I want to provide a better definition of the Catholic marriage, and how it relates to human sexuality. There are many more (and better, and more reliable) definitions in the catechism, papal encyclicals, and innumerable other resources composed by the Church herself—so I’d encourage you to check those out. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve learned.
The first thing to note is that the Catholic ceremony of marriage is a sacrament. It is on par with the most meaningful experiences a person can undergo as a Catholic, including Reconciliation (the reception of complete forgiveness conditional only on our ability to say I’m sorry and mean it); Baptism (a cleansing of all past sins, and one’s introduction to the Faith); Confirmation (a full and official welcoming into the community, including a special blessing of the Holy Spirit); Holy Orders (the initiation of a lifelong commitment to religious life); Anointing of the Sick (the special blessing for profound illness, and often a person’s last interaction with the Church on earth before passing into eternity); and, most wonderful of all, the Eucharist, which is the single most profound, humble way we can bring Christ into ourselves, body and soul.
Marriage is a sacrament among those holiest of religious experiences. It is so immense a blessing that it stands alongside God’s most meaningful, impactful gifts to His people.
That is why the Church’s teachings on marriage are both rigid and essential. As children of God, we are blessed with a select and precious few moments in life in which we can assuredly know that God is present in our experience, fully endorsing of it, and entirely giving of His grace. It is neither our place nor our capability to change the way those moments are encountered. Who are we to place God—and, to a greater point, His approval—at our beck and call?
According to the Church, marriage is given such profound standing in our day-to-day life for a few reasons. Chief among them is that God Himself instituted it. When He created man and woman to be entirely complementary to one another physically as well as spiritually, He created humanity to feature different but unopposing partners who could, together, “be fruitful and multiply” as participants in the creation of life itself. Coming from an omniscient Creator who, at that moment, must have been fully aware of our eventual fall and betrayal of His unconditional love, that is a surreal gift. It emphasizes that love for us, as well as His desire to make us free-willed, intelligent sons and daughters for our own sake, to heighten the genuineness of our love for Him and for each other.
In those first acts of creation, God establishes the nature of the family: that man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, as she will to him. To quote Saint John Paul II, this tells us that “man and woman were created for unity…that precisely this unity, through which they become ‘one flesh,’ has right from the beginning a character of choice.” The act of choosing to commit oneself to a unique, lifelong partner in everyday living, love, and procreation creates a bond unmatched by any other interpersonal relationship we experience. Even blood relatives are given to us—they are not chosen. We are born to our parents, our siblings are born beside us, and our children are born to us. Those relationships are also deeply emotional and profound, to be sure, but by actively choosing the person with whom we will spend the majority of our lives elevates the marital bond all the more.
Naturally, the intangible, ethereal truth—and greater spiritual significance—of the marriage bond is difficult for our limited human awareness to fully comprehend. In addition to its role as a procreative act, sexuality in marriage is the tangible, experiential near-equivalent to that truth. By giving us this opportunity to make a complete and loving gift of our self to our spouse—and, in turn, receive that gift in response—God has provided us some small insight into the intensity of the emotional connections inherent to true marriage.
Even more affecting than that insight, though, is our ability to take part in the creation of new life. Sex makes us participants in the creation of a new human being—it is the miracle of life and, for many of us, the most meaningful experience in an entire lifetime. To take that love which joins us, permanently, in marriage and see a child born of its expression is an incredibly special blessing. It is true that—biologically—not every sexual act will produce a child, and, of course, that’s okay. So long as husband and wife treat it as a healthy expression of love and are open to its life-giving nature, marital sex is inherently good. The Church teaches us that, at its core, marriage—and, consequentially, sex between a husband and wife—is at the heart of family. So, whether it results in the conception of a child or simply binds a husband and wife more closely to each other, sex helps perpetuate love.
Knowing that, I hope it is clear why the Church refuses to allow her members to treat sex as a vehicle for something as basic as a few minutes of physical pleasure. Sex was not meant to be treated as simplistically as a satiation of some physical hunger.
To be blunt, if you can eat a piece of cheesecake or a big steak and groan “This is better than sex” and almost—even a little bit—mean it, you’re doing it wrong.
Sex had for simple pleasure is inherently selfish and objectifying for both people. When purely based on lust, sex is abused as a way of taking another person’s body for the sake of one’s own physical satisfaction. It treats the other as an object of temporary excitement and pleasure, and allows each participant to view the other as a means to an end instead of as a human being. People are not toys to be played with and then cast aside. We are meant to be true partners—in the purest sense of the word—who live and work together in a permanent trek toward a good and honest life.
Basically, when you think of sex as the ultimate expression of love; the unequivocal bonding of a husband and wife who will truly, deeply need one another for the rest of their lives; the act of participating in the creation of new life, which forms everything where there was once nothing; and a completely unique and purposeful gift from God—it’s easy to see why twisting it into a means to the satisfaction of hunger, like a cheeseburger or a slice of pizza, is completely unjustifiable.
So what about pre-marital sex between people who love each other?
As I mentioned above, the Church values the marriage bond as one of the seven most sacred experiences available to Catholics. Marriage is a vocation—a calling to fulfill one’s mission in life—and is beyond our generalized ideas of commitment in today’s culture. True marriage doesn’t mean, “Let’s live together until I get tired of you,” or “I mean ‘til death do us part’ now, but I might fall out of love with you later.” It doesn’t accept “Hey, what can you do? We gave it all we’ve got,” or even “There are some things I can’t forgive you for.” It means two people are one flesh that is impossible to separate because God Himself has joined them together. It means two partners who will live and create life and be a family together, because that’s how humanity maintains its growth and penchant for love. It is like a chemical reaction as opposed to a physical change in matter—it cannot be reversed, undone, or taken back.
A man and a woman who share that kind of bond deserve to give and receive each other completely. We cannot take back the pieces of ourselves we give away during sex. So, by having sex with someone before making the permanent commitment and bonding only true marriage—formed through the sacrament—can impart, we rob ourselves of the ability to make that full gift of self, and we rob our spouses of their right to have all of us as a completion of the marital unit.
The Church takes marriage that seriously. It is the end-all of I and me, and the be-all of us and we.
Because it is unconditional and, above all, because it is designed, witnessed, and blessed by God, there is no other relationship like it—and, therefore, there should be no other experience like sex with the person you’ll love forever, without a shadow of a doubt.