The history of Christian religious teachings is full of contradictions that stir the interest of the modern theologists, scholars and true believers. Church’s views on sexual intercourses in the life of a married couple are one of the most disputed issues. In his book The Catholic Church on Marital Intercourse: From St. Paul to Pope John Paul II, renowned scholar Robert Obach examines the historical evolution of Catholic teachings on marital sexuality, spousal love and birth control.
For centuries, marital sexuality has been subject to strong underestimation. Obach traces the development of negative religious views on sexual intercourses between a husband and a wife back to the sixth century (51). At that time, medieval Irish monks presented innovative penitential manuals that imposed sexual abstinence on married couples during specific periods (Obach 53). Notably, a sixth-century Irish monk, Finnian, vigorously promoted the idea of systematic abstinence and the recreational function of marriage as an attribute of a sinless lifestyle (Obach 53). These guiding principles endured further alternations 700 years later. Thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas expressively outlined the twofold purpose of marriage. The primary aim of sexual acts between spouses was “the procreation and education of children,” while the secondary one referred to the rendering of a marriage debt (Obach 84-85). Aquina’s greatest contribution to the development of Catholic cannon laws on matrimony was the incorporation of the idea that seeking sexual pleasure during acts of physical unity was unnatural for human beings (Obach 87). The renowned scholar was a strict advocate of the purely generative function of marital sexuality (Obach 89). The matrimonial theories of Thomas Aquinas had dominated the Catholic religious thinking for the next seven hundred years.
Interestingly, the book provides historical insights into sociological factors that have led to admitting the connection between spirituality and marital sexuality. In 1925, a German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand suggested an innovative approach to considering the issue as self-giving experience that exalts closer unity of souls (Obach 127). The scholar extended the meaning of marriage beyond the means of procreation and shifted the focus to beneficial effects of physical unity in regards to spousal love (Obach 128). Furthermore, Polish priest Herbert Dom claimed that “the real union of two persons in a single vital relationship” is a direct purpose of human sexual intercourse (Obach 140). The unitive theory of marriage became an official doctrine of the Catholic Church in 1965 (Obach 136). The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World became the first doctrinal document that described marriage as “an intimate partnership of married life and love”, and the expression of both love and desire to give birth to children (Obach 169). Such phenomenon is especially relevant in view of the gradual renouncement of arranged marriages and the promotion of union based on love and mutual affection (Obach 125). The author of the book effectively illustrates a shift from treating marital sexuality as an exclusively biological necessity to admitting its spiritual significance.
In a detailed manner, Obach addresses Catholic teachings on birth control. Medieval scholars of the cannon law repeatedly claimed that engagement in sexual acts without the intention of procreation was a grave sin (Obach 70). In a similarly negative way, theologians condemned the practice of preventing conception (Obach 114). However, the growing number of married couples attempted to limit the number of children due to economic reasons and the potential danger of pregnancy to the lives of women (Obach 120). Catholic bishops vigorously opposed any form of birth control by denying alleged sinners “the reception of the sacrament of the Eucharist,” pointing out the progress in medical care and encouraging abstinence as an alternative (Obach 120). The conflict between religious instructions and personal interests resulted in the loud declaration of dissatisfaction and frustration. In 1965, thirteen married couples shared their experience in making a hard choice between using contraception and avoiding sexual intercourses (Obach 156-160). While the first option led to the violation of religious teachings, the second one largely contributed to the cultivation of e sexual indifference, frustration and personal distance (Obach 156-160). Nevertheless, Obach gravely points to the absence of progress in solving the issue of birth control (170). In 1965, members of the Second Vatican Council merely acknowledged “the hardship of breaking off the intimacy of married life,” but they did not concede to allowing the justified prevention of conception (Obach 170). Three years later, Pope Paul VI restated the importance of procreation as the main purpose of marriage despite admitting the connection between its unitive and procreative meaning (Obach 183). Evidently, the issue of birth control remains controversial even nowadays.
In conclusion, the book is a source of abundant knowledge and historical facts about the Catholic doctrine on marriage. In a rather engaging manner, Robert Obach offers the historical account and intellectual evaluation of such moral issues as maternal sexuality, spousal love and the prevention of conception. By providing factual examples and expert opinions, the author illustrates the opposition between such notions as spiritual and carnal love, need for procreation and birth control. Therefore, the book is recommendable for reading by the wide audience.