Swimming the Tiber 19: The Sacraments: Marriage

I hope everyone is having a blessed Lent! (I thought about making an interlude post on the subject, but such an interruption would make no sense to people reading the series from start to finish, and talking about such things may fit in better at another time. Oh, well.)

For there is nothing stronger and better than this, that a man and a woman keep their household working in unity of thought: this is a great pain to their enemies, but a delight to their friends, and it is their very greatest source of glory.

– Odysseus in Homer, The Odyssey 6.182-185 (my translation)

May God bless your marriage; may the devil fear it; and may the rest of us be blessed by it.

– Me, 18 June 2016

Last year, I was fortunate enough to be the best man at my brother’s wedding. The highlight of my speech (for me, because I’m a nerd, but possibly not for anyone else) was the quote from Homer’s Odyssey above. This quote, like 1 Corinthians 13, talks about interpersonal love in poetic terms. It is tempting for a pragmatist like myself to say, “That’s just poetry; real life is hard.” But poetry like this moves us because it does describe reality–an ideal reality, one which we hope to achieve, and one which most of us do not have today, but the reality nevertheless.

And yes, real life is hard, but mostly because we make it hard through sin. We, as sinners, cause problems not only in our own lives, but in the lives of our family–and especially in the lives of our spouses. After all, a married couple is no longer two, but now one flesh (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5-6; Mark 10:8; 1 Corinthians 6:16). A husband and wife are still two persons, but mystically, they are united before God and men. This union is for life (Matthew 19:6 again; Mark 10:9). As a result of this union, a man and woman are bound to each other for as long as the union lasts (“until death do us part”).

This union has certain benefits and drawbacks. The drawbacks are that a husband and wife are beholden to each other; their concerns are for each other first. (See 1 Corinthians 7.) In this way, too, sin by one affects the union, and both suffer for it. The benefits are a great blessing of grace (it is a sacrament, after all) for obedience to the first commandment of God (Genesis 1:28) and the joy and blessing of fulfilling and representing the union of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33).

Over the years, and most especially in the past hundred or so, folks have often complained about some of the verses I’ve referenced. Most especially, 1 Corinthians 11:3-15; Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18; and 1 Peter 3:1-6 seem to be very offensive to people. There are a few important things to consider here, in increasing order of importance:

  1. The context of the New Testament includes a patriarchal society where women had very few, if any, “rights.” These statements are not surprising in this context. (This does not negate the teaching. Remember that this point is the least important.)
  2. Humility is a virtue (Psalm 25:9; 37:11; 69:32; 76:9; Proverbs 6:3; 11:2; 16:19; 29:23; Zephaniah 2:3; Matthew 18:4; 23:12; James 4:6, 10; 1 Peter 5:5-6). This is not an admonition, just a reminder. (We’re still not to super-important.)
  3. Men are not told to be less humble toward their wives. Consider 1 Corinthians 11:11-12; Ephesians 5:21, 25-33; Colossians 3:19; and 1 Peter 3:7. Mostly consider the Ephesians quote, because the others don’t help my point as much. A husband ought to treat his wife as Christ treats the Church: that is, love her even in her sin (see Hosea 1 and following), give himself up for her completely (holding nothing back), and die for her (Romans 5:8).
  4. (Hint: here’s the super-important one.) Subordination does not imply lesser value or importance. For we know that Christ is subordinate to the Father (Luke 22:27, 41-42; John 5:19-24; 6:37-40; 7:16; 14:28; 1 Corinthians 11:3; 15:28; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 10:5-9), but we also know that he is God (John 1:1-3; 8:16-19, 57-58; 10:27-38; Philippians 2:6; Colossians 1:13-20; 2:9-10; Hebrews 1:8-12). Do you say that, because of his subordination, he is objectively inferior? That he lacks the value, the importance of God? That they are not of the same nature? Only heretics say such things.

So men and women are equal in nature and before the eyes of God (Galatians 3:27-28). We are all human persons in Christ.

It is this equality that is the basis for the “Theology of the Body,” the subject of over one hundred sermons given by Pope St. John Paul II between 1979 and 1984. These sermons have been collected into books, annotated, abbreviated, explained, and otherwise discussed quite broadly (search “Theology of the Body” on Amazon for examples, including a compilation of those sermons). But before those sermons–before, indeed, he was Pope, and he was just Auxiliary Bishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, in 1960–he published Miłość i Odpowiedzialność (Love and Responsbility); this was first translated into English in 1981, and it’s how I was introduced to the Catholic philosophy of personalism.

Personalism, as a Catholic philosophy, states essentially that we are all persons, and we should act as such. In the context of the Theology of the Body, adhering to personalism means treating our spouses as complete human persons and not as objects for our utility. We consider not only how a person may serve us, but especially how we may serve them; not only how they may give to us, but how we may give to them.

You have probably heard marriage advice like this before, at least in broad terms (“Put each other first,” “Don’t think only of yourself,” etc.). The challenge arises when you extend this to every part of your married life. In the first place, I mean your commitment to marriage; in the second, I mean your sexual life.

“Oh, no!” you may say, “Here it comes. This is the part where you tell me it’s a sin to use contraception. Typical Catholic.”

Well, I certainly hope that is typical of Catholics, although a couple of organizations founded by prominent political opponents to Catholic teaching try to say otherwise. But I’ll get to that shortly. First things first.

Marriage is for life. Scripture is pretty clear on this point. Recall again Matthew 19:8-9 and Mark 10:5-9; see also Malachi 2:13-16 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11. Divorce is not a natural part of the plan, and does not fit with what God says that marriage is and should be. I’m not going to dive into all of the reasons for divorce now (more on that much later), but the short version is this: anyone who argues that a marriage should end because “we’re just too different” or “we just don’t love each other anymore” is not treating their spouse as a person, but merely an object for emotional use. If you spend time with your spouse and it makes you feel good, then excellent; but if you don’t keep getting the same good feelings from your spouse, and you decide you’ve “fallen out of love,” then you did not love them (i.e., want the best for them), but you enjoyed the positive emotions you got before and do not get now.

That is to say, marriage is not about getting good feelings, or even necessarily about being “happy.” Marriage is a sacrament and an institution designed to represent God’s love on earth, between imperfect people who still live for each other, sacrifice for each other, serve each other. Allowing your emotions to control you is to be driven about at the mercy of the wind. Marriage is a commitment that, if done right, will make you eternally holier–but it is not designed to make you temporally happier. Being more righteous and closer to God will, inevitably, bring you joy, but you can’t expect your emotional state not to fluctuate a little, and marriage comes with stress and responsibility. This is because you’re working with a person, seeking the good of a person, striving to better yourself and another person; you’re not feeding coins into a happiness vending machine.

If that sounds unromantic, I warned you: I’m a pragmatist. Good romance is a good thing insofar as it pushes us to renew our commitment and strive to be a better reflection of God’s love for us; romance is decidedly unromantic if it encourages us to pursue nothing but good feelings. (If it helps your opinion of me, I wrote a poem and got roses and lit candles when I proposed to my wife.)

Now, to the second topic: your marital sexuality and how personalism perfects it.

First, let’s quickly get out of the way the historical argument: supporting contraception is pretty new to Protestantism. All Christians opposed contraception until the Anglicans started that revolution in the 1930 Lambeth Conference. (Perfunctory slippery slope fallacy of the day: More recently, much of the Anglican Communion now supports having actively homosexual priests.) If you want to keep to the faith of your fathers, give up contraception.

But if you’re a modern Protestant, you’re probably saying, “Hey, I think for myself, and I came to all of my religious conclusions by studying Scripture on my own. There’s nothing in Scripture that condemns contraception!”

Well, we know that children are a blessing from God (Psalm 127:3-5, et al). And what about the story of Onan (Genesis 38:6-10)? He clearly acted in a way (coitus interruptus, in another use of Latin-as-euphemism) with the explicit intention of preventing pregnancy. Of course, the story of Onan is dismissed by supporters of contraception on the grounds that when he did it, his intentions were bad (he didn’t want to share his inheritance), but when modern Christians do it, their intentions are good (preventing overpopulation or poverty or something). I mean, saying, “I have $100, but if a child is born of my wife, I will need to spend that money on the child,” is nothing at all like what Onan was thinking, right?


Oh, wait.

Let’s look closer at the personalism angle. We can only be treated as persons when we are accepted wholly as persons, and no part of us is used as an object. But contraception divides the person into parts, making it possible to use one part (sexual organs) without another part (fertility). By using contraceptives in marriage, a husband withholds his fertility from his wife, or a wife her fertility from her husband; their marital embrace is not a union into one flesh, but a utility of one another’s flesh for pleasure.

There are a few important caveats to run through here:

  1. Yes, you are allowed to enjoy the marital embrace. Pleasure is one of its ends. But marriage is naturally unitive and procreative, and contraception cuts both of those short in favor of merely pleasure.
  2. No, not every marital embrace must result in a child. To be procreative means to be open to the possibility, not trying to achieve it. In the same way, naturally infertile couples are not sinning by making love, nor is it a sin to make love during times of natural infertility (as determined by the woman’s menstrual cycle or after menopause). We can be open to pregnancy even when we know it is exceedingly unlikely.

In relation to that second point, it’s also important to point out that the Catholic Church does not enforce the approach of so-called “quiverfull Christians.”1 (It doesn’t declare it immoral, necessarily, but it doesn’t do the opposite, either.) Natural family planning (NFP) is a valid method to avoid and achieve pregnancy, with one important consideration: Catholics must have “serious reasons,” based on their circumstances, to avoid pregnancy. (This includes, for example, an inability to clothe or feed the child.)2

(If you’re curious about the science and success of NFP, my wife and I were once a teaching couple for the Couple-to-Couple League and are current users of the Billings Ovulation Method. Reach out to me/us, or to those organizations. There are also several other methods available, such as Creighton, Northwest Family Services, and more! If you’re a woman, there’s an entire forum of NFP-using women that can help.)

This has been a short-short-short introduction to personalism and marital love. (Love and Responsibility is over 300 pages and the print is kinda small.) Remember the progression to get here: Scripture says that we are all equal persons before God (Galatians 3:28); Scripture says that, in marriage, the two become one flesh (Genesis 2:24) in a holy union (Ephesians 5:31-32) that cannot be separated (Matthew 19:6); if we are all equal persons, and marriage is supposed to unify us so completely that it makes one flesh from two, we should never treat each other as objects for use, but as whole persons in Christ. That’s the simple summary, and if you have more questions, I really recommend you explore how personalism relates to marriage more deeply.

I think that about does it for this week. I was originally thinking I’d split this into multiple posts, but when I decided to move my thoughts on divorce to a later section and not delve into any specifics on NFP (this is meant to be a theoretical overview of Catholic theology, not necessarily a practical guide), I reduced it to one long post. So now, instead of another post on marriage next week, I’ll be going straight to the sacrament of Holy Orders (that is, the ordination of priests). Like baptism and confirmation (and like marriage if you’re the first spouse to die), Holy Orders can only be received once. I probably won’t talk about the form of it too much; just the controversy! Huzzah!

1 This is a movement of mostly Protestant Christians. The term comes from Psalm 127:5. The defining characteristic of this movement is that one ought to strive to have as many children as possible. The Duggars (of “19 Kids and Counting” fame) exhibit a similar ideology, although they have stated explicitly (in their second book) that they are not associated with the movement itself.
2 Full quote: “With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.” (Humanae Vitae 10)

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