Michael Hannon does a very good job explaining the hard teaching about the order of sexually continent and and sexually active friendships – namely, that the former are more perfect than the latter. This is knowable by reason but only becomes practically feasible in religious communities (not just Christian ones, though these seem to be the only institutional strongholds for such perfect friendships in the West).
I have nothing to add to the parts of the essay I agree with, which leaves me with the only following paragraph to blog about:
The marital act itself provides a particularly clear illustration of such dis-integration [of a life consecrated to God]. Despite celebrity chastity speakers’ insistence to the contrary, sex isn’t the ultimate preview of the beatific vision but a distraction from it. Otherwise we would have a Mormon or Muslim heaven to look forward to, when instead Our Lord assures us that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” This is what St. Thomas Aquinas means when he compares sex to sleep. Neither of these activities is immoral, but both place real limitations on our beatitude in this life. By absorbing us in lower things, sex and slumber temporarily incapacitate our rational powers, which are our highest human powers and our most godlike powers. That is why chaste* friendship is even better than sexual union: because it is totally ordered to the best things without diversions from below.
Hannon and I agree that chaste* friendships are better and more perfect, but I disagree with the reason he gives for it. He argues this arises because sex temporarily distracts us from the exercise of our most God-like powers. I think this is an inadequate rationale and that a better one can be found in the essential exclusivity of sexual activity, which by its nature cannot be shared with many. Chaste friendships are more perfect because they are more communicable, and all such things are more perfect, ceteris paribus.
Hannon cites St. Thomas’s comparison of sex to sleep. I’m not sure which text he has in mind, but the following one from ST. II-II 153.2 ad 2 is instructive. To set it up, St. Thomas is responding to the following objection:
Whatever incapacitates the use of reason is sinful
Sexual pleasure, because of its physical intensity, incapacitates the use of reason.
the mean of virtue depends not on quantity but on conformity with right reason: and consequently the exceeding pleasure attaching to a venereal act directed according to reason, is not opposed to the mean of virtue. Moreover, virtue is not concerned with the amount of pleasure experienced by the external sense, as this depends on the disposition of the body; what matters is how much the interior appetite is affected by that pleasure. Nor does it follow that the act in question is contrary to virtue, from the fact that the free act of reason in considering spiritual things is incompatible with the aforesaid pleasure. For it is not contrary to virtue, if the act of reason be sometimes interrupted for something that is done in accordance with reason, else it would be against virtue for a person to set himself to sleep.
St. Thomas’s response is therefore that the objection commits a fallacy of equivocation: the way in which sexual activity incapacitates reason – and therefore is contrary to reason – is not the way in which “being contrary to reason” means “sinful” the relevant sense. If it were, says STA, then sleep would be sinful. But this seems to give us a reason to think that STA’s reason for comparing sex to sleep is precisely to deny the sort of reason Hannon is giving, or perhaps to give us no indication of whether we are talking about moral imperfections. All we are told is that the way in which sex and sleeping distract from the exercise of our godlike powers are not ways which are contrary to the exercise of these powers in the sense we are targeting moral value.
Hannon certainly is clear that marriage is no sin, and so the above argument might seem beside the point. There are perhaps some moral imperfections that are not sinful. But either St. Thomas’s argument includes imperfections or it doesn’t: if the first, then Hannon’s argument fails; if the second, he can’t use it to make his point.
My thesis is that chaste friendship, as friendship, is more perfect than sexual friendship because it is more communicable. Let’s start with the locus classicus of sexual friendship: Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife. First given in Genesis 2:24, it is the defining account of marriage and therefore of sexual union, given by Christ himself (Mt. 19:5 Mk. 10:7) and by Paul in Ephesians 5:21. Notice that there are two elements in the account: the spousal intimacy of “cleaving to his wife” and also a leaving the father and mother. The establishment of the marriage relationship involves a breaking of another relationship, which is poignantly symbolized in the act of the father giving his daughter away, and which Christ speaks of when he says that in the resurrection persons neither marry nor are given in marriage.
The sexual relationship is more clearly exclusive in the sense that it cannot be shared with many persons, but only with one. This is exactly what marital fidelity consists in: to be faithful to one is inseparable from a rejection of all others. It’s unique to marital friendship that it is essentially private, so much so that even the depiction of its definitive act is essentially contrary to what sex is. Sex is obscene in the etymological sense: ob-scena is something that has to happen off-stage. Judith Reismann has amassed an impressive amount of evidence in favor of the idea that sexuality is of its very essence a private activity, and an attempt to make it common – whether by exercise or depiction – is a gross violation of its intrinsic structure.
This essential exclusivity and therefore hiddenness of sexual intimacy is one reason why it is such a good symbol of Christ and his church (cf. Eph. 5:25) The incarnation is a paradigm case of leaving the father so as to establish a union that is hidden from the world, and which picks out those who are in the Church to the exclusion of all others.
But this note of exclusivity makes it impossible for marriage to be an ideal friendship qua friendship. Friendship – and this is the whole argument underlying my thesis – is essentially the sharing of a common good among persons, and a relationship that has no intrinsic exclusion of persons is more common and communicable than one that has such an exclusion. In this sense marriage will always be less perfect than what is enjoyed by Monks, friars, soldiers in a platoon, or even members of a corporation.
When we shift from considering the communicability of friendship to its object, then a different sort of order arises among friendships. Those ordered to God are more perfect than those ordered to the transcendent, those ordered to the transcendent are more perfect than those ordered to the national or civic, and those ordered to any noble good at all are better than those organized for pleasure or acquiring material goods. But it is on this level that a consideration of matrimony becomes so interesting, since if we consider it as a natural good it is the least of all societies (the civic union is far more perfect) but in the order of grace it has been elevated to a sacrament, that is, a tangible sign that confers unity with the divine life. Christ could have, one supposes, elevated kingship or some other sort of political power to the level of a sacrament, but he chose the lowest, least perfect political union (the family) to be a conduit of the highest possible common good, that is, the life of God. Consecrated life, to be sure, has this same object, and it remains more perfect than marriage for the reason given above. But to leave it at this is either to overlook the sacramental character of marriage or the fact that sacraments as such incorporate us into the divine life.
*Hannon calls them chaste, but he no doubt meant to say “continent”. Chastity is just right reason in sexual activity, not abstinence from it.