There was a time when people on TV did not instantaneously pass from first kiss to a tumble between the sheets, because our civilization recognized that tumbles between the sheets often led to children who needed parents, so it was inadvisable to urge such behavior on people.
Nor did TV characters get up the next morning and routinely declare that it was nothing more than an exciting Friday night and part amicably like two sensible adults who recognized that sex was nothing more than a thrilling physiological stimulus/response phenomenon.
No, even as recently as a few decades ago, our culture told itself stories that were rooted in an older moral tradition. Pop music was filled with connections between eros and heaven, and people still believed in “everlasting love” — and knew it had more to do with choices than mood swings. They took something called “marriage vows” because they recognized that they needed to make an appointment with themselves in the future and be sure to remain true to the one they loved on their wedding day even when she started to lose her looks and he started to get a beer belly. There was a knowledge, albeit it flickering and almost forgotten, that Something more than eros was necessary for eros to survive.
In God’s image
The Church, however, has not forgotten that Something: It is called “grace.” And it is rooted in the fact that reality is not first and foremost the stuff we see around us. What do I mean? Let’s take a meandering stroll through some basic biblical ideas, then return to the subject of marriage and sex.
Scripture teaches us that earthly things, while real enough, are the shadow, copy and “type” of which heaven is the true reality. So, for instance, when we see a lamb out in the field, we are not seeing the real Lamb, but only an image. The real Lamb is Jesus Christ. For hundreds of years, lambs were slaughtered at Passover and red sticky blood was poured out. Yet not one drop of all those countless gallons of blood could take away the smallest sin. Only the blood of the real Lamb, Jesus, could take away the sin of the world (see Jn 1:29).
Likewise, we’ve all seen fathers and we all know that earthly fatherhood has a connection to the one Christians call “God the Father.” But such is the derangement of our culture that most people these days (including not a few Catholics) think Sigmund Freud was right when he claimed that we call God “Father” because we are projecting our dad on the Big Screen of the Universe. In fact, Freud got it exactly backward. Every father we have seen is, like every lamb, only the likeness, not the reality. For, as St. Paul tells us, the Father is the one “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). In other words, our dads are dim copies and images of the Father, who is the reality of fatherhood itself.
Why does this matter? Because it’s got everything to do with how we think about sex, marriage and everything else related to gender. So, for instance, it’s not uncommon for our Freud-influenced culture, convinced that earthly sex roles are the reality and God is just a projection of our imagination, to object to calling God “Father” as “sexist” and call for a more “gender neutral” understanding of God. The complaint is, roughly, “Isn’t it unfair that God should be depicted with masculine imagery in the Bible? I mean, Scripture does pretty much claim that God is male, doesn’t it?”
Actually, no. The Bible makes it exceedingly clear that God is neither male nor female; he is a spirit. It is paganism — not the Catholic faith or the Bible — that sees God as simply an expansion on whatever bit of nature we happen to fancy. In contrast, the Catholic faith sees nature as a dim reflection of a God who is utterly transcendent. Because of this, God is the source of both masculinity and femininity. While God is neither male nor female, both masculinity and femininity reflect attributes of God. For this reason, Scripture describes the creation of human beings this way: “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Gn 1:27).
The image of God is not simply man but man and woman together. Of course, God is, in himself, beyond the distinctions of human gender. We refer to God as “him” rather than “it” because God is a person (in fact, three Persons, the Trinity); he is not some impersonal “force” or “energy.”
“Then why,” asks our postmodern interlocutor, “does Christianity constantly address God in masculine terms as ‘Father,’ ‘Lord,’ and so forth?”
Precisely because God has revealed himself in this way. It was, after all, Jesus who taught, “When you pray, say: ‘Father’” (Lk 11:2). God reveals himself as “Father” because this best describes his relationship with Jesus, his Son, and with us. This, of course, does not mean “men are superior to women.” In terms of dignity, male and female are absolutely equal. As St. Paul states, in Christ Jesus, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
But saying men and women are equal in dignity is entirely different from saying that they are the same. There is a natural complementarity between masculine and feminine. Masculine initiates, feminine responds. As the sky (and pagan sky “gods”) pour in light and seed and energy, so the earth (and the earth “goddesses” of paganism) respond with fruitfulness and life.
This insight, which paganism captures in its myths, is not denied but brought to fullness in the revelation of Christ. That is why Christ is called the “Bridegroom” and the Church is called the “Bride” (see Eph 5). The “sacred feminine” is indeed part of Catholic and Christian teaching. Only it does not mean that we worship goddesses. It means that the holy Church that Christ founded is joined to him in love by the Holy Spirit and is made a participant in his divine nature by his self-donating sacrifice and resurrection.
The great model of this (and the “elephant in the living room” overlooked by, for instance, Dan Brown’s silly claims in “The Da Vinci Code” about the Catholic Church’s supposed hatred of the “sacred feminine”) is the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus’ first and greatest disciple. If the Catholic Church hates the sacred feminine, why all the Marian devotion?
“Then,” it might be asked, “if God is both masculine and feminine, then isn’t neo-paganism right to say that we should worship both gods and goddesses?”
No. We should worship God. Gods and goddesses are not God. They are our bad crayon drawings of God. They are God made in our own image, not vice versa. They become our replacements for God. Remember the blunder of paganism: It is the mistake of worshiping creatures instead of the Creator. God instead commands us to worship him alone, since he alone is God and truly worthy of worship. God has made it possible for us to do this by giving us not simply a picture of himself, but himself in the form of a human being: Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God himself became man, took upon himself the sins of the world, died, and rose again so that we could participate in the divine life of the Blessed Trinity. It was he who founded the Catholic Church to be his Bride.
Jesus, in short, reveals the truth: God is not a product of our imagination. Rather, we are products of God’s imagination. So the way in which God reveals himself to us matters. And a profound aspect of that revelation is that God is masculine in relation to the whole human race just as the human race is feminine in relation to God. So God likens himself, through the prophets, to the Husband of the Virgin Daughter of Zion. And likewise, in the fullness of time, the Incarnate God shares his life with us — his Bride, the Church — and make us participants in his divine nature (see 2 Pt 1:4). Pagan goddess worship has it backward. It thinks the point of the divine is sex. In reality, the point of sex is the Divine. All our earthly experiences of marriage are a foreshadowing of the Great Marriage: the Wedding Feast of the Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride the Church (see Rv 22) in heaven. That mistake of reversing Creator and creation is the essence of paganism.
Sign of divine grace
So there’s a reason Jesus began his ministry at a wedding and that John calls his miracle there the “first” of his signs. The apostle doesn’t just mean the first numerically. He means it is the archetypal sign: The sign you have to get right if you are going to understand all the other signs. Because Jesus is, for John, the archetypal Bridegroom and all other earthly marriages are merely signs pointing to him (see Jn 3:29).
Does that pattern sound familiar? As with lambs or fathers, marriage is sacramental. You and I have seen a lot of bridegrooms and brides. But they are not the reality of what marriage is: They are the image. They are married because they participate as creatures (and, if baptized, as children of God) in the Real Marriage, which is the Wedding Feast of Christ and his bride the Church. That’s why St. Paul tells us:
“‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31-32).
Bottom line: Marriage refers to Christ and the Church. If we are going to understand what every Catholic needs to know about marriage and sex, that’s where we start, because that’s where God starts. As Catholics, your marriage and mine takes its reality from the fact that it is a sacramental participation in the only fully Real Marriage there is: the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. It is a spiritual reality in Christ before it is something that happens in a bed.
Yet paradoxically, our spiritual God is incarnational. He is not disembodied but has taken on a human nature so that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He communicates his life to us through ordinary, everyday things like water, oil, food, and the love of man and woman for one another.
That is why marriage is one of the seven sacraments of his covenant with us — a means of divine grace entering our lives — and why Catholics have to understand that before they understand all the rest of the self-help book stuff about how to find a mate, keep the fizz in your marriage, balance the family budget or raise sensible kids. We need the Big Picture.
The Big Picture
The Big Picture is that marriage is about union and fruitfulness, because God is about union and fruitfulness. God is a unity of Persons in love. He is supremely fruitful because out of this Trinitarian love, an entire universe springs and, what is more, human creatures in the universe whom he makes in his image and likeness. So he establishes marriage as a primal human institution and says “it is not good for man to be alone” and “be fruitful and multiply” (see Gn 2:18; 1:28).
But it doesn’t end there, because we are not merely natural creatures like the rest of the animal kingdom, nor merely clever apes with oversized brains. We are raised by grace to participate not merely in rational life but in God’s very own Trinitarian life as “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4). So God raises the animal act of sex, like the animal act of eating or washing, to the dignity of participation in his own supernatural life via sacraments such as marriage, Eucharist and baptism.
That is why Pope John Paul II taught that marriage, in addition to being about union and fruitfulness, was also ordered toward the “healing, perfection and exaltation” of the spouses. Marriage between the baptized doesn’t just lead to the care and nurture of children. It leads to heaven. Through it, the spouses administer the grace of God to one another. Through it, they incarnate the love of God in the act of conceiving and raising the only creatures in the universe who share the same human nature as the Incarnate Son of God. Through it, and the trials and difficulties that attend it, they grow in reliance on the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit so that they can become fully conformed to the image and likeness of Christ. Through it, the grace of God flows out to the world as a new domestic Church founded on love is formed.
That’s why it’s so urgent that we understand that marriage is a covenant and not merely a contract. In a covenant, a bond of sacred kinship is established and people become family. It is rooted in love, not in mutual enmity and distrust. A contract (such as the odious “prenuptial agreement”) is a system for making sure that your enemy doesn’t defraud you. It is founded (like all earthly law) on fear. A covenant is founded on love. So marriage is all about imitating Jesus, who is love incarnate. That is why St. Paul’s advice to married couples remains as revolutionary and challenging today as the day it was written. So far from blessing the normal pagan domestic arrangements of Greco-Roman culture, in which the husband was all-powerful and could divorce his wife and abuse his children with impunity, St. Paul instead casts husbands in the role of Christ Crucified and women in the role of his loving Bride, the Church (see sidebar below).
In short, St. Paul’s message point is that successful marriage is not some technique. It is the commitment to dying to yourself and seeking the good and glory of the other: Lose your life and you will save it. That’s as deeply offensive to us today as it has ever been, because we fallen creatures believe in power, not love. It is the poison that has gnawed at our vitals since the serpent bit us in the Garden. It is pride.
And so, the world teaches us that life is a power struggle among economic classes, races, men and women — and between God and us. This is where the Virgin Mary can help us. For Mary’s self-surrendering virginity attacks this false approach to life by showing that it’s about love, not power.
Surrender is death, according to the world. But Mary’s surrender to God leads to the mystery of total dependence on God — and the paradox of happiness through the cross. The Son before whom she kneels is the second Adam who undergoes a defeat far more profound than her own self-surrender so that he may exalt her to a glory above all other creatures.
Similarly, the Virgin paradoxically shows that purity is fruitful, for Mary’s purity reflects and signifies the purity of the Church, the Bride without wrinkle, spot or blemish. G.K. Chesterton, in one of his typically insightful remarks, noted that heresy has always tended to identify purity with sterility, while Catholic teaching “always connects purity with fruitfulness; whether it be natural or supernatural.” And so it’s one of the strange contradictions of our age that the cultural apostles of sexual insanity constantly denigrate virginity while declaring simultaneously that “sex is nothing to be afraid of,” and desperately urging everyone to have “safe sex.” By this, they mean sex that is something like the Roman vomitorium, where you get all the pleasures of a bodily act, but none of the consequences. With perfect tone-deafness, the emissaries of “safe sex” thereby set themselves squarely against the only two things sex is actually for: union with the beloved and fruitfulness. One may as well say walking through a dry forest with a lit torch is nothing to be afraid of. And, if we’re honest, we are afraid of it — and none more so than the timid creatures who try to keep all the commitments sex implies at bay with a thin layer of latex.
We fear fire enough to keep it in the fireplace, but our culture is rapidly losing the elementary knowledge that God has ordained the fireplace of marriage for the fire of sex. The problem is not with wanting the fire, but with not wanting the fireplace. So our culture avoids the blessing of sex and makes it a curse instead. And we do it by making sex artificially virginal and virginity artificially sexual.
The artificial virginity of contraceptive sex boils down to the permanent attempt to strip mine the gold of pleasure from the sacramental union of love and fruitfulness, enthrone autonomy and pleasure, and declare love and fruitfulness “optional” rather than what revelation declares them to be: the very heart of reality. It is the attempt to replace love with power. But as power exalts itself over love, it naturally preys upon the weak, which leads to the artificial sexualization of virginity. For the simple fact is, a culture that despises virginity is a culture that despises children, who are both its weakest members and the last images we have of both purity and virginity.
This sickness has only one cure: the return to making sex sexual and virginity virginal. That is, a return to honoring the Sacrament of Marriage, which can only be fully honored by honoring the even higher call of virginity.
The world rings with longing for true love and total self-giving. People paid a billion dollars to watch Jack save Rose from the Titanic and bawled over a woman who loves a man so much she will risk death with him, and at a man who loves her so much he undergoes a baptism of death in the icy deep to save her “in every way a person can be saved.”
There is a massive hunger for pure self-sacrificing love — and a terrible devouring fear of it, whether it comes in the form of marriage or virginity. That’s understandable: In a fallen world, love and death are twins. They are both forms of self-sacrifice and, in the mystery of Christ, therefore inseparable.
So we have only two choices as we face marriage: Live our lives trying to get love without death, or else find the courage to take the plunge and die to ourselves for love. Do the former and we will find only death. Do the latter, and our marriage will lead to life. What is more, we will sooner or later discover that we did not build the road, that Jesus has walked it before us, and that the little voice that prompted us to take that first step of self-sacrifice for the Beloved, and all the steps after that, was his, however faint it may have been. Walk that road to the end, and we will discover it leads to still more calls to sacrifice until we reach the sacrifice of our lives. For as the great Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That is the secret of a joyous marriage.
Mark Shea is senior content editor at Catholic Exchange.com and writes the Catholic and Enjoying It! blog at markshea.blogspot.com. He writes from Washington state.
Subjection to each other (sidebar)
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” (Eph 5:21-30)
'Intimate Communion' (sidebar)
“The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman form with each other an intimate communion of life and love, has been founded and endowed with its own special laws by the Creator. By its very nature it is ordered to the good of the couple, as well as to the generation and education of children. Christ the Lord raised marriage between the baptized to the dignity of a sacrament.”
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1660
”The More the Merrier? (sidebar)
If a union between one man and one woman in marriage is “ordered to the good of the couple,” are unions featuring multiple men and/or multiple women even better? After all, polygamy has been a popular theme on television lately, with the TLC reality show “Sister Wives” — featuring a man and his four wives — garnering much publicity, not to mention the HBO drama series “Big Love,” which also highlights a polygamous family in Utah.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides the answer, and it’s a clear and resounding no. Quoting the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), it says, “‘The unity of marriage, distinctly recognized by our Lord, is made clear in the equal personal dignity which must be accorded to a man and wife in mutual and unreserved affection.’ Polygamy is contrary to conjugal love which is undivided and exclusive” (No. 1645).
Dominican Sister Janet Schaeffler, a former director of adult faith formation for the Archdiocese of Detroit, is project consultant for OSV Newsweekly’s “What every Catholic needs to know...” series.
This is the 11th in a 12-part series. The next, on Sacred Scripture, appears Dec. 12.