Ever fallen in love and wondered whether he or she was really “the one”? How do you tell the difference between the love of your life and the infatuation of a moment? Ever wondered why the Catholic Church dislikes contraceptives so much? What is it about sexuality that has the Church so worked up? When he first penned Love and Responsibility as Bishop of Kraków back in 1958, Karol Wojtyla (1920-2005), now known as Saint John Paul II, considered himself an expert on marital relations even though he never married. The sexual revolution of the following decade did little to change his opinions about celibacy and commitment, and he refused to change his stance on contraception even in the face of the AIDs epidemic. This is because beyond his extensive experience as a marriage counselor, John Paul II thought about love and sexuality first and foremost as a philosophical problem. He assumes that love happens between mentally, emotionally, and economically stable, comfortably heterosexual individuals with no cultural baggage or family expectations to complicate things. The unitary subjects of his personalist philosophy transcend history and culture because they are abstract creatures living in a theoretical world. But given how enormously influential the former pope’s teachings on sexuality have been, it is worth trying to understand them on their own terms. Making sense of Karol Wojtyla is Richard Spinello’s main occupation in Understanding Love and Responsibility (2014). He explains how Wojtyla arrived at his conclusions in simple terms that even those completely unschooled in philosophy can understand.
Rather than summarizing a book that summarizes another book, let me try to answer a couple of my opening questions in the terms of Spinello’s Wojtyla. First, how do you tell the difference between love and lust? How do you know if your love is real, and not just a passing infatuation? To begin with, Wojtyla says, “one should lovingly respond to the whole person along with the goodness of personhood present intrinsically in every individual person.” A nice car, fancy shoes, or the latest bow-tie might be lovely, but true love does not focus on what someone has, looks like, or represents. Sometimes our emotions blind us to what another person is really like. “Sensuality by itself, therefore, is not love,” Spinello writes, “and could easily devolve into its opposite: the instrumental using of another for sexual gratification.” We have to take great care when our emotions are involved, and make every effort to subordinate our senses to Reason and always to approach our partner as a precious person in his or her own right.
To quote Spinello at length: “When a person experiences a reaction to the sexual values associated with the body, sensuality dominates. But when a person experiences sexual values associated with the whole person (such as femininity), affectivity dominates, while sensual desire often lurks in the background. Depending upon which of these two psychological energies prevail, there is “affective commitment or passionate desire.” … But sensuality and affectivity are only love in its “subjective profile,” love that is felt by the human subject who has the experience. Such love is unreflective and incomplete, and it “strives for integration both ‘in’ the person and ‘between’ persons.” The integration of sensuality and affectivity depends on the exercise of free choice and knowledge of the truth. Every person is gifted with these unique capabilities that allow one to live by the light of reason and love. Love is always an interior matter, a matter of the spirit, because love involves charity or benevolence toward the other along with the moral unification of friendship. This type of personal, selfless love can only be realized through a commitment of the will guided by reason and virtue.” Wojtyla argues that this sort of integrated love develops progressively out of fondness, desire, benevolence, reciprocity, sympathy. and friendship into spousal love, when “the person decides that his life’s vocation is to take shape through a self-oblivious love and devotion to another chosen person.”
After jumping over Spinello’s excellent discussion of chastity and marriage, we find ourselves wondering whether or not Wojtyla approves of contraceptives. The short answer is no, he doesn’t. But why not? “The marital commitment,” Spinello writes, “is sealed and reinforced when man and woman freely join together in the generative act as an expression of their love and lasting commitment.” Apart from his repeated affirmations that this reflects the “natural order,” Wojtyla does justify this philosophically. One gives of oneself completely in marriage, Wojtyla argues, and that means giving up one’s self and identity as an individual to accept becoming a father or mother – i.e., to be willing to be defined in terms of your relationship to another rather than on your own terms. Sex must be generous; it cannot be about my own pleasure because that would entail using my partner as an object instead of relating to him or her as a subject. Instead, in sex a man and a woman (Spinello refuses to even consider sex-same attraction as possible in this book) “freely project themselves into the “order of nature”.” In doing so “they have an opportunity to generate a new human life, a person who can become part of the human community.” Love, and by extension marriage, is never just about two people; their love should extend to embrace a third (and without contraception, probably a fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh).
If contraceptives are out, why is Wojtyla so comfortable with the rhythm method, or with periods of abstinence. His logic is that “sexual intercourse assumes the true value of love and represents the “full gift” of self only when there is an interior acceptance of the possibility of parenthood. Such willingness shows that a married couple respects the natural purpose of their sexual capacities.” Nature makes women more fertile at some times than others, and making love at a time of infertility still involves submitting oneself to nature, and thus to God, as the ultimate arbiter in family planning. Wojtyla’s distinction between what is natural and unnatural seems strained, and implies that he doesn’t believe that God created condoms as part of “the whole natural order.” Whatever one makes of this doctrine, it has had an enormous impact on the reproductive lives of millions of Catholic men and women, and it deserves to be critically engaged with to the best of our abilities.
I am grateful to Catholic Library World for providing me with a review copy of this book.