Older Catholics: We need to talk about our sex lives
“Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made.”
– Robert Browning
“Let’s talk about sex, baby”
Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” writes that the sacrament of marriage “involves a series of obligations born of love itself, a love so serious and generous that it is ready to face any risk” (No. 131). After four decades of marriage, I get that. My husband and I have seriously and generously faced all sorts of obligations and risks that have challenged and graced us, broken and bonded us. We have even just weathered the riskiness of a whole year of looking at only each other’s faces during a global pandemic, and we still like each other.
I was thinking recently about the phrase in Genesis about two becoming “one flesh.” It was sunset, and our two fleshes had just made one. Sunset has become my favorite time to make love because it is an apt metaphor for this late chapter of our lives and because its soft light flatters my flesh. It is also especially sweet because, during much of our marriage, sunset was never a time for love-making, what with four children and activities and jobs and homework and chores and dinnertime and all the rest of it. Love at sunset might have happened on the rare vacation without the kids but was otherwise an impossible dream.
We tried our Catholic best, taking as our guide the unitive and procreative aspects of married sex that the church teaches as inseparable.
During our childbearing years, we tried to be “good Catholics” when we had sex. We charted my cycles and relied on Natural Family Planning to space the births of our children. A few times we sweated out pregnancy scares that turned out to be lateness. We were not perfect, as there were definitely occasions when we joined the large percentage of Catholics who have used other methods of contraception at some point in their lives (see previous mention of rare vacations, the timing of which could conflict with ovulation).
But we tried our Catholic best, taking as our guide the unitive and procreative aspects of married sex that the church teaches as inseparable. We honored our sacrament as “an intimate partnership of life and love,” as the Second Vatican Council described marriage in “Gaudium et Spes” (No. 48). We tended to our marriage like a newly planted garden. We were patient and kind, mostly. We were each other’s loudest cheerleaders. We were a united parental front. We had plenty of trouble and sacrifice, but we stayed lovers and friends. We still are.
Now our nest is empty of its baby birds, and we enjoy this crazy liberty to do whatever we want, whenever we want. Because we are done making babies, we get to indulge in the unitive part of sex without worrying about the procreative. After the years of policing ourselves, this is a delightful bonus. We may not hear any talk about it from the Sunday pulpit, but we are free to make love at sunset, at sunrise, at noon, at night. Sex with someone you know and love is deeply satisfying. At our age it may not be as athletic or as frequent, but it is fulfilling. It is affirming. And it is fun.
Sex with someone you know and love is deeply satisfying. At our age it may not be as athletic or as frequent, but it is fulfilling. It is affirming. And it is fun.
In the past I have referred to marriage as the consolation sacrament, the one you can fall back on when you discern that you do not have a vocation to religious life or the priesthood. It can seem to married people that the church treats sex as an ambiguous duty rather than a sublime gift. “Amoris Laetitia” does its valiant part to elevate marriage to a holy calling. It also assures us of God’s joyful love for us, even if our marriages and families aren’t traditionally configured. It prioritizes the need for mercy and tenderness in our marriages. And it makes us feel that even if we are not impeccably behaved, there is hope for us.
I confess I often feel foolish now when I remember how bound up in the rules of sex we were when we were young, how we parsed and fretted over the official guidelines, how we sometimes felt guilty for giving in to passion. I am grateful to N.F.P. for teaching us, early in our marriage, about respecting each other and appreciating our fertility. Still, the procreative portion of sex commanded a lot more attention than the unitive. Like many married people, we eventually found it more real-life to follow our private, imperfect path. Sometimes we ignored the rules.
Honestly, it can be a little tiring to read what another celibate person has to say about the “nuptial mystery,” to use St. Leo the Great’s delicate, not to mention rather lovely, term for sex. With all due humility and respect, I propose that we long-married folks, with a little nudge from the Holy Spirit, might be the grounded experts at unraveling our own unique blessed nuptial mysteries.
My post-menopausal brain also wonders: If old or infertile couples are permitted the pleasure of unitive sex, why couldn’t all couples in good conscience exercise that option?
My post-menopausal brain also wonders: If old or infertile couples are permitted the pleasure of unitive sex, why couldn’t all couples in good conscience exercise that option? Would that not be in keeping with “the experience of belonging completely to another person,” to refer to “Amoris Laetitia”again (No. 319)?
At sunset, the love we send out into the universe comes back to us and folds us into its warmth. In the twilight afterglow, I imagine writing down the recipe for a solid chance at the Catholic ideal of an “indissoluble” marriage: God. Love. Trust. Romance. Kindness. Kids. A sense of humor. A reliable vacuum cleaner. Sex at sunset.
With these ingredients, two people may find themselves traveling from some fancy vows at an altar to a marriage bed at sunset, with all their hopes and scars and sacred memories to keep them company.