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John Kippley's Covenant Theology of Sex

By Tracy Jamison, PhD

Published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, May, 2006

Starting in the mid-1960s and continuing on through the end of the millennium, John Kippley developed a very practical moral theology of human sexuality. He undertook this project for one simple reason: as a Catholic catechist faithful to Sacred Tradition he needed a biblical and personalist mode of explanation for the Church's moral teaching against contraception. Similarly, John Paul II, from the beginning of his papacy, developed a theology of the human body out of a necessity which he had as the Pope, the chief catechist of the Catholic Church: he needed a biblical and personalist way of responding to widespread theological dissent on issues of sexual morality. As a priest in Poland, Karol Wojtyla had already effectively employed the resources of a realist method of phenomenology to formulate a moral philosophy of human love and sexuality as a foundation for his catechetical ministry, and as Pope he integrated this philosophy into his biblical theology. One of the main goals of the theological endeavors of both John Kippley and John Paul II was to reveal and clarify the biblical foundations for the moral norm reaffirmed by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae: ".each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life." This was a rather challenging goal because the Bible never literally and formally expresses this moral norm. It belongs to natural law, and it is faithfully transmitted in Sacred Tradition, but any biblical principles which can be offered in support of it are admittedly indirect. John Kippley and John Paul II both accepted this challenge and both constructed a hermeneutical framework for the biblical texts that collectively provide an overwhelming amount of indirect evidence for the truth of the moral norm of Humanae Vitae. Thus Kippley and John Paul II had the same basic motivation for their respective theological endeavors.

The weekly general audiences that laid the foundation for John Paul II's interpretative construct have been published by the Daughters of St Paul as The Theology of the Body, and it is a comprehensive exegesis which has applications that extend far beyond those which especially motivated it. The practical moral theology formulated by John Kippley is obviously much more limited by comparison, but it contains insights which have enduring value for catechesis on the sacrament of marriage. Kippley's theology has fortunately been recently made available again through the second edition of his central work, Sex and the Marriage Covenant, published by Ignatius Press. The present moment therefore seems to call for an assessment of the usefulness and intrinsic value of Kippley's theology, one which integrates Kippley's insights and methodology with the content and broader framework of the theological paradigm of John Paul II.

John Kippley's Covenant Theology of Sex

First we must endeavor to understand clearly the essence of Kippley's project. Reflecting on the moral instruction contained in Sacred Scripture, Kippley provides a clear definition of what makes morally good acts of sexual intercourse morally good. He expects that his fundamental conclusion will be fully in accord with natural law theory as it investigates the same question from the perspective of moral philosophy. Instead of invoking the traditional arguments of natural law theory, however, Kippley constructs an alternative theological argument which is simple, practical, biblical, and personalist. As Msgr William Smith observes, this argument is very much in line with the program that John Paul II proposed in Familiaris Consortio, even though Kippley's theology of sexuality was in fact constructed and advanced long before the appearance of that document: In the great personal and magisterial treatise, Familiaris Consortio (Nov. 22, 1981), Pope John Paul II issued a pressing invitation to theologians to commit themselves to the task of illustrating more clearly the 'biblical foundations, the ethical grounds, and the personalist reasons' behind the Church's doctrine on sexuality, marriage and family. Kippley has responded to this invitation fully on all three levels - biblical, ethical and personalist. As he demonstrates beyond cavil, the contemporary problem is not simply incomprehension of the wrongfulness of unnatural birth control; the root problem now is the very meaning of human sexuality in a Christian context. Thus, not only is the negative critique of false contraceptive argumentation helpful, but a positive covenant theology of marriage is also crucial..

Of course, the program proposed in Familiaris Consortio in 1981 was being developed at great length by John Paul II himself, but Kippley was one of the first on the American scene to see the need for such a project and to make a significant contribution to it.

The straightforward answer that Kippley gives to the question of the basis for the moral evaluation of sexuality has the unmistakable ring of truth: "sexual intercourse is intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant." This is a basic moral principle which is given to us by divine revelation and by human reason. Kippley offers a secular version of the same principle: "sexual intercourse is meant to be a renewal of the couple's own marriage covenant, a symbol of their commitment of marital love." An act of sexual intercourse is therefore morally good if and only if (a) the man and the woman engaging in it have entered the marriage covenant together, (b) their sexual act is an objective expression of this covenant, and (c) they at least implicitly intend to renew this covenant by that sexual act.

The couple is not morally required to have an explicit, conscious intention to renew their marriage covenant. Their implicit intention is sufficient. The internal relationship between their physical act of union and the spiritual reality of their covenant, along with their implicit intention to preserve that relationship, is what makes their sexual intercourse morally right. If this relationship is intentionally absent then the act of sexual union is morally wrong because it fails to symbolize and renew the marriage covenant.

Accordingly, Kippley points out that we must also understand what makes the marital covenant marital. One essential feature is that it is a covenant made for the sake of having children and educating them. Another essential feature is that it is a covenant made for the sake of the loving union of the man and the woman themselves, in exclusive companionship and life-long fidelity. These two ends, the procreative and the unitive, are inseparable from the covenant we call "marriage." They tell us what it means to be married. Thus the meaning of the human act of sexual intercourse is inseparable from the meaning of the marriage covenant. Sex and the marriage covenant have the same intrinsic purposes.

Kippley therefore argues that what makes any given morally wrong sexual act morally wrong is that the act is in some way separated from marriage and the covenanted goals which are intrinsic to marriage. Fornication is wrong because the couple has not entered the marriage covenant. Adultery is wrong for the same reason: the man and the woman are not married to each other. Furthermore, this biblical and personalist criterion explains precisely what is wrong with the sexual intercourse of a married couple who uses contraception: the contraceptive separates their act of sexual intercourse from the marriage covenant, a covenant which exists not only for the sake of exclusive fidelity but also for the sake of procreative fecundity. They are married, but since they are using contraception their act of sexual intercourse does not renew the covenant they entered through marriage. In this sense it could be said that the attempt to use contraception within marriage is based on a form of delusion, because contraception itself objectively separates sex from marriage as effectively as adultery does, and this separation is the reason why it is wrong. Sexual relations must remain open to life specifically because their virtue is inseparable from a covenant which is ordered to procreation.

Any sexual act of a married couple which does not objectively express the intrinsic ends of the marriage covenant is morally wrong. Kippley shows that this basic principle also provides an essential reason why marital rape is wrong. Rape separates sex from one of the intrinsic ends of the marriage covenant: loving union of the spouses with self-giving regard for their legitimate desires and conditions. Sexual relations must be loving because their virtue is inseparable from a covenant which is ordered to love as well as procreation. In the moral analysis of sexual acts, the full intrinsic meaning of the marriage covenant must always be taken into consideration. Neither of the intrinsic ends of marriage can be intentionally excluded in any sexual act. The act of marital rape, like the act of contraception, destroys the internal relationship between sex and the marriage covenant. If either of the intrinsic ends of marriage is excluded in an act of sexual intercourse, then the union is falsified as an expression and renewal of the marriage covenant.

With this basic understanding of Kippley's theology well in mind, we can bring it into the much broader context of John Paul II's theology of the body. Both theologies are essentially biblical, ethical, and personalist. Both formulate moral norms on the basis of the moral instruction contained in the Bible, and both emphasize the essential aspects of the covenanted relationship of persons.

John Paul II's Covenant Theology of Sex

John Paul II's theology of the body is first of all a systematic interpretation of what the Bible teaches us about the human body, an interpretation advanced by the highest teaching office of the Catholic Church. It provides us with an enlightened understanding of the human body on the basis of what has been revealed about its original state, its fallen state, its resurrected state, its inherent dignity, its nuptial meaning, and its sacramental sanctification. The theology of the body is also concerned with the subjective dimensions of each of these aspects of the body. Thus it connects with what we naturally know about ourselves on the basis of our present subjective experience of what it means to exist objectively as a union of spirit and matter. From the outset, John Paul II emphasizes that the Bible always speaks to us not only from God's perspective but also from the perspective of human consciousness. Furthermore, the theology of the body addresses the objective and subjective dimensions of our bodily nature also in regard to the demands of Christian perfection. It outlines a moral education which cultivates both the objective norm of controlling our bodies in holiness and honor and the subjective transformation of our hearts necessary for bringing our voluntary thoughts and desires into harmony with the natural and supernatural dignity of our bodies.

Having provided a magisterial interpretation of the biblical doctrines concerning the redemption of the body, John Paul II uses this interpretation as a basis from which to teach on the sacramentality of marriage. First he offers an analysis of the sacramentality of marriage in relation to the covenant relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph 5:21-33), and then he extends this analysis to the structure of marriage as a sacramental sign which expresses and effects the saving reality and grace of that covenant. Finally, bringing his whole interpretive construct to bear on the doctrine contained in Humanae Vitae, he analyzes the nature and morality of the conjugal act itself.

With regard to the nature and morality of the conjugal act, Kippley's theology of sex anticipates and captures a fundamental aspect of John Paul II's theology of the body. When John Paul II's theology unfolded in the general audiences from 1979 to 1984, Kippley was encouraged by the fact that the Pope's catechesis on sex and marriage clearly confirmed his own. John Paul II does invoke the biblical principle that sexual intercourse is meant to be at least implicitly a symbol of the couple's marriage covenant. This is apparent, for example, in his analysis of the ultimate reason why adultery is morally wrong.

John Paul II points out that the essential evil of the act of adultery is defined incorrectly in the legislative tradition of ancient Israel but is correctly understood by the prophets of ancient Israel. In the law of Israel, adultery is regarded as a sin only because it violates a legal right of ownership which a man has over a woman who is his legal wife, and polygamy and divorce are therefore permitted. For the prophets of Israel, however, marriage is a covenant relationship between one man and one woman who have chosen each other and given themselves to each other out of love, thereby becoming one body. In marriage, a man and a woman are united as an integrated whole, and their bodily union is "the regular sign" of their marital communion. Only those who are married have the right to sexual union, and this right is exclusive to sexual union with one's own spouse. The prophets understand that adultery is not only a violation of the exclusive right to sexual union with one's own spouse but also "a radical falsification" of sexual union as "the regular sign" of marital communion. The specific reason why adultery is morally wrong is that it deprives marriage of a moral good that it ought to have: exclusive faithfulness. The very nature of marriage, in that it makes a man and a woman one body, demands that it have this good. This is the reason why adultery is called "a sin of the body." If those committing the act of sexual union are not in a marital relationship, and thus are not truly one body, then their act is morally wrong. The sexual union of any couple who are not married to each other is "a radical falsification" of that sexual union, because sexual union is "the regular sign" of the marital covenant. "The sin of the body can be identified only in regard to the relationship between the people concerned." Thus adultery is morally wrong specifically because of what it is in itself: the sexual union of a married person with someone other than his or her own spouse.

Of course, John Paul II goes on to give us an incisive analysis of the interior act of adultery in the heart as well, but for our purposes we need only to note that he thoroughly agrees with Kippley that what ultimately makes a morally wrong act of sexual union morally wrong is that the act is separated from marriage and the covenanted goals which are intrinsic to marriage. They both insist that there is an internal relationship between sex and the marriage covenant, and that this interconnection is what determines the morality of sexual acts. The central thesis of Kippley's biblical theology of sex is thus inseparable from John Paul II's biblical theology of the body.

John Paul II, however, has a great deal more to say about the integral biblical understanding of sex and marriage. Reflecting on St Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, he develops a full mystagogy of the sacrament of marriage. By faith, Christians recognize that the marriage covenant is an image of the covenant relationship between Christ and the Church, in the same way that the prophets of the Old Testament recognize that the marriage covenant is an image of the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel. Marriage is intended by God to be a symbol of His eternal love for mankind. This biblical truth yields a profound theological understanding of the significance of marriage in the mystery of redemption. There is an internal connection between the marriage covenant and the new covenant in Christ, and faith in Christ enables them to be mutually interpreted. The nature of marriage helps us to understand the love which unites Christ and the Church, and at the same time the love which unites Christ and the Church helps us to understand the nature of marriage.

Certain moral precepts immediately follow from this mystagogical understanding of marriage. If the marriage covenant is meant to symbolize the divine love between Christ and the Church, and sexual intercourse is meant to symbolize the marriage covenant, then sexual intercourse itself is meant to be for a married couple an experiential sign of the invisible mystery of the divine love between Christ and the Church. It turns out that morally good sexual intercourse is inseparable from a covenant that is instituted by God as an image of His eternal and redeeming love for mankind. Not only is sexual intercourse meant to be a renewal of the marriage covenant, it is also meant to be a reflection of the love which Christ gives to the Church and which the Church returns to Christ.

We must ask ourselves, then, how marriage specifically reflects the redeeming love of God, and the only possible answer is that it does so by virtue of being a covenant that is ordered to loving union and procreation. The intrinsic purposes of marriage reflect the mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church, which is both faithful and fecund. Christ and the Church are bound together in a loving union that gives eternal life to souls through the transmission of grace. The Church, spiritually married to Christ, is our Spiritual Mother. Sexual intercourse is therefore a symbol of the loving and life-giving union of Christ and the Church, but only insofar as it objectively expresses the intrinsic ends of the marriage covenant. The union of Christ and the Church constitutes a biblical criterion by which sexual acts can be morally evaluated. Accordingly, what makes a morally wrong sexual act morally wrong is that the act in some way fails to symbolize the spiritual fidelity and fecundity of the covenant relationship between Christ and the Church. As St Paul tells us, this is indeed a great mystery (Eph 5:32), and it is known only by faith.

A Christian married couple who by faith knows the mysterious truth that they are called to reflect the love between Christ and the Church in their conjugal acts will not want to impair their capacity to procreate life. By faith they will understand that if they were to impair that capacity they would be intentionally depriving their conjugal acts of a good that ought to be present, for this is what the mystagogy of sexuality reaffirms in its emphasis that the personal union between Christ and the Church is not spiritually sterile. Kippley's theology tells us that the specific reason why contraception is wrong is that it fails to symbolize and renew the marriage covenant. John Paul II's theology tells us that this explanation is correct, but that there is an even higher reason to be given.

The ultimate reason why contraception is wrong is that it fails to symbolize the life-giving love between Christ and the Church. Indeed, the very reason why marriage is instituted by God as the covenant which has inseparable procreative and unitive purposes is so that it can adequately symbolize the full spiritual reality of the covenant between Christ and the Church. Theologically, marriage makes a couple a sign of the covenant between God and man in Christ. Married couples who know this mystery have a greater moral responsibility to live it out faithfully, and living it out faithfully entails that their conjugal relations remain open to the transmission of life. The mysterious truth about marital intercourse is that there is an internal relation between openness to temporal life and openness to eternal life. Morally good marital intercourse, by virtue of its openness to potential conception, symbolizes the acceptance of the gift of eternal life, which is transmitted by Christ through the Church and received by faith in the Word of God. The Incarnation itself began with one person's openness to a life that is both human and divine. "Blessed is she who believed what was spoken to her from the Lord" (Lk 1: 26-45).

Marital contraception, on the other hand, by virtue of its destruction of the procreative meaning of the conjugal act, symbolizes the intentional refusal of the gift of eternal life. Contraception, insofar as it renders the conjugal act incapable of transmitting human life, separates the conjugal act from the marriage covenant. Similarly, a voluntary refusal to believe, insofar as it renders the proclamation of the Word of God incapable of transmitting divine life, separates the unbelieving soul from the covenant between Christ and the Church. Any married couple who is practicing contraception is an icon of the person who does not believe the Word of Life that has been sown in his heart. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Mt 13:1-23).

We have observed how Kippley's covenant theology of sex and marriage anticipated and advanced an essential aspect of John Paul II's theology of the body. In 1971, Kippley, together with his wife Sheila, founded The Couple to Couple League for Natural Family Planning and immediately incorporated the central thesis of his covenant theology into its curriculum. The biblical principle that sexual intercourse is intended to be a symbol and renewal of the marriage covenant is at the heart of the theology of the body. It seems historically and providentially significant that The Couple to Couple League began teaching this dimension of the theology of the body to engaged and married couples eight years before John Paul II introduced the term and proceeded to give us the full catechesis that it now represents.

Corollaries to the Covenant Theology of Sex

One of the issues addressed more thoroughly in the second edition of Sex and the Marriage Covenant concerns the essential evil of contraception apart from marriage. This is an issue that Kippley had to address from the very beginning of his proposal for a covenant theology of sex, simply because he needed a consistent analysis of the situations which were typically offered to him as counter-examples. As he reflected on the various implications of his covenant theology, he came to the conclusion that whenever an act of sexual intercourse is already evil in itself, as in fornication or adultery, the use of a non-abortifacient contraceptive "does not by itself add a second mortal sin at the time of the already immoral sexual action." Furthermore, upon analyzing the case of unavoidable and foreseeable rape, Kippley concluded that a woman in this situation is morally permitted to use a non-abortifacient contraceptive in order to avoid pregnancy. In the case of marital rape, as well, he concluded that a wife would be permitted to use a diaphragm if she were unable to avoid being raped by her husband and had a serious reason to avoid pregnancy. These conclusions certainly might seem to follow directly from the covenant theology of sex and marriage: if the specific evil of contraception is that it prevents the act of sexual intercourse from renewing the marriage covenant, then perhaps contraception is not morally wrong in itself in cases where the act of sexual intercourse is already intrinsically evil and thus incapable of renewing the marriage covenant. Of course, Kippley is not suggesting that someone who willfully engages in an act of sexual intercourse that is already evil ought to contracept that act. He is simply trying to clarify the specific evil of contraception as defined by his own theology.

It is possible, however, that in analyzing the morality of contracepting an act of sexual intercourse that is already intrinsically evil Kippley has drawn some conclusions which he need not to have drawn. If we assert that an act of contraception is permissible under the conditions where sexual intercourse is already evil and thus incapable of renewing the marriage covenant, then we are proposing that what makes contraception morally wrong is not that it separates sexual intercourse from procreation, but that it separates sexual intercourse from the marriage covenant. Yet it must be pointed out that the proposal that contraception is morally wrong specifically in that it prevents sexual intercourse from renewing the marriage covenant presupposes that contraception is morally wrong specifically in that it intentionally renders procreation impossible in the act of sexual intercourse. Procreation is one of the essential purposes of marriage, and contraception separates sexual intercourse from the marriage covenant only insofar as it intentionally separates sexual intercourse from procreation. Thus we must admit that what objectively makes contraception morally wrong is the very fact that it intentionally renders procreation impossible in the sexual act, and so we cannot consistently propose at the same time that under conditions where an act of sexual intercourse is already evil it is therefore permissible to render procreation impossible in that act.

Hence the conclusion that we should draw from the covenant theology of sex is that a direct act of contraception is by its very nature never morally permissible. On the one hand, it is true that the act of sexual intercourse in fornication and adultery is wrong because the absence of the marriage covenant between the couple deprives the act of a good it ought to have. Intentionally depriving an act of a good it ought to have by its very nature is intrinsically evil. But on the other hand, intentionally depriving the same act of other goods it ought to have by its very nature is an even greater evil. The act of sexual intercourse by its very nature ought to have the perfective good of its procreative significance. Objectively speaking, then, direct contraception between the unmarried always adds a second sin to an already sinful act of sexual intercourse.

It is important to recognize that the nature of the act of contraception, in that it entails a willful destruction of the procreative meaning of a consensual act of sexual intercourse, is the very reason why we are able to define the evil of marital contraception as the intentional prevention of sexual intercourse from renewing the marriage covenant. Given that we are dealing with an act which is evil by its very nature, directly intending to commit such an act is never permitted. One way to justify an act that would have an unintended evil outcome, however, is through the application of the principle of double effect. Humanae Vitae itself, for example, permits therapeutic means which render procreation impossible, provided that the therapy is necessary to cure disease and the contraceptive effect is not directly willed. If the use of a medicine having a non-abortifacient contraceptive effect is a necessary means to treat some physical disorder in a married woman, she is not morally obliged to abstain from marital intercourse. In consenting to the therapy, she is not directly intending the contraceptive effect, but only permitting it for a sufficiently serious reason. Furthermore, she is not obtaining the good effect through the evil effect. The therapy itself does not depend upon separating an act of sexual intercourse from its procreative good.

By contrast, it is never morally permissible for a married couple to use a condom to prevent some infection which might occur from their sexual intercourse, for this is a case where the good effect is specifically obtained through the evil effect. If infection from the act of sexual intercourse is being prevented by means of contracepting that act, then the evil effect is being directly willed, and the principle of double effect therefore does not permit it.

The principle of double effect also does not permit a woman to use a non-abortifacient contraceptive to protect herself from unjust impregnation in the grave situation of truly unavoidable but foreseeable rape. Another basic moral principle seems to apply in this case, however, the principle of legitimate self-defense. Insofar as a person wills or consents to an act of sexual intercourse, he or she is morally obliged to will the intrinsic ends which constitute its perfective good. The essential difference in the act of rape is that the victim does not will or consent to the act itself. A woman who is raped is under no moral obligation to will that the act achieve its natural end and impregnate her. Furthermore, as a female human person she has an inviolable right to self-determination with regard to impregnation. Indeed, it was in accord with this right that the Blessed Virgin Mary gave her consent to the Incarnation.

Of course, no one has the right to procreate outside of marriage, but even within marriage a husband is not permitted to force himself sexually upon his wife against her will, although it is also true that she must have a morally sufficient reason to refuse sexual union with him. The woman who uses a diaphragm to protect herself from impregnation due to unavoidable but foreseeable rape is defending her right to self-determination. It is reasonable to propose that she is morally permitted to defend this right at the expense of the natural end of her assailant's unjust act. The very fact that it is an act of rape morally permits her to thwart its potential to impregnate. This intention, like the intention to kill a violent unjust aggressor, is sometimes warranted for the sake of self-defense. Thus it is apparent that the act of thwarting the procreative potential of a rape is not an act of contraception, just as the act of killing a violent aggressor in self-defense is not an act of murder. The moral difference is equally discernible in either case. The principle of self-defense should not, however, be construed so as to permit the killing of an innocent human being, such as an unborn baby, no matter how the baby was conceived.

Covenant Theology in Matrimonial Catechesis

Even though we may respectfully disagree with Kippley on how to analyze a few delicate moral issues, we ought to appreciate the enduring value of his covenant theology and the fundamental significance it has in relation to John Paul II's theology of the body. The covenanted relationship of persons is arguably the central concept of the Bible. John Paul II took this concept from the Bible, interpreted it in light of Tradition, made it the foundation of his theology, supplemented it with a phenomenological analysis, developed its mystagogical implications, and then directly applied it to the nature and morality of the conjugal act. Kippley was intuitively and simultaneously pursuing the very same project, although certainly making no attempt to contribute to its phenomenological and mystagogical aspects. Thus Kippley's theology provides a simple and practical way to prepare students catechetically for the mystagogy of John Paul II. Good catechesis is always done in stages, and mystagogy typically comes last, as in the baptismal catechumenate. In the catechesis that serves the sacrament of matrimony, Kippley's practical theology is especially useful for preparing couples for marriage doctrinally and morally, and John Paul II's theology of the body is especially useful for speaking to these couples in the subjectivity of their communion as human persons and enlightening them mystagogically with regard to the higher significance of the sacrament they are receiving. Kippley has therefore given us an excellent catechetical preparation for the theology of the body, one that is truly biblical, ethical, and personalist. It is the product of many years of difficult catechetical labor in the parish and in the natural family planning movement. We are grateful to God for the great things He has done through the scientific, pedagogical, and theological endeavors of John and Sheila Kippley.

Tracy Jamison was raised in a Christian family as the son of an Evangelical minister in the Campbellite tradition. As an undergraduate he attended Cincinnati Christian University, where his parents had been educated, and he majored in biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies. At this institution he met his future bride and entered the covenant of Christian marriage in 1988. Through the study of philosophy and the writings of the Early Church Fathers, he was received into the full communion of the Catholic Church in 1992. Under the influence of the writings of John Paul II he began to study the works of St John of the Cross and entered formation as a Secular Carmelite of the Teresian Reform. In 1999 he completed the doctoral program in philosophy at the University of Cincinnati. Having made his definitive profession as a Secular Carmelite in 2002, he is active as a councilor in his local Carmelite community and as a lay catechist in his parish. He and his wife are instructors in natural family planning with The Couple to Couple League.