Upon finishing their performance a pair of figure skaters, filled with joy, take a bow. Their joy is the result of “collaboration, from mutual understanding and the harmonious realization of jointly chosen aims”, namely a beautiful routine (1). It is dangerous. The man looks up thinking, “she could cut my head off with those knives on her feet” and the woman’s only hope from crashing into the cement wall of ice is the man. Their practice took patience, discipline and trust, but the result is worth it all (2).
This is what marriage is really like. Marriage is on the plane of this dangerous love. The same knife that can cut off his head, he can use to sweep her off her feet into a lift. This is analogous to the sexual urge. It can be used to strip another of his or her humanity, or it can be used to beautifully bring a couple to love.
It can be difficult to realize the second option. This is what the puritan’s struggle with. The puritan sees the danger of skating with knives on one’s feet and says, “we must take off the knives”. Ultimately, then the puritan is left frustrated feeling forced to skate. With guilt, the puritan engages the sexual sphere for the sake of the good of procreation, but experiences the pleasure as something intrinsically impure. They see themselves as instruments used by God to continue creation through a means which is partially evil. Their sexual lives are left a frustrated, hidden part of their lives they can’t incorporate into their love.
They see their participation in the conjugal act as good because it is pleasing to God, but unconnected to their own personal integrity. Procreation is what God wants, but he gets what he wants ignoring what is good for them. The joy of children does not go unseen, yet children are conceived by the conjugal act which involves a mutual using for pleasure. For the puritan, it is impossible for the satisfaction of the conjugal act to be a part of their love because it is intrinsically evil and love is intrinsically good.
Both of these aspects of the puritanical view, the purpose of man’s sexual life as mere usefulness to God continuing creation and thus satisfaction as separate from spousal love, are rooted in a false view of God as the first cause and people as the secondary cause.
They see God as the first cause as also causing men to do certain things. This is not true of people. God causes men, bringing them into existence, but gives them free will. Man is the secondary cause of his actions through his free will. For example, I caused these words to be typed onto this computer, but I am not the cause of myself. God caused me. He gave me the abilities to think and express my thoughts and so I am the secondary cause of this post, and God, who caused me is the first cause. I am the second cause, but this does not mean I don’t have freedom in my actions. God caused me and I have freedom.
The Joy of the Secondary Cause
God made man as God made trees. He gave each certain properties. A tree receives water through its roots. There are multiple ways man receives water, but the normal and primary way is through his mouth. The tree can’t chose to not soak in the water if its roots are healthy, have access, and need the water, but a person can even with everything in place. A person’s ability to choose is more powerful than we give it credit.
The puritan sees satisfaction as intrinsically evil because it gives too much power to satisfaction and not enough power to man.
Reclaim the power. Man is a secondary cause. This means that God made man, but gave man the right to give himself. God does not force man to give himself, nor does he give man’s self to others against his will. Man gives himself. He has been endowed with the capacity for self-possession, self-mastery, and the conscious choosing of love. The conjugal act is not something useful for God. Because it is a human act, it can’t be merely useful. It must be personal.
Without man’s capacity for choosing, the satisfaction of the conjugal act seems to have enough power to overtake our “I” and causes us to use the other for mere pleasure. This is not true. We always have a choice.The choice to engage in the conjugal act for pleasure or to make a free, total, and radical gift of oneself to another for fruitful communion. Even if our freedom is very small because of the weakness of an addiction, we are never fully stripped of our ability to choose. Even if one is not free to say “no” to the bottle of wine, he is still free to make a phone call, go to an AA meeting, and work the 12 steps lessening the intensity of the addiction.
“I can’t get no…satisfaction”
The addict quotes Rolling Stones because he’s trying to fill a spiritual void or emotional wound with something physical. The puritan can’t get satisfaction because he sees satisfaction as evil. They seek to exclude using someone for pleasure in an artificial way by separating satisfaction from love between people in the conjugal act. The pleasure is not part of the act of love. Here is the problem. If we see the pleasure of the conjugal act as something separate from love, then we set ourselves up for use (3). The pleasure stands alone. It becomes its own end. For example, if the conjugal act is chosen out of love, but the pleasure is not seen as compatible with that love, then when pleasure is experienced, it is its own thing. They end up being used by each other and feeling used later on. Only when pleasure is integrated into the context of love and tempered by deeper values such as the free, radical, and faithful gift of self, can pleasure be lifted from something shameful to a beautiful addition to conjugal life.
The figure skaters are filled with joy at the completion of their performance, but this joy is not why they began. They began for the beauty. They didn’t give up in the sacrifice and discipline. They hoped in their potential for the beautiful and believed they had the capacity. An elderly couple are filled with joy looking back on their life, but this joy is not the only reason they began. They began for the love. They didn’t give up in the sacrifice and discipline. They hoped in their potential and believed in their capacity. Without having to reach for it directly, the joy accompanied them along the way.
1. Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 61.
2. Bergsma, Class Lecture, 2016.
3. Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 60.