Amoris Laetitia and the ‘racy’ footnote from Thomas Aquinas that you’ve never read before


It’s in the paragraph where the pope talks about the quantity and quality of sexual relations between husband and wife.

I couldn’t help but smile at the zeal with which my friend Paola sent me a link to an article by Dominican priest Christian M. Steiner, titled “The scandalous side of Amoris Laetitia: a racy footnote in Latin.”

“My goodness!” I said to myself, “and I thought I’d read all the footnotes! Let’s see what he’s talking about…”

It turned out to be the terse footnote 145, included in Latin without any translation (just like all the others). I re-read it, amazed at my own lack of amazement upon my first reading: yes, it’s true that St. Thomas Aquinas is completely free of complexes, and therefore, when he talks about sexuality, he does it with a serene clarity with which he could be expounding upon a theorem of geometry … but it’s also true that, in general, we are not used to hearing people talk about sex in these terms. The proof is found in the pope’s apostolic exhortation itself, which—in the very paragraph containing the footnote (paragraph number 148)—says:

Training in the areas of emotion and instinct is necessary, and at times this requires setting limits. Excess, lack of control, or obsession with a single form of pleasure can end up weakening and tainting that very pleasure [144] and damaging family life. A person can certainly channel his passions in a beautiful and healthy way, increasingly pointing them towards altruism and an integrated self-fulfillment that can only enrich interpersonal relationships in the heart of the family. This does not mean renouncing moments of intense enjoyment, [145] but rather integrating them with other moments of generous commitment, patient hope, inevitable weariness and struggle to achieve an ideal. Family life is all this, and it deserves to be lived to the fullest.

What is the pope referring to? You won’t notice if you’re not paying attention while you read, but he’s talking about the quantity and quality of conjugal relations: “pleasure,” “passions,” and the prim and proper paraphrase “only one type of pleasure” are intended to refer to the exercise of spousal sexuality; “moments of intense enjoyment,” in turn, seems to allude more particularly to the culminating moment of the conjugal embrace. Certainly, it is more poetic and elegant than “orgasm,” and in the end, there’s no need to rush to accuse the pope of having sugar-coated the terminology: the text was written in Spanish, and the word gozo—like the Latin word gaudium—is an appropriate word for expressing sensual pleasure (corresponding to the Italian word gioia, although the meaning of the word has become a bit spiritualized …).

And behold: right where he says that curbing the libido “does not imply renouncing” fulfilling conjugal intimacy, the reference to St. Thomas (the theologian most cited in the document) appears:

145 The exceeding pleasure attaching to a venereal act directed according to reason, is not opposed to the mean of virtue. (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 153, a. 2, ad 2).

Anyone who frequents the pages of the Doctor Angelicus knows that a short sentence as simple as this one is often surrounded by equally interesting qualifications and explanations. Therefore, I went to dig in the Summa, which showed me that, in the passage in question, Thomas was responding to two objections: from Aristotle—who observed that when people make love, they cannot think about anything “lofty,” due to the excess of pleasure; and from St. Jerome—who, in turn, confirmed this, specifying that the ancient biblical prophets were never touched by the Spirit of prophecy while they were engaged in intimacy with their wives (Ah, the Summa, such interesting reading!). And therefore, St. Thomas explains the matter thus:

Reply to Objection 2. As stated above, the mean of virtue depends not on quantity but on conformity [of people and actions] 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.

After the joke (really, it was a joke!), Thomas turns serious, and adds:

That venereal concupiscence and pleasure are not subject to the command and moderation of reason, is due to the punishment of the first sin [original sin – translator’s note], inasmuch as the reason, for rebelling against God, deserved that its body should rebel against it, as Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xiii, 13).

Similarly, another text referenced by the pope in the exhortation is equally interesting (although is not quoted directly, not even in Latin). In that text, Thomas warns us against what today is called “sexual anorexia”:

Bodily goods are conditioned by a certain fixed measure: wherefore surfeit [Latin: superexcessus] of such things destroys the proper good, and consequently [the thing initially desired — translator’s note] gives rise to disgust and sorrow, through being contrary to the proper good of man. (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 32, a. 7, ad 3).

It seems that if people today were to become a bit friendlier with St. Thomas, many of those chatterboxes who pass themselves off as “sexologists” would end up without work.

Translated from Aleteia’s Italian edition.

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