In his Letter to Families from Pope John Paul II, published in February 1994, almost 10 years after the last TOB lecture, “Responsible Fatherhood and Motherhood,” the Pope wrote:
“In the conjugal act, husband and wife are called to confirm in a responsible way the mutual gift of self which they have made to each other in the marriage covenant. The logic of the total gift of self to the other involves a potential openness to procreation: in this way the marriage is called to even greater fulfillment as a family.” (emphasis his, n.12, “Responsible Fatherhood and Motherhood.”)
When I read this some 15 years ago, I was delighted. Since well before Humanae Vitae I have been advocating the covenant theology of sexuality as an understandable way to explain and defend the received teaching affirmed by that encyclical. The key idea can be stated in 17 words: “Sexual intercourse is intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant.” It seems to me that the Pope was saying essentially the same thing. Obviously, the concept that the marriage act ought to be renewal of the marriage covenant lends itself to considerable expansion about what is actually entailed in that covenant—such as fidelity, permanence, and not only basic openness to life but a call to generosity, and the love so well described by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. I submit that in his 1994 teaching, Pope John Paul II gave us an authoritative and summary interpretation of his Theology of the Body.
I understand the “renewal of the marriage covenant” concept to mean that anticipation of the marriage act ideally would focus attention on the marriage covenant. For example, it might elicit an examination of conscience such as “Is there anything in my behavior to my spouse today or during the last week that reflects the self-giving love I promised on our wedding day? Have I taken my spouse for granted? Have I done anything that my spouse would recognize as caring love? Etc.” That’s the ideal. More practically, “Have I done anything that contradicts our marriage covenant?” By the way, the words “at least implicitly” are very important. The spouses do not have to be thinking in these terms. If the spouses have not done anything to contradict the marriage covenant, such as contraceptive behaviors, they are at least implicitly renewing it.
While the culture places almost exclusive emphasis on copulation under any circumstances—with mutual consent as the only proviso, the “renewal of the marriage covenant” places the emphasis on the marriage covenant and the meaning and the challenge it offers from the wedding day till death parts the spouses. I think that’s exactly what the Pope was saying in 1994. At the least, it offers educators the opportunity to teach these things in a way that can be easily understood and remembered.
For more information on the covenant theology of sexuality, read Sex and the Marriage Covenant.
John F. Kippley