Marital chastity means being sensitive to each other’s emotional needs

26 July 2018

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

The simplest summary of Sex, Love, and Marriage by Paul Flaman, a full professor of theology at St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta, is that it is a presentation of the Catholic position on sexuality and marriage with reflections based on the author’s own research and experiences.

Although it deals with moral theology (as well as creation, anthropology, Biblical exegesis, and magisterial authority), it is not a “theoretical” book.  Its goal is extremely practical: it wants the reader to experience sexuality in a spiritually and psychologically healthy way, and contains a lot of pragmatic information that gives the book pastoral as well as theological heft.

Sex, Love, and Marriage is a defence of chastity, but with an emphasis on the fact that marital chastity means being sensitive to each other’s emotional needs, not just avoiding certain forms of intercourse.

Flaman carefully explains Catholic teaching on sexuality but weaves in anecdotes drawn from his experience as a married man, as a member of the Archdiocese of Regina’s marriage tribunal, and as an instructor at the University of Alberta.

Sex, Love, and Marriage is a defence of chastity, but with an emphasis on the fact that marital chastity means being sensitive to each other’s emotional needs, not just avoiding certain forms of intercourse.

Several of the most illuminating quotes come from his students. Just reading them provides a lot of insight into the priorities and assumptions of that generation. One of my favourites is the story of a student who was once asked about how a romantic relationship was going. When this student answered by saying they and their partner had learned a lot about each other and shared a lot of experience, the questioner impatiently asked: “But have you been intimate yet?” There is insight and humour in how Flaman observes what a warped view of “intimacy” a question like that betrays, and which his book challenges.

Challenging is definitely one description of the book’s purpose, but it is not just meant to tell the reader something that might challenge them. It is also designed to prompt dialogue  ̶  not just conversations, but a thoughtful and informed discussion between people of different positions.  In a way, it resembles the way St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, not because it follows the straitjacket formula of the Summa Theologiae or compendium style of writing, but because it duplicates the breezy conversational style of a lecturer having a good discussion with a classroom.

Probably the most commonly used expression in the book is: “What do you think?”  In that sense, the book feels unfinished, in the best possible sense: you, the reader, must finish it by coming to your own conclusions, either by dialoguing with others in a group setting (and the book is perfectly designed for group or classroom study) or simply by reflecting on its contents yourself.

In today’s environment of white-hot argumentativeness, the book’s gentle tone is a welcome relief.  Although Flaman takes a generally conservative position on most issues, he is neither proselytizing nor preaching to the choir. He presents the positions of those who disagree with him clearly and even persuasively (another similarity to Aquinas); sections of the book could serve as a crash course on the theory of proportionalism when making moral judgments, which he explains with fairness and thoroughness before explaining why he thinks it fails.

When he expresses his disagreement, he puts his own position forward with humility and invites the reader to reflect on which argument she finds more persuasive.  For example, when dealing with the question of “complementarianism” as opposed to a more feminist or egalitarian vision of marriage, not only does he provide several arguments from Scripture and the magisterium – the Church’s teaching authority – but he also cites examples from his own marriage, referring to how he deferred to his wife, a nurse, when their child was injured, and how this is an example of how complementarity does not mean the husband lords over his wife like a tyrant.

Characteristically, this section includes the line: “What do you think…? Personally, I like St. John Paul II’s approach very much…” In presenting what could be a controversial or offensive viewpoint, Flaman is the consummate teacher, presenting his opinion with gentleness and clarity while still inviting the reader to ruminate rather than passively receive what he is saying.

Both conservatives and progressives will probably be able to understand the opposing position better from having read Flaman, which we hope can give rise to more productive discussions between the two sides.

Flaman makes his points by drawing widely, from ancient philosophy and medieval theology to contemporary sociology and psychology. The sources he cites are too theologically diverse to simply call this book a presentation of the Catholic position; it is too ecumenical for that, which is part of its “dialogical” quality.  (Some may be surprised at the kinds of authorities he cites, like when feminist pioneer Germaine Greer is quoted as accusing contraception of leading to exploitation of women.)

This, again, ends up being both theoretical and practical. One charming section compares a poll of successful marriages to Aquinas’ counsel in the 13th century: both say that spouses should be each other’s best friends. By drawing so widely, he has collected an excellent assortment of arguments, examples, and analogies to help make his case.

Not only are his sources intellectually diverse, ranging from Evangelical Scripture scholarship to the lead singer of the band Silverwind, but it is also nice to see so many local authorities quoted.  Flaman cites scholars and theologians from Western Canada, or at least whom he encountered speaking at conferences in Western Canada. Coupled with his own experiences, it gives the book a kind of relatability which makes it even more appealing for use in parishes and groups here in the Prairie provinces.

There is a lot here: information for finding groups that promote Catholic marital chastity (and advice on how to avoid groups that use cult-like psychology), handy arguments and citations for supporting your beliefs as a Catholic (like the analogy of how having female priests is like casting a boy to play Mary in a Nativity pageant), and, maybe most importantly, counsel on how to present our convictions in a patient, Christlike way. We know this advice has merit, because in Sex, Love, and Marriage, Prof. Flaman has already modelled it for us.

(Sex, Love, and Marriage is published by Justin Press, Ottawa, 2015; may be ordered through bookstores.)

 -Brett Fawcett is a teacher and columnist.  He has degrees in theology and education and is the winner of the 2018 Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Social Studies Education. Austin Mardon is a recognized mental health advocate, community leader, and scholar.