Monday, May 15, 2006

Marriage: Woooo!

Last year I began a series of posts on sexuality. I had the idea of writing a reasoned case why I live by the Church's teachings on sexual matters, but I got bogged down in thinking about side issues, and after a while I felt I'd procrastinated too much to pick up the thread again. Mea culpa, you know?

But now it's time. It's seemed to me that defenders and besiegers of Church teaching are talking past one another, using the same words to mean quite different things. I've been kicking around one formulation of how the whole business is quite different within Catholic thought, how the teachings on sexuality generally derive from a larger countercultural Weltanschauung, and I thought I'd share it with you. If it's not quite right, well, it's my articulation, not the Church's. (And if someone else articulates the same thing better, tell me!)

Generally, we (post)nmoderns have the notion that the social structures around us are best explained by sociobiology: that human beings developed arrangements to satisfy their physical and social needs, and that the arrangements that contributed to survival and propagation survived, while the ones that didn't died out. Marriage, in this view, was just an arrangement for the satisfaction of sexual desires, an arrangement whose stability for child-rearing was greatly beneficial, and thus most of the cultures that survived developed some similar form of marriage. In this view, marriage is of secondary importance; sex is logically prior and more fundamental to human nature.

It is precisely this last sentence that the Catholic Church firmly and solemnly rejects. She holds, rather, that marriage is the more fundamental thing, that human sexuality is about marriage.

In the first place, She can reject the conclusion without getting into the sociobiological debate, without even necessarily contradicting the narrative above. We believe in the God who created the entire Universe, and He could have created it differently if He so chose. It is not absurd to claim (though what I say here does not demonstrate) that we were made sexual beings precisely in order that marriage might be what it is.

And what precisely is it to us, then? If marriage is logically prior to sexuality, then we ought to be able to distinguish the essence of marriage from the sexual relationship. But what would this essence be?

The answer to this, I'm convinced, is the same as the answer to the question of why marriage, of all things, should be a Sacrament. The other Sacraments- Baptism, Confession, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick- all seem so much more church-focused than marriage, which seems more of a personal matter to us. I mean, if marriage is a Sacrament, why not other personal rites of passage? The Sacrament of Elevation from apprentice to master of an art? The Sacrament of Coronation for kings?

(It's worth noting that for this reason, and also because marriage is celebrated by non-Christians as well, Luther decided that marriage was not a Sacrament after all.)

For the Church, a Sacrament is an external sign of an internal grace; it not only symbolizes something, but actually effects that which it symbolizes. (For example, the waters of Baptism symbolize the washing away of sin, and they actually do remit the sins of the baptized!) That marriage is a Sacrament in this sense can be seen in the Letter to the Ephesians. Um, don't panic, but this is also the passage concerning gender roles within marriage. I'll get to that stuff later. I want you, rather, to consider the identification of two different things here:
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.

For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.
At first it only appears that Paul is drawing a lesson from an extended metaphor, but the two verses I bolded signify something greater: that earthly marriage is a true image of the divine relation between Christ and the Church! The Sacrament of Marriage, then, symbolizes that union of Christ and Church, and we believe that it effects what it signifies in that the husband and wife become "one flesh". For Catholics, that's not a nice poetic statement, but a truth: if a marriage is validly entered, then they really are a new creation, one that lasts as long as they both shall live. That is the real essence of marriage, one which can be distinguished (though not separated) from the relationship of sexual love which is the seal and consummation of marital unity, as well as a font of new life.

(Note as well that the Greek word for "mystery" is the one that was used to describe the other Sacaraments, and which was translated into Latin as "sacramentum".)

And from this recognition of marriage as a Sacrament, and the recognition that we are sexual beings in order that we may be capable of marriage (and thus also capable of celibacy, of giving up marriage if so called), flow the "hard sayings" of the Church on marriage and sexuality. But I think that these deserve their own post.

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