I want to start off this post with a statement that might shock some of you, and that might seem a little biased. My wife is drop dead gorgeous. You might think I’m just saying this because she is my wife, but I’m not. She really is a knockout! So much so that her looks can be a bit distracting for me. Do any of you other married couples ever have that problem with your spouse? Does it ever bother your conscience? That is what I want to address right now. Is lust okay within marriage?
In his “Confessions”, St. Augustine of Hippo addresses this issue. His opinion on the topic does not differ much from my opinion. You see, physical attraction is a part of marriage. No one would voluntarily marry someone that they found physically repulsive. It is simply natural to marry someone that you find physically desirable. But does this justify lusting after your spouse?
Lust is classified as one of the seven deadly sins. To be physically attracted to someone, or to find someone to be physically desirable, does not necessarily equate to lusting after that person. To lust after someone is to “burn with desire” to engage in some sexual activity with that person. To lust is to allow the desire for that person to consume an inordinate amount of one’s thoughts. To lust after someone is to desire that person to the point where the thought of being with that person distracts you from the performance of your duties, or elicits frequent thoughts of a sinful nature.
In marriage we bind ourselves to a single person for life. We agree to give our entire selves to our spouse, and vice versa. This giving of ourself includes the most intimate, personal part of ourself, our reproductive faculty. Indeed, if we withhold this part of ourself from our spouse can we really claim to be fulfilling our marriage vows? To withhold our reproductive faculty from our spouse is to, essentially, cheat our spouse. It is short cutting on our wedding vows.
Although the sex act is meant primarily for procreation, there is also a pleasurable, unitive aspect to it. Marriage is a covenant oath. An oath is always sacred because it is an exchange of persons, and people are sacred. Like all covenants, marriage has an initiation ritual. In Judaism that was circumcision. In Christianity it is baptism. In marriage it is both the taking of vows and the conjugal act. Every covenant also has a renewal ritual. Holy Eucharist is Christianity’s renewal ritual. Sex is marriage’s renewal ritual. Yet this act also often results in the propagation of the human species. Hence, one reason for the aspect of pleasure in the sex act.
The fact is, sex has several elements to it. Ultimately, physicality plays a part; but it should not play an inordinate part. St. Augustine says that if one can not control his/herself, he/she should get married. While I do agree it is better to get married before having sex, it should never be the reason for marriage. I do not believe that is what St. Augustine meant. I think St. Augustine simply meant that it is better to lust within marriage, than to lust outside of it; and it is less sinful to lust after one’s spouse, than to lust after others. We might let sex with our spouse have an inordinate hold on us, but that is better than allowing promiscuous sex to have a hold of us.
So, is lust acceptable within marriage? To be sure, lusting after our spouse is sinful, but only moderately so. We are allowed to have sex with our spouse, so lusting after him/her isn’t going to jeopardize our salvation. Yet, lust is not to be the driving force behind either why we marry, or why we have sex with our spouse.
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity