Sexual intersubjectivity

About 6 months ago I offered a lecture in my Introduction to Theology class on the "theology of the body". During this lecture we discussed the idea that one of the functions of sexual union was to permit humans to overcome a sense of being isolated in their individuality, and be able to form, with another person, a joint human subject. This is called the "intersubjective union". When the class was over, one of my students sent me an email with additional questions regarding the whole idea of intersubjective union, particularly regarding why that union must be open to the idea of procreation. She wrote:

Why does intersubjectivity have to pursue a specific end (i.e., creating a new life)? Whether you look at it as an object-subject relationship or a subject-subject relationship, pleasure is an objective. Perhaps my question should be: Why does the Catholic Church insist that couples wishing to marry mustn't prevent having children?

Months later, I finally got around to answering her email. Part of the delay was because I wanted to let my own thinking develop as well, if only because perhaps the explanation I had already given in class wasn't clear enough. As well, I knew this student to be a believer, which allowed my reflection to be a little less "philosophical" than what I had to present in class. Here is my reply to her, which I now share with you:


To be more accurate, intersubjectivity does not pursue the specific end, but rather an "intersubjective union" does. This brings up a couple of questions: (1) Are intersubjective unions even possible? If so, how do we identify them? And (2) Does sexual activity fall into the category of human behaviours that potentially allow for the creation of an intersubjective union?

Regarding #1, the Christian answer must be that intersubjective unions are possible, or else the Trinity itself doesn't make sense. The Trinity is an intersubjective union of three Divine Persons. Their unity is far more than one of mere cooperation, but rather a sharing of essence. The Three truly are One without ceasing to be Three.

It is also possible for God's creation to participate in an intersubjective union with God. Jesus said so himself in his unity prayer (John 17: 20-26), in which the Trinity itself is the example and source of the fullness of unity God wishes us to live. The Incarnation, in which Jesus is 1 Person with 2 distinct natures, is an example of the extent to which union with God can progress. The Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which disciples possess, is another.

If such intersubjective unions are possible, it must therefore mean that there is a capacity within us as humans to enter into such unions -- an "openness to the other", if you will, that is not merely an add-on to human nature but which forms part of it. The Catholic Church sees the evidence for such "intersubjective openness" in the first Creation account, in which God created man in his own image, but as a sexually-active couple, in which the two become one "flesh". The term "flesh" is important, as it relates to the "nefesh" concept of the Old Testament: the two truly are a unit.

This perspective elevates sexual union to practically the dignity of a sacrament: it is a concrete physical sign, built into human nature, that expresses the openness present within human nature to the creating of an intersubjective unit -- not just with another human person, but with God. For this reason, the sign cannot remain merely physical: sexual union must have a spiritual aspect as well, or else it is no better than the mating behaviour of animals.

And so now we speak of love. God is love. He is made out of love. It is out of his nature as Love that the Son and the Spirit eternally proceed from the Father, and with them that God lives his divine life as Love. The intersubjective union of the Trinity, whose perfection attains such a level that each Person shares totally in the essence of the others, is rooted in that nature of God-as-Love.

Love is what transforms sexual union into something more than mating. It is possible for sexual union to take place where there is no love, or where it is not a God-like love. It is also possible for people to love each other to a great degree of perfection without physical sexual union. But in those moments when the two can co-exist in their perfection, it is truly wondrous.

And so this is why Christians emphasize that sexual union should only take place within marriage. Marriage is a state of life created by a deliberate act of will to create a union of life and love. It creates the context, therefore, in which sexual union can achieve its fullest expression as a sacramental sign of God's own divine essence, and of his desire to enter into an intersubjective union with humanity.

It also points to why the intersubjective union must be open to procreation. To live the fullness of what sexual union means is to be open to the whole being and essence of the other person. This includes their fertility. It also means giving of oneself totally, including one's fertility. This is called the "theology of the gift". Sexual union is not about taking what I like (the pleasure), it is about a total surrender of myself (kenosis) to the other so that the union can be achieved. The Word became Flesh because Jesus "emptied himself" (Phil 2: 7) for the sake of that union of natures. The "two become one flesh" because each totally surrenders himself/herself to the other as a gift, and each is received totally as a gift. If sexuality is to achieve its highest perfection according to the meaning God has apparently given it, there must therefore be an openness to the fertility aspect of the human person.

I should also, at this point, offer one small correction to your statement. You asked "why does intersubjectivity have to pursue a specific end"? Catholic teaching does not actually state it needs to pursue that end so much as be open to it. It is an attitude of the heart first and foremost, the heart that seeks union-in-Love, and is expressed (among other ways) in an openness to the possibility of conception in each act of sexual embrace. This latter point is important, as Love is not merely an attitude of the moment, something added on to who we are, but is meant to define our very essence, just as it defines God's essence. Therefore, each act of sexual embrace must be open in this way, or else it means we are 100% loving one time, and less loving the next, depending on external factors. That makes love an external add-on, which if it were valid would mean that God could be God-is-Love one day and not be God-is-Love the next. If we really want to live the fulness of God's commandment of Love, to the point that "he who loves dwells in God, and God in him" (1 John 4:16), i.e. to the point where it is defining our essence, then it must permeate the whole of married life, both in general and in each specific moment.

In teaching the necessity of this openness without actually making the direct pursuit of conception a moral necessity, the Catholic Church recognizes a certain mystery to God's providence, and that we need to surrender ourselves in trust to that providence. Conception is a physical reality, but the Bible also repeatedly explains it in terms of being a blessing from God. So couples are not asked to chase after conception, but merely be open to the possibility of it occurring, and to leave the rest to God. Therefore, to deliberately engage in practices which block the possibility of conception occurring is not only a withholding of some of the "spirituality of the gift", it is also to essentially tell God to not bless the sexual union with fruitfulness. It strikes me as arrogant to tell God what gifts he can and cannot give.

Going further, the Catholic perspective on "openness" rather than on "pursuit", both to the other person, and to God's providence, is what makes forms of natural family planning legitimate. First of all, NFP can be used to promote the possibility of procreation, which is an honourable pursuit -- while we are not obliged to "pursue" the possibility of procreation at every time, it is still a good thing to desire God's blessings and to seek them. Next, when NFP is being used to avoid procreation, it does so by simply not having sexual relations at specific moments. If unbridled "pursuit" were what God wanted, couples would be obliged to be having sex all the time! But it is possible to think of many cases where sex should not happen, such as in times of illness. Couples therefore have the freedom to *not* have sexual relations, in cooperation with God's providential plan for creation (which is partly expressed in how human fertility works in the first place). I should add that it is possible for even NFP to be used with an attitude of a "closed heart", which would be just as morally problematic as the use of contraception, but it is far less likely, given that there are more "convenient" methods available.

So why can't the object of the intersubjective union be pleasure? It most certainly can be, and for a sexual union to be a truly intersubjective union means that each spouse should be attentive to the pleasurable elements of sex, not for themselves, but for their spouse. "Wham bam thank you ma'am" has no place in Catholic discipleship regarding sex, even if it is open to procreation. But what I think you are really asking is, "Why does *each and every* sexual union have to be intersubjective, i.e. open-to-the-total-gift-of-the-others-fertility-and-the-gift-of-God's-blessing?" But since intersubjective sexual unions are a concrete sacramental sign of God-as-Love, they are moments of holiness. What you are really asking in such a case then is, "Why do we have to be holy all the time? Can't a life of general holiness be punctuated with moments of less-than-holiness (i.e. sin) and still be holy?" Not if we want to become like Christ, and be renewed each day in our inner nature.

In short, then, the Catholic Church believes that sexual union has the potential to be a means by which a person assists their spouse in becoming more like Christ. This is its greatest promise, and it is quite incredible. It means that sexual acts constitute a prayer, a liturgy, a moment of witness to the reality and nature of the loving God. Well lived, the positive elements of a godly sexuality go far beyond the bedroom: openness to one's spouse leads to openness to all men and women, as the person becomes more and more Christ-like. So why should we live this way? For our own spiritual growth, and out of love for God, spouse, and neighbour. To do less is to fall short of the greatness of the call to be a Christian.