Should We Bag the Term “Conjugal Act”? A Response to Maureen Mullarkey
December 31, 2014 [Lightly revised 1/6/15]
Dr. Mark S. Latkovic
Author and artist Maureen Mullarkey has a real problem with the term “conjugal act” (see “Killing Sex to Save It,” http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/mullarkey/2014/12/killing-sex-to-save-it): “The conjugal act. I wince when I hear that phrase or see it in print. It is a wooden expression that trumpets discomfort with sexual expression, even distaste. A standard textbook phrase, it reduces marital sexuality to genital activity and an exchange of body fluids.* The shrinkage [Do I detect a pun?] is subtle but real.” There’s more – that’s just from the first paragraph – but you get the picture. Unfortunately, the usually sensible (and always provocative) Mullarkey is all wrong on this one. For one, the term is a perfectly good one, having a long history in the Church – St. Augustine wrote a remarkable book titled De bono coniugali (“On the Good of Marriage”; see Cormac Burke’s excellent, “St. Augustine and Conjugal Sexuality,” http://www.churchinhistory.org/pages/booklets/augustine.htm) – and used quite appropriately in bringing out the personalist aspect of human sexuality. Would she prefer “marital act” or “spousal embrace” or some such substitute? The term describes exactly what the act is without pretense to describing the whole nature of married life or conjugal love (I guess we could also say the “marital sexual act” or the “marital procreative act,” but that would be quite clumsy!). St. John Paul II, certainly no prude, used the term often and in ways that emphasized the beauty, humanness, and yes holiness of the act when done for its appropriate ends (See his pre-papal Love and Responsibility and his “Theology of the Body”). So too did Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Bl. Paul VI. Finally, we still use the term “conjugal visits” in our courts and prison systems. People know what the term means. So I’m fine with it (For more on the meaning of the conjugal act, see William E. May, “The Communion of Persons in Marriage and the Conjugal Act,” http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/may/communionofpersons.htm).
*Of course marital sexuality is more than “genital activity and an exchange of bodily fluids.” But it also includes those things and they are not merely biological, but personal. Do I detect, then, just a bit of Manicheanism here in what is a plea for a less (at least in Mullarkey’s view) Manichean way of describing sex in the Catholic Church?