A June 2008 issue of Time magazine carried a story titled, “And God Said, ‘Just Do It,’” which noted the recent explosion in popular Protestant books encouraging married couples to have more and better sex. Now, Catholics have their own guide, written by Gregory Popcak, MSW, PhD in pastoral counseling, popular author, and radio show host. Popcak’s book is notable for its combination of adherence to traditional Catholic teaching and its focus on helping couples find a sexual practice that is both unitive and pleasurable.
Popcak’s use of the term “infallible” in the otherwise racy title of this book is meant to assure readers that everything he recommends fits within the Catholic tradition. He strictly adheres to that tradition, quoting liberally from John Paul II’s theology of the body and ruling out contraception as well any sex outside heterosexual marriage. Beyond openness to life, he claims that couples must adhere to only one rule: they “may do whatever they wish as long as both feel loved and respected and the marital act ends with the man climaxing inside the woman,” (193). Everything else can be left to the judgment of each couple. A variety of sexual positions, oral sex, sexual toys, and role playing are all judged permissible as long as couples follow the “one rule.” Like other religious sexual gurus, Popcak encourages sex that is both moral and pleasurable.
However, Popcak’s account offers something that some many popular sexual guides lack: a consistent focus on the spiritual and relational context for good sex. He makes a clear distinction between purely erotic sex (focusing solely on pleasure) and intimate sex (expressing love through the giving and receiving of pleasure). He calls spouses to love their mates as they need to be loved all day long, working for the good of the other, and striving for ever-increasing intimacy (178). To those who express a lack of desire, he offers a challenge to work on intimacy rather than waiting for arousal. Love in daily life and sexual life are not to be left to chance but are to be pursued with energy and fidelity. This sort of love is spiritual, says Popcak, for when spouses express and receive love, God’s love for them is made present.
The book’s deficiencies are not in its general perspective or recommendations, but in its style and theological method. The style of the book is meant to be accessible, but while Popcak often succeeds at clearly expressing the depth and wisdom of the tradition, his frequent use of quizzes, lists, recipes, and slang detract from the power of his message.
Methodologically, the book is less than satisfactory. The Catholic tradition is treated as a monolith that has always wanted the faithful to have lots of mind-blowing sex. Critics of the tradition are dismissed as uninformed, quotes from historical sources are used selectively, and development of the tradition is rarely acknowledged. While the book rightly celebrates the contemporary valuing sexual love, Popcak would do well to admit that his book would have been scandalous in earlier eras. In addition, the defense of NFP which is central to the book is strong its in description of how NFP can function as a spiritual practice in the lives of married couples, but weak when it characterizes contraception as a practice chosen out of “fear, marital problems, selfishness, laziness, ignorance, and immaturity,” that makes healthy and moral living nearly impossible (186). The majority of Catholic couples who choose contraception deserve a more complex analysis. The book is not recommended as a classroom text.
However, married couples seeking to deepen their sexual relationship may find wisdom in Holy Sex. Popcak makes a great contribution to Catholic theology by articulating how sex is good. He rightly describes sex as a sacramental act that makes us holy, unites, creates, and is a sign of God’s love. He helpfully encourages couples to progress along a continuum to “Holy Sex-Lovemaking as Spiritually Active Way to Connect with the Divine,” (83). Yet, sometimes the book reads more like a secular sexual manual than a text devoted to teaching couples how best to live out their commitment to Christian discipleship. Much neglected is the wisdom of theologians like David Matzko McCarthy and Richard Gaillardetz, who speak eloquently of the importance of the many other ways in which Christians practice love in their daily lives in and outside of the home, and remind us of the ordinariness of sexual relationships which are not always mind-blowing and, given the reality of human brokenness, rarely infallible. If readers keep these excesses in mind, they can profit from the book’s theological teaching and practical advice.