Here’s an instructive passage from one of my favorite contemporary Christian writers.
From Lauren F. Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity
Christian tradition has historically articulated a threefold purpose for sex: sex is meant to be unitive, procreative, and sacramental. That means, in simpler language, that sex is meant to unite two people, it is meant to lead to children, and it is meant to recall, and even reenact, the promise that God makes to us and that we make to one another in the marriage vow––that is, we promise one another fidelity, and God’s Spirit promises a presence that will uphold us in our radical and crazy pledge of lifelong faithfulness.
Each of these ends of sex has a basis in scripture. The unitive aspect is hinted at in Genesis 2:23, when Adam says that Eve is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” The procreative purpose is also spelled out in Genesis, in God’s instruction to be fruitful and multiply. Finally, the sacramental end of sex is implied in Ephesians 5:32, when Paul, having offered a set of guidelines for how husbands and wives should relate to one another, says, “This is a profound mystery––but I am talking about Christ and the church.” At first blush, it seems like something of a non sequitur. But, in fact, it tells us what marriage, and marital sex, is: a small patch of experience that gives us our best glimpse of the radical fidelity and intimacy of God and the church.
These three purposes––the unitive, procreative, sacramental, and procreative––are deeply interwoven with one another. Openness to children reshapes how we experience and understand sex; procreative possibility changes the way sex is unitive and sacramental. The unitivity of sex, for example, looks different when we remember that unitive sex might produce kids. Without the possibility of procreation, sex can quickly become part of a romantic two-ness, wherein the couple simply becomes more and more deeply interested in one another. The prospect of procreation reconfigures unity, forcing the couple out of themselves, out of a potentially suffocating and selfish oneness, and toward another––toward a stranger, a neighbor, a baby whom they might welcome into their home. When procreation is possible, unitive sex is fruitful beyond simply the couple themselves. (This procreative potential is one thing that keeps marriage from becoming, in Kierkegaard’s candid phrase, an ingrown toenail.)
So, too, the possibility of procreation affects how we understand the sacramental aspect of married love and sex, for, again, procreation redirects the lover’s attention beyond the spouse, beyond the marriage bed. This is the way sacraments are always meant to work: the Eucharist happens at the table of the body of believers, but we do not stay put at the table; we take Communion with one another so that we might be equipped to follow Christ’s injunction to go out into the world. The same is true with baptism––we are washed clean not so that we can preen over our purity and cleanliness, but so that we can go into the world with the unwashed. And sex that is open to procreation is sex that pushes us to be other-directed, that pushes us to leave the bed and journey into the household, and the wider community.
Of course, it is possible for sex without procreation to be incarnate, sacramental, and other-directed. Consider a husband who is sterile, or a wife who is past menopause––these marriages can be as open and hospitable as a marriage that produces children (although that openness and hospitality may require a different level of intention). Nonetheless, experience, nature, and scripture suggest that there is a deep connection between the work of sex and the possibility of procreation.
Technologically effective birth control has severed those connections. We can reaffirm them without necessarily landing at the Roman Catholic position––we can, for example, say that the whole of a married couple’s sex life needs to be open to procreation, but each and every sex act need not be. And we can worry about technology’s separation of sex and procreation because we see that it does violence to what sex is finally about (pp. 65-67)
Cross-posted at Mere Orthodoxy.