How to Bring the Virgin Mary Into Your (Sex) Life

Kathleen Reeves

There's a lot to laugh about in the Catholic sex prayer, but there's also something serious here.

A new book of prayers for married couples, published by a British Catholic group, includes a pre-intercourse prayer:

Father, send your Holy Spirit into our hearts. Place within us love that truly gives, tenderness that truly unites, self-offering that tells the truth and does not deceive, forgiveness that truly receives, loving physical union that welcomes.

Open our hearts to you, to each other and to the goodness of your will. Cover our poverty in the richness of your mercy and forgiveness. Clothe us in true dignity and take to yourself our shared aspirations, for your glory, forever and ever. Mary, our mother, intercede for us. Amen.

There’s a lot to laugh at, as Ed Brayton points out in his parsing of the prayer. But his final joke gets at something serious:

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The Catholics have done enough for sex by A) making it dirty and naughty, and B) giving us the schoolgirl costume. God bless ’em.

This prayer might actually be an attempt to make sex "less dirty and naughty," or, at least, an attempt by the Church to relate to sex in a more positive way. The prayer is only intended for married couples, of course (though I doubt it is meant to include certain married couples in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa), and the Catholic Church has always sanctioned married love—including married sex—even if they don’t always make a point of discussing it. But this prayer is notably forward; a British Bishop calls its inclusion “brave but good.”

The prayer reminds me of the debate in other Christian faiths over the way sex should be talked about. Margaret Talbot’s important New Yorker piece from last November, “Red Sex, Blue Sex,” considered the argument, by a (precious) few in the Evangelical community, that if the church is serious about the sacredness of married love, it should encourage its faithful to think about sex in a healthier way, even if sex is, for the time being, off limits:

The savvy young Christian writer Lauren Winner, in her book “Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity,” writes, “Rather than spending our unmarried years stewarding and disciplining our desires, we have become ashamed of them. We persuade ourselves that the desires themselves are horrible. This can have real consequences if we do get married.” Teenagers and single adults are “told over and over not to have sex, but no one ever encourages” them “to be bodily or sensual in some appropriate way”—getting to know and appreciate what their bodies can do through sports, especially for girls, or even thinking sensually about something like food . . .“the church ought to cultivate ways of teaching Christians to live in their bodies well—so that unmarried folks can still be bodily people, even though they’re not having sex, and so that married people can give themselves to sex freely.”

Can a religion be sex-positive if it limits sex to married, heterosexual couples? I don’t think so. But trying to untangle sex from shame is a good step for Evangelicals or Catholics to take. The pre-sex prayer may or may not do that. What do you think? Is the prayer a silly red herring? Or is it a step toward greater sexual awareness?

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