What is the point of the marriage bed? Can sexual pleasure be intentionally separated from creating new life and still nurture authentic intimacy between spouses? What does making a complete gift of self to one’s spouse mean? These are questions explored in Catholic theology—and in Netflix’s new, popular costume drama Bridgerton. When I sat down to watch Shonda Rhimes’ new show, created by Chris Van Dusen and based on historical fiction by Julia Quinn, I anticipated a Regency-era setting with great ballroom scenes. I wasn’t wrong, but Jane Austen it certainly is not. (In fact, its explicit sexual content is enough to merit caution in whether to view this series at all or to completely avoid it.) What I did not expect was for a soapy TV show—one not marketed for its commitment to traditional sexual morality—to highlight themes of sexual ethics that are so consistent with Church teaching. Intentionally or not, Bridgerton raises thought-provoking questions and stumbles onto truths about marriage and contraception that run on surprisingly Catholic rails.
(Caution: spoilers ahead!) Bridgerton is a romp through early-nineteenth-century London beginning with young Daphne Bridgerton’s presentation to society and her journey to the altar. After dramatic twists and turns, Daphne falls for Simon Basset, the aloof Duke of Hastings, who is determined to never marry. The drama drives the two young people together, and even after the Duke informs Daphne that he cannot sire children, she still decides to marry him, giving up her dreams of being a mother. For several episodes, it’s par for the course for historically inaccurate television drama, but then things get more interesting as the plot raises questions about the significance of marriage, sexual pleasure, and procreation.
On their honeymoon, Daphne is confused to discover that the Duke’s inability to give her children is not—as she anticipated, given his vague explanations of sterility—related to a physical impediment. What she learns only later is that Simon, at his cruel, lineage-obsessed father’s deathbed, had made a vow to himself that the Hasting line would die with him. In contracepting by withdrawal, the Duke intends to keep this vow, separating the young couple’s sexual intimacy from the possibility of new life. Daphne, ignorant of the details of procreation, does not understand that her husband is intentionally preventing her from becoming pregnant. She wistfully closes the door to their estate’s nursery room each time she walks by, grieving the loss of her motherhood and the family life she desired. Once she comes to understand that the sterility of their marriage bed is intentional and rooted in vengeance, she is devastated. She feels robbed of the fullness of married life, and the newlywed’s relationship quickly crumbles. It is not only her sorrow over the lack of much-desired children that grieves her—she had accepted that before their marriage, after all. It is not even her husband’s deception, which, though infuriating, could be forgiven if they could only begin again. What Daphne cannot accept is the fact that the one she loves would continue to refuse to offer the gift of his whole self. “That is not love!” she claims of their faux intimacy.
Bridgerton is a surprising examination of the importance of maintaining the unitive and procreative aspects of the marital act. By deliberately withholding their fertility, spouses might still experience pleasure, but not the full gift of self that the intimacy of married love calls us to.
Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, written at the advent of the sexual revolution and society’s embrace of artificial contraception, has been unfairly cited by many as proof that the Church is “old-fashioned,” “repressive,” and “rigid” on sexual questions. But the truth of the matter is that the Church’s rejection of contraception originates from a beautiful vision for human sexuality that is holistic—as in, whole. In his 1994 Letter to Families (Gratissimam Sane), Pope St. John Paul II explained that “the two dimensions of conjugal union, the unitive and the procreative, cannot be artificially separated without damaging the deepest truth of the conjugal act itself.” Supporting the use of natural family planning, the Church does not claim that couples are obligated to have as many children as humanly possible. But if sex is indeed an image of the love between Christ and his Bride, the Church, then married love is designed to be an intimate self-gift with the potential to co-create with God and give life.
Until the Hastings are able to embrace both the unitive and procreative dimensions of sexuality, they are prevented from experiencing the fullness of what their marriage vows call them to. They are holding each other at arms’ length. Daphne knows that their marriage bed is a lie and prefers a separation, rather than continuing the charade. Our culture, however, often lacks her insight. Sexual intercourse and begetting children are seen as entirely unrelated activities. You can have either without the other—a supposed advancement for humanity. However, after separating sex from procreation, we seem more confused than ever, as a society, about what sex is actually for.
The Hastings are kept apart from full intimacy by the Duke’s bizarre vow to take revenge on his evil parent—certainly not a common motivation for twenty-first-century couples’ choice to contracept! But as the characters’ motivations are revealed in Bridgerton, there is something deeper at work in Simon that many can relate to: a very valid fear of parenthood. After Simon’s mother dies in childbirth and his unloving and absent father viciously rejects him for struggling with a stutter as a toddler, Simon is terrified of the kind of vulnerability that marriage and fatherhood require. Would he merely repeat the past? Would he be wounded again? Daphne, who comes from a large, close-knit family cannot understand his trepidation. How could he deny them happiness for the sake of a petty vow? But Simon, traumatized by abuse and abandonment, struggles to let even his beloved wife inside the walls he has put up as protection against further rejection. He sets up a fortress against the one person who could offer the acceptance he craves. In The Four Loves, Anglican writer C.S. Lewis argues that “to love is to be vulnerable” and to avoid a broken heart, you must carefully lock up love “in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.” Simon follows this advice, but on a deeper level, his selfishness is really self-preservation and the debilitating fear of wounding others.
Often selfishness is cited as the reason younger generations are running from parenthood. The narrative is that they want expensive vacations, fancy cars, couches without animal-cracker crumbs in between the cushions, and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. While that may be true in some cases, perhaps (particularly in light of generations reared in broken families) the real culprit is fear. Whether it be a childhood of abuse or neglect (like Simon’s), feelings of unworthiness, feeling overwhelmed by the suffering in the world, lack of resources and financial crisis, or the terror of vulnerability, any of these fears can hold us back from being open to life.
As a mother of four who converted to Catholicism after the birth of my first child, I have experienced marriage both ways—contracepting and then embracing Church teaching. I understand the struggles and the sacrifice that come when we refuse to separate sex from procreation, the very real complexities of natural family planning, and the difficult discernment necessary for faithful couples. None of it is easy, and we do no one any favors by pretending it is. But the only thing that can overcome our fear of the unknown, the potential loss of our future plans, and ceaseless vulnerability is the love God models for us—a complete gift of self. To reveal his love to his creatures, God demonstrates the most reckless vulnerability in history by embracing humanity in its weakest, smallest form in order to let us know him intimately—even though he will be wounded, rejected, mocked, and murdered. To love is to be vulnerable. The Incarnation and the Crucifixion tell us so.
Thankfully for the Hastings, Simon chooses not to keep his heart locked up in the coffin of his selfishness and fear. Instead, strengthened by his wife’s compassion for his childhood trauma and pain, he sets out on the mad, courageous adventure of being a husband and father. With the gift of a newborn child held in their arms, expanding their hearts, knitting them even closer together, Daphne and Simon become an image of generous love that was waiting for them all along.
While Bridgerton is not a recommended watch for everyone due to the abundance of explicit content (and, word to the wise, the episodes get more explicit as the show moves forward, not less), its truly moving and illuminating view of marriage and fertility reveals that valuable inklings of truth about sex and love can show up in the most unlikely of places—even the latest soapy binge on Netflix.