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Heading to the Beaches & Modesty

We are coming up on the warm months of the year and soon our people will be heading out to the beaches.  It is opportune to discuss again how we dress and what we communicate by our outward appearance.  As one critic rightly remarked, despite what people wear, it is good to get to know the inner person. Yes, but of course, there are many people we will never really know personally. Models in magazines and catalogues would be an example. The image may be all that we will ever encounter. Are they not saying something about their own self-respect (or lack thereof) by how they appear and how they allow themselves to be used? Strangers on a beach would be another such example.  Further, visual markers have a certain staying power.  We can say that dress (or undress) does not matter; but the truth is that it matters a great deal. 

Girl watching on the beach is a particularly volatile issue. People get mad or roll their eyes when I offer criticism.  It would be one thing if the men looked upon the women as one might a Michelangelo masterpiece, giving praise to God for the wonders of his creation and such beauty. However, men are not angels, and not infrequently, the sight of scantily clothed women is an occasion for sin— fantasies that lead to adultery in the heart, self-pollution, casual sex outside of marriage and sometimes crime. The question also arises as to what is or is not pornographic. Women would probably be better covered by ordinary underwear than by many styles of swimwear. Are men generally comfortable with showing off their wives, girlfriends and daughters in skimpy attire?

Of course, the clothing of the body is only one element to modesty. It includes dress, posture, speech, etc. Young women were once taught etiquette in such things. I can still recall a teacher talking to girls in my grammar school class about how to sit, with legs crossed. The religious sisters tell me that they were always at the girls about rolling up their skirts to their school uniforms. Even certain hair styles were regarded as somewhat provocative, although I never really understood this element. It finds some reference in Scripture and is the rationale behind the Catholic mantilla, the nun’s veil and the Islamic head covering. As I understand it, in Church circles, a woman’s hair-covering at Mass was to obscure her beauty sufficiently so that men might not be distracted from Eucharistic worship. It was also done as an ancient custom to honor God. However, I have never been one to find hair overtly sexual and as a serious threat to propriety. Maybe this is different for others?

The criticism might be offered that I have targeted the responsibility of women to be modest and have omitted men. I think there is a different psychology here. Both men and women are sexual beings, but we are not wired the same. While it is often wildly exaggerated, most men do not need much of a catalyst to think about sexual things. One girl told me that she liked to flirt but not to worry because she always stopped before she got the boys’ motors running. I quickly explained, “Sorry, but you need to know the boys’ motors are ALWAYS running!” It is no secret that pornography and the sex industry focus more heavily upon the female form than the male. In any case, presuppositions and possible stereotypes aside, men are also called to be chaste and modest. Tight fitting clothes or baggy pants that seem to be falling off are problematical. Speedo swim-shorts for men strike me also as unsightly and vulgar. Preoccupations with men’s butts can be for women a violation of the custody of the eyes. The groin-grasping dance of the late Michael Jackson would be evidence of an immodest gesture from men. Men and women must work together to preserve modesty and the many wonderful values which flow from it.

I will save the issue of how people dress when going to church for another day, after I take another blood pressure pill. 

Discussion About Modest Swimsuits #2

The following is a discussion that ensued following the post entitled:

MODEST SWIMSUITS AT LAST! 

PRISCILLA:

My girls and I make our own swimwear and it is very much like what the Islamic women wear. Here are some more links, Christians and others are already beginning to cater to this untapped market:

Lilies Apparel

Stitch in Times

Simply Modest

Modest Apparel

Wholesome Wear

As for most Muslim swimwear, I wonder if it is easy to swim in long dresses. I have tried and get fatigued pretty quickly.

You have to fight some of the administrators at pools about modest swimwear. They argue that we wear more clothes for swimming than other females do with their day-to-day clothing! One time we had to go to court because of a rule against public dress clothes in pools. They did not believe that what we wore was for swimming. We go for the fun and exercise, not to burn ourselves or to offer cheap strip shows at the community center.

FATHER JOE:

I do not know what to say? I certainly support modest swimwear, but I thought that most would regard the styles offered as a tad much. Maybe I am wrong? Christian families are already buying into swimwear styles not dissimilar from that worn by Muslims. I did not know about this. God bless them and their efforts.

4HisCHURCH:

Modest swim wear is difficult to find (in mainstream stores). Since few, if any women have model-perfect bodies, never mind the need for dressing modestly, there are many “of a certain age” who just skip the idea of bathing suits altogether. I am glad there are some companies who manufacture “regular” swim wear with such features as shorts/skirts and tank-top like straps. I applaud any efforts in this area.

JANE:

Father, I agree with you and think the Muslim swimsuits are a little much. Like many young women I know, I managed to find a high-necked swimsuit and I wear shorts with it on the rare occasion when I visit a public pool or beach, but being covered to the wrists and ankles is, I think, over-the-top. Additionally, the baggier pants shown in one of those photos seem like they could be dangerous, hampering a swimmer’s leg movements underwater.

KNIT:

To tell you the truth, as a woman and a believer, modesty is a complex issue to me. Sometimes I find believers preach a style of clothing which, instead of being dignified (fit for the daughter of a King), is ugly. It seems to preach that there’s something inherently sinful in being woman, as if the fact that I am a woman needs to be hidden. I believe I am responsible for not creating unreasonable occasions of temptation for my brothers. But I do not believe that anything I can do can replace their own care to flee the temptations that rise from their own heart. Clothing that is well-fitting, pretty and flattering, without being indecent or too flashy to make me the center of attentions, glorifies the Lord. Every woman, of every shape, is beautiful and should dress like she believes that! I believe in looking nice, not cheap like a harlot or flashy like I am a billionaire showing off— I mean nice and beautiful. I believe that this would be approved by our Lord, who liked eating and drinking; who liked everything which was healthily fun and human. He told us to fast interiorly, not showing it. “When you fast, wash your head and perfume yourself, so that no-one knows you are fasting.” Sometimes dressing in shapeless long clothing can be a matter of pride, not of modesty.

On swimsuits, I have a personal pet-peeve with the “modesty” discussion. One-piece swimsuits only fit nicely shaped women whose upper and lower halves have similar sizes. When those halves differ by more than two sizes, the best idea, in my humble opinion, is to try to find a more or less modest bikini/tankini where each piece is sold separately. I am sorry, but that’s the only option for some women. (I am lucky that I can wear some one-piece swimsuits, but not all women can).

And what about men, do people forget that women also have lustful thoughts? Why is it OK for a man to take off his shirt when doing heavy jobs? If I have a lustful thought, it’s my responsibility. He is perfectly justified in taking off his shirt because of his job but when a woman needs to breastfeed a baby everyone is outraged?

THERESE:

Personally I like these swimsuits:

http://www.swimmodest.com/

You can swim just fine in them and they are modest, too. They are also really cute! I can also testify that they look better in real life than in the pictures. All my five daughters and myself have one. They sell out really fast so order early in the season.

FATHER JOE:

I am no expert, but I would tend to agree with you about the suits to which you link, Therese. However, while they might seem fine to us, I suspect they would never pass muster from our Muslim friends–no headgear and too much leg. I wonder what such issues say about our view of the human person and women in particular. Extremes either exploit or condemn God’s handiwork. I suppose the modest middle-ground is where struggling Christians would seek practicality while celebrating the goodness of God in his creation.

SHEREEN:

Hi, there, and the answer is, no, the straight leg pants do not hinder swimming. I wear my own “resort pants,” which are the straight leg pants (or the ‘baggier’ pants as you refer to them).

I can attest that they don’t ride up in the water, they are very thin and light (a couple of my customers have already told me it feels like they are not wearing anything), and it does not weigh down or hamper the swimmer.

However, I will mention that from a safety point of view, anything that covers the feet can be dangerous and hamper the swimmer. So, if the pant legs are too long, then in the water the pant legs will cover the feet and prevent efficient kicking. That’s why my company, “splashgear”, produces pants that fall at the ankle, but not below it.

Again, the straight leg pants do not hamper the swimmer as I and others can attest.

By the way, i was quite surprised to receive an OVERWHELMING response to the AP article. I never realized just how much non-Muslims wanted/needed full coverage swimwear. My sales and catalog requests to non-Muslims just sky-rocketed after the AP article came out, and I received so many positive and encouraging e-mails from mainstream individuals. Wow!

Thank you for your time.

Shereen Sabet – SPLASHGEAR
7445 Seastar Drive, Suite # 8, Huntington Beach, CA, 92648-2271, USA
http://www.splashgearusa.com

MISS KOERNER:

Hello, I am a young woman who was searching the web for a modest bathing suit for my senior trip to Florida coming up, and stumbled on to this page. I must say that as a God-loving 18 year-old woman, I was disgusted by those suits. They are not the least bit fashionable. I believe that God has called women to be respectful of men, but he did not ask us to look like them! Personally, I am proud God made me a young woman. I don’t want to look like a man. I believe that I can dress modestly without pretending to be something I am not. A modest full-piece or full coverage tankini can be less attention-grabbing than a young woman in one of those outfits.

I think young women like me would be more receptive toward the Church’s efforts to promote modesty if we were not made to feel ashamed of the bodies God himself created.

FATHER JOE:

Finding a modest swimsuit is a real issue, but I am not a prude about such things, even if I do avoid beaches and coed pools. I am glad that you are happy to be a female and you should not be ashamed of how God has fashioned you. I have no opinion about swimsuits other than they should be in good taste, not immodest, and safe to wear. God bless!

JAK:

I’m a young teenage boy and I personally think that most secular bathing suits are immodest and not fit for wearing in public. I personally feel betrayed when my “Christian” friends wear these immoral clothes on retreats or when just hanging out when we are supposed to have and display much higher values than our non-Christian counterparts. It’s been a standing debate between my friends and me that leads to bitterness sometimes; but, I really appreciate that there are still people out there who do wear modest clothing and bathing suits.

JENNY:

Are you kidding me?

PAMELA:

Hello, you might consider my swimwear line as another alternative. I offer retro/vintage styled one-piece bathing suits that have more coverage.

http://www.poppiswim.com

ROSE:

Yes, some of these are rather much. I’d recommend L.L. Bean and Land’s End catalogs for more modest style swimsuits and clothing in general. They are a tad expensive, but maybe you are paying for the extra material! Just “Google” either name for their websites.

FATHER JOE:

many of the styles at Poppina Swim seem quite modest but practical.

KATRINA:

I’m sorry, but isn’t one of the main points of being modest not drawing attention to yourself? I find that these Muslim-inspired swimsuits draw a lot more attention than a modest one piece or tankini. The desire to be modest should be an act of humility, not pride.

SW:

You should all try a top free or nudist beach for a day or two and get over it. Christians use the word modesty or indecency when they really mean body shame.

FATHER JOE:

And obviously you know no shame. Christians are well aware of fallen human nature.

SW:

Clothing does not make you superior to someone who is naked.

FATHER JOE:

“Superior” is a strange word to use. I would prefer the phrase, “more decent.”

SW:

This is nothing but Puritanism and has little to do with Christianity, Islam or Judaism.

FATHER JOE:

You obviously have little knowledge and/or respect for the Bible which speaks in many places about being clothed and modest, both in the Old and New Testaments. The Koran and the Islamic faith give their adherents many rules about dress. You really do not know what you are talking about!

SW:

What is a real shame is that you have to spend the rest of your lives hating your bodies.

FATHER JOE:

This is a big assumption on your part. It may be that Christians so reverence the body as an expression of the person and as God’s great masterpiece that we clothe it out of respect and to protect it from degradation.

SW:

Why do males get to take off their shirts at the beach and females do not?

FATHER JOE:

My mother used to fret with my father to keep a shirt on outside. I suppose it is somewhat cultural. Certain places of the world, as in parts of Africa, women may indeed go topless without Church condemnation. However, such is not the way with Western culture. Here we are not talking about a mother nursing her child but a provocative use of nudity.

SW:

It is all to dominate and make money off of females.

FATHER JOE:

Women are wrongly exploited that is true. But rampant nudity would enhance such exploitation. The tragic truth in some cases is that women allow themselves to be abused and treated as meat instead of as persons with sacred dignity and immeasurable value.

SW:

It never used to be like this. Both sexes wore little or no clothing throughout 98-99% of human history.

FATHER JOE:

You know this for a fact? Given that modern man emerged as predominate after the ice ages, I doubt that our ancestors ran around naked. Clothing is not just for style, but for protection, too.

SW:

The Church and State make a lot of money off of your shame. The Church uses nudity as a device to lay guilt on everyone about sex.

FATHER JOE:

And how precisely does the Church make money off of this? If anything, hedonists get angry and leave the Church, taking their wallets and purses with them; although without pockets, where does one place a wallet? As for guilt, it has to do with God’s commandments and the natural law. Your argument is with the Creator, not the Church. If people have sex outside of marriage, they should feel guilty, because they are guilty.

SW:

The State gets large sums of revenue from the sale of pornography, while saying that they have passed laws to fight it.

FATHER JOE:

Yes, so does the telephone company and, oops, so do the owners of nude beaches. What, you thought men went to such beaches for the fishing? There is enough hypocrisy to go around. Nude beaches are also exploited by the culprits of pornography. Heck, today anyone with a digital camera or picture-taking phone becomes part of the problem.

SW:

Females should at least go top free, just like males do. I’ll bet that if you did for 10 or 15 minutes you would probably do so for the rest of your life.

FATHER JOE:

I do not think that most women would even want to do such an outrageous thing. Given their sensitivity about appearance, most women like the way that clothes make them look.

SW:

Turn back the clock to way it used to be. Start asking the males around you why their chests are considered normal and decent and women’s are not.

FATHER JOE:

Could it have something to do with the difference in how men perceive and respond to women’s breasts over how women generally react to most men’s chests?

SW:

It would be great if every State would encourage females to go one summer top free. Most would never put that top or one- piece back on.

FATHER JOE:

Pleeeease! Do not make me laugh! You would have states mandate nudity? You are like the Taliban in reverse. They would require women to cover up and you would urge them to strip. Is this comment a joke? Is this really a male poster? You cannot be serious!

MICHELLE:

Wonder why we aren’t born naked, God hates it so much. OH WAIT! WE ARE BORN NAKED! GO FIGURE…once your “BUMPY” parts show you become indecent hahaha you people are fools. This is NOT a male posting. Father Joe, I think you’re a [deleted]. Reading your post made my stomach turn.

FATHER JOE:

What God creates is good and most Catholics are not prudes. The post was done partially in humor, although the issue of modesty is important– not because the human body is bad but because of the effects from original sin and concupiscence.

MELISSA:

Question: Are bumpy parts prohibited on just females or males too? I think it should go both ways, don’t you? Therefore, I must recommend that all overweight men wear bras… It’s just fair. And all men must also wear swimsuits to their ankles. Cuz we all might get turned on by the “bumpy part” in an ankle, right? What happened to the freedom that Jesus offers us? I’m sorry, this just is not a clear representation of what Jesus came to proclaim. I believe in modesty, but not legalism. Good luck.

ANON:

Check out http://www.modest-swimwear.net.

TIMONIOUS:

Who told them they were Catholic? Have they be eating of the tree of knowledge of which God had forbidden?

MS. D:

As someone mentioned, that clothing is grossly unfashionable. I don’t think it is necessary to go to the extreme to be considered modest. Also, I don’t think anyone needs to purchase your clothing to appear modest. A tank top and shorts can be purchased at any store. And not every one of them reveals cleavage or is unbearably tight. If you are really concerned about what girls wear, and consider yourself a practical person, rather than choosing the styles you prefer consider taking the time to listen to the girls that might consider wearing them. I hope whoever looks at your website knows that they don’t have to look like that to be modest.

LORILLA:

Does your wife wear these swimsuits or is she too embarrassed?

FATHER JOE:

Whose wife?

HENRY:

What some regard as modest, others find titillating or even fetishistic. The simplest way to eliminate eroticism of this kind is 100% nudity, Scandinavian style. What is familiar will not excite.

As a Catholic myself, I thought Catholicism was primarily concerned about bringing love to the world through the Risen Christ.

FATHER JOE:

I would still make the case for Christian modesty.

AL:

Joe, that’s sick. If you can’t handle swim attire, don’t go to the beach.

FATHER JOE:

Who is Joe?

BARBARA:

(God) forbid – just stay out of the sun and off the beach. Did not God design the human body? Are we to be ashamed and deny the beautiful creation called the human body? I think those people extolling the ‘virtues’ of modest swimwear must have their minds in the gutter. Methinks one doth protesteth too much!

BARBARA:

Muslim shmuslim. Please women, WHY would you want to propel us backward? This has NOTHING to do with religion – when will you realize this is about male dominance – stupid old men who want to feel powerful and seek to do this through the subjugation of women. Burn the burkha!

JEZZEBELLE:

If you want to save your young Catholic boys from temptation send them with a priest for 5 minutes! I bet they won’t want anything to do with sex for years! Maybe if you weren’t a dirty old man “bumpy parts” wouldn’t bother you so much.
Email: immodestwh–e@carolina.rr.com [This is not the actual email. I have deleted two letters from the attached vulgar name.]

FATHER JOE:

Am I supposed to take seriously a girl who calls herself Jezzebelle and Immodest Wh–e? Please get help and healing. I will pray for you.

JEZZEBELLE:

Why not? You take your crack pot beliefs seriously. The body is beautiful; the baggy crap used to cover God’s beautiful creation is not. The more you cover, the farther away we are from where God wanted us to be before Adam and Eve found the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Basically you’re telling women that because men are tempted they need to cover up. It doesn’t sound like my problem if I want to wear a bikini. I’m not going to go to hell so save your prayers for someone who agrees with everything you say.

FATHER JOE:

Jezze, the post was written somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I am surprised so many people read it as being totally serious. In other words, I think the baggy full-body suits are a bit much, even as they remind us of the importance of modesty. The body is beautiful. It is a marvel of design and shows the masterful hand of the Creator who fashioned it. Women should be concerned about how they dress, and willing to help men to be chaste, as they should also be. But there are swimsuits that both reveal a woman’s beauty and form while not catering to the pornographic. However, I am no expert in such things and would be the last person to catalogue what fashions are or are not acceptable. I never said you were going to hell. God bless and keep you in his love.

JEZZEBELLE:

And by the way, my mom gave me when I came out of what you are so concerned about covering efficiently.

FATHER JOE:

Are you a kid? The post about modesty had a point, but the comparisons to Islamic “baggy” dress and the like was tainted by parody. In other words, you may have taken it too seriously. [However, we should respect the choice of Moslems to select clothes which they feel honors God and preserves modesty.] I would not condemn the human body. It is God’s creation and whatever God creates is good. Modesty is simply a way to show respect to persons, particularly given the effects of original sin. Jezze, you should not label yourself as a harlot. Demand respect for yourself and show it to others. Thank God for your health and beauty. Enjoy your youth, but do not allow yourself to be exploited by anyone. God loves you. I will pray for you.

MICHAEL:

They’re too revealing.

FATHER JOE:

HERE IS A NEW LINK ON THE SUBJECT:

Saint Joseph’s Lilies

RAELEIGH:

“With strength of numbers, our families and girls can admonish the other so-called Catholic females on the beach: ‘Have you no shame for exposing yourselves in underwear? Protestants, I mean Prostitutes wear more clothes than you!’”

HA HA HA, You are so highly amusing…not. That comment is extremely offensive and not the least bit amusing. You are a [deleted] who claims to be under the direction of God. Your attempt at humor [deleted] and I hope that [deleted] with all this [deleted] you are spreading.

FATHER JOE:

Put some clothes on and stop being so rude and vulgar. Immodesty is a problem that needs to be highlighted.

YENNI:

I love the range of Muslim swim suits from ZEHBA!

I have chosen one of their floral designs, which I believe to be a better choice for moderate women. I have bought it from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

You can see many designs at their website.

http://www.zehba.com

C. P. C.:

A More Practical Alternative – My brother dresses his daughters in long board shorts. Yes, the kind male surfers wear and manage to find a way to do so very low slung and immodestly. Not so with these girls, though. For a top they again wear the surfer’s rash guard or ‘skin.’ These outfits look ‘cool’ in a surfer kind of way, allowing the girls to be very active in and out of the water, protecting them from the sun and lewd glances.

SLIGHTLY CONFUSED:

Dear Fr. Joe, as a young woman desiring to be modest to aid her brothers in Christ, is the best option to forego public co-ed swimming? Why should I reveal parts of myself at the beach I never reveal elsewhere in public? Seeking the help of a father, Slightly Confused

FATHER JOE:

A nice modest swimsuit, yes even with legs and arms exposed, would probably suffice. But really, I am no authority to tell girls what to wear. Your intention is to enjoy the beach and to go swimming. Mingling with nice guys and gals is also okay. A few young women I trust on this matter have some good suggestions and links. Here is their blog page:

Saint Joseph’s Lilies

SPARKLING SNOW BABY:

Hi, Father Joe, I found your article when looking online for modest swimwear for myself and my little girls. It took me a moment to realize your article was tongue in cheek, but after that it really tickled me. I felt sad when I saw some of the vitriolic replies you received. Some people truly cannot take a joke. I just wanted to say thank you for trying to address a sensitive topic in a humorous way, and for the caring manner in which you answered the obviously wounded people who responded with those posts.

One thing that I don’t recall anyone mentioning in a post is the freedom modesty brings. When I wear modest clothes, I’m more comfortable and can jump and play with my kids without thinking “gee, what’s hanging out now?” I want my girls to have the same freedom. And I don’t think my mind is “in the gutter”!

For those worried about fashion, I would suggest they try asking their kids. My husband wants our girls to be modest, but he laughed at me when I suggested we purchase suits for them from a modesty site. He then showed the pictures to our oldest, age 9, expecting her to loudly refuse. (She is quite vocal and opinionated.) Imagine his surprise when she became really excited, and asked us to buy her one right away. Honestly, our little ones have a sense of what is right. They don’t want to feel exposed and naked in front of strangers. Get a clue, people! God bless you Father Joe!

A Protestant 🙂

To Be Continued…

Biblical Principles of Marriage

On Saturday, March 24, I gave a talk on the Biblical Foundations of Marriage at the PreCana Classes held at St. Mary of the Assumption in Upper Marlboro, MD. Some of the notes are give in the immediately previous posts. There is a joke that if you get two ministers in a room, you will get three different interpretations of Scripture. Given that biblical interpretation is so volatile these days, I first gave the gathering my five basic presuppositions. Next, I gave the ten basic principles of marriage from Scripture.

Presuppositions As we Begin

1. The Scriptures are inspired by God and teach truth.

2. We must have the mind of the Church in how Scripture is interpreted.

3. The Bible is not a marriage manual.

4. Better understanding of Scriptural truth comes through a contextual approach.

5. The truth about marriage in the Bible is revealed in a progressive way, culminating in the New Testament.

A Few Basic Biblical Principles

While the Bible is not a manual for marriage, there are some basic principles we can derive from God’s inspired Word. Here are a few:

1. Men and women were made for each other. Most men and women are called to marriage.

2. Marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman. They pledge themselves to each other in vows made in the sight of God.

3. The husband is the head of the home and the wife is its heart.

4. While the Bible speaks of the wife’s submission to her husband, there is mutuality in this surrender since the husband is commanded to practice sacrificial love for her, even offering his life as Christ did on the Cross.

5. The husband and wife are dependent co-creators with God.

6. The spouses are called to be helpmates to one another in grace and holiness.

7. Marriage is a vocation that takes precedence over other preoccupations. Your attention and energies must first be focused toward one another.

8. Marriage is a sexually intimate relationship between a man and woman.

9. Christian marriage infers a third in the marriage, Christ. Couples enter into the mystery of Christ and his Church. Our Lord identifies himself with the beloved.

10. Couples should come to the marriage bed undefiled. All sexual activity outside of marriage was regarded by the Jews as a violation of the commandment against adultery.

A Hierarchy of Love in the Home

Given that one sees a hierarchy in marriage; neither spouse should lead the other into sin. Similarly, parents can rightfully demand honor and obedience from children, but they must be worthy of such honor. Many things might be excused to preserve the peace of a home; but once a husband starts ordering his wife and children around as slaves, it will not be a happy home. When there is abuse, cruelty and sin; an offending spouse is stripped of authority by the one who is the source for all authority. The message of the Gospel is to embrace a sacrificial love. Jesus pours himself out on the Cross. If this is to be realized in marriage, then it must be mutual. The husband pours his hopes and dreams and life into his wife. Conversely, she pours all her longings and love into her husband. When there is this mutual self-donation, a couple may always be filled and whole. Indeed, their love may bear the wonderful and mysterious gift of children wherein God makes them co-creators with himself. When one gives and the other only takes, the one finds him or herself empty and the other caged in selfishness. Such a mentality is at the root of cold marriages, adultery and the culture of death.

Men and women are both made in the divine image; they have a need for mercy and a capacity for grace. The Scriptures make it very clear that they are called to be helpmates in becoming holy. Marriage comes down from our first parents to the present as an institution to bring fidelity and fruitfulness to the loneliness of the human condition.

Jesus Elevates the Dignity of Women

While always regarded as something more than a man’s land and livestock, the Mosaic writ of divorce and cataloguing women along with property, tended to undermine something of the woman’s personal worth and her role as a companion in marriage. Jesus seeks to correct this by stressing the primordial union and elevating the value of women whom he encountered. The woman caught in adultery was threatened with stoning. His challenge to the crowd saves her. But he tells her to avoid this sin in the future. She was singled out for condemnation by the mob, but where was the man with whom she sinned? A double-standard was at work. The Samaritan woman at the well is told her past by Christ, who knows all her infidelities, and he offers her saving water. She too did not sin alone and who knows what dire circumstances pressed her into many transitory unions? She becomes a prophetess for her people. He forbids divorce as something that was never supposed to be, but tolerated before his coming because of the hardness of their hearts. Women deserve better treatment and should not be cast off.

Then there is the Mother of Christ. At the wedding feast of Cana she tells him that the wine has run out. He says to her, what business is this to me, woman? Joseph is gone and now Jesus is the head of her little household. Nevertheless, she tells the stewards to do as he says and he changes water into wine. The heart of the home will always have a lot of influence and meaning. Jesus preserves the joy of the marriage banquet. Similarly when located in the temple, the boy Jesus challenges her. And yet, we are told that he “immediately” came along with her and the good St. Joseph and was obedient to them. Mary was “the woman,” and according to the fathers of the Church, “the new Eve.” She would be the spiritual Mother of the many adopted sons and daughters of God. Although his physical Mother, she would also prefigure the Church as the spiritual and spotless bride of Christ. Her model for womanhood would always be with Jesus. Our Lord saw in her the great dignity and immeasurable value of all women, and their inherent potential for holiness.

The Complementary Role of Husband and Wife

A major source of discussion these days is the notion of a husband’s headship. Largely because of the sexual revolution, many take serious exception to it. However, I suspect that it is largely misunderstood. While isolated verses would seem to place all the gravity with the husband, the Catholic “contextual” approach would weigh it with references to the role and value of the wife. There is equality between the spouses and yet this should not be interpreted in any egalitarian manner. Each spouse has his or her complementary role to play. Notice in the life of the Holy Family, Joseph is understood as their great defender. And yet, it is Mary who is focused upon as the parent at the Presentation in the Temple. Similarly, when the boy Jesus is found in the Temple, the recorded conversation is between Jesus and Mary. Joseph is the foster father of Christ. He is entrusted with his family’s care. But respecting Mary’s motherhood and her deep faith, he steps back and allows her to do the talking. This does not destroy his headship. Instead, he had a good enough head to appreciate Mary’s strength, gifts and calling.

As a boy my family always respected my father as the head of the home. Daddy would work hard, cash his check and give mother all the money to pay the bills. She would take out two dollars and put it back into his wallet saying, “A man should always have money in his wallet.” She did so many things that he found difficult. They worked together. They lived out a real partnership. At the same time, my mother always gave my father the deepest respect. We were a poor family but my dear father worked from 5:30 AM to 6:00 PM six days a week so that we could have a roof over our heads and food on the table. Mother was a stay-at-home Mom, but she worked just as hard or harder in caring for the home and seven children. She would have been the first to say that Daddy was the head of our family; but by the same token, mother was the heart of our home. Which is more important, the head or the heart? Take away either one, and a body dies.

St. Paul speaks about the headship of the husband and father but also insists that they be subject to one another as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:21). There is a profound unity between the husband and wife going back to Genesis. The two become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). Jesus will also stress this unity (Matthew 19:4-6; Mark 10:7-9). It signifies a definite spiritual bond or connection between the spouses. Given its ecclesial significance, Christ raises this union to the level of a sacrament.

Ephesians 5: 21-33

Colossians 3:18–21

Titus 2:3-8

1 Peter 3:1–7

The Practicality of St. Paul

St. Paul is the Jew’s Jew.  He draws from the Old Testament relation of marriage between the Chosen People and God to speak analogously of Christ as the divine bride groom and the Church as his bride.  Paul is also very practical.  While he has a preference for single-hearted or celibate discipleship, he acknowledges that not everyone has that gift.

1 Corinthians 7: 1-16

Marriage and the Eternal Quality of Love

Certain Sadduccees tried to trick Jesus with a question that mocked the resurrection. They asked, without pure intent, whose wife a woman would be in the kingdom who had alternately married seven brothers, each dying in turn?

Luke 20: 34-38: “Jesus said to them, ‘The children of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise. That the dead will rise even Moses made known in the passage about the bush, when he called ‘Lord’ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

This teaching fits neatly into the appreciation of marriage as a sacrament. Marriage in this world is a sacred sign which participates in the great marriage banquet of heaven between the Lamb and his Church. When we rise to new life, there will be no more faith, because we will know the truth and see God face to face. Mortal marriage ends at the entry way from this world to the next because we will know a unity with the divine bridegroom. Having said this, death does not bring an end to love. Indeed, in Christ, love conquers the grave. Love is eternal because life is everlasting. The figure or sign of marriage will be replaced by that which is most real and pure. We will abide within God, that perfect union in divine love, forever.

Permanency of Marriage

Jesus raises the bar on marriage, taking sides in the debate about divorce. Jewish men might write a writ of divorce, leaving the women vulnerable and destitute in their society. Our Lord would have none of it. Citing creation itself (Genesis 1:27 and 5:2), he asserts that men and women were made for each other and that God intended their union to last throughout life. This position in favor of permanence reflected the school of Shammai. An opposing view was espoused by the rabbinic school of Hillel, which permitted men to divorce their wives, even capriciously. This would be similar to the idea of no-fault divorce today.

Matthew 19:1-12

Mark 10:1-12

Jesus saw husbands and wives both culpable for failed marriages. The two in one flesh did not permit any wiggle room or escape clause. Both monogamy and marital permanence become traits of Christian marriages. Divorce would generally disappear from Christian circles until the Protestant Reformation.

While St. Paul would speak about celibacy as an eschatological sign of the kingdom, our Lord also associates his kingdom with marriage. His very first miraculous sign in his public ministry will be at the wedding feast of Cana. While some might suppose that Jesus only lightens the burdens placed upon people by the Pharisees, he actually adds to their weight. The reason why he seems more gentle and tolerant is because of his generosity in offering the mercy of heaven and divine grace. Remember that Jesus has taken away the option for divorce and says things like love those who hate you and forgive those who persecute you. He says that just to hate your brother is to violate the commandment against killing. Returning to this topic, at the Sermon on the Mount, he commands that even to look at a woman lustfully is the commission of adultery. The Mosaic Law, often referenced by St. Paul as burdensome, permitted a writ of divorce. Instead, Jesus substitutes an absolute prohibition, except for what is sometimes translated as “sexual immorality” or “adulterous.” These words fail to appreciate the magnitude of what Jesus is saying. The actual word used is PORNEA and in this context the New American renders it politely as “unlawful marriage,” but it probably means INCEST. Such marriages are not true marriages, the reason why the Church grants annulments, such unions are not sanctioned by God. However, if a marriage is genuine, then it will endure until the death of one of the spouses. Given the fact that it was a patriarchal society, divorce forced women to seek a new protector and source of support. In this sense, not only the man, but the woman was forced into adultery.

Impotence & Marriage

Over the years I have received a number of questions about disabilities and marriage. I am always reminded about one of my first ministerial tasks at the Washington Hospital Center in the District of Columbia. A 22 year old marine had experienced a training accident which left him a paraplegic. His young and very attractive fiancée was ever at his bedside, holding a hand which could no longer feel hers. He wanted to die. Certainly he did not want to tie her down to a man the doctors insisted would always be an invalid. Her response was to remain by his side and to offer tears of intercession for his pain and their lost dreams. Many years have passed since our encounter, and I am still unsure what might best be said in such a situation. It was not a time to come down on their hopes with a debate about the laws of nature and of the Church. I shared their space, offered them prayers and what consolation I could muster, but I could not take away the depths of their loss.

The marital act open to new life and seeking the good of the beloved is a sign and seal of the sacrament. The marriage covenant is consummated and renewed by it. Cognizant of our nature as bodily persons, the Church is also realistic and pragmatic enough to realize that marriages which shortchange sexual intimacy often fuel the fires of infidelity and alienation. The question here is not simply one of disability, but of the type of disability. Blindness, deafness, loss of certain limbs, etc. pose no such impediment to marriage. Even infertility does not negate the right of marriage if no deceit is present when the vows are made. However, can a person mentally deranged or seriously incompetent get married? No, not if they lack a conscious awareness of the nature and obligations of marriage. A paralyzed person, might be fully aware of the responsibilities of marriage, but be incapable of fulfilling them. The law of the Church in such cases is simply a reflection of the natural law. Having said this, once consummated, a tragic accident of such a nature would not abrogate the bond. The initial consummation, uncoerced and unimpeded by contraception, makes a sacramental marriage indissoluble.

What recourse would a couple have in getting married if one of the members is paralyzed from the neck or even from the waist down? Depending on the situation, the bishop himself may not be at liberty to grant a dispensation for marriage. This would especially be the case if there is no real possibility of recovery and consummation of the bond. Having said this, a very grave concern of the Church would be the use of oral sex as an attempted substitute for the marital act. While permissible in the old morals manuals as a precursor to intercourse, it cannot be sought as an ends unto itself. It falls on many of the same arguments as masturbation and homosexual interactions. Moving on, it is possible that some degree of medication and therapy might restore enough function to fulfill the marital act. In such a case, marriage could be permitted. Further, modern technologies have made available various pump mechanisms (requiring surgery) which would make possible an erection. If there is some transmission of seminal fluid, then again, marriage might very well be permitted. This position is not a reduction of the human person to a gross physicalism but the recognition that our living bodies, inextricable animated by souls, are the real expressions of our identity. Unless forsaken for the kingdom, the needs of these personal bodies– our very selves– cannot be underestimated. Having said all this, there is still another avenue a couple might pursue, although a sexual dysfunction might be coercive in its regard– virginal marriage. They could live their lives promising perpetual virginity along the lines of the Virgin Mary and the good St. Joseph.

Whatever a couple in such a fix decides to do, they will definitely know the Cross. It is my hope that the Church will always show them the redemptive value of joining our sufferings to the passion of Christ. What this world takes away, the next will restore. What this world leaves us, we can utilize for the coming of the next.

Discussion

SIMON:

Father, this is an interesting summary, and thank you for writing and posting. Here is my question. I have been married for almost 20 years. For the past 7, I have suffered from impotence due to diabetes. My wife and I were blessed with 4 children before the impotence occurred, and were always open to children in our marriage. Since becoming impotent, I have respected my wife’s opinion that we are to remain chaste from now on. Although I have tried all available impotence remedies, none work for us. I would never ask her to do anything she is uncomfortable with, but I cannot grasp how we are forbidden from being intimate even though we can no longer have intercourse. I understand that intercourse is meant to be both procreative and unitive. Impotency has removed our ability to be procreative, but why are we no longer allowed to be unitive, not through intercourse (which we would gladly do if it were at all possible), but through oral or digital stimulation? In the case of sterility, couples are encouraged to be unitive without being able to be procreative. This identification of intercourse as the only unitive act for couples suffering from the heartbreak of impotency pains me. My wife cries about the loss of intimacy. How can this be right? Must we lie together every night and never experience any physical love again? At least a priest’s or homosexual’s decision to remain celibate isn’t constantly tested every night by having the object of their desire lying right next to them. They can remove all “near occasions of sin.” Short of moving out of the marital bed, further removing some of the marital intimacy, I have no recourse to lessen the constant reminder and struggle to understand why the Church deems this to be better for us. It does help to get this off my chest. I do not feel comfortable discussing this with anyone.

FATHER JOE:

Dear Simon, I am sorry for the frustration both you and your wife feel. If you have not already, the problem of impotency might be something better discussed with a professional counselor sympathetic to Catholic teaching. When I discuss generalities, it can come across as cold. Certainly, as a celibate priest, I can in no way appreciate the full personal dynamics of such a situation. You are right; there is a vast difference between a man who sleeps alone and one who rests in bed with the female object of his desire and affection.

I am unable to give you the answer or clarification I know you wish to hear. Although I suppose given the nature of your bond, the moral gravity of an illicit act of affection might be lessened.

While impotency prior to a marriage is an impediment, it has no appreciable effect upon the sacrament afterwards, given that there has been consummation, not to mention, children.

While you suggest a parallel with the question of potency without fertility, the pivotal difference is that the mechanics of the marital act remain the same. It is still the type of act that naturally can result in children and to which the male and female bodies complement each other. Such cannot be said where male potency has been compromised and oral or digital manipulation is pursued.

The Church’s understanding of marital intimacy is more than sexual excitement and physical intimacy. It is the bonding of flesh and souls, with one another and with Jesus. Oral sex and digital manipulation might arguably be closer to masturbation than to the marital act. And while there might be some legitimacy when practiced in tandem with the marital act, the Church resists any complete substitution.

However, if you disagree, I would simply suggest that you regularly bring the matter up in confession, out of respect for Church teaching, and do the best you can to live the Christian life. God knows you love each other and any transgressions from weakness and longing between a husband and wife in such a situation would seem to be small matters to be kept between yourselves and your confessor. It may happen one day that some new therapy or medication may cure the problem. We cannot know the future and should struggle to do the best we can in the present.

There are priests out there who might say, go ahead do what you want, it does not matter. But I cannot in good conscience do that. What I can say is do not despair and know that God is infinitely forgiving and understands how unfair and difficult life can become. If we trip from time to time, he will help pick us up.

Finally, there are some wonderful ways to express intimacy that might restore the romantic elements you both knew when dating and in courtship. Candy and flowers always go a long way. Ballroom dancing is making a come-back. Picnics and boat rides are good. Holding each other tight on a porch swing and sharing lots of hugs and kisses is not so bad either… or so I am told. As spouses you can cuddle and flirt and if things get a little out of hand, well God called you together as lovers and in the heat of passion the boundaries might become blurred on occasion.

Trust each other.
Keep faith in God and in his mercy.
Respect the teachings of the Church.
I will be praying for you both.

ROBERT:

Dear Father Joe, I am a young Catholic man (age 24) engaged to be married and have been researching for personal interest “Josephite Marriage” or “White Marriage.”

As I understand it, under Canon Law, a couple where one of the partners is antecedently and perpetually impotent may not contract any marriage.

As I understand it, what a couple exchange in the marriage vows is the right to demand the marital debt from one another (if the request is reasonable and opportune).

In a “virginal marriage” this right is not used by the mutual consent of the couple. This right is mutually given up for the “sake of the kingdom.”

In a “virginal marriage” there is a mutual agreement not to use a right exchanged (the right to the marital debt).

In an antecedently and perpetually impotent couple, the right to the marital debt cannot be exchanged. Hence, there can be no marriage. One cannot exchange what one does not have.

Hence (from what I’ve gathered on the internet), no marriage can take place between a couple in which one or both partners are antecedently and perpetually impotent not even if the non-impotent party agrees to live a virginal marriage. God bless.

FATHER JOE:

Yes, Robert, you are quite right that canon law stipulates that “a couple in which one of the partners is antecedently and perpetually impotent may not contract any marriage.” Actually, Canon 1084 §1 says that it “invalidates the marriage.”

Note, however, that my post was also very tentative, saying that virginal marriage was a course that such a couple “MIGHT pursue” and that “a sexual dysfunction MIGHT be coercive.” I know the prohibition seems absolute on paper, but I have known cases where exceptions were made, particularly if the dysfunction were not absolute.

While confidentiality does not allow me to reveal many details, I can say this much:

1. Such cases were referred to the local bishop.

2. Only after a canonical, medical and pastoral investigation were decisions made.

3. Bishops themselves (in contact with Rome) gave dispensations from the canonical impediment (somewhat controversial because a few of us thought it might be elevating a juridical process over natural law) or argued that Canon 1084 §2 took precedence.

4. Both partners had to make a faith profession and renounce any and all sexual activity for the sake of the kingdom. It was understood, however, that if the problem of impotence should later find medical resolution, that the bishop had the authority to release them from their vowed celibacy.

5. A theoretical conjecture was noted whereby future medical discoveries might restore the partner’s lost sexual capacity.

6. A rather progressive interpretation was given to this law: “If the impediment of impotence is doubtful, whether the doubt be one of law or one of fact, the marriage is not to be prevented nor, while the doubt persists, is it to be declared null” (Canon 1084 §2 ).

When bishops give such a dispensation and/or ruling, and the news goes public, as you might suspect, there is a lot of controversy. This is particularly so because not all bishops would grant such permission anyway. Speaking as a mere parish priest, I have serious reservations about it, myself.

One case that I recall revolved around the fact that the woman was the paralyzed man’s principal caregiver as well as his best friend. It was also taken into consideration that they were engaged before the accident. Being devout Catholics they wanted to be together, but did not want to commit the scandal of cohabitation outside of marriage. I heard of another case, where a couple already had a child out of wedlock (before the incident that caused paralysis), and they wanted to provide a home with both a father and a mother.

The situation and question can became increasingly complicated, as you can see.

Somewhat as an aside, the whole question of impotence and how it is defined often comes up. Some men resort to implants and pumps so that they can have an erection. While this permits them to have sexual intercourse, this does not mean that they have much if anything in the way of sexual pleasure or sensation because of it. Just the thought of such extremes leaves me almost speechless.

The situation of allowing impotent men to marry, for the male is where the gravity rests in our theology, is a serious risk on many levels. People are sexual beings. A young woman married to a paralyzed man would naturally desire sexual congress with her husband; the real danger exists that improper acts might be committed and even adultery. The impotent and/or paralyzed man is also taking a terrible chance, as he may find himself emotionally frustrated at not being able to fulfill his marital duty toward his spouse. They might also commit the sin of invitro-fertilization after harvesting sperm cells. In the past, paralyzed people were almost always refused the marriage rite; however, medical discoveries have made people increasingly optimistic about recovery of some sensation and mobility. I am not sure yet if this current optimism is well enough founded on hard science to recommend liberality regarding impotence and freedom to marriage. If impotence is not reversed, the healthy spouse could readily leave the marriage and seek an annulment on the grounds that there was no consummation. Such cases go to Rome. In any case, this leaves the handicapped man open to abandonment.

Aquinas admitted that sexual copulation was not essential to marriage, thus why virginal marriages are even possible; however, he was quick to assert that marriage gives both spouses the natural right over the other spouse’s body for the purpose of the marital act. A permanently paralyzed and/or impotent man cannot consummate the bond, either in actuality or potency. Nevertheless, the female spouse has a right to that unitive act that furthers both fidelity and procreation.

It should be added that if a man is injured (becoming paralyzed and/or impotent) after marriage and its consummation with the marital act, the couple remain married and must endure with faithfulness and courage the plight that has come to them.

DON:

Please, someone tell me this particular column is a cruel joke, kind of like a news story from the Onion website.

FATHER JOE:

About a tragic subject, for sure, but this page is entirely serious.

MARC:

Father Joe, good reasoning in your discussion; my prostate removal has left me not only with ED but also with the absence of seminal fluid. Periodically, I use injections for an erection which “sometimes” is shared with my wife depending on timing, etc. When this happens, it is used to a good moral use well within Church guidelines. But on many other occasions, there is neither erection nor fluid. My wife and I feel that we need to keep our intimacy strong or the relationship will fade leaving both of us blind to each other’s love. Is oral not an option at our age of 64 and married 41 years? Thank you and confused.

FATHER JOE:

Sexual expression and/or the marital act are precious gifts to married couples. However, if the marital act should become difficult or impossible, then the couple should explore chaste forms of affection and signs of love, as with the initial courtship. Dinner and a movie, snuggling on the couch, holding hands and taking walks, kisses and cuddling, etc. You also have your memories.

LINDA:

I have been told by a priest that artificial insemination is allowed if one’s spouse is sterile by deformity (but not impotent) and that to alleviate the “frustration” of the woman to bear a child of her womb, the Church would not reject this couple or child. Is there precedent for this?

FATHER JOE:

What the priest told you is not true. Artificial insemination is forbidden without exception by the Church. The reasoning is that every human being should come into existence through the marital act. There can be no third party intervention in the act of bonding and mutual surrender of the spouses to each other and to divine providence. There is a precise act that God has instituted for the creation of human beings. Artificial insemination and IVF can create the mentality that children are commodities. Further, Christianity teaches that children are a gift from God; no one has a RIGHT as such to a child.

If a couple violate moral law and defy the Church, the Church would not reject the couple and/or the child. The child is innocent and cannot be faulted for the misbehavior of parents, no matter whether it be through illicit fertilization procedures or acts of rape or incest. The parents can know absolution if they express some small degree of sorrow and subsequent respect for Church authority.

MORGAN:

Father Joe, I met my wife in Medugorje. We wrote letters to each other over the years and fell in love. One day she said to me over the phone, “When you find out about me, you will have the choice to come or go.” I didn’t know then what it meant. I had many guesses in my mind. But none were reasonable. Then one night while in prayer I heard what I believe was the Lord. He told me what was wrong with her and asked me if I would love her. I said yes. A few moments later the phone rang and it was her. I told her what was wrong and she was surprised. I also told her that I would love her.

My wife had cancer when she was 2 years old. They took her uterus, vagina and eggs. Everything was taken leaving a scar and a clitoris. There is no penetration.

I went to Medugorje with her again and asked a priest if marrying her was the right choice despite her impotency. He said we could be together as long as we lived as the angels do.

She further went and talked to her local bishop who said marriage in the church was not possible, but we could do a legal marriage to be together so long as we live chastely.

The day we got married, it was not our intention. It was the only day my sister could organize with the judge, April 14, 2006— Good Friday of that year.

We have lived together for 3 years now. My wife does have feeling in her clitoris and I am a fully capable male. If we did do anything, would it be wrong for us to do? Can we get married in the Catholic Church? If not, do we seek this Virginal Marriage from our local bishop and would it constitute as a marriage inside the church?

Also, we ran into a priest who said our legal marriage was wrong, we couldn’t adopt kids, and he tried to make my wife promise we would separate after some time. He said he wouldn’t give her absolution in confession unless she promised to do so. She did not promise it. She came to me in tears.

I love my wife. She has stuck with me through a war, taken care of me, and we both share a cross. I couldn’t see myself with anyone else. Do I need to seek a miracle and if so, how do I do that?

FATHER JOE:

I would suggest that you seek out someone in the diocesan chancery and/or authorities in Catholic medical ethics. Infertility would not prevent marriage. The issue is impotency and the marital act. There are many points here which are unique to your case and would need to be explored by experts, both in medicine and in Church law. I can only speculate, but would it be possible to surgically refashion a type of female genitalia for her? I know there have been cases of men, particularly those with paralysis, who have had pumps surgically inserted to make the marital act possible. Oral and anal sex are disapproved as beneath human dignity and do not constitute consummation of the bond. A virginal relationship would pose no particular problem, but a Catholic marriage respecting sexual intimacy poses important hurdles for you both. Vowed virginal marriages in the Church are fairly rare, and usually require that a couple denounces vaginal sex, not that they are incapable of it.

I am sorry for the suffering you both endure and regret that you feel hurt by the hard counsel of a brother priest. I wish I had more answers for you or those you so desperately want to hear. Even if you should be asked to refrain from Holy Communion, go to Mass each Sunday and pray daily with each other. Yours are not sins of malice. Your struggle is with love, affection and the frailty of the human condition. You will both remain in my prayers.

FRANK:

Father Joe, re: Josephite Marriage, and your previous discussion of it, I fail to understand just what kind of union results from the exchange of promises, (of chastity and fidelity), in a marriage in which one of the principals is irreversibly impotent. Is there a real covenant? One which is just as binding civilly and religiously as in a normal marriage? Can’t understand why the healthy party in such cases can’t just, willy nilly, choose to walk away, without considering the medium of divorce or annulment.

FATHER JOE:

I did say that “a sexual dysfunction might be coercive in its regard– virginal marriage,” meaning that such an alternative would be problematical. The post was originally written some time back and I am not sure I meant a “Josephite marriage,” probably just an analogous spiritual friendship. A true Josephite marriage would imply that a couple freely opted not to exercise their genital prerogatives. Impotence means there is no choice, no potential for the marital act.

LAURA:

I came across this post today when trying to look into this issue as it has been bothering me. I may be wrong, but I thought that in the case of a “properly functioning” couple, John Paul II drew a distinction between oral sex for men and women. As I understand the teaching, since the female orgasm has nothing to do with conception, oral stimulation of the woman is permitted even if not in conjunction with a completed act of intercourse. At least that’s how I have had the teaching explained to me. If that’s the case, I still can’t wrap my head around why, for a couple for whom conception is impossible (i.e. a couple where one partner is impotent), the teaching would be any different. In other words, I didn’t think the “no oral sex without completed act of intercourse” rule was about conception and being open to life, not about mechanics of the act. If the couple would be open to life but for the impotence, I’m not sure how oral sex for this couple is different than the permissible oral sex on a woman in a normal-functioning couple.

FATHER JOE:

I do not recall the late pope making any such distinction that would permit female masturbation. The marital act is defined as that sexual act which is the type of act that is open to the transmission of human life. Pleasure for both men and women is an enticement for intercourse that is required for the propagation of the species. It is also an ingredient in the fidelity of the spouses. While the old moral manuals permitted a certain level of foreplay to facilitate the marital act, as well as manipulation of the female if the male climaxed too quickly, such stimulation apart from intercourse was frowned upon. As far as I know, nothing has changed. I suspect someone taught you wrong. Where is Pope John Paul II supposed to have said otherwise? The late pope gave an emphasis upon spousal fidelity that was sometimes eclipsed by procreation in Catholic thinking; but nothing in his theology of the body overturned basic morality.

LAURA:

I went back and looked at what I had read, and I suppose you are right that oral sex on a woman is not permitted in and of itself. But here is what I read (by Christopher West) that is still not quite what you are saying:

“The acts by which spouses lovingly prepare each other for genital intercourse (foreplay) are honorable and good. But stimulation of each other’s genitals to the point of climax apart from an act of normal intercourse is nothing other than mutual masturbation… An important point of clarification is needed. Since it’s the male orgasm that’s inherently linked with the possibility of new life, the husband must never intentionally ejaculate outside of his wife’s vagina. Since the female orgasm, however, isn’t necessarily linked to the possibility of conception, so long as it takes place within the overall context of an act of intercourse, it need not, morally speaking, be during actual penetration… Ideally, the wife’s orgasm would happen simultaneously with her husband’s [orgasm], but this is easier said than done for many couples. In fact, if the wife’s orgasm isn’t achieved during the natural course of foreplay and consummation, it would be the loving thing for the husband to stimulate his wife to climax thereafter (if she so desired).”

FATHER JOE:

Yes, he is correct. I have not written anything which contradicts this. Onanism is still a sin, no matter whether alone or with a partner. Strictly speaking, this regards the male “spilling the seed.” Foreplay that includes male climax is not foreplay. Rather, it has wrongly been substituted for the marital act. Similarly, after intercourse, the manipulation of the female by the husband so that she might climax has been judged as lawful by moralists.

LAURA:

I recognize that Christopher West is not an official authority in the Church, but if what he’s saying is true, while I’m wrong that female stimulation is permitted as an isolated act, it would appear that oral sex as foreplay is not “frowned upon” as you say, nor is some female stimulation prohibited even after sex (which does not confine it just to the realm of “foreplay”). This is also consistent with what is written in the book “Holy Sex,” written by a number of modern Catholic theologians.

FATHER JOE:

What West writes is okay, however, your commentary is not clear. Foreplay is only frowned upon if the male climaxes without true intercourse. But, as I said, then it is not foreplay but simply oral sex or masturbation. Give me the quote where I am wrong and I will correct it. Peace!

DAVID:

Are implants to treat impotence banned by Church teaching where there are no other alternative treatments to achieve a valid marriage?

FATHER JOE:

Implants, as such, are not banned.

DAVID:

Are surgically implanted pumps allowed as a means of overcoming impotence?

FATHER JOE:

It is a tricky and somewhat controversial business. Evidently bishops will sometimes give a dispensation for marriage after the implantation of such pumps. The argument is that with this intervention the impotence is no longer absolute. I am not sure if all bishops are happy with such a compromise. Particularly in cases of paralysis, it might make the mechanics possible, but the man would still not feel anything. How would this affect their mutual self-donation and bonding in the marital act? There may be little other recourse after marriage. If paralysis or injury brought about such serious impotence in a man prior to marriage, I would probably advise a reconsideration altogether. People are not machines and the flesh is weak. My perspective might seem cold, heartless and cynical. I do not intend to come across this way. But I have seen too many relationships of this sort, between a woman and impotent man, fall apart with the most devastating consequences. Could not such men settle for simple and chaste friendships?

EILEEN:

My question is not related directly to this topic, but I have been searching for an answer and cannot find it, so figured I’d try here.

Thirteen years ago, upon learning that I was pregnant with our sixth child, my husband, against my wishes, had a vasectomy. This nearly broke our marriage and it took a long time to recover. (He was not raised Catholic and is a convert who struggles with the ban on contraceptives.)

Since that time, there have been a few occasions (very few) where during sexual activity he has engaged in self-stimulation along with the mutual activity. Usually, this all ultimately ends up with penetration taking place and the completion of the sex act as it should; but on a couple of occasions, he has ejaculated outside of [the body].

As the ejacula no longer carries sperm, and as the intent at the beginning of the sexual activity was to complete internally, is this a mortal sin?

FATHER JOE:

First, the vasectomy was wrong and sinful for several reasons. It is regarded as a mutilation of the human person and the generative powers. It reflects a contraceptive mentality wherein the openness to human life which is intrinsic to the marital act is spurned. Upon repentance, and where possible, the Church would also recommend repair of the damaged faculties.

Second, there may have been emotional healing, but an important element of the sacramental reality of your marital covenant remained wounded.

Third, given the vasectomy, it would seem that the matter of a ban upon artificial contraceptives would be a “personally” mute point. He has embraced perpetual infertility over periodic sterility. Many lifelong Catholics also dissent upon this matter. He may have been a convert, but did he “convert” enough?

Fourth, while an element of manipulation may be understood as foreplay and preparation for the marital act; such activities must not be pursued in themselves or seen as independent. Human beings are not animals and the marital act should not be reduced to cold mechanics. It is ideally a self-donation and surrender to the beloved. While accidents do happen, we should still be watchful against the sin of Onanism.

Fifth, the intention behind the actions that surround the marital act do have moral weight. However, the fact that the ejacula is deficient or void of sperm does not matter in this situation of self-manipulation or arousal outside the marital act.

JAN:

Erectile dysfunction (ED) treatment has evolved a lot from traditional times. Earlier this problem was believed to be caused by psychological factors only, but now we know better, so have the treatments.

ROSIE:

What do you do when you have been married for nearly 9 years and your husband has never been able to properly [fulfill the marital act]? The cause being diabetes but you didn’t know this until recently. He is able to bring you to climax [through manipulation] but you find this, although better than nothing, very much unsatisfactory. Also you can’t talk about how you feel with him. Also facing the temptation of other males on the scene for which intercourse would be very easy. Is this a real marriage or should it be annulled?

FATHER JOE:

Dear Rosie, I am far from an authority upon such issues and this is a somewhat delicate question. However, there are a few points I would like to note:

First, as a married couple you should be able to dialogue with your spouse about your personal needs in this relationship. It might be hard, but nothing can be done to help the situation unless you work together.

Second, your marriage should go deeper than issues like pleasure in the mutual act. It is important, but you have both entered into a covenant where sacrifices will have to be made.

Third, I would urge you to avoid both actual temptation and fantasies toward adultery. Take the matter of divorce and annulment off the table. You have been married for almost a decade. Fight for your marriage and love one another, “for better or for worse” until death do you part.

Fourth, do not be afraid to work with a doctor who might be able to help you both. Not all physical problems can be overcome, but sometimes situations can be much improved. Peace!

ALLIE:

I have a question. You said, “Somewhat as an aside, the whole question of impotence and how it is defined often comes up. Some men resort to implants and pumps so that they can have an erection. While this permits them to have sexual intercourse, this does not mean that they have much if anything in the way of sexual pleasure or sensation because of it. Just the thought of such extremes leaves me almost speechless.”

And later, you suggested that the woman who had surgery for cancer at age 2 that removed her vagina (and uterus, and ovaries), have surgery to create an artificial vagina. Can you help me understand Church law regarding these types of surgeries? And why have you tied male sexual pleasure as a necessity of the marital act? Especially since, as you pointed out, “Second, your marriage should go deeper than issues like pleasure in the mutual act. It is important, but you have both entered into a covenant where sacrifices will have to be made.”

It seems to me that whatever couples decide upon as being mutually agreeable to bind them together as a couple should be permissible, whether that is allowing impotent couples to come together in intimacy of their own choosing or allowing couples to marry who know that what they currently have in a physical relationship (i.e., paraplegics, etc.) is all they can lawfully have. I should think that the binding thread here is LOVE. Having read the entire page today, it seems to me that the unlawful marriage of the couple from Medjugorie is far more of a loving union than Rosie’s marriage of almost a decade. My heart goes out to all the couples here. You are struggling with much. And I am struggling to understand myself.

FATHER JOE:

The marital act is defined by the Church in light of natural law. Other forms of intimacy and/or sexual congress have neither the capacity to consummate the marital covenant nor any significant degree of fecundity. The general subjective experience (which often includes some degree of pleasure) furthers the good of fidelity between spouses. My emphasis is not directly upon pleasure but upon the capacity of a couple to engage in non-contraceptive sexual intercourse as a requirement for marriage.

As for the reconstruction of genitalia, the morality hinges upon the repair of something impaired, as through accident or cancer. Such repair is not always possible. Further, no such reconstruction should seek to alter the external gender in contradiction to that given at birth and in the DNA. The Church opposes so-called sex-change operations and views such measures in terms of self-mutilation and the unlawful or immoral damaging of physical faculties.

You would accept as legitimate “whatever couples decide upon as being mutually agreeable to bind them together as a couple.” However, by extension, this is also the erroneous argument posed by homosexuals seeking the recognition of their unions as a form of marriage. The problem is that the marital act between a man and woman, defined as non-contraceptive vaginal intercourse, allows for no substitutions. One can feign the act, either through choice or because the actual act is impossible, but such neither consummates nor renews the marital covenant. Instead of a virtuous act which brings grace, there would be the commission of sin instead. That is the Catholic view, again based upon divine positive law and especially natural law. Love and friendship are indeed important. But one can have both outside of sexual relationships. Indeed, as a celibate priest, I have dedicated my life to the love of God and to the service of his people. Marriage is not the only sacrament of love. The ordination of a priest is a sacrament of love. Indeed, our common baptism into the family of God is the first and most basic sacrament of love. The right to marriage is not absolute. If it were, we would have to pass out spouses just as we distribute bread to the hungry. It does not work that way.