The sharpest irony of the everyday feminism that has trickled down to all levels of society is simply that men—and certainly not the best men—stand to profit most from the so-called liberation of women. Indeed, as a moment’s reflection can show, it is no exaggeration to say that the movement from the very start has played into the manipulative hands of pleasure-hungry males. To see why this is so, we need merely consider what things used to be like before the heralds of “equal rights” and “sexual liberation” came on the scene announcing a new code of behavior. In the past, when a woman’s “honesty” or “virtue” (as the state of premarital and marital chastity came to be called) was guarded by social convention, firm moral codes, parental supervision, religious belief, and a deeply-rooted sense that love quite naturally leads to marriage and children, the man (always in the position of suitor, one who must suit himself to the woman he wishes to woo) was expected, and usually obliged, to honor his would-be bride, promising her the fidelity of his body and the integrity of his intentions.
Now, however, nearly any man can arrange to keep a woman (whom a more forthright age would have called a mistress) for his entertainment at a minimal cost to himself, with little need for vows, forethought, or responsibility. Since women are offended by the idea of dependency, they will bring in extra money; since they are equally horrified at the prospect of offspring (who might curtail their “liberated” desires), a man need not worry himself about the natural result of coition, and is therefore free to indulge his own bodily wants with relative impunity. If a man gets what his body wants without any effort or sacrifice, chances are he will never stop to ask what his soul needs—or for that matter, what his mistress’s soul needs.
In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II wrote:
I think that a certain contemporary feminism finds its roots in the absence of true respect for woman. Revealed truth teaches us something different. Respect for woman, amazement at the mystery of womanhood, and finally the nuptial love of God Himself and of Christ, as expressed in the Redemption, are all elements that have never been completely absent in the faith and life of the Church. This can be seen in a rich tradition of customs and practices that, regrettably, is nowadays being eroded. In our civilization woman has become, before all else, an object of pleasure. (p. 217)
Traditions of courtship and engagement have precisely this deeper purpose: to lay the foundations for a lasting friendship and affection rooted in the common good of man and woman together, teaching them to rise above the limitations of their private goods. That is why continence is required throughout the years prior to consummating the marriage vows. The consummation is meant to be the sacred seal on a pledge already inscribed in the hearts of bride and bridegroom. When they have made their solemn vows to each other, the marriage of wills has already taken place because of their prior devotion and sacrifices. Seen in this light, the privileges of marriage are always secondary to the demands of committed love, although nuptial love receives its most intense and fitting expression through those privileges. In like manner, the Church counsels couples to be chaste (i.e., temperate) in their use of marital privileges for the same reason she counsels continence in courtship: that the spiritual goods of a friendship of virtue—the only real friendship, predicated upon truly common possessions—may take precedence over, and ultimately spiritualize, the goods of sensual pleasure, which are only beautiful and perfective to the extent that they solidify the deeper foundations of charity and illuminate the image of God in the souls of husband and wife.
In other words, as Augustine implies, the virtuous man is he who can transform the water of earthly pleasure into the wine of heavenly joy, without scorning the genuine goods of this world. Christ does not say to the steward, “Get rid of that ordinary water and bring something better.” He says, “Fill your jars with water and bring them to me,” whereupon he miraculously transmutes one substance into another, like an alchemist transmuting lead into gold. So too, God calls upon the husband and wife to elevate and purify their fleshly union, not so that it may cease to be fleshly, but rather, that its very fleshliness may become holy and beautiful—a constant renewal of the nuptial promises, a song of praise to the Creator, a worthy symbol of the union of Christ and His Church. The union of husband and wife on all its levels—physical, psychological, spiritual—should be a sacrament of presence, a redemption from selfishness, a banquet where each is offered to and for the other, a celebration of the solemn vows spoken months, years, decades before. And, it seems almost superfluous to add, if such a love is truly present and active in the lives of the spouses it will bear fruit in children whose advent is eagerly sought and generously welcomed. As the Book of Tobias expresses it: “Then Tobias exhorted the virgin, and said to her: Sara, arise, and let us pray to God today and tomorrow, and the next day. . .For we are the children of saints, and we must not be joined together like heathens that know not God” (8:4, 5); “And now, Lord, thou knowest that not for fleshly lust do I take my sister to wife, but only for the love of posterity, in which Thy name may be blessed for ever and ever” (8:9).
The wisdom of this approach becomes evident when we consider for a moment one of the basic reasons why the Church, listening to the voice of nature, must forbid contraception. It is wrong for couples to indulge their sensual appetites whenever they please for the simple reason that each appetite of the human being needs to be kept in due proportion or balance with the other activities of a fully human life. When all aspects of a man’s or a woman’s life are properly measured, nothing too prominent or submerged, we then speak of a person of integrity, someone who “has it all together.” A consequence immediately follows: as Democritus says, “If you exceed the measure, what is most enjoyable becomes least enjoyable.” Food is naturally good, eating is an operation according to a natural inclination for sustenance; but one can eat to excess, thereby perverting the goodness of the act. By so exceeding the mark, one brings upon oneself numerous other defects of body and soul. Gluttony is thus an instance of the kind of indulgence which is capable of upsetting a person’s inner peace and outward behavior; it is impossible to cultivate the presence of Christ if the parts of the soul are out of order and cannot harmonize with one another. Likewise with the act of marriage: allowing free indulgence out a mistaken “realism” is nothing other than approving the malformation of character and the disordering of wills, which is altogether contrary to human dignity and fulfillment. Such a lax and permissive attitude, in fact, leads to the carnalization or cheapening of authentic love, which of its proper essence is a spiritual good having union with God as its final goal. Put otherwise, the Church forbids sensual vice not because she has a problem with pleasure, but because too much pleasure causes problems. It is the nature of man as created by God that lays down the laws by which ordinary conduct is to be governed. An ethical code or a magisterial pronouncement is only meant to help us find the right measure, without having to ruin ourselves by the regrettable mishaps of ill-advised experimentation.
We digress from our initial theme. The most poignant irony of our times is that “modern” women have all but invited men—already inclined by fallen nature to promiscuity and, as a result, in great need of a woman’s good example and discipline—to persevere stubbornly in their own worst vices: arbitrariness of physical passion and the constant temptation to run after the next beautiful girl. The very behavior (not to mention dress) of many contemporary women has the result of frankly encouraging men to satisfy their desires in a bestial way, destroying at its roots the foundation for constancy and fidelity in marriage. On the assumption that such women actually want their husbands to remain faithful to them, one cannot help but marvel at their nearsightedness. According to current standards of “dating” and “engagement,” a man and a woman are free to parade their concupiscence and feed it wantonly. In modern times, there is nothing holy or dignified about the way people approach the real union of lover and beloved, an act ennobled in healthier ages by the sacrament (“sacred pledge”) of matrimony. Is it any surprise that a vast number of marriages end in divorce, when a vast number of relationships begin in lust?
Now as before, there is but one way to conquer the blindness of the world and the folly of man: living out the Christian ideal of marriage. “Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit,” writes St. Paul; again, “Let marriage be honorable in all things.” The Apostle only echoes his Master, who teaches us that God is the source and end of marriage, the one who effects the bond and perfects its blessings: “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” Love that is rooted in God, a union nourished by faith and purified through suffering—this love alone will prosper and bear fruit “thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold, in time and in eternity.”
Originally published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review 98.6 (March 1998): 54–57.