Dear Father Angelo,
I am writing to you because I need to understand better how to handle some aspects of conjugal intimacy, according to God. I am 53 and I have been married for 27 years. My wife and I have a 25-year-old son.
We are not fertile anymore, therefore we try to live our intimacy more like a mutual donation and a way of being united. I still feel very attracted to my wife, however, as we age, we are no longer able to conclude the sexual intercourse properly – this is particularly true for me. This has led us to concluding the intercourse via gestures of mutual stimulation.
We do not feel comfortable with this situation because we have always shared the need to grow in fidelity to God and to the Church’s doctrine in this matter, too. This need has taken concrete form in long periods of continence and in various confessions and searches for spiritual advice, without however arriving at a spiritually stable vision of the problem. Above all because what we have read or heard is essentially addressed to young couples, for whom it is indispensable to coordinate intimacy with openness to life; couples like us do not seem to be considered.
You answered a similar question on the last 14 April; your answer seemed concerning our situation of a non-fertile but still willing to intimacy couple. You said: “God wanted conjugal intimacy to be accompanied by great pleasure. Some have said that here pleasure can be compared to a reward that the Creator lavishes on the couple for the great gift of each other and especially for the offspring to be generated. Pleasure or satisfaction is an integral part of this intimacy. It favors and rewards it. Well, if for some reason it does not exist, it is legitimate to stimulate it. That is why an ancient author, such as the Dominican Father Benedictus Merkelbach, professor at the University of Louvain, wrote: “The wife can, by her own or her husband’s touch, stimulate satiating and perfect satisfaction within herself and thus bring intimacy to completion if the husband has fulfilled or intends to fulfil his part in accordance with nature.” (See Quaestiones de castitate et luxuria p. 92).
However, another answer of yours concerned us. On the last 8 March, regarding contraception, you said: “The Billings method is not a contraceptive because it does not alter anything, but uses sexuality according to God’s plan, which also includes the duty to revive marital intimacy. Whereas within marriage, forms of petting that simply end in masturbation constitute an alteration of God’s plan and are tantamount to impure acts.”
Our problem is not one of semantics, of what word to use to define a particular behavior, and we certainly do not wish to hide behind an accommodating sophism: we are deeply anxious to understand in order to be able to live effectively God’s will in this moment of our married life. In other words, whether in this decline in physical vigor and freshness that follows the loss of fertility, marital intimacy can be lived in coherence of faith, or whether all this should be read as an invitation from God to go towards something else.
In thanking you in advance for all you have to say, and in anticipation of your reply, I assure you of our prayers as a family member of the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary.
A warm greeting in the Lord
1. It is true that the Billings method, like any other natural method, is not to be taken as a contraceptive.
First and foremost because it is not contraceptive. In fact, contraception derives from the English word of the same name and refers to a rejection (contra) of the acceptance (acceptivus) of life.
The use of natural methods, even though they are most often used precisely to prevent conception, does not in principle reject it and does not put in place any mechanism to alter the intrinsic meaning of the conjugal act.
2. In your case that act, by its very nature, can no longer lead to new procreation.
Yet it is in itself legitimate because it achieves other objectives that are intrinsically linked to the procreative act.
3. It is true that these objectives, such as that of mutual giving and the revival of conjugal understanding and love, are intimately linked to an act, which in itself is ordered to generate life.
Nevertheless, if this procreative effect does not take place, it is not because you want to alter God’s plan for human sexuality and love, but because God has willed it so.
This is the profound difference between contraception and natural methods: the former alters God’s plan and makes that act not only not procreative but not even a total gift of self, while the latter keep to God’s plan by implementing the total gift of self without any reservations and accepting its eventual consequences to the end.
4. Pius XI in Casti connubii had already said: “Nor can it be said that those spouses who use their right in the proper and natural way, even if for natural causes, whether of time or other defective circumstances, a new life cannot be born.
For in the same marriage there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid and mutual affection to be fostered and the sensible gratification (the quiet of concupiscence), ends which the spouses are not forbidden to desire, provided that the intrinsic nature of the act and consequently its subordination to the principal end is always respected” (DS 3718).
5. I like to recall that the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes its own a passage from Pius XII’s address to midwives: “The Creator himself […] established that in the mutual total physical giving of themselves the spouses should experience a pleasure and a satisfaction of both body and spirit.
Therefore, spouses commit no evil by seeking such pleasure and enjoying it.
They accept what the Creator has willed for them.
However, spouses should know how to remain within the limits of proper moderation” (CCC 2362).
6. Paul VI said in Humanae Vitae: “these acts… do not cease to be legitimate if, for reasons independent of the will of the spouses, they are foreseen as infertile, because they remain ordered to express and consolidate their union. In fact, as experience attests, not every conjugal encounter is followed by new life.
God has wisely arranged the natural laws and rhythms of fecundity, which in themselves already distance the succession of births” (HV 11).
7. However, there is a limit and that is to use the spouse as an object of lust.
In this case, the act ceases to be one of authentic love and pollutes the one who performs it.
It is in this regard that John Paul II said that “the person can never be considered a means to an end; never, above all, a means of ‘enjoyment’.
It is and must be only the end of every act. Only then does it correspond to the true dignity of the person” (Gratissimam sane, 12).
When the person is used as a means of enjoyment, it is no longer a question of love, of gift. In this case, the act is altered in the intentions of the subject and is subtracted from God’s sanctifying plan.
8. God’s sanctifying plan!
This horizon helps believers to discern what leads to God or what separates from Him.
Moreover, it is the horizon, which, in the purity and chastity proper to marriage, keeps the spouses in communion of life with God.
In addition, since the vigor of the body is not preserved forever, there may come a time when one understands for oneself that the gift of self is no longer necessarily the way it was before.
Just as a married couple who were celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary once told me: today we no longer love each other as we did when we were young married couples, but in a different way, and we can even say more deeply.
Thank you for your question, I remember you in pray and I bless you
Translated by Rossella Roma