I received a note this morning from a young friend of mine. He told me, rather sadly, that his lady friend – with whom he had lived for the last three years – had left him for another man. In a way I wasn’t surprised: the young today appear routinely to enter relationships (often starting at university) which lead next to living together, and eventually to marry. Our reaction may be positive – after all, they have had a real life experience before they committed themselves permanently. We shall see.
Since most of the couples I know come from a Catholic background, it is important to look at the issues which arise. I start with the concept of sexual intercourse having two purposes: the expression of marital love and the conception of children.
The Christian moral approach to this over the last thousand years may usefully start with St Augustine. Yes, he teaches that sexual intercourse in marriage can only be excused from sinfulness by intending to conceive on each occasion. It would be, for instance, sinful if the wife was past her menopause.
Over the centuries, Catholic teaching has developed. The sexual side of marriage is emphasised as contributing to the formal sacramental relationship. The couple may well use the “safe period” if they have good reason for avoiding conception. But they are not permitted to prevent conception artificially – whether through barriers or chemical control of ovulation.
The Church has confirmed its condemnation of artificial contraception, but in practice she accepts that it is a matter conscience. This an uneasy balance.
In the outside world, a big change has taken place. Since the 1960’s it has been possible to control ovulation through the “pill”. Suddenly – not only is contraception convenient but, more importantly, it is a method primarily managed by the woman.
The social outcome has been a much greater separation between marriage and sexual intercourse. While it still has its role as the “marriage act”, it would appear that it is nowadays a normal way of exercising and enjoying any close sexual relationship. The effects of this are broad.
We might assume that this would lead to better marriage choices since the couple have had a longer time to know each other, and to test their commitment. But it would appear that this is not so.
“The longer a couple cohabits, the less likely they are to get married. Living together for a long period of time makes little difference to the likelihood of a couple staying together – but increasingly diminishes the chances of them getting married. Couples are most likely to get married or split up in the 2nd or 3rd year of living together. Couples who have lived together for 7 years or more are more likely to split up than marry.”
Yes, I have pinched that paragraph from the Marriage Foundation. This is a splendid organisation (see below) which studies a wide range of matters related to marriage. Its main approach is to use relevant studies of the important issues. It enables us to move from our general opinions about sex and marriage to a degree of authority which enables us to get closer to actual reality.