In discussions about legalization of homosexual “marriage,” its proponents say that Christian teaching on marriage as the exclusive, permanent, and fruitful union of a man and a woman is analagous to segregation and to chattel slavery, and will be universally recognized as such in another twenty years. They snidely point to broken homes, unfaithful spouses, and dysfunctional families and say, “Your lives show you don’t have anything better.”
But truth is not based on our own ability or inability to live it out; we are sinners, and all our good deeds are tainted by that sinfulness.
And we can agree that too often Christians have given the impression that they can only speak of sexuality in terms of what they are against, rather than in terms of what they are for.
That’s where Protestants can learn from Catholic teaching on this subject, especially as the beauty, truth, and goodness of human sexuality have been unfolded by Karol Wojtyla, the late Pope John Paul II. Yes, many Catholics have been a poor example in practice, as the sexual abuse crisis shows–but that is rooted in the failure of some to follow Biblical teaching, and the attempts of some to relativize it. What Wojtyla did was to mine the depths of Biblical teaching on human sexuality and present it in a systematic way that has been appealing to countless young adults.
Tom Beaudoin, in his book, Virtual Faith: The Irreverant Spiritual Quest of Generation X, said that the main question of young adults today is relationships, “Will you be there for me?” Or, we might ask it another way—Will you love me?
What is love?
In his 1967 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI defined it this way:
“…Love is … fully human, … of the senses and of the spirit at the same time. It is not … a simple transport of instinct and sentiment, but also, and principally, an act of the free will, intended to endure and to grow by means of the joys and sorrows of daily life, in such a way that husband and wife become one only heart and one only soul, and together attain their human perfection. … This love is total … it is a very special form of personal friendship, in which husband and wife generously share everything, without undue reservations or selfish calculations. Whoever truly loves his marriage partner loves not only for what he receives, but for the partner’s self, rejoicing that he can enrich his partner with the gift of himself. … This love is faithful and exclusive until death.”
Karol Wojtyla, in his book, Love and Responsibility, written in 1960, frames his discussion of sexuality with two references: one is the proper understanding of love, the other is the understanding of personhood. For love is a relationship between persons. “Personalism,” as understood by Wojtyla, is not individualism. Rather,
“The term ‘person’ has been coined to signify that a man cannot be wholly contained within the concept ‘individual member of the species’, but that there is something more to him, a particular richness and perfection in the manner of his being, which can only be brought out by the use of the word ‘person.’”
What distinguishes a person is not merely our separateness from other individuals, but our inner self, our inner life, our spiritual life—our capacity for truth and goodness. We relate to one another not simply on the sensory level, as objects, but as full persons, acting with freedom, and possessing inherent and inalienable dignity.
Love brings together two such persons in a relationship of total self-giving. It is this total self-giving that is at the heart of that experience that we sometimes glibly refer to as “making love.” In his chapter, “Sexology and Ethics,” Wojtyla illustrates the nature of this gift of self by refering to studies of human sexual response. This mutual self-giving requires
“that intercourse must not serve merely as a means of allowing sexual excitement to reach its climax in one of the partners, i.e. the man alone, but that climax must be reached in harmony, not at the expense of one partner, but with both partners fully involved.”
Love excludes using another person for one’s own ends, or exploiting that person.
“In the present case love demands that the reactions of the other person, the sexual ‘partner’ be fully taken into account.”
Here we see the very positive attitude towards sexual love that is at the core of Biblical teaching. Christians have a reputation for being anti-sex, anti-body. But that is far from the truth.
The Catholic tradition (and I include Eastern Orthodoxy in this) goes so far as to regard matrimony as a sacrament, and to argue that sexual expression is an essential element of its sacramentality. Matrimony is definied as a covenantal relationship that transforms two into one, in an encounter which “signifies and communicates grace.”
Catholic moral theology speaks of the “unitive dimension” of sex—it’s an awkward term, but it means just this, that it brings the two partners into close relationship. It’s a rich idea that has yet to be fully mined. We can get further insights into this by considering the Jewish tradition, and I’d recommend in particular Kosher Sex, by Shmuley Boteach, a Hasidic rabbi who was the Jewish chaplain at Oxford University. The Jewish mystical tradition teaches say that the primordial Adam was an androgynous being, including both male and female. When he fell asleep, an entire side—not just a rib—was removed. “The result,” says Boteach, “was that each side was no longer complete and now depended on rejoining and reuniting with their lost half in order to achieve wholeness.” Sexuality then always is religious, always is spiritual, always is more than simply acting and feeling, but is a uniting of two persons into one, to become the full and complete person God intended. It is a sign of the relationship God intends between himself and his Bride. And because of this, Judaism considers that the most appropriate time for celebrating this union is on the Sabbath.
Such a relationship cannot be temporary. It cannot be something that lasts only as long as the partners feel satisfied. It is a relationship that is directed toward the other, and toward the good and the fulfillment of the other. It is a covenant that cannot be revoked, and which is called to endure through the changing circumstances of life. Recall that question, “Will you be there for me?”—a question asked by young adults who are the children of divorce. In Karol Wojtyla’s play, ‘The Jeweler’s Shop,” a girl has seen her parents fighting one morning, as she has every morning for as long as she remembers. She confronts her father, a doctor, at work, and says she wants to talk to him about marriage. He says he supposes her intended is a good guy. She says, “No. You don’t understand. That’s not what I want to talk about. Before I say yes to him, I want to know if every marriage ends up like yours. Is that what’s in store for me? Is that what’s going to come after years of raising children, and coping with the stress of life? Or is there hope that we can make it different?”
A paper by the National Marriage Project, “Should We Live Together?” ends its discussion of the date by calling for a revitalization of marriage. “Particularly helpful in this regard would be educating young people about marriage from the early school years onward, getting them to make the wisest choices in their lifetime mates, and stressing the importance of long-term commitment to marriages. Such an educational venture could build on the fact that a huge majority of our nation’s young people still express the strong desire to be in a long-term monogamous marriage.”
Christian teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is not as far removed from the hopes of men and women as we are led to believe.
But probably the area of Catholic teaching which most rubs against the grain of society is the belief that each act of love within marriage must be open to life. Here even an otherwise ally like Rabbi Boteach is reduced to scorn: he begins a chapter by quoting Earl Butz’s quip regarding the pope: “He no play-a da game, he no make-a da rules,” and says “Judaism rejects Catholicism’s extreme position that contraception is always morally wrong.”
Catholicism’s teaching was shared by all other Christians until early in the 20th century. But today, it seems foreign to most Protestants, and even many Catholics, so let’s try to understand the point. Catholicism cannot speak of marriage apart from fruitfulness. This is not a legal decree, but a positive statement of the nature of sexuality. Fertility is a hope, an expectation, that permeates even the marriage rite. The couple is charged: “Will you accept children lovingly from God?” The nuptial blessing can include the petition, “Bless them with children and help them to be good parents.” The final blessing says, “May your children bring you happiness, and may your generous love for them be returned to you, many times over.”
Let’s contrast this with changes in the marriage service of another church. The 1958 Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal included one prayer for children, “if it be thy will.” The Lutheran Book of Worship of 1978, went further—its marriage rite makes no mention of this couple expecting children.
Other Christians—and non-Christians—most often approach the subject of procreation in the context of what the couple wishes. Catholicism includes fertility within the context of the essential nature of marital love. It is open, it is self-giving, it is other oriented, it is full of power and promise. Humanae Vitae speaks of “the inseparable connection … between … the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning of the conjugal act.” That terminology can be off-putting. It is not how we usually speak. In a negative way, it means there are things we aren’t supposed to do. That’s the message that the world hears.
But what is its positive content? It says that in the union of husband and wife, there should be no barriers, either physical or emotional. This is not the place for masks or for walls. It is a sacred moment of complete self-surrender and self-revelation. Shame, false modesty, selfishness, fear and pretence are all out of place.
Pope John Paul II summarized the essence of Catholic teaching in a paragraph in Familiaris Consortio which is also paragraph 1643 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter—appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility. In a word it is a question of the normal characteristics of all natural conjugal love, but with a new significance which not only purifies and strengthens them, but raises them to the extent of making them the expression of specifically Christian values.”
We see that Catholic teaching on marriage and fertility does not diminish individual rights, but rather aims at our complete fulfillment as truly human persons, equals in a covenantal relationship of total self-giving, freely chosen. In such a relationship, lived as God intends, we need not ask in fear and anxiety, “Will you be there for me?” but rather we will say, “I will be there for you.” In such a relationship our hopes and aspirations, our deepest cravings are satisfied, in a sacramental union which is a sign to the world of the love and faithfulness of our Creator and Redeemer.
As I say, there’s much here that can be of help to non-Catholics, as we seek to find ways to better proclaim the beauty of the Bible’s teaching in a confused age.