifty years of reckless population growth.

Here is the question that a prophetic Francis  should be asking:

Question 7 f. How can a more open attitude towards childless couples be fostered? How can an decrease in births be promoted?

Not to make this change NOW is to blindly continue to disrupt the ecosystems of our dear home and planet. It is to put our entire future at risk. For this crime, we and our children’s children will suffer beyond all measure. . . .

Einstein.worlddestroyed“Our ethical traditions know how to deal with suicide, homicide and even genocide, but these traditions collapse entirely when confronted with biocide, the killing of the life systems of the earth, and geocide, the devastation of the earth itself.”  ~~Thomas Berry

I Don’t Love Natural Family Planning

I Don’t Love Natural Family Planning

by Danielle Bean (8 July 2011)

Daniella BeanDanielle Bean, a mother of eight, is Editorial Director of Faith & Family. She is also author of My Cup of Tea: Musings of a Catholic Mom (Pauline 2005) and Mom to Mom, Day to Day: Advice and Support for Catholic Living (Pauline 2007). Her blog is a source of inspiration, encouragement, and support for Catholic women of all ages and life stages.


I don’t want to write about NFP. I hate to write about NFP. And yet, here I am…writing about NFP.

I brought this on myself. I completely forgot about an editorial deadline and found myself scrambling for a column topic at about 10:00 p.m. Naturally, I turned to my dear friends, Mrs. Twitter and Mr. Facebook, to see what they thought I should write about.

“NFP!” came the answer, immediately and repeatedly. It is almost NFP Awareness Week, it turns out, and this is a topic in the forefront of Catholics’ minds.

So I will write about NFP — but I do so under protest. Are we clear? Good.

So what do you want to know?

Do I use NFP? Yes.

Do I recommend NFP? Yes.

Do I see problems with the current practice and promotion of NFP in Catholic circles and wish that someone who knew better had been there to advise me at the beginning of my marriage? That would be a big fat yes.

Some thoughts, in no particular order, clarifying what I mean by that last “yes.”

1. NFP does not work well for everyone.

I know the NFP teachers and promoters say that’s a copout and that it can work well for everyone — but what they don’t tell you about, and what they cannot accurately predict in a general way, are the complications of breastfeeding.

When I nurse a baby, I have nonstop fertile symptoms. I am not exaggerating that description for dramatic effect; when I say nonstop, I mean nonstop. I know that not everyone shares this experience, but I also know that many do. This means that each time I have given birth to a baby, I have needed to choose between total abstinence for at least the first year postpartum, weaning my baby early, or deciding to “risk” it and (as has happened several times in 17 years of marriage) become pregnant again while caring for an infant.

These are not always happy options, and I could have been spared a lot of anxiety and self-doubt if someone had at least told me this could happen. Instead, I went into marriage all starry-eyed about how NFP was going to be an aid to our communication…and then wound up sad, lonely, and wondering what was wrong with me and my marriage when NFP seemed not only to be interfering with the way I wanted to mother my children, but actually hurting my relationship with my husband on occasion.

2. NFP is not mandatory.

I think that some NFP promoters (most of them with the very best of intentions) give a false idea of the kind of control human beings should expect to have over their fertility. Whereas Catholics once accepted fertility and procreation as a natural part of every marriage, we now feel we have a measure of “control” over these things, in a way that tempts us into thinking that controlling fertility is a virtue in itself. There is a brand new, modern way of looking at children through the lens of “responsibility” as opposed to “generosity” and “blessing.”

While some cultures might need a nudge in the direction of parental responsibility, generally speaking, our modern society needs a nudge more in the direction of parental generosity. The problem, very simply, is not that we are having too many babies.

Catholic couples do not need to use NFP at all, ever, in order to have happy, holy marriages, but that is not something you are likely to hear from an NFP instructor of any kind. The mentality sometimes calls to mind the Protestant idea of being a “good steward” of your fertility, which is anything but a Catholic notion. It makes me wonder how any Catholics managed to have holy marriages before Creighton and Billings came along to save us from our sorry selves.

3. Have we no shame?

Because of the pervasiveness of NFP talk and information in Catholic circles, I think many of us have lost a sense of awe and holy shame about sex. I know this is also a symptom of the sex-saturated culture in which we live, but I see this as a Catholic version of the problem. Grown women talk about charts and mucus in group settings. Couples share intimate details about their love lives in casual conversations.

Call me a standoffish New Englander, but I say: TMI! Enough already!

I have heard it argued that we need to talk about these things, that it’s beautiful and holy to talk about Catholic sex, and that we should “have no shame” in discussing such matters. But I say it is beautiful and holy, and that’s exactly why we should have some shame, particularly in public settings. By “shame” I mean proper reverence, respect, and discretion for what is a sensitive, sacred, and yes ,very private topic.

4. It’s only information.

Fertility monitors are a popular modern way for couples to observe and track symptoms of fertility in order to avoid or achieve a pregnancy. There are different models that work in different ways, but the idea is that the machine helps you interpret your symptoms and gives you a measure of confidence in determining whether you are fertile or infertile on any given day of the month.

Believe it or not, though, I have read books in which NFP teachers caution against the use of fertility monitors. They warn that couples will come to rely only on the machines to interpret their symptoms, and that marital communication will suffer as a result of that.

It should be noted that these are the same people who think my husband is going to wake me with a smile and hand me a thermometer at precisely 6:00 a.m. every day of the week.

To me, this is an example of where some of us have lost our way and gotten off track in our pursuit of all things NFP. The charts and mucus and temperatures are not good things in and of themselves. In the best of worlds, the practice of NFP should be about couples acquiring information about their fertility and then using that information to make decisions about their family size. Communicating about that information is a separate issue and does not need to be part of the method itself. Monitors simplify the gathering and interpretation of information — so, hooray! Marriages only stand to benefit from clear, easy-to-obtain information about fertility.

5. Temperament matters.

Some women I know don’t seem to mind the process of monitoring their fertility symptoms. I think of these women as amateur scientists, and I envy them. They make detailed observations, record symptoms, and look for patterns. They are naturally good at these things and even enjoy doing some of them.

I do not enjoy it. For me, an awful lot of what is required for the successful practice of NFP feels like too much information. I would sometimes prefer a healthy dose of mystery when it comes to my physical self. The bottom line is that those of us who are loath to make personal observations are an awful lot less likely to succeed in collecting and interpreting data than our scientist sisters.

It should also be noted (but too seldom is!) that some of us are better at abstaining than others. Those who find abstinence especially challenging are not bad people; it’s just part of their temperament. They struggle with purity, where others’ weaknesses might be pride, greed, or gluttony.

We need to remember that abstinence inside of marriage is not a good in and of itself. I worry sometimes that the NFP promoters would have us believe that the challenge of abstinence is the same for everyone, and we can all perfectly plan the sizes of our families (just use some of that self-control, folks!), when nothing could be more potentially harmful than expecting that.

Our personal differences as individuals and couples are a good thing. Our temperaments are part of God’s providence working its way into our lives, even in places where we might be tempted to believe we have control. A married couple that finds abstinence especially difficult, for example, is more likely to have a large family, whether they were planning to or not.

I hate to be a NFP downer.

I fully recognize the kinds of people who research, study, teach, and promote methods of natural family planning usually have the very best of intentions. They want to spread the good news, save couples from the destructive effects of contraception, and teach others about God’s plan for marriages and families. These are very good things.

I think we are all better served, however, when the happy talk is balanced by an occasional reality check. I have attempted to give one here, but perhaps have failed in some glaring ways. Experience tells me, though, that readers will not hesitate to make any necessary corrections and offer their own experiences — the good, the bad, and the ugly — with NFP in the comments here.

So what do you think? Have at it.


Jesus’ Preaching to those in Hades

Jesus’ Preaching to those in Hades

Aaron Milavec

A selection from my book, Salvation Is From the Jews:

ProudPapaWithTwinsS120At first, the efficacy of Jesus’ preaching and healing mission was limited to those living persons in Galilee who had encountered him or his immediate disciples and responded to the “Good News of God.” After the death of Jesus, however, his disciples were commissioned to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). The intent here is that “whoever welcomes you, welcomes me” (Matt 10:40) and “whoever receives a prophet [one of the Twelve] in the name of a prophet [Jesus] will receive a prophet’s reward” (Matt 10:41). Thus, the death of Jesus does not lead to quenching of his prophetic voice; rather, it multiplies it. In the course of time, consequently, the “Good News of God” progressively reaches out to the whole known world.[1]

By the opening of the second century, some sectors of the Jesus movement went even further and explored ways to extend the benefits of Jesus to those who had already died. In these scenarios, Jesus’ death afforded the occasion for him to be able to offer his message to those who had died and were abiding in Hades awaiting the general resurrection of the dead on the last day. Hades was the mythical abode of the dead‑-a borrowing from Hellenistic culture—and should be understood as quite distinct from what the medievalists later identified as “hell.” The original intent of “he was not abandoned to Hades” in a sermon in Acts (2:31) was to reinforce the reality of the death of Jesus prior to his resurrection. In 1 Peter, however, one finds the phrase “Christ also suffered for sins” (3:18) being used in connection with the explanation that “he was put to death in the flesh . . . and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” (3:18f). Those to whom he preached, however, are expressly limited to those who “did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark” (3:20). The suffering and death of Jesus thus afforded him a few days in Hades wherein he “made a proclamation” to those who drowned at the time of Noah’s flood. The implied meaning here appears to be that those who died in the flood without the benefit of a prophet’s warning were now permitted to benefit from their ability to hear and respond to the Jewish prophet Jesus.

In the mid-first century, Justin Martyr again makes reference of Jesus’ mission to those who had died. In this case, however, it is not the sinners of Noah’s generation who are recipients of the Good News but the Jews who had died prior to the coming of Jesus: “The Lord God remembered his dead people of Israel who lay in their graves, and he descended to preach to them his salvation” (Dial. 72.4).

In the early second century, Clement of Alexandria further extended the mission to the dead. In his way of thinking, Jesus preached his Good News to the righteous Jews in Hades (as just noted), and, the Apostles, following their own deaths, descended into Hades where they preached to the pagan philosophers who had lived righteous lives (Strom. VI, 6:45, 5). Thus, 1 Peter, Justin Martyr, and Clement of Alexander form something of the stepping stones whereby the efficacy of Jesus’ prophetic message was gradually understood to have reached backward in time to liberate progressively larger groups of those righteous persons who had died without the saving benefit of have heard the preaching of Jesus.

 Gospel of Bartholomew

The third-century Gospel of Bartholomew offers the first instance wherein Jesus’ foray into Hades is dramatized. The Gospel portrays the “King of Glory” as menacingly descending the stairs of a thousand steps into the underworld. Hades, the god of the underworld, is depicted as trembling uncontrollably as he descends. Having arrived, Jesus “shattered the iron bars” of the gates of Hades and then grabs the god Hades himself and pummeled him “with a hundred blows and bound him with fetters that cannot be loosed” (19). Here now, the Gospel of Bartholomew dramatizes the commando rescue operation undertaken by Jesus in order to save “Adam and all the patriarchs” (9). When Jesus meets Adam, Jesus specifically says to him, “I was hung upon the cross for your sake and for the sake of your children” (22).

Jesus’ death is here understood, not as a penal substitution for the sin of Adam, but as the necessary means for gaining access to the underworld. Hades is the pagan god assigned to guard the underworld. Hades has no role in judging or punishing those who have died; rather, his role is limited to guarding the gates such that the dead cannot return to the land of the living. By destroying the gates and the gate-keeper, Jesus shows that he has the power to release not only the generation of Noah that died in the floor but also all generations going all the way back to Adam himself. The intent of this narrative appears to be that it would not be fair to have these former to be disadvantaged just because they were born too early or were born in the wrong place and did not have the opportunity to hear Jesus’ preaching. Furthermore, the narrative demonstrates that Hades has been defeated and that those who died need no longer groan in despair. This does not mean, of course, that everyone at the final judgment will be admitted into Paradise since, even on earth, only a small fraction of those who heard the message of Jesus reformed their lives and anticipated the coming Kingdom of God. The Gospel of Bartholomew does mark a high point, however, in so far as the efficacy of Jesus’ preaching and his death gets extended backward all the way to Adam. This would seemingly imply that those who do not hear the Good News during their lifetime have the opportunity, never the less, to hear it in the afterlife, either from Jesus himself or from his disciples. With this in mind, the phrase, “he descended into Hades,” was added to the Apostles’ Creed during the fourth century.[2]

What is plain to observe is that the Gospel of Bartholomew firmly centers the efficacy of Jesus upon his “presence” and upon his preaching mission—“that I might come down on earth to heal the sin of the ignorant and give to men the truth of God” (65). Jesus’ death is necessitated as the ordinary means whereby he could make his presence felt among those imprisoned in Hades. Secondly, the Gospel of Bartholomew knows nothing of inherited sin or of the Gates of Paradise being permanently closed due to the sin of Adam. In line with the other Church Fathers, it was the Gates of Hades that needed to be broken down in order for God’s plan of liberation to take place. Jesus, in the scenario, is not the atoning victim on the cross but the one who mounts a commando raid to smash the Gates of Death. Thirdly, the Gospel of Bartholomew has an interest in narrating the Fall of the Angels in such a way as to place the creation of Adam as directly leading to this fall. Once created “in the image and likeness of God,” the Creator commands that the angels worship Adam (the critical test, 51-58). Those angels who disobeyed this direct order were expelled from heaven to earth where they become the sword enemies of Adam and his race. The stage was thus being set to reread the temptation in the Garden as being the choice of obeying God or obeying the serpent. The serpent, in turn, could now be seen as one of the fallen race of angels who had been ruined by the creation of Adam and were now intent upon wrecking their revenge upon Adam and his race. At the same time, God was now being protrayed as “testing the angels” and “testing Adam” in such authoritarian and moralistic tones that “one infraction” led to instant expulsion with no option of repentance or forgiveness in the future.

The Medieval Synthesis of Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), along with other medieval theologians, attempted to consolidate and to harmonize the diverse traditions of the first five centuries. According to Aquinas, Jesus descends into the underworld, not to break the bars of those imprisoned there, but to gather the elect and to lead them into the gates of heaven that have been opened due to his atoning death on the cross. The underworld, at this point, is still being understood as the abode of all the dead, both the righteous and the sinners. Now, however, fire torments are introduced. Thus the Hades of the Gospel of Bartholomew has been transformed in the hell of the medievalist theologians. The souls of those who are damned are already in torment. The souls of those destined to be saved by Jesus experience only a temporal punishment calculated to purify them from their former sins. Fire for them is purgatorial and, in due course, later centuries will make a clear distinction in place between those in Purgatory and those in Hell. This need not concern us here. For our purposes, we need only to note that Jesus’ descent into Hades/hell has come full circle. Jesus comes not just to preach to the generation of the flood as in 1 Peter. Nor does Jesus mount a commando raid to break down the gates of Hades. Rather, Jesus’ death opens the Gates of Heaven, and his descent into hell is specifically to take those who have lived righteously and to carry them up, with him, into heaven.

In Acts, Jesus ascends alone into heaven and waits, at the right hand of God, for the time of his return. In Aquinas, all the souls of the righteous, from Adam on forward, are carried by the resurrected Jesus into heaven where they will immediately enjoy the Beatific Vision. When Jesus returns at the end times, all of these same saints will come to earth with him, their bodies will be resurrected from the grave, and both the living and the dead will be judged at the final judgment. Then the righteous will enter into eternal joy and the unrighteous into eternal torment. Purgatory will be no more.

According to the medieval tradition, the “gates of heaven” were permanently closed following the sin of Adam (Summa Theologica II-II 164, 2). This enforces the logic of Anselm pertaining to the universality of sin (both original and actual sins) and the utter inability of anyone to atone for even the least of these sins. But then salvation arrives: “The gate of heaven’s kingdom is thrown open to us through Christ’s passion” (III 49, 5). Here, again, Aquinas notes that not even the Jewish patriarchs who were sinless were able to enter into heaven: “The holy fathers were detained in hell (prior to his descent into hell) for the reason that, owing to our first parent’s sin, the approach to the life of glory was not open” (III 52, 5).


Aquinas not only presents Jesus as descending into hell to rescue the righteous; he also has Jesus achieving on the cross those infinite merits that are required for the universal atonement of all sins, from Adam’s first sin to the last sin on earth at the end of time.[3] Even relative to the Jews, Aquinas says: “The holy fathers [of Israel], by doing works of justice, merited to enter the heavenly kingdom [only] through faith in Christ’s passion . . .” (III 49, 5, ad 1). The deliverance of the Jewish patriarchs, consequently, was not due to their assimilation of the faith of Abraham or to their lifelong fidelity to God; rather, it is “through faith and charity, [that they] were united to Christ’s passion” (III 52, 7). Jesus’ death, consequently, provides a store of merits that was purported to reach backward in time and to atone for Jewish sins. This represented the absolute bankruptcy of Judaism—no one could be saved due to the faith of Abraham or the Torah of Moses. Jesus alone provided the atoning death that enabled the Father to forgive Jewish sins.


[1]In the Gospel of Matthew, it would appear that a world-wide preaching mission was out of the question for Jesus says to this disciples, “for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt 10:23).   Jesus often refers to himself as the “Son of Man,” but the “coming” of the Son of Man, in Matthew’s text, consistently refers to the final judgment (13:41, 16:27, 16:28, 19:28, 24:27, 24:30, 24:37-38, 24:44, 25:31, 26:64). Matt 25:31 firmly situates the Son of Man as drawing all humankind to himself for the final judgment. Matt 26:64 shows Jesus being judged by the high priests and saying to them that their judgment on him is of little significance for they will witness “the Son of Man . . . coming in his glory” to render true judgment. Thus, when Μatt 10:23 suggests that the final judgment will overtake this present generation, this means that even before the disciples of Jesus have gotten around to preaching in “all the towns of Israel,” the final judgment will have taken place. Now, for this to be inserted in Matthew’s Gospel in the year 80 C.E. means that the compiler knows that the time has elapsed and yet that the Son of Man has not come. Perhaps this is because, at this time, Jesus had limited the mission to the towns of Israel and explicitly set the towns of Gentiles and Samaritans as off limits (Matt 10:5). When Jesus appears to his disciples “on the mountain” in Galilee (Matt 28:16) where Jesus had earlier taught them (Matt 10:1), he then expands their mission to include “all nations” (Matt 28:19). In so doing, the time frame for the final judgment is presumably delayed in order to allow for the influx of the Gentiles.

[2] The Apostles’ Creed represents a second century summary statement of belief.   Rufinus, in The Exposition of the Creed (c. 400 C.E.), makes note of the fact that “descended into Hades” did not exist in the second-century Roman version of the Creed. Hence, this phrase must have been added to the Apostle’s Creed sometime in the fourth century. This would place it in the same era as the Gospel of Bartholomew.

[3] The Roman Catechism endorsed the Thomistic perspective saying, “Christ the Lord descended into hell that, having seized the spoils of the devils, he might conduct into heaven those holy fathers and other pious souls liberated from prison” (1.6.q.6). The Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats the message of Trent placing an emphasis upon the fact that “the Gospel was preached even to the dead” (sec. 632 & 634 following 1 P 4:6). This event is interpreted in universal and eschatological terms: “This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all [dead] men [women] of all times and places . . .” (sec. 634). The implication here appears to be that when Christ returns on the Last Day, he will come with all the prophets, the holy Jews, the enlightened philosophers that he has liberated from Hades immediately after he died on the cross.



Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University

Samuele BacchiocchiDuring much of Christian history, sex in marriage has been condoned as a necessary evil for producing children. Before the sexual revolution of our times, calling a lady “sexy” would have been insulting. Nowadays many ladies would accept that adjective as a prized compliment. “The Victorian person,” writes Rollo May, “sought to have love without falling into sex; the modern person seeks to have sex without falling into love.”1

The attitude of society toward sex has truly swung from one extreme to another. From the Puritan view of sex as a necessary evil for procreation, we have come to the popular Playboy view of sex as a necessary thing for recreation. From the age of warning “Beware of sex,” we have come to the age of shouting “Hurrah for sex.” Homo sapiens has become homo sexualis, packed with sexual drives and techniques.

Both extremes are wrong and fail to fulfill God’s intended function of sex. The past negative view of sex made married people feel guilty about their sexual relations; the present permissive view of sex turns people into robots, capable of engaging in much sex but with little meaning or even fun in it. In spite of the increasing number of books on the techniques of love-making, more and more people are telling marriage counselors: “We make much love, but it isn’t much good. We find little meaning or even fun in it!”

Objective of the Chapter. This chapter examines the Biblical view of sex. We shall consider various aspects of sex within and without marriage in the light of the Biblical teaching. The chapter is divided into three parts. The first part surveys the past attitudes toward sex, from ancient Israel to modern times. The second part examines the Biblical view of the nature and function of sex. Attention will also be given to the morality or immorality of contraception. The third part addresses the question of whether or not there will be marital relationships in the world to come. The overall objective of the chapter is to counteract the secular and hedonistic view of sex by helping Christians understand and experience sex as God intended it to be.


Ancient Israel. The Hebrew people understood and interpreted human sexuality as a positive gift from God. They were not affected by the later Greek dualism between spirit and matter which considered sexual intercourse and evil “fleshy” activity to be shunned if possible. Such thinking was foreign to the Hebrews who saw sex within marriage as beautiful and enjoyable. A wedding was a time of great celebration, partly because it marked the beginning of the sexual life of the couple.

The bridal pair retired to a nuptial tent or chamber at the end of the wedding festivities to make love together while lying on a clean, white sheet. Blood on the sheet indicated that the bride had been a virgin and provided evidence of the consummation of marriage (Deut 22:13-19). A newly betrothed man was even excused from participating in war in order to be able to enjoy his bride (Deut 20:7)!

This indicates that the ancient Hebrews had a healthy attitude toward sex. They saw it as a divine gift which gave pleasure to the persons involved while providing the means for the propagation of the race. The classic example of the exaltation of human sexuality is found in the Song of Songs. This book has often been a source of embarrassment to Jews and Christians alike. Some interpreters, like Sebastian Castellio, have viewed the Song of Songs as an obscene description of human love which does not belong in the Biblical canon. Others, like Calvin, have defended the inclusion of the book in the canon by interpreting it as an allegory symbolizing the love of God for His people. The book, however, is not an allegory. It is a romantic celebration of human sexuality. According to some traditions, portions of the book were sung during wedding processionals and wedding feasts.

When the Hebrews came to the land of Canaan, they were exposed to the evil and excesses of the fertility cults associated with the worship of Baal, which included sacred prostitution. To correct these evils, several regulations were given. There were strict prohibitions, for example, against revealing in public one’s “private parts” (Gen 9:21; 2 Sam 6:20), incest (Lev 18:6-18; 20:11-12,14, 20; Deut 27:20,22), bestiality (Lev 18:23; 20:15-16), homosexuality (Lev 18:22; 20:13), and various kinds of sexual “irregularities” (Ex 22:16; Lev 19:20,29; 15:24; 18:19; 20:18; Deut 25:11). Overall, however, the Jews had a healthy view of sex, although they saw it primarily in terms of its reproductive function.

New Testament Times. In New Testament times, we find the beginning of two extreme attitudes toward sex: licentiousness and celibacy. Some interpreted the freedom of the Gospel as freedom to engage freely in sexual relations outside marriage. Jude speaks of “ungodly persons who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness” (Jude 4). Peter warns against the enticement of false teachers who had “eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin” (2 Pet 2:14). The problem of sexual permissiveness and perversion had become so noticeable in the Corinthian church that Paul openly rebuked those who engaged in incestuous and adulterous sexual relations (1 Cor 5:1, 6:16-18).

Other Christians were influenced by Greek philosophical ideas which viewed anything related to the physical aspect of life as evil. Since the sexual act involves “fleshly” contact and pleasure, it was viewed as inherently evil. This thinking prevailed in the Greco-Roman world, and exercised considerable influence among some Christians. In Corinth, for example, there were some Christians who maintained that unmarried people should remain single and those who were married should refrain from sexual activity (1 Cor 7:1-5, 8-11, 25-28).

Paul responded to these “ascetic” believers by affirming that it was right and proper for married persons to engage in sexual activities: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. . . . Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season . . . lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control” (1 Cor 7:3,5). Paul counsels unmarried and the widows to remain single (1 Cor 7:8, 25-26). His reason, however, is based not on theological but on practical considerations, namely, on the need to avoid the added burdens of a family during the end-time persecution which Paul believed would soon break out (1 Cor 7:26-31). Paul’s counsel does not reflect a negative view of sexuality because his advice was predicated solely on practical considerations. This is indicated by his counsel, “It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. . . . if you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl marries she does not sin” (1 Cor 7:9, 28).

Christian Church. The negative view of sexuality, already present in embryonic form during apostolic times among some Christians, developed fully during the early church, shaping the sexual attitudes of Christians up to modern times. This view can be traced back to Greek philosophy, especially to Platonic thought, which saw man as having two parts: the soul, which is good, and the body, which is bad. Such dualistic thinking influenced Christianity through a movement known as Gnosticism. This heretical movement taught that all matter, including the human body, was evil. Only the spark of the divine in man (soul) is good and through special knowledge (gnosis) such a spark could be released from the human body and returned to the divine realm. Thus, salvation was perceived as the liberation of the soul from the prison-house of the body.

This dualistic teaching greatly influenced Christian thought through the centuries to the point that many Christians gradually abandoned the Biblical view of the resurrection of the body, replacing it with the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul. The fundamental error of this view, which an increasing number of scholars are rejecting as unBiblical, is its assumption that matter is evil and must be destroyed. Such a view is clearly discredited by those Biblical texts which teach that matter, including the human body, is the product of God’s good creation (Gen 1:4, 10 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). The Psalmist declares: “For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful. Wonderful are thy works” (Psalm 139:13-14).

The adoption of the unBiblical Greek notion of the human body as intrinsically evil has led many Christians through the centuries into a warped attitude toward sex. Its effect still lingers, as many today are still uneasy about their marital sexual relations, viewing them as something tainted with sin.

Augustine’s Role. The church father who has molded the negative Christian attitudes toward sex more than any other person is Augustine (354-430).2 He regarded the sexual drives and excitement which cannot always be rationally controlled as the result of sin. He speculated that if sin had not come in, marital intercourse would be without the excitement of sexual desire. The male semen could be introduced into the womb of the wife without the heat of passion, in a natural way similar to the natural menstrual flow of blood emitted from the womb.

As a result of sin, the sexual act is now accompanied by powerful drives which Augustine called concupiscence, or lust. The satisfaction of lust through intercourse, was for him, a necessary evil to bring children into this world.

In effect, Augustine equated original sin with the sexual act and its lustful desires since the act is the channel through which he thought the guilt of Adam’s first transgression is transmitted from parent to child. By making the sexual act the means whereby original sin is transmitted, Augustine made sex for pleasure a sinful activity. This view necessitated the administration of baptism immediately after birth to remove the stain of the original sin from the soul of the new born baby.

The major fallacy of this view is its reduction of original sin to a biological factor which can be transmitted like an infectious disease through sexual intercourse. In Scripture, however, sin is volational and not biological. It is a willful transgression of a divine moral principle (1 John 3:4), and not a biological infection transmitted through sexual contact.

What can be transmitted is not the guilt of sin, as Augustine believed, but its punishment. Guilt is the personal transgression of a divine principle, which cannot be imputed upon a third party. The punishment of our wrong doings, however, can be passed on in terms of sickness and/or evil hereditary tendencies. Scripture tells us that God visits “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Ex 34:7). In the case of Adam’s sin, what has been passed on to mankind are the consequences of its punishment, which include evil inclinations and death. These consequences cannot be mechanically removed through infant baptism.

Original Sin. The notion of original sin is derived primarily from Romans 5:12 where Paul says that “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” In this statement the apostle simply affirms the fact that mankind shares in Adam’s sin and death. He makes no attempt to explain how this happens. He makes no allusion to sexual procreation as the channel through which mankind has become partakers of Adam’s sin and death. The context clearly indicates that Paul’s concern is to affirm the fundamental truth that Adam’s disobedience has made us sinners and Christ’s obedience has made us righteous: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19).

The concept to which Paul alludes to establish the connection between the sin of Adam and that of mankind is not that of biological transmission of sin through sexual procreation, but that of corporate solidarity. As Achan’s sin became the sin of his household because its members shared in a corporate solidarity with him (Josh 7:24), so Adam’s sin has become the sin of mankind because its members share in a corporate solidarity with him. This Pauline argument provides no support to the Augustinian attempt to equate original sin with sexual excitement and intercourse.

Augustine’s association of original sin with sex has been widely accepted throughout Christian history, conditioning the sexual attitudes not only of Roman Catholics but also of Christians in general. As Derrick Baily notes, “Augustine must bear no small measure of responsibility for the insinuation into our culture of the idea, still widely current, that Christianity regards sexuality as something peculiarly tainted with evil.”3

Partly as a reaction to this negative view of sex as a necessary evil for the propagation of the human race, a completely different and pleasure oriented (hedonistic) view of sex has emerged. The sexual revolution of our time has glamorized sexual profligacy and prowess, ridiculing sexual chastity as a prudish superstition. The catastrophic consequences of the sexual revolution can be seen in the ever-increasing number of divorces, abortions, incidents of incest, sexual abuse of children, and the loss of the true meaning and function of sex. In the light of this painful reality, it is imperative for Christians to understand and experience the Biblical meaning and function of sex.


Image of God. The book of Genesis is the logical starting point for our quest into the Biblical view of sex. The first statement relating to human sexuality is found in Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” It is noteworthy that while after every previous act of creation, Scripture says that God saw that “it was good” (Gen 1:12,18,21,25), after the creation of mankind as male and female, it says that God saw that “it was very good” (Gen 1:31). This initial divine appraisal of human sexuality as “very good” shows that Scripture sees the male/female sexual distinction as part of the goodness and perfection of God’s original creation. . . .

Becoming “One Flesh”. The oneness of intimate fellowship between a man and a woman is expressed in Genesis 2:24 by the phrase “one flesh:” “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The phrase “one flesh,” as already shown in chapter 1, refers to the total union of body, soul, and spirit between marital partners. This total union can be experienced especially through sexual intercourse when the act is the expression of genuine love, respect, and commitment. The physical or sexual meaning of the phrase “one flesh” is clearly found in 1 Corinthians 6:16 where Paul applies it to the sexual intercourse between a man and a harlot.

The phrase becoming one flesh sheds considerable light on God’s estimate of sex within a marital relationship. It tells us that God sees sex as a means through which a husband and a wife can achieve a new unity. It is noteworthy that the “one flesh” imagery is never used to describe a child’s relationship to his father and mother. A man must “leave” his father and mother to become “one flesh” with his wife. His relationship to his wife transcends the one to his parents because it consists of a new oneness consummated by the sexual union.

Becoming one flesh also implies that the purpose of the sexual act is not only procreational, that is, to produce children, but also psychological, that is, the emotional need to consummate a new oneness-relationship. Oneness implies the willingness to reveal one’s most intimate physical, emotional and intellectual self to the other. As they come to know each other in the most intimate way, the couple experiences the meaning of becoming one flesh. Sexual intercourse does not automatically ensure this oneness intimacy. Rather it consummates the intimacy of perfect sharing which has already developed.

Sex as “Knowing”. Sexual relations within marriage enable a couple to come to know each other in a way which cannot be experienced in any other way. To participate in sexual intercourse means not only to uncover one’s body but also one’s inner being to another. This is why Scripture often describes sexual intercourse as “knowing,” the same verb used in Hebrews to refer to knowing God. Genesis 4:1 says: “And Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived.”5

Obviously Adam had come to know Eve before their sexual intercourse, but through the latter he came to know her more intimately than ever before. Dwight H. Small aptly remarks: “Self-disclosure through sexual intercourse invites self-disclosure at all levels of personal existence. This is an exclusive revelation unique to the couple. They know each other as they know no other person. This unique knowledge is tantamount to laying claim to another in genuine belonging . . . the nakedness and physical coupling is symbolic of the fact that nothing is hidden or withheld between them.”6

The process which leads to sexual intercourse is one of growing knowledge. From the initial casual acquaintance to dating, courtship, marriage, and sexual intercourse, the couple grows in the knowledge of each other and this makes greater intimacy possible. Sexual intercourse represents the culmination of this growth in reciprocal knowledge and intimacy. As Elizabeth Achtemeier puts it: “We feel as if the most hidden inner depths of our beings are brought to the surface and revealed and offered to each other as the most intimate expression of our love.”7

Sex as Pleasure. A revolution has taken place in Christian thinking about sex within the last hundred years. Until the beginning of our century, Christians generally believed that the primary function of sex was procreative, that is, to produce children. Other considerations, such as the unitive, relational and pleasurable aspects of sex were seen as secondary and usually tainted with sin. In the twentieth century the order has been reversed. Christians place the relational and pleasurable aspects of sex first and the conception of children last.

From a Biblical perspective, sexual activity is both unitive and procreative, or we might say, recreative and reproductive. God’s command, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28), is a command to be sexual. When we obey it, we fulfill God’s purpose by becoming one flesh and producing children. So sex in marriage is both unitive and procreative. “During the Middle Ages,” writes David Phypers, “Christians stressed the procreative aspect of sex while neglecting and sometimes despising its unitive purpose. Today, we stress its unitive role, and may ignore the command to be fruitful and increase in number.”8

As Christians we need to recover and maintain the Biblical balance between the relational and procreational functions of sex. Sexual intercourse is a relational act of perfect sharing that engenders a sense of oneness while offering the possibility of bringing a new life into this world. We need to recognize that sex is a divine gift that can be legitimately enjoyed within marriage. Like all other divine gifts, sex is to be partaken of with thankfulness and moderation.

Sex as a Divine Gift. It is noteworthy that the wise man Solomon mentions together bread, wine, clothing and marital love as the good gifts that God has approved for our enjoyment: “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white; let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love,all the days of your life which He has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun” (Eccl 9:7-9).

Sexual activity is generally more important to humans than it is to animals. It is significant that among the mammals, only the human female is capable of enjoying sexual orgasm as well as the male. It is recognized that this experience binds a woman to her partner emotionally as well as physically. The fact that both the human male and female can share together in the pleasure of sexual intercourse indicates that God intended marital sex to be enjoyed by both partners.

In the Song of Songs, the celebration of sexual love between the bride and bridegroom is expressed in suggestive romantic words: “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me. Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields and lodge in the villages; let us go out early to the vineyards . . . There I will give you my love” (Song of Songs 7:10-12).

The same positive view of marital sex is found in the New Testament. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul urges husbands and wives to fulfill their marital duties together, because their bodies do not belong to themselves alone but to each other. Therefore they should not deprive each other of sex, except by mutual agreement for a time to devote themselves to prayer. Then they should come together again lest Satan tempt them through lack of self-control (1 Cor 7:2-5).

In Ephesians Paul speaks of the physical union of a man and a woman as a profound “mystery” reflecting Christ’s love for His church. Therefore, we should not be uneasy about marital sex, because when we come together we are experiencing something of the mysterious redemptive love of Christ for the world.

The author of Hebrews admonishes that “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure” (Heb 13:4 NIV). Here, marital sex is extolled as honorable, something not to be embarrassed about. But the same writer adds, “God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb 13:4 NIV).

Bible writers are unanimous in commending sex within marriage and in condemning all forms of sexual activity outside marriage. Paul warns the Corinthians, “Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral . . . nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor homosexual offenders . . . will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9,10 NIV). The book of Revelation places the “fornicators” among those whose “lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur” (Rev 21:8).

Sex as Procreation. In the Bible the function of sex, as noted earlier, is not only unitive but also procreative. It not only serves to engender a mysterious oneness of spirit, but it also offers the possibility of bringing children into this world. God’s command “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28) expresses God’s original intent for the purpose of sex. Through marital sex and the birth of children, God enables men and women to reflect His image by sharing in His creative activity. This means that sex in marriage without the intention of having children fails to fulfill a fundamental divine purpose for sex. The lengths to which some married couples will go in order to have children reveals the deep creative urge God has placed within us.

Of course, not all couples are able to have or are justified in having children. Old age, infertility, and genetic diseases are but some of the factors that make childbearing impossible or inadvisable. For the vast majority of couples, however, sex in marriage should include the desire to have children. As sex consummates the act of marriage, so children consummate the sexual act. This does not mean that every act of sexual union should result in conception, but rather that the desire for having children should be part of the overall intent of sexual relations.

Various contraceptive techniques make it possible today to separate sexual activity from childbearing. A growing number of couples choose to enjoy a lifetime of sexual activity without desiring or planning for children. They are not simply concerned about delaying their arrival but in avoiding them altogether. Children are seen as a threat to their high standards of living associated with two incomes and two careers.   [!Danger!  This is a judgmental and demeaning statement.  Today there are valid genetic, cultural, financial, ecological reasons for delaying or entirely sacrificing the yearning to procreate.]

“We are not meant to separate sex from childbearing” writes David Phypers, “and those who do, totally and finally, purely for personal reasons, are surely falling short of God’s purpose for their lives. They run the risk that their marriage and sexual activity may become self-indulgent. They will only look inwards to their own self-satisfaction, rather than outwards to the creative experiences of bringing new life into the world and nurturing it to maturity.”9

The life-begetting function of sex enables a married couple to further God’s creative work by becoming procreators with Him. It is altogether consistent with God’s creative work that the sexual life-begetting experience should be joyous. Did not God’s angels shout for joy at His first creation (Job 38:7)? Bringing into life a new person in God’s image is a joyful and solemn privilege delegated by God to married couples. In this sense, they become workers together with God in furthering His creation.

Importance of Children. Children are [generally but not always] a fundamental part of our marriage and sexual relationships. They represent God’s blessings upon the marital union. The Psalmist expresses this truth, saying: “Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from Him. Like the arrows in the hands of a warrior are the sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them” (Ps 127:3-5 NIV [sexist orientation]).

The population explosion has not rescinded God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. World famine is not so much the result of too many people [???] as much as the result of greed, exploitation, irresponsible governments, misuse of natural resources, and unwillingness to adopt more effective methods of agriculture and to teach people responsible family planning. While a number of developing countries are facing population explosions, most Western countries are experiencing population stagnation or decline. Western societies are aging, and unless the current trend is reversed, it will soon become increasingly difficult for them to support their ever-growing numbers of elderly people.

We no longer need large families, but we still need families. The church needs Christian families that can share with the world the love of God experienced in the home. Society needs the service and moral influence of Christian families. Most Western societies live today in what social analysts call the “Post-Christian era.” This is the era in which social values and practices are influenced no longer by Christian principles but rather by humanistic ideologies. The latter promote a secular view of marriage and a hedonistic view of sex. Marriage has become a dissolvable social contract rather than a permanent sacred covenant, and sex is regarded primarily as a recreational activity rather than as a procreational responsibility.

As Christians, we are called not to conform to the world (Rom 12:2) but to transform the world through God’s given principles and power. In the area of marriage and sex, we must show to the world that we obey God’s command to “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:22) and not to “put asunder what God has united” (Matt 19:6).

The Use of Contraception. It is a fact that today most couples in the Western world use contraceptives to delay the start of their families, to space the arrival of subsequent children, and to limit their numbers. This practice is followed by most Christians, often unthinkingly. Is this right? Does Scripture allow us to limit and time our children’s births? Or does the command to be fruitful and multiply mean that we should leave the issue of family planning to the mercies of God? No explicit answer can be found in the Bible because the subject of contraception was not an issue in Bible times. In those days, larger families were needed and welcomed to meet the demand for helping hands in that agricultural society.

In seeking for Biblical guidance on the subject of contraception, we need to ask two fundamental questions: (1) What is the purpose of sexual intercourse? and (2) Do we have the right to interfere with the reproductive cycle established by God?

We have discussed earlier, at great length, the first question. We have seen that the function of sexual intercourse is both relational and procreational. It is a relational act of perfect sharing that engenders a mysterious sense of oneness and offers the possibility of bringing children into this world. The fact that the function of sex in marriage is not only to produce children but also to express and experience mutual love and commitment, implies the need for certain limitations on the reproductive function of sex. If a couple were to risk a new conception each time they made love, they would soon forfeit sexual intercourse as a means of giving themselves totally to each other. This means that the relational function of sex can only remain a viable dynamic experience if its reproductive function is controlled.

Natural or “Unnatural” Contraception? This leads us to consider the manner of controlling the reproductive cycle. This issue is addressed by the second question, namely, do we have the right to interfere with the reproductive cycle established by God? The historic answer of the Roman Catholic Church has been a resounding “NO!” In December 1930, Pius XI reaffirmed the traditional Catholic position against contraceptives in his encyclical Casti Connubii: “Since therefore the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it [contraception] deliberately frustrate its natural effect and purpose, sin against nature, and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.”10

The unyielding historical Catholic position has been tempered by Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (July 29, 1968) which acknowledges the morality of the sexual union between husband and wife, even if not directed to the procreation of children.11 Moreover, the encyclical, while condemning artificial contraceptives, allows for a natural method of birth control, known as the “rhythm method.” This method consists of confining intercourse to the infertile periods in the wife’s menstrual cycle.12

The attempt of Humanae Vitae to distinguish between “artificial” and “natural” contraceptives, making the former immoral and the latter moral, smacks of artificiality. Why is it “artificial” to block the flow of the sperm in the uterus and yet not “artificial” to time the placement of the sperm so that it does not fertilize an egg? In either case, the fertilization of the egg is prevented by human intelligence. Moreover, to reject as immoral the use of artificial contraceptives can lead to rejecting as immoral the use of any artificial vaccine, hormone or medication which is not produced naturally by the human body.

The morality or immorality of contraception is determined not by the kinds of contraceptives we use, but by the reasons for their use. “Like most other human inventions,” writes David Phypers, “contraception is morally neutral; it is what we do with it that counts. If we use it to practice sex outside marriage or selfishly within marriage, or if through it we invade the privacy of others’ marriages, we may indeed be guilty of disobeying the will of God and of distorting the marriage relationship. But if we use it with a proper regard for the health and well-being of our partners and our families, then it can enhance and strengthen our marriages. Through contraception we can protect our marriage from the physical, emotional, economic, and psychological strains they might suffer through further pregnancies, while at the same time we can use the act of marriage, reverently and lovingly, as it was intended, to bind us together in lasting union.”13

Contraception and Sin. To ban contraception, as the Catholic Church has done historically, means to ignore the effects of sin on marriage, sex and childbirth. If sin had not entered into this world, there would have been no need for contraception. The menstrual cycle and the fertility rate would have been regular in all women. Childbirth would have been easy and painless. The abundant provisions of the earth would have amply satisfied the need for food and shelter. The socio-political structures of a perfect society would have provided to any child unlimited educational and professional opportunities.

But sin has spoiled our world. Both the human and sub-human creation has been marred by sin. Some women are very fertile while others totally infertile. Childbirth is a great source of pain to most women. Thorns, thistles, pests, and droughts destroy our crops. The socio-political systems of many developing countries are unable to provide adequate housing, education, employment, and medial services to most members of their societies. Christians are not spared the results of sin. Christian mothers may not be able to give birth without caesarean delivery, or many suffer from various health problems. These and many other reasons may cause couples to delay, to space, or to limit the size of their families. In situations such as the ones mentioned above, contraception becomes a responsible way to respect human life and resources.

It is significant to note that the command, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28), is immediately followed by the command to subdue and have domination “over every living thing.” This implies that God is calling us to be responsible stewards of His creation, controlling any destablizing factor such as the threat of population explosion.

To be responsible stewards of God’s creation means that as Christians we have no right [save in special circumstances] to avoid children altogether  by using natural or “unnatural” means of contraception. We have a duty before God to become responsible parents, by bringing up children in the love, “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). The way we fulfill this duty will vary from couple to couple as we prayerfully seek divine guidance regarding the timing of our children’s births and the methods we use to this end.

Sex Outside Marriage. Nowhere has Christian morality come under greater attack than in the whole area of sex outside marriage. The Biblical teaching that sex is only for marriage does not even enter the thinking of most people today. The Biblical condemnation of illicit sexual acts has become for many a license for sexual experimentation.

The popular acceptance of sexual permissiveness is evidenced by the introduction and use of “softer terms.” Fornication, for example, is referred to as “pre-marital sex” with the accent on the “pre” rather than on the “marital.” Adultery is now called “extra-marital sex,” implying an additional experience like some extra-professional activities. Homosexuality has gradually been softened from serious perversion through “deviation” to “gay variation.” Pornographic literature and films are now available to “mature audiences” or “adults.”

More and more, Christians are giving in to the specious argument that “Love makes it right.” If a man and a woman are deeply and genuinely in love, they have the right to express their love through sexual union without marriage. Some contend that pre-marital sex releases people from their inhibitions and moral hangups, giving them a sense of emotional freedom. The truth of the matter is that pre-marital sex adds emotional pressure because it reduces sexual love to a purely physical level without the total commitment of two married people.  [Uck!  Sexual love, both inside and outside of marriage, is always more than “purely physical.”  Consider, e.g., the case of Tamar (Gen 38:12-26). ]

Biblical Condemnation. The Biblical condemnation of sexual relations before or outside marriage is abundantly clear. Adultery, or sexual intercourse between married women or married men and someone other than their marital partners, is condemned as a serious sin. [Needs contextualization here.] Not only is adultery forbidden in both versions of the Decalogue (Ex 20:14; Deut 5:18), but it was also punishable by death in ancient Israel: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lev 20:10; cf. 18:20; Deut 22:22-24). The same punishment was meted out to a man or a woman who engaged in pre-marital sex (Deut 22:13-21, 23-27).

The New Testament goes beyond the Old Testament by internalizing the whole sexuality of a person and placing it within the context of motivation. Jesus emphasized that to entertain lustful desires toward a person of the opposite sex outside marriage means to be guilty of adultery (Matt 5:27-28). The reason for this is that defilement comes not only from outward acts but also from inward thoughts, which in Biblical symbology derive from the heart: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man” (Matt 15:19-20).

Sexual laxness was pervasive in the Greco-Roman world of New Testament times. Hence, one of the conditions the Jerusalem council made for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Christian Church was that they should abstain from all forms of “unchastity” (Acts 15:20, 29).

Paul’s letters reveal the difficulties the apostle had in leading Gentile converts away from sexual immorality. To the Thessalonians, he wrote: “For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; that each of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God” (1 Thess 4:2-5). Here Paul admonishes those who had sexual urges to satisfy them by entering not into temporary relationships “in the passion of lust like the heathen who do not know God,” but into permanent marital relationships. Such relationships are to be characterized by “holiness and honor.”

Paul is most explicit in his condemnation of prostitution. He asks the Corinthians who lived in the celebrated sex center of the Mediterranean world: “Do you now know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two shall become one flesh.’ But he who is unified to the Lord becomes one spirit with Him. Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:16-20).

Reasons for Condemnation. In this passage, Paul helps us to see why the Bible strongly condemns sex outside marriage. Sex represents the most intimate of all interpersonal relationships, expressing a “one-flesh” unity of total commitment  Such a unity of commitment cannot be expressed or experienced in a casual sexual union with a prostitute where the concern is purely commercial and recreational. The only [???] oneness experienced in such sexual unions is the oneness of sexual immorality.

Sexual immorality is serious because it affects the individual more deeply and permanently than any other sin. Paul describes it as a sin committed inside the body: “Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body” (1 Cor 6:18). It might be objected that all sins of sensuality such as gluttony or drunkenness affect a person inside the body. Yet they do not have the same permanent effect on the personality as the sin of fornication. Indulgence in eating or drinking can be overcome, stolen goods can be returned, lies can be retracted and replaced by the truth. But the sexual act, once committed with another person, cannot be undone. A radical change has taken place in the interpersonal relationship of the couple involved that can never be undone. Something indelible has stamped on them both forever. Even with a prostitute, sexual union leaves its permanent mark. It is a spot in the consciousness that cannot be removed.

“The immoral man sins against his own body.” This truth is openly rejected by those who regard pre-marital sex not as sinful, but as helpful to a satisfactory sexual adjustment in marriage. Some even believe that sexual relations with the person one intends to marry are necessary to guarantee sexual compatibility. Such attitudes fail to recognize that sexual intercourse before marriage is the worst possible preparation for marriage. The reasons for this are not difficult to discover.

Sex without Commitment. To begin with, sex before marriage is sex without [complete] commitment. If we do not like our partners, we can change and find somebody else. Such casual relationships destroy the integrity of the person by reducing it to an object to be used for personal gratification. Some, who feel hurt and used after sexual encounters, may withdraw altogether from sexual activity for fear of being used again or may decide to use their bodies selfishly, without regard to the feeling of others. Either way, our sexuality is distorted because it destroys the possibility of using it to relate genuinely and intimately toward the one we love. Sex cannot be used as a means for fun with one partner at one time and as a way to express genuine love and commitment with another partner at another time. Those who become accustomed to a variety of sexual partners will find it difficult, if not impossible, to express through sex their total commitment and final intimacy to their marital partners.

Engaged couples will probably deny that when they sleep together they are not expressing genuine commitment to one another. But if they were fully and finally committed to each other, they would be married. Engagement is the preparation for marriage, but it is not marriage. Until the wedding vows are taken, the possibility of breaking up a relationship exists. If a couple has had intercourse together, they have compromised their relationship. Any subsequent break up will leave permanent emotional scars. It is only when we are willing to become one, not only verbally but also legally by assuming responsibility for our partners, that we can seal our relationships through sexual intercourse. In this setting, sex fittingly expresses the ultimate commitment and the final intimacy. . . .

Marriage licenses and wedding ceremonies are not mere formalities but serve to formalize the marriage commitment. As Elizabeth Achtemeier explains: “Just the fact that such young people [living together] are hesitant legally to seal their union is evidence that their commitment to one another is not total. Marriage licenses and ceremonies are not only legal formalities; they are also symbols of responsibility. They say publicly, what is affirmed privately, without reservation, that I am responsible for my mate—responsible not only in all those lovely emotional and spiritual areas of married life, but responsible also in the down-to-earth areas that have to do with grubby things like money, health insurance, and property. For example, two people just living together have no obligation for each other when the tax form comes up for an audit, or the other is involved in a car accident and legal suit; but persons holding a marriage license do have such responsibility, and commitment to a marriage involves accepting that public responsibility too. It is a matter of accepting the full obligations that society imposes on its adult members in order to ensure the common good.”14


Will there be marital relations in the world to come? The answer of many sincere Christians is “NO!” They believe that at the resurrection the redeemed will receive some kind of “unisex” spiritual bodies which will replace our present physical and heterosexual bodies . Their belief is derived primarily from a misunderstanding of the words of Jesus found in Matthew 22:30: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven.” Does this text imply that at the resurrection all sexual distinctions will be abolished and that our bodies will no longer be physical? If this interpretation were correct, it would mean that, contrary to what the Scripture says, the original creation of humanity as physical, heterosexual beings was not really “very good”(Gen 1:31). To remove the “bugs” from His original creation, God would find it necessary in the new world to create a new type of human being, presumably made up of “non-physical, unisex” bodies.

Change Implies Imperfection. To say the least, this reasoning is absurd for anyone who believes in God’s omniscience and immutability. It is normal for human beings to introduce new models and structures to eliminate existing deficiencies. For God, however, this would be abnormal and incoherent since He knows the end from the beginning.

If at the resurrection God were to change our present physical, heterosexual bodies into “non-physical, unisex” bodies, then as Anthony A. Hoekema rightly observes: “The devil would have won a great victory since God would then have been compelled to change human beings with physical bodies such as he had created into creatures of a different sort, without physical bodies (like the angels). Then it would indeed seem that matter had become intrinsically evil so that it had to be banished. And then, in a sense, the Greek philosophers would have been proved right. But matter is not evil; it is part of God’s good creation.”15

Like Angels. A study of Jesus’ statement in its own context provides no support to the view that at the resurrection the redeemed will receive non-physical, unisex, angelic bodies. The context is a hypothetical situation created by the Sadducees in which six brothers married in succession the widow of their brother. The purpose of such successive, levirate marriages was not relational but procreational, namely to “raise up children for his [their] brother” (Matt 22:24). The testing question posed by the Sadducees was, “In the resurrection to which of the seven will she be wife?” (Matt 22:28).

In answering this hypothetical situation, Jesus affirmed, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scripture nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30). In the context of the hypothetical situation of seven brothers marrying the same woman to give her an offspring, Christ’s reference to not marrying or giving in marriage but being like angels, most likely means that marriage as a means of procreation will no longer exist in the world to come. It is evident that if no new children are born, there will be no possibility of marrying a son or of giving a daughter in marriage. The cessation of the procreational function of marriage will make the redeemed “like angels” who do not reproduce after their own likeness.

In His answer, Jesus did not deal with the immediate question of the marital status of a woman married seven times, but with the larger question of the procreational function of marriage, which, after all, was the reason the seven brothers married the same woman. This indirect method of answering questions is not unusual in the teachings of Jesus. For example, when asked by the Pharisees, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2), Jesus chose to ignore the immediate question, emphasizing instead the original creational design for marriage to be a lifelong commitment, without divorce (Mark 10:5-9).

Single in Heaven? Does the cessation of the procreational function of marriage imply the termination also of its relational function? Not necessarily so. If God created human beings at the beginning as male and female, with the capacity to experience a oneness of intimate fellowship, there is no reason to suppose that He will recreate them at the end as unisex beings, who will live as single persons without the capacity to experience the oneness of fellowship existing in a man/woman relationship.

The doctrine of the First Things, known as etiology, should illuminate the doctrine of the Last Things, known as escatology. If God found His creation of human beings as male and female very good (Gen 1:31) at the beginning, would He discover it to be not so good at the end? We have reason to believe that what was “very good” for God at the beginning will also be “very good” for Him at the end. . . .


Sex is seen in the Bible as part of God’s good creation. Its function is both unitive and procreative. It serves to engender a mysterious oneness of body, mind, and spirit between husband and wife while offering them the possibility of bringing children into this world.

Scripture strongly condemns sex outside marriage because it is a sin affecting a person more deeply and permanently than other sins (1 Cor 6:18). It leaves a permanent mark in the consciousness that cannot be removed. Sex outside of marriage is sin because it is sex without commitment. It reduces a person to an object to be used for personal gratification. Such a selfish use of sex impairs, if not totally destroys, the possibility of using it to express and experience genuine love and commitment toward one’s marital partner. At a time when sexual permissiveness and promiscuity prevails, it is imperative for Christians to reaffirm their commitment to the Biblical view of sex as a divine gift to be enjoyed only within marriage.


1. Rollo May, “Reflecting on the New Puritanism,” in Sex Thoughts for Contemporary Christians, ed. Michael J. Taylor, S.J. (New York, 1972), p.171.

2. For a discussion of the attitude toward sex of the early church, including Augustine, see Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Common Sense About Sexual Ethics: A Christian View (New York, 1962); Donald F. Winslow, “Sex and Anti-sex in the Early Church Fathers,” in Male and Female: Christian Approaches Sexuality, eds. Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse and Urban T. Holmes III (New York, 1956).

3. As quoted by William E. Phipps, Was Jesus Married? (New York, 1970), p.175.

4. Paul Jewett, Man as Male and Female (Grand Rapids, 1975), p.261.

5. See also Genesis 4:17, 25.

6. Dwight H. Small, Christian: Celebrate Your Sexuality (Old Tappan, New Jersey, 1974), p. 186.

7. Elizabeth Achtemeier, The Committed Marriage (Philadelphia, 1976), p. 162.

8. David Phypers, Christian Marriage in Crisis (Kent, England, 1986), p. 38.

9. Ibid., p. 39

10. Cited in Norman St. John-Stevas, The Agonizing Choice: Birth Control, Religion and Law (Bloomington, Indiana, 1971), p.84.

11. Humanae Vitae, paragraph 11.

12. Humanae Vitae, paragraph 10.

13. David Phypers (n. 8), p. 44.

14. Elizabeth Achtemeier (n. 7), p. 40.

15. A. A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, 1979), p. 250.


Bravely Searching for a Spirituality of Sexual Intimacy

A Search for Married Spirituality

By Marysia (22 November 2013)

MarysiaThis is an edited version of my contribution to the book Women Experiencing Church: A Documentation of Alienation (Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing Paperback, 1991). Not much has changed [since I first wrote], except that for 30 years of marriage now read 50.

I have been married for more than thirty years. Looking back, I can see that during that time I have become a different person. This is normal, we grow and develop. But I have something other than development in mind. I shall try to look back at the person I had been, and follow the process of change in my understanding of the Church’s teaching on what concerns most of its members, that is on marriage.

I met my husband when we were still young. We were both very religious. We could not to marry yet, but we knew that if we did get married, it would be to one another.

During my convent schooldays I had read that greatest mistake one could make was not to be a saint. But, since God had brought us together, He must have wanted us to look for sanctity through one another. So we set out to look for sanctity in marriage. The method seemed obvious. If we looked to the Church for guidance, we could never go wrong!

Still in our teens, we read Casti Connubii together. We accepted the encyclical’s outright condemnation of artificial birth control. Surely we were intelligent and knew enough about the female cycles to use the calendar, or so called ‘rhythm method’ to control the number and the spacing of children. However, in spite of this self-imposed discipline, within a month I was pregnant. Our third daughter was born three and a half years after the first. Clearly this could not go on. We obviously needed more and better information and found it, at last, at the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council, who introduced us to the temperature method. We breathed more freely. The discipline began to show results, or rather lack of them. But there was no question of conceiving a child intentionally; we had to leave room for emergencies.

These are common experiences. Such case histories have been described countless times in connection with Humanae Vitae and in other discussions before and since. But the question of birth regulation, since it affects women so intimately, clearly shows the callous attitude of the official Church. A handful of celibate old men, wielding power, make inhuman rules for others, even though Christ had warned them against putting burdens on other people’s backs.

We survived. Many marriages broke under the strain of trying to follow that teaching, which resulted in either too many children or in a damaged relationship! Moreover, when a marriage broke up under such strains, the victims were branded as sinners.

In our Family Group someone asked a priest to give reasons for the ban on contraception. He glibly replied: “I hope you don’t mind if I change the question, and talk about divorce, which is also forbidden”. We listened in amazement as he answered the unasked question. “But that refers to marriages which are failing” we replied. “All marriages are affected by the ruling on contraception, and the more the couple love one another the more they suffer”.

I led a discussion on sanctity in marriage – our ultimate goal – and realised that there were no married saints. Men were canonised for reasons unconnected to their state in life. Women had to be “virgins”, “widows” or “martyrs”. I thought innocently that the Church had through oversight not noticed the heroic virtues practised by married people. Nobody knew enough to contradict me, and show the true reason for that imbalance.

While I was confined to the suburbs with the babies, My husband continued extra-mural lectures on moral theology at the Newman Association and sat the exam. Writing about the role of sexual intercourse in marriage he disagreed with St. Augustine, placing what he called “togetherness” first. He failed the exam, but we were glad to know that he had expressed what we both thought.

We joined a local discussion group known as “The Mob”. There I first heard the opinion, that the Church tried to force religious forms of spirituality on married people. We needed a married spirituality, and would have to create it ourselves. This was a revelation. At last I stopped hankering after the glories of the Easter Liturgy when small children had to come first, or feeling guilty about not getting to church more often. The clergy were adept at requesting a “come hither” Christianity, manifested in frequent church attendance. Now I saw it as irrelevant to my life.

Then I read “The Man-Woman Relation in Christian Thought” by D. S. Bailey and became aware of the misogyny of the early Fathers, of Augustine’s contention that sexual intercourse in marriage was at least venially sinful, and only acceptable as a means of procreation. That man’s reaction against his misspent youth and his resulting imbalance on sexual matters has weighed heavily on the Church, which still has not shaken itself free from it. Augustine lurks under many of the reasons advanced against women priests. A married Anglican Bishop, Dr. Graham Leonard, revealed his own subconscious and that of many other clerics, saying that if he saw a woman at the altar, his first reaction would be to take her in his arms. What can one expect, therefore, of celibate clergy?

The depths of the nonsense to which the Fathers descended, are shown by St. Jerome’s opinion, that the Jewish patriarchs would have preferred to fulfil God’s promise of expanding into a great nation without sex.. Woman was equated with sex, sex with evil. A woman could only achieve sanctity if she became male, suppressed her womanhood. The early Fathers would have created a better world than God had done. Burdened with this bias against half the human race, the Church in the Middle Ages forbade intercourse before receiving the Eucharist, and discouraged it in Lent, on Fridays, on the eves of Holidays and at countless other times. And I had set out to find sanctity in marriage, by relying on the Church’s guidance!

Bailey’s book was the first of many. Why had I not known the history of the doctrine of marriage in the early Church? The nonsense has never been repudiated. Church’s teaching was no more correct now, than it had been in those early ages. It was still permeated with Manicheism from the time of Augustine. Some changes have taken place, and no-one would dare to express quite the same crude opinions to-day, but the changes were resisted all the time by a celibate clerical establishment. Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors declared : “Whosoever should maintain that the celibate state is not higher than the married state – let him be anathema!” The establishment fought a rearguard action at every step, giving way only under pressure from undeniable reality.

I re-examined the Church’s teaching on subjects which affected my life as a woman and as a partner in a marriage. This re-examination was soon followed by the far greater one, that of the Second Vatican Council. We welcomed it as a long overdue rethinking of the Church’s teachings in many fields, including the one in which we had more experience than did the Council Fathers.

I am not talking only of birth control, but also of the disregard by the official Church of personal values, whether within marriage or within other relationships. The fact that a woman’s interests had to be sacrificed to the bringing up of a numerous family did not worry the law givers. If her conceptions, like Eve’s, were multiplied, that was the reason for her existence. St. Thomas Aquinas said: “Were it not for procreation, another man would be always of more help to a man than a woman.”

It was unimportant if children had not enough room in the home for privacy,. Poverty was a virtue. Some of our friends accepted overcrowded conditions as the consequence of their Catholic life-style. One heard of children sleeping two to a bed. But our parish priest was building a presbytery in which each of the three curates had a bedroom and a sitting room. So civilised!

Which came first: compulsory celibacy or impersonal attitudes to other human beings? Perhaps they reinforced one another. A priest wrote in the Catholic Herald, that he did without sex altogether, so married people could do it for a time. For him, obviously, sex was impersonal. A bishop regretted that he was not allowed to have intercourse with a woman, if only once, “to see what it was like”. Those representatives of the Church talked of marriage, while seeing sexuality in the same light as do adolescent boys. Yet they were grown men, and they aspired to be our teachers and pastors.

The history of the teaching of Second Vatican Council and after on sex and marriage is well known — the reservation of judgement to the Pope, the papal commission on birth control, the scandalous disregard of its findings, the bombshell of Humanae Vitae. But by then the inadequacy of the teaching Church to pronounce on marriage was transparent. As the understanding of the role of conscience deepened, the teaching was taken as only one aspect of the problem. The encyclical had a chance of dying a natural death.

Yet Humanae Vitae was a bombshell. The free and open discussions in our house were heard by our children. A friend had shown my eight year old a photograph of Paul VI, the Pope. Barbara looked dubious: “Mummy and Daddy don’t like him much just now!” – she commented.

This is a personal account of my relationship with the official Church, but my experiences mean little in isolation. The clerics whom I have met were individuals, some better, some worse. I had ceased to expect guidance and wisdom from the clergy. What is important is how the Church institution has weighed over my life and the lives of others. I do not take the institution sufficiently seriously any more to suffer from it. But the institution is still putting burdens on people’s backs, and we should fight for principles not only when they affect ourselves.

Some post-hysterectomy or post-menopause women, who in the past had reached the end of their endurance, have since become “experts on natural family planning”, and give an exposé of the Billings method of determining the time of ovulation. Now there is better knowledge, they say, it’s easier. Of course it is — for them. But I refuse to accept that method, or any other, as the panacea, though it is an improvement on earlier knowledge. I also refuse to accept the right of clerics to immerse themselves with cold abstraction in questions of female physiology. They like doing that, and it has nothing to do with them.

John Paul II went far beyond Humanae Vitae in his condemnation of birth control. I have corresponded with women in Poland who were unable to make the safe period work, badly instructed, not knowing where to turn. They tried to be faithful, but when asking for bread had been given stones. They were conditioned to think that the Church has to go on with the teaching, and if they cannot adhere to it, it is their fault. Often they accept the dichotomy — on the one hand the ideal proclaimed by the Church, on the other undeniable reality. They live in this state of inner division – somehow.

A priest from Poland, an “expert” on marriage visited our family group. He blamed the apparent confusion of the present teaching on birth control on priests. who irresponsibly began to talk of a change, which was not possible.

On the contrary, I said, those priests listened to married couples about the realities of their lives together, became convinced by that witness and had the courage to side with the people.

He was shocked. He had probably never before been contradicted, especially by a woman.

We know that any priest who has spoken publicly against Humanae Vitae is unlikely to become a bishop. Soon the teaching Church will consist entirely of “yes-men”. Instead of being shepherds to their flock, they will be sheep. But those sheep will lead.

It would be so much easier if we were sheep, both for us and for the bishops. But we are thinking women and men. The bishops appear to realise it, since occasionally they request the opinion of the “laity” on matters connected with marriage. They want to know our experience. After all, if they have asked, perhaps they really want to know, so giving them the benefit of the doubt, I reply.

Expressing the views of the groups to which I belong, I repeat that until they recognise the prominence of the problem of birth control in married people’s lives, their expressions of sympathy and pastoral concern will sound hollow. We have written to the bishops repeatedly: at the time of the National Pastoral Congress, Synod on the Family, Extraordinary Synod marking the twenty years since the Council, Synod on the Laity. But our efforts came to nothing. Cardinal Hume said during the Synod on the Family that many couples who use contraception lead good Catholic lives, but shrunk away from the consequences of his judgement. He set out to “repaint the road signs”, to make the teaching more acceptable, as if our acceptance or rejection of the Vatican line depended on its presentation, and not on the truth or otherwise of the teaching. This implies that we are ignorant, that we have not thought, prayed and suffered for years, finally becoming convinced of the fallacy of putting technique before personal encounter and rule before love. It implies that we wait for a lead from the clergy, a lead from the blind – as, on the subject of marriage they are blind. Christ said to the Pharisees: “If you were blind, you would have no sin, but you say `we see’, therefore your guilt remains”. I have never heard a sermon on this subject.

I may not have found a form of married spirituality, but I have discarded the ballast of centuries. I know that marriage is not merely “allowed” by God (since Christ attended the marriage feast at Cana he probably approved of it !)– but created by Him, so that men and women may have the best means of growing in their capacity to love.

Marriage exists for procreation only at the lowest level. The first “good” of marriage is love. The bond exists in the physical, mental and spiritual spheres, and to weaken it knowingly is a sin against marriage and against God. Any rule concerning the conduct of the couple must be subjected to the primacy of love.

It took me years to discard the weight of mistrust and prohibitions which accompanied the idea of Christian marriage only a generation ago. Next generations may perhaps begin at this point, and work towards the creation of a positive married spirituality, which is still lacking in the Church.

November 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm



Michael H. Crosby, OFMCap.

Human Development 32.2 (Summer, 2011), 30-33

MichaelCrosbyI believe one simple reason explains why fewer candidates now are joining the mainline non-clerical groups of men’s and women’s congregations in countries like ours. My conviction has little or nothing to do with the assumptions that seem to underlie the kind of questions being asked by the Vatican investigators of women religious in the United States and Ireland. On the contrary. When one looks at demographics from places like the U.S. and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and the U.K., Ireland and Western Europe, the lack of vocations to such groups ultimately involves one thing and one thing only: celibacy. Simply stated: the average person desiring to prayerfully serve God in some kind of permanent ministry can do so without being celibate.

This represents a relatively new phenomenon in the Roman Catholic Church; as a result its influence on young peoples’ conscious and unconscious decision-making involving celibacy is not being considered to the degree it should.

My experience of +50 years as a Capuchin Franciscan reveals that celibacy was the stated reason why we lost such large numbers in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Furthermore, at least in economically developed countries like the U.S.A., I believe it will remain the main reason why the congregations of women and men founded since the French Revolution will continue aging with lesser and lesser vocations. As I noted in my opening paragraph, those who would have been likely candidates in the past now are finding groups with whom they can pray and minister without having to be expected to remain celibate for the rest of their lives. As the saying goes vis-à-vis ministry in the church and celibacy, they now can have their cake and eat it too.

In the past I have written on mandated celibacy, especially among men. In this article I want to discuss the celibacy-based reasons why non-clerical groups of wo/men in the economically developed nations will not witness any upswing in vocations for the foreseeable future, if ever. I base my conclusions on various factors: scriptural, theological, cultural and practical

1. There is no clear scriptural foundation for any “call” to celibacy.

No less a scriptural authority than Paul himself declared that, when it came to any follower of Christ remaining a virgin, he had “no command of the Lord” (1 Cor 7:25). Furthermore, in giving his “opinion” on the matter, his conclusion was based on a faulty assumption: that the parousia was inevitable. For this reason, he argued, people should be intent on preparing for Christ’s imminent return rather than being preoccupied with relational dynamics around marriage.

The other key scriptural passage traditionally used as a rationale for celibacy in the church comes from Matthew 19. The context is Jesus’ stance on the only option available to the aggrieved party in a divorce. Assuming the marriage was valid, we have come to interpret that “difficult” passage to say that such people cannot remarry. Indeed this passage remains the key scriptural argument as to why the Roman Church insists that only if a marriage is determined to be invalid can either party be free to remarry.

Without a clear evangelical “call” to religious life in its present celibate expression, some have stressed the notion of celibacy as a “charism” in the church. But, again, there is no such place in the scriptures where charisms are discussed (such as the key texts in Romans 12 or 1 Corinthians 12) that we find any mention of celibacy.

In a wider or extended sense of such scripture passages one can (and should, I believe) apply to celibacy both the rationale for 1 Cor 7 (i.e., “waiting on the coming of the Lord”) and Matt 19 (“making oneself an eunuch for the kingdom”). However, this must be done aware of the fact that any study of the purpose of celibacy at the time of Jesus makes it clear that it had no value in itself except when practiced temporarily. And then it was discussed as something done by men. Thus soldiers and priests were to refrain from sexual activity before battle and before offering the sacrifice.

Other efforts to point to the scriptures in support of permanent celibacy cannot be sustained by deeper unbiased arguments, including the argument from silence that Jesus was a celibate, although I believe this to be the case. What he may have accepted or even embraced for himself was not something he considered important enough to be promoted in any way. Furthermore, the “leaving” father and mother and livelihood passages that are applied to discipleship refer to discipleship, not sexual/genital relationships. In this case Peter himself, who “left all” to follow Jesus, never left his wife.

Simply put, celibacy in the permanent form it has taken in religious congregations has no clear scriptural basis. Indeed to be celibate was not normal; thus it never was normative, much less made a norm.

As it was “in the beginning,” so now, the basic reason as to why celibacy is not “normal” comes from a definite scriptural assumption: “it is not good . . . to be alone” in such a way. It is not without reason that, given this tradition stressing marriage for all women, that Jephthah’s daughter, knowing her impending death, went into the desert to “bewail” her virginity (Judges 11:37).

2. Given the weak scriptural foundation for celibacy, its theological basis is equally weak.

From the earliest days of the church evidence reveals individual women who were called “virgins” and “widows.” The data whether or why they may (not) have remained so permanently does not seem to be that undisputed. In addition, only with the rise of the third-century coenobitical groups do we find a communal dimension highlighted and, when it appears, most often, this communal expression involves men, although we do find some ammas along with the abbas.

As religious life evolved, especially in the non-cloistered, apostolic form that arose during the last 500 years, two main theological assumptions buttressed its appeal to potential candidates, especially women. Besides being free of the direct day-to-day demands of a man, such women could serve God apostolically, convinced that such apostolic service made them unique among other women. This assumption—again being resurrected by more traditionalist groups and ideologies–has little current theological currency.

Any theological basis distinguishing between the communally-celibate expression of baptism and that of any other baptized Catholic was dissipated by two key teachings of the Second Vatican Council. First, the previous assumption about “states of perfection” that represented a kind of hierarchy of holiness was undermined by Lumen Gentium’s “universal call to holiness.” (Given this, it is interested to listen to recent discussions in more conservative circles about various “states in life;” such talk seems to represent a hankering for the earlier ideology and practices connected to the “states of perfection”).        The second factor arising from Vatican II involved the theological understanding that, rather than having a “call” to some certain apostolate in the church, baptism itself became recognized as the one call to witness to the Gospel with many apostolic expressions (male and female, single and married, celibate and non-celibate). Now every baptized person is called to witness to the gospel in whatever they do.

3. The wider cultural underpinnings for celibacy are weakening, if not already gone.

In many countries, including the United States and Canada, until the “sexual revolution” of the mid-to-late 1960s, sex was seldom discussed opening; it was protected. Something only intimated. However, often with appeals to the First Amendment, “freedom of expression” became increasingly linked with freedom of sexual expression, without boundaries. In generations since the ‘60s, what once was not culturally tolerated except for late night television seems de rigueur even on “family hour” television. Now any sexual and genital innuendo has become quite explicit to the point of a kind of non-critical form of promiscuity whether it is in the soft-porn advertising for Abercrombie and Fitch or the easy availability of hard-core pornography itself. Just ask any priest hearing confessions as to the increase in those confessing addictive-type behaviors related to watching pornography. Or ask the real reason why many formators of postulants, novices and those in temporary vows (at least in men’s congregations) have found it necessary to put blockers on house computers.

Most religious women (or men) over 60 will tell you that they never really considered celibacy as a critical component when they made their decision to enter religious life or make perpetual commitment in it. It simply came with the package and the package, for them, was mainly about doing something apostolic. Their goal was to “do something” apostolic; only later did they realize celibacy was about “being something” quite different. And, oftentimes, through many mistakes and sins, they were able to begin to “make themselves so” for the sake of the kingdom noted in Matthew 19.

Proponents of a more culturally conservative form of Catholicism will point to the the relatively large numbers in some of the very traditional forms of religious life that are identified with specific apostolic activities (often episcopally sanctioned and supported), unquestioning acceptance of Vatican decrees, with members who live communally strict hour plans, including daily Mass and prayer. They do not recognized that now, as in the past, celibacy is still too often “part of the package” that can be handled because one’s identity disassociates (at least for a while) one’s sexual drives from other drives such as power and prestige for being part of such groups—at least among those who identify with a patriarchal, clerical form of Catholicism. Furthermore, some of these groups, notably in my case as a Capuchin, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, have had great success in appealing to the youth-market with their various rallies and seminars and have very savvy expertise in the internet and other forms of mass media communication not enjoyed by many other groups.

However, those touting the “success” of such groups that fit into a more conservative form of patriarchal and clerical Catholicism do not note that these tend to be, with some notable exceptions like the Nashville Dominicans, newer expressions of the older forms of apostolic religious life. If this were not so, then one must ask why some of the equally traditional groups, like the Little Sisters of the Poor or Hawthorne Dominicans, are diminishing as rapidly as are their mainline equivalents. This data raises the question about the “pool” of potential candidates for religious life and my final point.

4. The practical reasons for celibacy are less and less convincing.

Recently I had conversations with several people working with young Catholic adults aware of “trends” among them. Consistently they pointed to polls showing that  Indeed only 15% of this cohort are attracted to such forms. If this be so, it follows that the existing groups that are more traditional (such as those noted above) will continue to attract such people, but they will not be the norm; they will appeal merely to the 15% of Catholics who are seeking such a patriarchal, clerical form of religious life—including women willing to submit to it for all sorts of reasons too complex to address here.

So, then, what is the “norm” for the wider cohort of younger Catholics who previously might have felt “called” to those forms of religious life that were reinforced by once never-challenged assumptions that made candidates then think that they were scripturally, theologically and culturally unique?

Simple stated, these young people are finding prayer groups and other such faith-based supports to help them sustain their various ministries. For many, seeking temporary expressions, they find such in Teach for America, JVC and my own Province’s CapCorps, and other volunteer programs like the Catholic Workers. And for those of them that want to spend their foreseeable futures in full-time apostolic activity, they have found outlets that allow them to fulfill their dreams without having to commit to life-long celibacy. Some of these are found among movemental groups like the Focolari and Communion and Liberation (to say nothing of the more patriarchally conservative groups like Opus Dei).

A good example of this shift comes from the demographics revealing the largest source of lay ministers in the United States: the religious studies programs in college after college. The Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University in Chicago is one such example. Founded almost 50 years ago, it once served mainly women religious. Now its student base is mainly lay, with the number of young adults increasing each year. Just this summer, teaching there, among my class of 20, I had at least 5 young IPS students. These were the “candidates” of yesterday who would have been open to consider progressive forms of religious life today but now they know they pray and minister with others without needing to remain celibate.

Given the above, I think it is safe to conclude that the days of huge numbers of people in non-clerical forms of religious life have ended. I don’t think that this change has occurred because religious congregations are too liberal or too questioning of the Vatican. They have done nothing wrong (as many believe to be the case in the Vatican Inquiry); they are simply the faithful remnant of an era that honored celibacy in a way that will not likely come again. While I believe some life-long communal forms of celibacy will remain, I think that among men, most candidates will go to the clerical groups and not the communities of brothers. For the women, especially the mainline groups, candidates will be fewer and far between.


Michael Crosby, OFMCap. is celebrating his Golden Jubilee as a Capuchin Franciscan this year. He has authored many books, including Rethinking Celibacy: Reclaiming the Church. His website is

More  Resources:

Priests talking about celibacy
The Tradition of Abusive Dishonesty
The Trouble with Celibacy in Africa
When a Priest Falls in Love