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A Covenant Theology of Sex

John F. Kippley

This covenant is God's creation and is, at one and the same time, for the good of man and wife and for the procreation and education of children.

At the Roman Synod on the Family in 1980, Archbishop John Quinn made international news by calling attention to the widespread theoretical dissent and practical non-compliance regarding Catholic doctrine on birth control. After dramatically illustrating the current breach between doctrine and practice, he called for a new theological effort, "an articulation, positive in approach and biblical in its foundations, of the Church's comprehensive teaching on human sexuality."1 Pope John Paul II has also reaffirmed the need for a revised theology of sex that would be biblical, personalist and which would explain not just the evil of contraception but also the evil of other sexual sins. I would add that as a practical matter, a contemporary theology of sex needs to be simple enough so that ordinary lay people can understand it in its essentials, and it also needs to be as ecumenical as possible. Such a theology may avoid using the traditional natural law terminology which is fitting to philosophical arguments, but it will not contradict such terminology or argumentation. Further, such a theology will distinguish between norm and ideal; deviations from the former are the grave matter of mortal sin whereas failures of the ideal are not; they are more the matter of imperfections or of venial sin at the worst. Finally, a realistic Christian theology of sex will take into account the need for the virtue of chastity. And that might be a good place to start. Current efforts to justify contraception, homosexual behavior and re-marriage after divorce from a valid marriage presume that the individual is not strong enough to follow the norm of the Christian Tradition. It has been discovered, so to speak, that the biblical and Traditional norms create conflict situations in which Christian discipleship along the lines of the Christian Tradition would entail the loss of certain pleasurable remedies for sexual tension and loneliness routinely enjoyed by secular, atheistic men and women.

For some the cross is sexual
To those who have been schooled in a Christianity that takes it for granted that Christian discipleship is going to involve conflict in every area of life covered by the Ten Commandments-and what area of life isn't so covered?-such a discovery at this late date is perplexing. The resolution of the conflict in favor of the cultural norms of contraception and homosexual behavior simply indicates the force of a post-Christian culture, but such solutions tell us nothing about Christian discipleship; they gloss over the demand of Christ that we carry our daily cross which for many may be sexual in nature. Such solutions make no call for the development of chastity to overcome temptations because they accept as legitimate behavior what the Christian Tradition teaches is the matter of serious sin. The Christian norm is reduced by such solutions to a purely idealistic ideal where failure is normal and considered to be at the moral level of an imperfection. On the other hand, the Christian Tradition recognizes the difficulty of living up to the norm. It calls a sin a sin. It recognizes the force of a habit of sin even to the point of recognizing that it may have such force over a person as to reduce or eliminate his or her subjective guilt for objectively sinful behavior. Small wonder, then, that Pope Paul VI stressed that the strength of chastity is needed to resist the temptations of contraception and sterilization. This has been repeated by Pope John Paul II: "Knowledge [of natural family planning] must then lead to education in self-control: Hence the absolute necessity for the virtue of chastity and for permanent education in it..Chastity signifies spiritual energy capable of defending love from the perils of selfishness and aggressiveness, and able to advance it toward its full realization."2 The traditional terminology of "acts per se apt for generation" as a description of sexual intercourse has a clinical accuracy but also has two shortcomings. It makes no distinction between marital and non-marital coitus, and it says nothing about what such acts are or should be as representative of the non-genital aspects of the sexual relationship between man and wife.

Much terminology is unrealistic
A terminology of "acts per se apt for generation" is not erroneous; it is a terminology very helpful for stating the physical requirements for valid, marital intercourse. However, insofar as it fails to say anything about the intersubjectivity of the married couples or the symbolic meaning of coitus, it is lacking and therefore has an aura of unrealism about it especially for those whose education has focused almost entirely upon subjectivity and excluded any realistic discussion of objective morality. On the other hand, while much of contemporary terminology about coitus has arisen to compensate for the shortcomings of the previous terminology, it is even more unrealistic. Descriptions are so heavy on the subjective element that no distinction is made-or can be made-between marital and non-marital intercourse. Even as descriptions of marital intercourse, much of modern terminology is highly unrealistic, even from a subjective point of view.

What are these elements?
For example, it is commonplace to read that sexual intercourse is the ultimate act of self-giving or the supreme act of love, but such terminology fails to account for the fact that coitus can be sinful even in marriage. The terminology that I believe can be the most helpful in the current crisis of theology dealing with sexual morality is as follows: Sexual intercourse is meant to be a renewal of the marriage covenant. Spelled out a bit further, this theological statement reads: Sexual intercourse is intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the faith, love and risk explicitly and implicitly vowed by each to the other when they entered the covenant of marriage. This covenant is God's creation and is at one and the same time for the good of man and wife and for the procreation and education of children. Such a concept of sex fulfills the requirements of being 1) simple, 2) personalist, 3) biblical, 4) theological, and 5) ecumenical. Furthermore, it 6) distinguishes between marital and non-marital sex and 7) provides a key for explaining not only the evil of contraception, but also the evil of adultery, fornication, sodomy and other sexual behavior condemned as objectively sinful by the Catholic moral tradition. It is 8) realistic. It provides a terminology that avoids the sometimes austere quality of previous theological terms and also avoids the subjective mushiness and inaccuracy of much of contemporary talk about sex, love and marriage. Finally, 9) it provides both a norm and an ideal. Any two people who are mentally and spiritually capable of committing themselves to marriage are also capable of understanding this covenant theology of sex and marriage. In fact, if a couple either cannot or will not understand or admit the elements or beliefs involved in this concept of marriage and sex, then it is questionable whether their proposed union should be called a Christian marriage. What are these elements or beliefs?

  1. God the Creator has created us, loves us and knows what is good for us.
  2. God has created the human relationship of marriage and has told us that marriage lasts for a lifetime. In short, God has determined the basic rules of marriage.
  3. Christian marriage is a covenant which is much more than a contract. The whole purpose of human contracts is to spell out very definite limits to what's covered, and they can be changed by mutual consent. However, a covenant entails unlimited liability. This has been traditionally stated in the marriage vows as "in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, and for better or for worse."
  4. When you marry, you make no pledges at all about having romantic feelings toward your spouse, either always or occasionally. Rather, you are promising to exercise caring love of the kind described by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13: "Love is kind, patient."
  5. Sexual intercourse is intended by God to be a sign of your marriage commitment, your pledge of caring love for better and for worse. It symbolizes both the covenant relationship that God has created and your own, personal entry into that covenant with each other and with God.

Much more can be said, but the previous five points seem basic to understanding Christian marriage. How the covenant concept of sex rules out both pre-marital sex and contraception will be shown later.

A biblical foundation exists
It is also personalist because it is based not just on the nature of man and woman as created by God but also on the free, personal decision of man and woman to enter the covenant of marriage. Each of them knows that this is a serious business and that it has implications for all eternity; yet each of them uses his or her own free will to create the covenant of marriage between them. The concept that sex is intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage is biblical. It is founded upon and is in accord with all of the biblical concepts of sex, love, covenant and marriage. It avoids current subjectivism with its biblical insistence that first of all marriage is essentially heterosexual. It follows the biblical teaching that the only form of morally acceptable sex is marital sex with one exception. Whereas the Old Testament seems to accept the notion of the Law of the Levirate, the same is not true of the covenant theology of sex. However, it must be noted that the Leviratical sex was obligatory, covenantal sex. It accepts both the eroticism of the Song of Songs and the self-oblation of 1 Corinthians 13 as constitutive of marital love. And what could be more biblical than the basic concept of covenant?-a concept that provides for reference to the patient, forgiving love of Osee and love of Christ for his Church as described in Ephesians 5? At the same time it is theological. That is, nowhere in Scripture are to be found the words: "Sexual intercourse is intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant." Yet, that concept is contained in Scripture. Just about every imaginable form of sexual activity is mentioned in Sacred Scripture, but the only form that is recognized as legitimate is that of marital intercourse, aside from the previously mentioned Old Testament acceptance of the ancient Near Eastern custom of the Levirate. I think it is indisputable that God has revealed that sex is intended to be essentially covenantal. In short, theology goes beyond the mere quotation of Scripture and attempts to put things together; if Scripture provides an answer to what is right or wrong, theology attempts to explain why.

The memory has been lost
Any theology which proposes to be ecumenical today must be biblical and have its roots in a Tradition that at one time was accepted by those whom Protestants recognize as their spiritual ancestors. The proposed covenant theology of sex is certainly biblical, and it is also firmly rooted in a Tradition that in America, at least, was vocalized even more by Protestants than by Catholics. It is an undeniable fact of American history that in the 19th century, anti-contraceptive laws were passed by Protestant legislatures for a largely Protestant America. Looking for documentation of Protestant Church positions on birth control prior to Lambeth of 1930, I was told by Professor Paul Ramsey of Princeton that I was wasting my time trying to prove the obvious. That is, so universal was this belief that it simply would not have been the subject of Church statements anymore than we would expect today a statement that stealing is immoral. However, the memory of this historical Tradition has been lost to contemporary Christians. At every opportunity afforded, I ask groups of Catholics and Protestants how many are aware that until 1930 no Christian Church had ever accepted contraception as morally permissible. Perhaps 3 in 100 might know that bit of Christian faith; small wonder that Humanae Vitae has been so widely regarded simply as a papal idiosyncrasy rather than an affirmation of a Tradition universally held by all Christian Churches until 1930 and reaffirmed in one way or another by every Pope since then with the exception of the short-reigned John Paul 1. Because the belief that sexual intercourse is meant to be a renewal of the marriage covenant is based solidly on the biblical concepts of covenant, marriage, and love, it can distinguish between marital and non-marital sex. Before marriage, there is simply no covenant to renew; therefore non-marital sex pretends to be what it is not and cannot be, so it is simply dishonest sex, a lie. That holds true whether the sexual activity is the premarital sex of an engaged couple, the experimental sex of teenagers, or adultery. Whatever the situation without the marriage covenant, sexual relations are intrinsically dishonest and immoral. Such an understanding of sex is radically different from the soft calculus of much of contemporary talk about sex. For example, "Sexual union should always take place in the context of love-of genuine concern for both your own welfare and that of the other. Your relationship should bring happiness and growth to both of you. You will, therefore, consider the possible consequences of your words and actions, and you will not risk hurting yourself or another unnecessarily."3 Or again: "Rather, according to both the laws of society and the Gospels of Jesus, what is wrong or immoral is what hurts or risks hurting yourself or others unnecessarily, without sufficient reason."4

It's soft calculus talk
Examples could be multiplied both from the same high school text or others. The point is not that the author is probably trying to discourage pre-marital sex. Or that such reasoning contains large grains of truth. The point is rather that such talk is essentially a soft calculus that does not say a firm biblical "no" to anything. It implies that the people involved will be able to calculate the possible harm to be done and will refrain from sex because of such possible consequences, but nowhere does it say that sex outside of marriage is simply a lie and an act of fornication even if the two people manage to rationalize their way around all the obstacles and think they have "sufficient reason" for taking whatever risks they can't foresee. Such talk is an invitation to calculating and rationalizing. Given the tendency of passion once aroused to interfere with clear and reasonable thinking-even if calculus were all that was needed-such discourse is ultimately seductive. By ignoring the absolute prohibition on fornication as in the examples cited, modern authors erode consciousness of the sovereignty of God. As Father Richard Roach, S.J., puts it, "God's sovereignty is violated whenever we knowingly and freely break an absolute prohibition."5 However, the two concepts that sex is meant to be a renewal of the marriage covenant and that non-marital sex is a violation of the God-created meaning of sex operate on a different plane entirely-the plane of discipleship rather than consequentialism. I agree that the unhappy consequences of non-marital sex need to be pointed out again and again, but I insist that any theology of sex and that any discussion of sex in a religious environment must go beyond the pragmatic to the biblical foundations and to the symbolic meaning of sex as a renewal of the marriage covenant. As has already been indicated, the understanding that sexual intercourse is meant to be a renewal of the marriage covenant provides a clear explanation for the evil of non-marital intercourse whether it be technically adultery or fornication, whether between lovers or with prostitutes: there is no covenant to renew. Sodomy between homosexuals is condemned on precisely the same grounds as fornication between heterosexuals: there is no valid marriage covenant to renew. The evil of bestiality should be apparent without further elaboration; and if the whole meaning of freely willed sexual actuation is to renew at least implicitly the mutual love and faith pledged at marriage, then the evil of the essentially self-centered act of masturbation is apparent.

What about contraception?
Granted, with this covenant theology of sex, all of this becomes very simple and deductive, but who ever said that a theology about matters that affect every man and woman had to be complicated or understandable only to those trained in philosophy and theology? What about the evil of contraception? The same theology that applies to the original marriage covenant also applies to acts of marital coitus. It is universally recognized, within the Roman Catholic Church at least, that if even one partner of a proposed marital union places a diriment impediment to the union, whether knowingly or unknowingly, there is simply no marriage union despite all the external trappings of a beautiful marriage ceremony. In order for an apparent marriage to be a valid marriage, the couple have to be open to the covenant of marriage as God created it-for better or for worse, for fertility or infertility, for times of embracing and for times of refraining, and for keeps. The couple who make a conditional or temporary contract are no more married than they were before the ceremony despite very strong feelings of love and affection which presumably they had for some months before marriage.

The act is left open
So also with marital intercourse. As Vatican II taught, the moral value of marital coitus does not depend solely on the feelings or intentions of the people involved but rather upon objective standards rooted in the very nature of being a married man and woman.6 If marital intercourse is intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the faith and love of the marriage covenant, then it must be at least free of explicit impediments to such a renewal. But, contraception is precisely the placing of such impediments. Contraceptive marital intercourse is not a renewal of the unreserved marriage covenant; instead, it contradicts the meaning of the marriage covenant by seeking to limit it to one half of the covenant-for better but not for the imagined worse of additional parenthood. Conditional contracts are not valid marriages. Intercourse conditioned by the use of contraceptive (or abortive) drugs, devices or behavior is not a valid renewal of a true marriage covenant. Such behavior constitutes a diriment impediment to moral validity. But what about natural family planning? Isn't that conditioned, impedimented intercourse? Not at all. As one moralist after another has pointed out, the choice of means to attain a legitimate end is everything. What the Christian Tradition condemns is not the intention of family limitation for sufficient reason. No, what the Tradition condemns is the pursuit of that objective through sterilized or contraceptive intercourse. With natural family planning, a couple who are seeking to avoid pregnancy do not express their love and affection for each other through sexual intercourse during the fertile time. When they do engage in marital coitus, their act of intercourse is left open-for better or for worse.

Adequate preparation encouraged
The situation legitimately may be compared to the process of getting married. More and more is being done today to encourage adequate preparation for marriage. The prospective bride and groom are asked to think ahead, to examine closely their current and prospective relationship; in short, they are encouraged to be choosy, to let reason dominate over emotion, to do what they morally can to minimize the risks of marriage. The essential reason for this is that the Church recognizes and attempts to get prospective married couples to realize that despite whatever efforts they have made at being selective and reducing the risks of marriage, once they enter the covenant of marriage, it's for keeps regardless of poor health, poverty or the variety of conditions that may be described as "worse." Such efforts to reduce the risk of marriage are morally legitimate and are entirely different from the decision to reduce the risks of marriage by making a conditional marriage contract for health, wealth and the general betterment of their feelings toward each other and the world with various escape clauses if things don't go well. Such a contract is simply not the covenant of marriage, and sexual intercourse between such people after such a contractual ceremony is objectively immoral. The choice of means is everything when the end itself is legitimate. Natural family planning leaves the act of intercourse uninterrupted, unimpeded, open to whatever natural results may occur. It is at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant with the exception of the case of marital rape. Contraceptive or sterilized intercourse is positively and intentionally closed to the faith and risk of the marriage covenant and is therefore invalid as a renewal of the marriage covenant, and that, I believe, is what makes it objectively immoral. Too much of the talk about sex within marriage uses terminology that is inaccurate or misleading; sometimes it appears to be the result of wishful thinking. For example, one priest-teacher of college theology told his students that at the instant of marital orgasm the floodgates of sanctifying grace were opened. When the students asked my opinion as a married layman, I had to say that the professor was confused between grace and sperm count. More typical is this: "The act of sexual intercourse between two people is, in itself, beautiful and good."7 That's misleading because as it stands it makes no distinction between marital and non-marital intercourse, nor does it address the real situation within marriage when intercourse is sometimes neither good nor beautiful. Another inaccurate, misleading statement: ".the Church understands the act of sexual intercourse to be the ultimate expression of love and fidelity between two people."8 The author goes on to qualify that the Church means married people so in the context the flaw of not mentioning marriage is corrected. However, my first objection is to the phrase, "ultimate expression of love and fidelity." Precisely what does that mean? "Ultimate expression" is a fuzzy, imprecise phrase that may conjure up visions of ecstasy but can mean different things to different people. My second objection is that the description uses the verb "to be" in the sense of "sexual intercourse is the ultimate expression."

Three conditions must be met
Every priest, marriage counselor, and married couple with any honesty and realism can come up with real life examples that mock the notions of good, beautiful, and ultimate expression of love, fuzzy as it is. John has sat in front of the TV screen all Sunday afternoon completely engrossed in football. The combination of beer and provocative cheerleaders has steered his imagination towards sex. He calls into the kitchen to his wife who feels neglected and hates beer breath, "Go get yourself ready for 'making love' at half-time. Should be about another 10 minutes." Translated, "Go put in your diaphragm and foam because I want relief of sexual tension instead of watching the half-time show." Love? Beauty? Ultimate expression of love and fidelity? Absurd, but that's what is being fed to our young people in Catholic education today, and I doubt that it is any different in Protestant religious education either. On the contrary, evaluate closely the statement, "Sexual intercourse is meant to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant." Such terminology easily recognizes the difference between what sex should be and what it frequently is. The use of "meant-to-be" clearly implies a standard set by the Creator above and beyond the intentions of the participants. It carries within it the norm that it is intended by God as a sign of marriage, not just affection regardless of marital status. The phrase "at least implicitly" recognizes that it is not necessary that married couples consciously tell themselves or each other, "Let us renew our marriage covenant." The fact that the whole statement is built upon the marriage covenant provides a concrete, objective norm, and the notion that sex is meant to be a renewal of that covenant places each act of sex within the standard of the valid Christian marriage. In my opinion, it is erroneous to say flatly, "Marital intercourse is a renewal of the marriage covenant." Such talk fails to distinguish among the wide variety of sexual acts within marriage. On the one hand there is sex as it should be-affectionate and non-contraceptive. On the other, there are acts of marital rape, contraception and marital sodomy. Thus, it is necessary to state what God intends sex to be and to avoid making "is" statements that cover a multitude of acts. One of the most common errors of modern discourse about sexual matters is the reduction of the norm to an ideal. The context is inevitably that the ideal may be relevant for people far advanced in sanctity but not for the common man and woman. The notion that the doctrine of marital non-contraception reaffirmed by Humanae Vitae is a binding norm that applies to all is either denied or disregarded. Unfortunately, once this norm of marital chastity is treated as an idealistic dream, so are all of the other norms of chastity both within marriage and outside of it. And for good reason: it is certainly easier to practice the periodic abstinence required by natural family planning than the total abstinence required by the chaste single life whether heterosexual or homosexual. Perhaps it may be easier to retain the norm as a norm if an ideal is presented simultaneously within the same concept. At any rate, that's the situation with the covenant theology of sex. The norm is that at a minimum the act of sexual intercourse must meet three conditions:

1) The man and woman must be validly married to each other; 2) The act must not be one of marital rape; 3) The act must not be positively and intentionally closed to the transmission of life, i.e., it must be an act of non-contraceptive, non-sterilized, completed genital-genital intercourse.

The ideal goes beyond that and reminds each married couple that the act of marital coitus is really meant to be a renewal of the faith and caring love they pledged to each other at marriage, the more explicit this renewal, the better. The ideal sets the stage for an examination of conscience that can help each person grow in marital love. "If I'm anticipating 'making love' this evening, what is there about my day-to-day, hour-by-hour social intercourse with my spouse that reflects the caring love I pledged at marriage? Have I tried to be helpful, to lighten the burdens of my spouse? Have I tried to do anything to make my spouse feel loved and esteemed?"

A challenge is provided
To the extent that a married couple can answer such questions affirmatively, to that extent their acts of sexual intercourse can become more expressive of honest marital love. Almost everyone will recognize his own failure in terms of the ideal but such failures, depending upon their nature, are the matter of imperfections or venial sin and do not necessarily exclude one from the communion of the sexual embrace. Such a theology of sex does not condemn marital coitus for the relief of sexual tension provided that it fulfills the minimum requirements of the norm. However, it is realistic and recognizes that such acts are a far cry from those acts which reflect much more explicitly the caring love of the original marriage covenant. In short, this theology of sex recognizes that it is the little things of daily and hourly social intercourse between husband and wife-taking out the garbage, cleaning up a mess, the kind word, the smile-that are the elements of "making love" in marriage; it recognizes that the act of marital coitus is "making love" pretty much in direct proportion to the effort put into the non-genital aspects of the marriage. In my opinion, an especially beautiful attribute of this theology of sex is that it provides a challenge to each married couple at every stage of their life together-young or old, fertile or infertile. The non-contraceptive aspects of the norm will pass into personal irrelevance after menopause, but the challenge of keeping their sexual intercourse a symbolic renewal of the love they pledged at marriage will pass away only when they do. The belief that sexual intercourse is intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant is rooted in Scripture and is based also on the personal commitment of the couple. It is a simple concept that is ecumenical and provides a key for explaining the evil of non-marital sex. Finally, at one and the same time, it affirms the norm of marital non-contraception and provides an ideal, a never ending, marriage building challenge to each and every married couple regardless of age or fertility.


  1. Archbishop John Quinn, Synod of Bishops, September 29, 1980.
  2. Famialiaris Consortio, 33.7, Origins, Dece,ber 24, 1981, p. 449.
  3. Michele M. McCarty, Relating. (Wm. C. Brown Co. Publishers: 1979) p. 56.
  4. Relating, p. 50.
  5. Richard R. Roach, S.J., "From What Are They Dissenting?" International Review of Natural Family Planning. V1:4, Winter, 1982, p. 338.
  6. Gaudium et Spes, 51.4.
  7. Relating, p. 49.
  8. Ibid

Article appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, August-September 1983.