Practical Ideas and Statistics to Make Better Marriages

The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages: The Little Things That Make a Big DifferenceThe Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages: The Little Things That Make a Big Difference by Shaunti Feldhahn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another helpful book from Shaunti Feldhahn. I like almost everything about it: intentional focus on the “bright spots” / successful marriages rather than trying to solve particular problems, statistics, frank presentation of discoveries instead of rhetorical argumentation, and an emphasis on practicality rather than a simple ideal.

Reading this book, you come away with ideas for how to improve your marriage, starting today. (I even took notes!) Mrs. Feldhahn rightly points out that your efforts must be small and deliberate: start with one or two actions and work on them until they become habits; once they are, you can add more.

A common theme in the book–I would argue that, of all the “secrets,” this is the linchpin–is the intentional belief that your spouse actually wants what is best for you, or actually cares about you. Assuming the best (rather than the worst) is crucial to achieving all other aspects of a happy marriage. Even better, this book presents some compelling numbers as to why that belief is well-founded.

The book has a couple of shortcomings. Like many of Mrs. Feldhahn’s works, it is basically a research paper writ large; on the one hand, you get a lot of useful and practical information, but on the other, you get some repetition and poor flow between chapters. Another downside of working with “big data” is that there’s so much of it that it will never fit in one book–so it ends up feeling like Mrs. Feldhahn is trying to sell her website and her other books just because there is more data available.

But the book is easy to read and shorter than it looks (I got through it in about four hours while taking notes and a break for dinner). This is due, in part, to the presence of a subheader or blockquote (in which the text itself is quoted for emphasis) on almost every page. It is also presented for one or both spouses equally, so it lacks some of the “accusatory tone” attributed to For Men Only and For Women Only.

Definitely worth the read for married couples, especially if you feel like your marriage is “just fine” or “mostly good,” but you don’t know how to take it to that next level.

View all my reviews

Swimming the Tiber 37: Pass Interference

I’m going to go ahead and apologize for the title of this post. It’s mostly a sports pun on what I’m going to talk about this week, but it’s probably also my subconscious asserting itself a mere 4.5 weeks before the first kickoff of the college football season this year. So if you’re not a sports person, you probably don’t appreciate it, and if you are a sports person, you’re probably annoyed to be reminded about football when there still isn’t any to watch. Sorry.

Last time, I talked about how Scripture and faithful philosophy teach that you can’t break apart a marriage (not just shouldn’t, but literally can’t). About four months before that, I talked about the sacrament of marriage and, later in that long post, I talked about contraception in brief. Today, I want to summarize those points again, and then go on to talk about some of the other implications here.

From before, let’s recall:

  • Sex must only occur in the context of marriage (otherwise, it’s called “fornication”).
  • Sex in marriage must be unitive and procreative.
  • Pleasure is part of being unitive and is therefore not forbidden.
  • To be procreative does not mean to procreate with every marital act, but to be open to conception (not intentionally striving to abolish God’s design or thwart his intentions).
  • Because we are whole and equal persons before God, we should treat each other as whole persons in sex, too, not as objects to be used for particular purposes.

So we know that contraception is wrong. Any barrier method (e.g., condoms) literally interferes with the marital embrace, physically withholding one spouse’s fertility from the other; this controverts the procreative and the unitive purposes of sex and compels both spouses to use each other as objects instead of treating each other as people. Spermicides provide a chemical barrier (rather than a physical one). Hormonal contraceptives (and all other “medical” contraceptives) take properly functioning organs and inhibit that function;1 that behavior alone should give us pause because medicine is supposed to restore healthy functions, not take them away. There is also, of course, onanism (which I talked about in my first post on marriage), which is both sinful and completely ineffective as a contraception.

“Why is NFP different?” I may hear you asking. At first blush, NFP and contraception seem to work the same way: By working to avoid pregnancy, you’re still contracepting, but you’re just putting lipstick on a pig. It’s not like that, but it can be. Here’s what I mean: Suppose you’re using NFP only to avoid pregnancy without serious reasons to do so, and, when you discover that you have conceived anyway, you’re annoyed by the discovery. Under those circumstances, you’re probably just contracepting with abstinence instead of drugs or barriers.

But that’s not the way it should be. The validity of NFP takes its cues, in part, from 1 Corinthians 7:5 (my translation):

Do not withhold from each other, except out of harmony for a time in order that [you] may devote [yourselves] to prayer and [that you] may be togetherlit. to the same again, in order that Satan may not tempt you on account of your lack of power.

So when we are abstinent (avoiding sex), we should be doing so in a spirit of prayer. Basically, then, this abstinence isn’t contraception, but fasting. When you fast, you pray when you would normally eat and you give what you would normally consume to charity. In the same way, when you abstain, pray with your spouse, do works of charity to show your love for all, and devote yourselves to God and to your family. In this way, abstinence will help your marriage grow and strengthen, instead of fall apart (which is what a contraceptive mentality does because you’re constantly using each other).

Maybe you’re not having this trouble, though. Maybe you and your spouse want children more than just about anything, and you haven’t used contraception once, but you have not been blessed with offspring. When in this difficult position, where you want to follow God’s will for your lives, but it seems like he isn’t holding up his end, there is a great temptation to circumvent the proper marital act in the opposite way. Contraception separates the purposes of marriage (unity and procreation) by seeking to eliminate procreation, but in vitro fertilization (IVF) separates the purposes of marriage by causing procreation without unity.

IVF is immoral in no small part because of “selective reduction”; the artificial implantation process often results in more than one successful pregnancy at the same time, and rather than become an “octo-mom,” many women and doctors choose to “selectively reduce” the number of pregnancies. Another term for this process is abortion.

But even if you use IVF without aborting the “extra” pregnancies, it’s still not okay for the same reason that contraception is not okay: it breaks apart the purposes of marital union. The man is used for his sperm, the woman for her egg, and no one is treated as a whole person.

There are alternatives to IVF, of course, just as there are alternatives to using the Pill as a panacea for “women’s troubles.” NFP, besides being useful for avoiding pregnancy, is also useful for achieving pregnancy. Sometimes it’s as simple as timing things correctly; sometimes, there’s a real medical problem, and NFP-trained doctors familiar with NaProTechnology (especially those at the Pope Paul VI Institute) can provide guidance in correcting hormone imbalances, or they can do surgery to solve endometriosis, for example. Each NFP method can address this, whether with specialized charting, adjusted diets, or medical interventions.

Perhaps one of the most important alternatives to IVF, of course, is adoption. I know, you’ve always wanted babies of your own–but sometimes, the greatest challenge is that making babies wasn’t a vocation you were given. But there are orphans in need of help from loving parents, whether those orphans are infants or not. Sooner or later, we are all called to heroic virtue; discerning God’s call is crucial to living the life he wants for us. Don’t sail to Tarshish when God sends you to Nineveh, and don’t use your spouse as an object in order to acquire children. You may end up treating your children as objects, too, thinking that you deserve them or have earned them because of the hardships in your life, but they are also whole persons.

Treating people as persons is difficult. It’s much easier to view the world through the lens of our own life, our own needs and wants. But God calls us to treat every person in our lives, from our spouse to our children to our parents to complete strangers on the street, as whole persons, not as objects or things with qualities we want to use. In marriage, this means we don’t let anything come between us or divide us, and we don’t use each other for pleasure or for procreation. Visit us again next week when I talk about the most basic of human rights: the right to exist.

Next Post:
The Human Right

1 “But wait! What about women who take the Pill for medical purposes, such as regulating their periods?” Well, here is a randomly chosen secular guide to what birth control pills do. Note a few highlights: It “regulates her cycle,” “combats acne,” and–not mentioned on that site–reduces the risk of cervical cancer. It is also often prescribed for endometriosis and other serious women’s health problems, like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). But the Pill doesn’t help as much as it might seem.

Note in the link that 21 pills are hormonal and 7 are placebos (“to help you remember to keep taking the pill”). Unsurprisingly, those 7 placebos are when you have your period–every month. Which means that you could skip those seven, go straight to the next pack, take the hormone pills, and never have another period ever again (with significantly increased side effects, but still). Because the Pill is designed to circumvent the natural hormone cycle and prevent the release of an egg, you’re basically not cycling when on the Pill. Which is why it “regulates your cycle”–none of the problems you normally have are showing up because they don’t get the chance. It doesn’t actually fix anything, and as soon as you come off the Pill, your cycles will return to what they were before (probably haywire).

The Pill “combats acne” because acne is caused by testosterone (an “androgen”, or “man-hormone” in the Greek) and birth control pills are often packed with estrogen (a “woman-hormone”); these do battle, and the superior numbers of the estrogen win, reducing androgens and reducing acne. (Of course, women need testosterone to give to little boy babies in the womb, and those numbers don’t snap back to normal right after coming off the Pill. FYI.) So this is correct, but it’s kind of like seeing one fly in your house and deciding to fumigate.

The reduction in cervical cancer risk is real. But so is the increase in breast cancer risk; the WHO lists oral contraceptives as Group 1 carcinogens, meaning they really have no doubt about that.

Endometriosis and PCOS, like irregular cycles, are covered up by hormonal contraceptives, but rarely (if ever) fixed by it.

Having said that, these diagnoses are very difficult to deal with, and the Catholic Church does allow contraceptives to be taken under the principle of double effect (the purpose and primary effect being medical care, with the secondary and unintended effect being contraception). Even so, because of the poor fit oral contraceptives make for these issues, it is better to treat what ails you than to cover it up.

Swimming the Tiber 36: Let No Man Put Asunder

This series has meandered its way through several sub-series. We started with some basic bibliology, Christology, and theology, then moved into the sacraments, Marian doctrines, and scandals. Now’s the part where I talk about moral behaviors and you accuse me of thinking I’m perfect (I don’t, but if I went into detail about all my sins, we’d be here much longer than the 9 months it has almost been since I started the series).

I’ve already talked in some detail about marriage, focusing generally on what it is. This post is more about what it isn’t. I touched on this in the older post, but I’d like to go into a little bit more detail here. Remember, the Catholic position here is based on personalism, or the philosophy that all persons are whole persons who deserve respect as persons (and not as objects for our use).

Marriage Isn’t a Feeling

As I’ve mentioned at least once, to love someone is to want what is best for that person. To be clear, it does not mean to want someone to be “happy,” which is fleeting, but it means you strive to bring that person closer to God. The point and purpose of love, then, is not emotional fulfillment, but spiritual development.

It can, of course, mean other things in addition to that overarching goal. To love a sinner means to show the same mercy that God does. To love the poor means to give generously of yourself, as Christ on the cross. But those tie into that main goal: by showing mercy and generosity, we bring people closer to God.

I admit, there is a great temptation to treat love as a feeling. There are a lot of feelings associated with love. That butterflies-in-your-stomach sensation. That pitter-patter of your heart. The incessant desire to swoon. The adrenaline rush of time spent together, and the ache of time spent apart. But none of those feelings is love–they just tend to coincide. Because if you feel those feelings, and you say, “That’s love,” and then you stop feeling those feelings… have you stopped loving? A sudden lack of sensation would throw an entire relationship into jeopardy.

Can you believe that? People actually stop being friends, or married, or familial because they missed out on a few short-lived emotions that flit by like dust motes in the wind.

Don’t assume I want you to be purely logical ( ? ) about love. Feelings are powerful and can be indicative of important truths. But those are things you need to bring into the open and discuss in the light of day; they should inform your decisions and talks about your relationship, but they shouldn’t make those decisions. Because marriage isn’t a feeling.

Marriage Isn’t a Contract

I just said it, and I’ll say it again: Don’t be purely logical about love and marriage. Marriage is not a relationship of utility. Don’t get married for money or sex or vanity. A marriage isn’t a contractual relationship, where you lay out a set of terms and so does your spouse, and no matter how long you’re contractually joined, any violation of those terms is cause for dissolution of the contract. You can’t set an end date for a marriage.

Instead of marrying for utility, marry for love. Remember, this isn’t the feelings of love, but the action of love. If you’ve already forgotten what that means, scroll up maybe half your screen and read the first paragraph of the last section again.

Go ahead; I’ll wait.

So the purpose of marriage isn’t utility, but to bring your spouse (and you) closer to God. So the secular laws of the nation don’t begin to enter into it. The government cannot dictate what a marriage is or is not. The government has no power over marriage, because it isn’t a contract. It’s not something you need the government’s approval for, and if you’re not validly married, the government can’t say that you are. On top of that, it’s not something you can resolve through a lawsuit. If you have a disagreement with your spouse about your marriage, that’s between the two of you; getting a secular court involved will accomplish nothing real in your marriage–it will just confuse the matter. Because marriage isn’t a contract.

Marriage Isn’t a License

Despite the fact that the government hands out “marriage licenses,” which are legal indicators that you have attained a legal status that has an effect on your legal person (e.g., different taxation considerations), it’s entirely wrong to treat your marriage license like a driver’s license. A driver’s license, for example, allows you to drive your car on any road as long as you don’t break any laws; it gives you a certain amount of control over your car.

But marriage doesn’t give you the same freedom. Many people, even faithful Christians who remain abstinent before marriage, treat marriage as opening the floodgates. “Anything goes in marriage,” some may say. But that’s not true. Marriage doesn’t give you the right to use your spouse any way you want (as long as you don’t break any laws). In marriage, you’re not dealing with cars and roads, you’re dealing with another human person; you must treat that person as a person, meaning that your relationship must follow certain standards that the law cares nothing about.

One of those standards is autonomy: you cannot control your spouse simply because you’re married. Another is safety: you cannot harm (emotionally or physically) your spouse because you’re married. You must at all times respect your spouse as a person. Because marriage isn’t a license.

Marriage Isn’t Dissoluble

Because marriage doesn’t fit these weak facsimiles, it also cannot be managed by the same methods. That means that marriage (i.e., a valid marriage between two persons) cannot be dissolved. There is no reason so good that it can cause a marriage to be dissolved–not a loss of feeling, nor a breach of contract, nor a rule violation, nor crime, nor sin, nor general unpleasantness. What’s done is done and it cannot be undone.

“But wait!” say you, “I’ve heard of Catholics getting a divorce and still being okay in the eyes of the Church!”

Well, that’s not a divorce; that’s an annulment. An annulment is exactly what it sounds like: a declaration of the marriage as null. Not, “This was a marriage, but now it isn’t,” but rather, “This was never a marriage.” That’s why annulments need to be investigated (you need to discover a reason that one or both parties were incapable of a valid marriage at the time of the event) and not just signed like another contract. Annulments can and do happen, even when there are many “marriage-like” things in the relationship, like children and dinner parties and throwing out one party’s sports paraphernalia, but they’re much rarer than divorces, because, “We don’t like each other now,” is not a good reason to claim that you couldn’t get married last week.

If your marriage isn’t annulled, then your marriage is just like you said in your vows: until somebody dies.

This has the unfortunate side effect of putting people in very difficult positions. Sometimes, you’re validly married to an evil, abusive person; in such cases, the Church does allow civil divorces so that the force of law can be used to separate an abuser from his/her victim(s), but as long as the marriage was valid, you’re still married, just separated. Sometimes, you get married and divorced while fallen away from the Church, and one of you gets remarried before you come back to the Church. If the first marriage was valid, then the “remarriage” is invalid, and this puts you in the very hard place of either (1) living chastely with your new roommate (not spouse) or (2) separating from your new roommate to reconcile with your spouse. This is fraught with emotional challenges and hard choices, and there are often children involved and all of that is incredibly difficult to untangle.

This is not meant to be uncharitable, though it may seem so. The Catholic Church does everything in her power to ease the hardship in these cases–but it is not within her power to break the bonds of marriage.

And Pharisees approached him, testing him and saying, “Is it allowed for a person to release his wife for any cause?” And having answered, [he] said, “Did [you] not know that the [one] having created [them] from the beginning made them male and female?” And he said, “On this account a man shall leave behind the father and the mother and will be glued to his wife, and the two will be into one flesh. Thus [they] are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God yoked together [on a particular occasion], let man not separate.” They said to him, “Why therefore did Moses command [us] to give a bill of divorce and to release {her}?” He says to them, “Moses yielded to you, with respect to your hardness of heart, to release your wives, but from the beginning [it] has not been so. But [I] say to you that whoever releases his wife, except over fornication, and marries another commits adultery.”

– Matthew 19:3-9 (my translation)

And so you see that the Church is incapable of divorcing people, by the words of Christ Himself.

“But wait!” say you, “What about divorces because of fornication? It says it’s okay right there.”

Does it? Christ did not say, “What God yoked together, let man not separate, except over fornication.” He said, rather, “Whoever releases his wife, except over fornication, and marries another commits adultery.” In Mark 10, he makes a similar statement (and clearly enforces the rule for wives who wish to divorce their husbands as well), but leaves out this exception; Luke 16:18 likewise omits the exception. The exception here does not overrule the other Gospels and allow divorce, but links this verse with Matthew 5:31-32. You see? He’s not saying that you can get a divorce because of fornication; he’s explaining that any divorces for non-fornication reasons cause adultery (because the divorce was impossible). Divorces for reasons of fornication, whether the wife’s or the husband’s, do not cause adultery anew because it has already occurred (through the fornication).

It’s not that you shouldn’t get a divorce because you don’t want to commit adultery; it is, rather, that you can’t get a divorce, because you’re married. The end of a marriage isn’t just disallowed by the Church–it’s impossible. For any reason. At any time. Except by death.

Because marriage isn’t dissoluble.


So what’s the take-home message here? That if you’re in an unhappy marriage, you’re stuck? Well, if you’re merely unhappy, you should work on that through therapy or counseling or by praying together and going to Mass and becoming holier. If you’re in a dangerous or extremely painful situation, then I agree that it is very, very difficult, but we Christians have never been excused from something on account of difficulty. (Obviously, if you or your family is in a dangerous situation, take every available step to escape that danger and put it away from you, but the hardship of the indissolubility of marriage remains. Remember, marriage isn’t a license, so if your spouse abuses you, you are not obliged to take it–and by no means should you–but their wickedness does not release you from your vow.)

Perhaps the most important thing I can tell you, whether married or unmarried, is that marriage is not a light thing, nor is it to be taken lightly. By marriage you are bound to another person even until death; do not choose someone carelessly, but pray fervently for God’s will in your life. In the same way, whether you choose or have chosen for you, marriage is final; do not seek to destroy it, but seek to build each other up in Christ.

Last Post:
A Serious Issue

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)

A Rationalist Reviews a Mystic: What Could Go Wrong?

The Interior CastleThe Interior Castle by Teresa of Ávila
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book took me a really long time to read. It’s not especially dense or complex (although it does get convoluted in some places). The real problem was that, for most of the book, I had little to no common ground with the author’s experience. I kept putting the book down and only decided to finish it in 2016’s Lenten season (which I did not even do, ultimately, missing Easter by about a week).

The reason for this disconnect between me and St. Teresa is this: I’m a fairly practical person. I’m not prone to much in the way of spiritual experience, which has the upside of making my faith pretty rational, and the downside of making it pretty unemotional. So while I readily admit that mysticism is a valid Christian experience for some people–like Teresa of Ávila–it’s not something I have any significant experience with.

So if, like me, you’re looking to read this book as a guide to deepening your faith, it may prove a non-starter if you’re not already open to a more mystical faith.

With that starting caveat, let me present the positives and negatives to this book. (Keep in mind that my negatives may not mean much for you mystics out there.)

Two parts of this book struck me as very good: First, on page 116 of my edition, Teresa provides and important perspective and reminder during the dry periods of our faith. The Lord gives us dry spells as a reminder, she writes, to make us realize that all the good things we have come from Him, which endears us to Him all the more and brings us closer in communion with His will. Too often, we feel abandoned during such times, as though He has left us to suffer to no purpose and with no end, but rather, His distance calls out to us and brings us to pursue Him all the more.

Second, on page 133, Teresa gives us a glimpse of the pain of condemnation, not caused by the torments of hell, but by the sight of our Lord: “I can tell you truly that, wicked as I am, I have never feared the torments of hell, for they seem nothing by comparison with the thought of the wrath which the damned will see in the Lord’s eyes–those eyes so lovely and tender and benign.” That image struck me deeply; God is Love so completely, and in His love, the wretchedness I have done brings forth from His tender eyes such wrath as I cannot imagine. This is a tremendous example of perfect contrition.

A third point works in Teresa’s favor, by my reading, but less well than these first two. Throughout the book, Teresa generally recognizes the philosophical principles of personhood in a way that many people (especially ancient Gnostics and modern pseudo-philosophers) fail to grasp: we are not embodied souls, or ensouled bodies, but a full combination of soul, spirit, and body. The only problem I have with her representation of this is that the parts seem almost divested of one another; a spirit or a soul acting separately from the other, without impact on the body, as if she were sharp enough to divide joints and marrow (Hebrews 4). But this is a small complaint.

Now for my negative points.

Teresa seems to have a general disdain for priests, especially as confessors. At one point (p100) she does laud “learned confessors,” but in general terms (p99, p115) she seems to think very little of what a confessor can offer to someone who is striving to improve his relationship with God–possibly because her confessors frequently were much less mystical than she, and being not mystical, they worried about mystical experiences, since (especially from an outside perspective) it seems very easy to misjudge things mystical as demonic (or vice versa). At any rate, I thought the opinion of priests that came through this text was pretty negative, and I didn’t like it.

Reading this book would have been so, so, so much easier if she had only used the first person when talking about herself. The translators and editors were always quick to point out when the subject of Teresa’s stories was actually herself, usually through reference to her other works, though she denies it at least once (p112). The real issue is that Teresa’s prose (presumably in the original Spanish, though it may be purely a translation problem) becomes so convoluted and twisted that reading it becomes a chore–when she could have shortened the paragraph by ten lines and simplified the whole of it by saying, “I said or thought or did such and such.” It was as though the entire book was spent saying, “Oh, not me! I’m… asking for a friend.”

Frequently, Teresa will comment on how unqualified she is to be writing this book. From a rational perspective, I agreed with her repeatedly. Her grasp of Scripture was even troubling, as accustomed as I am to writers like Augustine and Aquinas, whose references are often spot-on. She waffles constantly, and in several places says things like, “Someone said this in the Bible, I think.” And if she does guess, she has almost equal chances to be right or wrong about it. Raised a Bible-believing Protestant, I instantly doubt any spiritual advisor who doesn’t know his Scriptures.

On a related note, at one point, she claims that there is no greater love than when Jesus prayed for his disciples’ union with God (p154); the translator even used that phrasing (“I do not know what greater love there can be than this”). This flies directly in the face of Jesus’ own use of that phrase in John 15 (and her assertion is not helped by the fact that she does not know where in Scripture Jesus prayed this prayer).

The last thing that bugged me enough to mention was her position on marriage. Granted, most of those who are in celibate vocations, especially in Church history (I’m looking at you, St. Jerome), have negative opinions of marriage, but Teresa’s bothered me at the time. In describing the spiritual journey from isolated sinner to Christian united with Christ, she made an analogy to matrimony (the same analogy that St. Paul made outright in Ephesians 5, and numerous saints and popes have made since), but describes it in shallow terms. It is only “a rough comparison,” but she can find no better; the “spiritual joys and consolations given by the Lord are a thousand leagues removed from those experienced in marriage.” Perhaps I am overreacting, but the Church has vocations to marriage even more than to the priesthood and to holy orders, and with good reason: the grace and joy that accompany the sacrament of Matrimony are no meager things. Even so, I may be reacting too harshly; Catholic favor toward married life has taken a long time to come to fruition, and I cannot blame Teresa too much for being a product of her time.

All in all, this is an important work that may be beneficial to some, but to me–and to perhaps to others of primarily rational faith–it provided little direction or comfort.

View all my reviews