Published from 1982-96, Fidelity magazine was the predecessor of Culture Wars.

Fidelity logosSex and the Marriage Covenant

Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality by John F. Kippley, 356 pp., 1991, paper, $14.95 (The Couple to Couple League International, Inc.: P.O. Box 111184, Cincinnati, Ohio 45211)

Reviewed by James G. Bruen, Jr.

From the July/August 1992 issue of Fidelity magazine


In Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II wrote that it was his “duty to extend a pressing invitation to theologians” to “commit themselves to the task of illustrating ever more clearly the biblical foundations, the ethical grounds, and the personalistic reasons” behind the Church’s teaching on contraception. John F. Kippley, who holds masters degrees in theology and applied theology, accepted the pope’s invitation, and the result is Sex and the Marriage Covenant. In addition to being a theologian, Kippley is also founder of the Couple to Couple League, and that has influenced his theological approach: “my starting point has been the search for a very usable theology of sex that can be understood by ordinary people.”


Kippley has developed what he calls the “covenant theology of human sexuality,” the core statement of which is simple: “Sexual intercourse is intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant.” Ordinary people, such as I, can easily understand that. Indeed, some married couples might suggest it borders on being a truism: it is a part of their faith that they live daily. But theology is faith seeking understanding, and Kippley has put into words what couples live in a faith-filled marriage. In doing so, he reveals the beauty inherent in human sexuality properly expressed within marriage and explains why any other sexual activity is morally deficient.


Agreeing that the “unhappy consequences of non-marital sex need to be pointed out again and again,” Kippley nevertheless posits his theology not on consequentialism but on the “symbolic meaning of sex as a renewal of the marriage covenant”:


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.


Kippley’s explanation that sexual intercourse is meant to be a renewal of the marriage covenant also permits condemnation of acts within marriage that are contradictory to that covenant. For example, marital rape is condemned theologically because:


To the extent that the sexual relations between husband and wife are a de facto denial of the love, care, tenderness, faith, hope, risk and self-denial of the marriage covenant, to that extent they are non-authentic and even invalid. Marital relations that are opposed to marital love are objectively sinful even though perhaps not defective from a biological point of view.


Kippley points out that marriage involves a promise of the spouses to love each other “without reservation.” They must help each other on the road to heaven, develop marital love, and honor the procreative purpose of marriage. Sexual intercourse physically expresses their covenant and renews it. Contraception, however, is “sex with serious reservation;” it contradicts the covenant to love “without reservation.”


By their use of contraception, a married couple do not renew the marriage covenant In their marital act. They positively exclude in such relations all of the trust elements of the marriage covenant, those elements which require that they put their faith and their life together in the hands of God. Such anti-covenant sex is invalid as a renewal of their marriage covenant.


Well, then, if contraception is so bad, why did the pope put all those nuns in the Congo on the pill back in the 1960s? We’ve all been exposed to retorts like that, I’m sure. I, for one, haven’t had an adequate reply. (Nor have I ever investigated whether nuns in fact were on the pill during the violence in the Congo, or, if they were, whether the pope authorized it.)


Kippley’s covenant theology, though, explains the morality of using a contraceptive (not an abortifacient) where rape is foreseeable: rape is not a renewal of the marriage covenant. Kippley even addresses the morality of contraception in the context of marital rape:


Marital rape is bully behavior, very frequently associated with drinking. When he goes out for the night with the boys, she knows he will be coming back half-drunk, demanding sex, and will slap her around if he doesn’t get it. ...


The moral issues are two-fold. First of all, such an action is not a true marital act because a true marriage act at least implicitly reflects the caring love pledged at marriage. Even if there is no contraceptive behavior on his part, the act of marital rape is a sin on his part. Pope Paul VI said it this way: ‘It is in fact justly observed that a conjugal act imposed upon one’s partner without regard for his or her conditions and legitimate desires is not a true act of love, and therefore denies a requirement of the right moral order in the relations between husband and wife’ (Humanae Vitae, n. 13).


The second moral issue is whether a wife who anticipates marital rape may use a true contraceptive to protect herself from pregnancy. Fr. Edward Bayer has successfully defended his doctoral thesis that it is not immoral for a woman to use a true contraceptive to protect herself against the consequences of rape – whether on the streets or in the marital bedroom. In the case at hand, a wife’s use of a true contraceptive – in this case a cervical cap or a diaphragm – would not add the grave matter of a mortal sin to the already sinful action of marital rape. I think this follows logically from the basic covenant theology that the evil of contraception is that it invalidates the sex act as a renewal of the marriage covenant. Thus, when the act is already immoral and invalid as a renewal of the marriage covenant, there is no obligation to allow it to remain open to the transmission of life as if it were a true marriage act which morally must not be closed to life.


Kippley, however, ducks an important issue: what, exactly, constitutes marital rape? The drunken, physically abusive husband presents an easy case. But, like the term “date rape,” the term “marital rape” is ill-defined and politically charged. Because he does not posit a precise definition, Kippley’s covenant theology suffers. Hypothesize a wife who would prefer to abstain from sexual intercourse with her husband because she desires not to become pregnant. Could she justify the use of a contraceptive on the ground that her husband’s expressed desire for intercourse constitutes coercion and, therefore, the intercourse is a form of marital rape? Rather than address this issue, Kippley says that in “cases of marital disharmony, the Christian counselor will want to go way beyond the base moral principles to assisting the couple to develop a truly Christian marriage.”


Kippley’s statement that “when the act is already immoral and invalid as a renewal of the marriage covenant, there is no obligation to allow it to remain open to the transmission of life” suggests another question. If the reason for the immorality and invalidity of the sex act is that it constitutes adultery, fornication, or prostitution, for example, instead of rape or marital rape, does Kippley’s covenant theology mean it is then moral to use a contraceptive? I doubt the adulterer, fornicator, prostitute, or john would give much thought to that question, but Kippley, the theologian, should have addressed it.


Kippley’s arguments for his covenant theology are forceful, but he never asserts that it is the only approach possible: “Once you recognize that theology is not identical with the content of faith, then it is easy to understand that there may be more than one way of seeking to explain the faith, i.e., more than one theology.” He critiques other orthodox theologies to demonstrate why, in his opinion, they are inadequate.


Kippley accepts the traditional argument that contraception violates the physical integrity of the marriage act because it “contradicts the natural integrity of the act of intercourse.” But he points out nevertheless that “its explanations of the evil of contraception focused so much on how the barrier methods of contraception physically degraded the natural beauty of marital intercourse that such explanations were not equipped to respond to the evil of a chemical contraceptive whose action did not degrade the marriage act in a physical way.” He also argues that “a logical conclusion of a strict physical integrity argument would not allow the use of a contraceptive even in the case of foreseeable rape. However, for at least the last three centuries, such logic has not been followed.”


Kippley also compliments Professor Germain Grisez and others who have developed the “contralife will” approach that focuses on the will in assessing whether there is a “positive willing” –  “a decision against one of creation’s most basic human goods – human life itself.” Kippley writes: “In my opinion, Professor Grisez and associates have done a real service by showing the connection between contraception and abortion at the level of the individual person’s will. They have shown that if a couple practice any form of birth control with a real intent against the very being of a new baby, then the abortion decision would be a ‘logical’ next step in the event of a surprise pregnancy. They have also shown the need for purity of intention for the morally good use of natural family planning.”


But Kippley then points out problems with the claim that contraception “is wrong primarily and essentially because it is contralife:”


It is not clear to me that every contralife will put into contraceptive practice is intrinsically evil. For example, take the case of a woman who is in danger of being raped, e.g., a public health nurse in a notoriously high crime area. May she use a true contraceptive device – a diaphragm or cervical cap – to prevent pregnancy from rape? I think the common answer of orthodox Catholic theologians is that it would be morally permissible for her to use such a true contraceptive device. ... However, such actions are, in fact, contraceptive in intent and would appear to be motivated by a contralife will – the will to take positive although limited steps against the coming-to-be of a new human being. ...


At the other end of the spectrum, it is not clear to me how the contralife thesis supports standard Catholic teaching against using contraceptives or masturbating as part of a strategy to achieve pregnancy when the couple has an infertility problem.


The only disappointment in Sex and the Marriage Covenant is a sense of weariness that borders on pessimism, which creeps in when Kippley discusses the slow spread of natural family planning in the United States. Kippley, though, is no quitter. Not ready to concede, he advocates diocesan marriage preparation courses that stress orthodoxy, chastity, the marriage covenant, a theology of sex, and that include a mandatory “complete” course in natural family planning. Then, he believes, families will turn to the Church and pews will be filled again, as will seminaries and rectories.


Sex and the Marriage Covenant is excellent and persuasive. It should prove understandable to the layman as well as the trained theologian. It fosters understanding of and appreciation for marriage and the Church’s teaching on marriage, sex and contraception. Any married couple who reads it will be unable to claim in good conscience that God sanctions their contraception.Fidelity

James G. Bruen, Jr. is an attorney.

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