The Church tells us of the liturgical importance of the sacrament marriage. (Remember liturgy comes from the Greek term which means “work of the people.” In a sacramental marriage, in union with Christ, the bride and groom do the work. Everyone else is a witness.)
In the Catechism we read:
– Sacramental marriage is a liturgical act. It is therefore appropriate that it should be celebrated in the public liturgy of the Church;
– Marriage introduces one into an ecclesial order, and creates rights and duties in the Church between the spouses and towards their children;
– Since marriage is a state of life in the Church, certainty about it is necessary (hence the obligation to have witnesses);
– The public character of the consent protects the “I do” once given and helps the spouses remain faithful to it. (CCC #1631)
What occurs in the nuptial bed is a re-enactment of what occurs before the Altar of God.
St. John Paul II reflected on this passage from St. Mark’s Gospel:
2The Pharisees approached and asked, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” They were testing him. 3He said to them in reply, “What did Moses command you?” 4They replied, “Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her. 5But Jesus told them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment. 6But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female, 7For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother [and be joined to his wife] 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” 10In the house the disciples again questioned him about this. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mk. 10:2-12)
Divorce was widespread in Judaism at that time, even though it was clear in the Scriptures that God loathes divorce. He linked it with violence. Through the Prophet Malachi he said:
16For I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel, and the one who covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. You should be on guard, then, for your life, and you must not break faith. (Mal. 2:16)
With any divorce there is violence: spiritual, emotional, relational and sometimes physical violence. And the violence extends beyond the couple. There is violence at several levels in both the immediate and extended family and the greater community. And there is violence against God’s intention that man and woman together manifest the fullness of the image of God.
And yet, there is this bit from Deuteronomy, traditionally one of the teachings of Moses:
1 When a man, after marrying a woman, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent, and he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house, 2if on leaving his house she goes and becomes the wife of another man, 3and the second husband, too, comes to dislike her and he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house, or if this second man who has married her dies, 4then her former husband, who dismissed her, may not again take her as his wife after she has become defiled. That would be an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring such guilt upon the land the LORD, your God, is giving you as a heritage. (Dt. 24:1-4)
This passage requires a man to have a reason to dismiss his wife (something indecent which is not defined). In writing her a bill of divorce, he was stating that he relinquished all legal claims on her, freeing her from any obligation to him and allowing her to marry someone else.(However the primary focus here is about forbidding remarriage.)This provided some protection for the woman in a culture where it was unthinkable that a woman could live on her own. The purpose of the bill was not to endorse or even authorize divorce which was rather wide spread; rather it limited the consequences for the woman.
Jesus then explains the reason for the existence of Dt. 24:1-4 and other similar verses; it was “because of the hardness of your hearts.” Hardness of heart—sklerokardia—(think arteriosclerosis, hardening of the arteries) is the stubborn refusal to yield to God and his ways. (Mk. 10:5)
Jesus now brings the conversation over to the intended permanent nature of marriage. “What God has joined together, no human being must separate.” He adds a warning, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” (The same applies to the woman—if she leaves her husband, she commits adultery against him.)
This is a radical statement in two ways: first it affirms the indissolubility of marriage, a teaching that was as challenging and countercultural then as it is today. Second, it recognizes that adultery is an offense that could be committed against a wife as well as against a husband. Jewish law and custom had viewed adultery as an offense only against a man, in that a wife was considered a sort of quasi-property (Ex. 20:17). Here Jesus acknowledges the total equality of man and woman and the mutual belonging of husband and wife in marriage.
With this pronouncement, Jesus also brings the teaching on suffering, self-denial, humility and service into the most intimate sphere of human life. It is the daily challenge of family relationships, in the struggle to live out God’s design for human love, especially lifelong fidelity to another fallen and imperfect person that “taking up the cross” has a most concrete application.
Again, we read from Genesis: 1: 27God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them…2:24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.”
Scripture shows us that the triune God made man, male and female, to be the image of him fully in their communion of persons, a communion made possible precisely because of their sexual complementarity as revealed in the nuptial meaning of their bodies. This signifies that the male person is intended by God as a “gift” to the female person and vice versa. Male and female are to give themselves away to each other in love and to become one flesh and in so doing, they open themselves up to the gift of fertility which conveys more fully the God who made them.
To understand St. John Paul’s view of the sacrament of marriage, we once again must go back to God’s original intent. The Holy Father writes that…the concept of ‘image of God’[was intended to be expressed] through the communion of persons, which man and woman form from the very beginning…Man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion. (TOB 9:3)
Even though there may be estrangement through various consequences of the Fall (lust and shame for example), God still offers the true complementarity of humanity through the sacrament of marriage.
St. John Paul writes: When they unite with each other in the conjugal act so closely as to become ‘one flesh,’ man and woman rediscover every time in a special way the mystery of creation, thus returning to the union of humanity (“flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones”) that allows them to recognize each other reciprocally and to call each other by name, as they did the first time. (TOB 10:2)
The pope cites Christ’s words in Matthew 5:27-28: You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
These words, St. John Paul declares: do not allow us to stop at the accusation of the human heart and to regard it continually with suspicion, but must be understood and interpreted above all as an appeal to the heart….Redemption is a truth….in the name of which man must feel called…He must realize this call through Christ’s words…reread in the context of the revelation of the body. Man must feel called to rediscover, nay more, to realize the nuptial meaning of the body and to express in this way the interior freedom of the gift, that is, of that spiritual state and that spiritual power which are derived from mastery of the lust of the flesh (46.4).
Humanae Vitae—“Of Human Life”, is an encyclical written by Pope Paul VI and was issued on July 25, 1968. Subtitled, “On the Regulation of Birth,” it re-affirms the Church’s teaching regarding the sanctity of life, married love, responsible parenthood and the continued rejection of artificial birth control.
St. John Paul writes: In “Humanae Vitae” we read “Calling human beings back to the observance of natural law…the Church teaches that each and every marriage act must remain through itself open to the transmission of human life. That teaching, often set forth by the magisterium, is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of conjugal act: in unitive meaning and the procreative meaning.” (HV.12) (TOB 118.5)
And St. John Paul uses stronger language: …when the conjugal act is deprived of its inner truth because it is deprived artificially of its procreative capacity, it also ceases to be an act of love… ( TOB 123:6)
“Theology of the Body” and Humanae Vitae by Katrina J. Zeno, MTS
Want to ruin your next Thanksgiving dinner? Try dropping this line in the midst of the conversation: “Did you know John Paul II said the conjugal act artificially deprived of its procreative capacity also ceases to be an act of love? Pass the potatoes please…”
This is guaranteed to be a conversation stopper. In fact, you might get booted out because according to a recent Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive poll, 88% of Catholics polled supported easy-access to birth control information and over half supported sales of the “morning-after” pill.
This would surprise Paul VI who said in his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, “We believe that the human beings of our day are particularly capable of seeing the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle.” What principle was he referring to? Preserving the innermost structure of the conjugal act in which the union of husband and wife is inseparably connected with the capacity to conceive new life.
Rather than seeing the inseparable connection between love-making and life-making as deeply reasonable, our technological age regards it as an imposition. Biology and fertility can and should be controlled for our personal benefit, so the thinking goes. Therefore, the Church should get with the times and revise her teaching to acknowledge that contraceptive intercourse is as natural as a body builder taking steroids. It enhances performance, not detracts from it.
The key issue is not performance, but love. In a collection of reflections known as “The Theology of the Body,” John Paul II stated that we need an ever “clearer discovery of God’s plan for human love” since “the one and only true good of the human person consists in putting this divine plan into practice.”
Christianity, as the expression of the divine plan, is not a religion of separation, but of integration. It unites, rather than divides. We see this supremely in the Incarnation where divinity is united with humanity; it’s also inscribed in human nature where body is united with spirit.
In the most intimate love expression between a husband and wife, it’s clearly “reasonable” that God would not design separation as the goal, but union.
“The human body,” John Paul II says, “is not only the field of reactions of a sexual character, but it is at the same time the means of the expression of man as an integral whole…which reveals itself through the ‘language of the body.’”
In other words, we express the fullness of who we are through our bodies. Our sexual impulses do not determine us. Our rational freedom allows us to express the whole truth of our person through body and spirit working together.
Nowhere is this body-spirit integration more critical than in marriage and the marital union. John Paul II says the conjugal act perfects the consent husband and wife gave to each other at the altar. That’s a pretty extreme statement. Most people don’t connect what happens at the altar with what happens in the bedroom, and yet, the two cannot be separated.
Marriage, because it is a sacrament, is a sign of the indissoluble union between husband and wife. At the altar, bride and groom publically promise the whole of their life to each other: “for better or worse; in sickness and in health….” When they enter into conjugal union, John Paul II says, they are re-proposing the vows they made on their wedding day. They are saying again with their bodies what they said at the altar, “I give the whole of myself to you.”
As if that wasn’t enough, marriage is also a visible sign of Christ’s love for the Church. As John Paul II reminded us: “The spousal relationship that unites spouses, husband and wife, must…help us to understand the love that unites Christ with the Church.” In this love, Christ gives himself totally to the Church – both body and spirit – to bring about our holiness, our redemption.
Marital union is designed by God to mirror, to reflect, the wedding vows and Christ’s love for the Church. The “language of the body” expressed by husband and wife in every aspect of conjugal life is designed by God to say: “I give myself totally and irrevocably to you. I hold nothing back, including my fertility.”
John Paul II goes a step further: “Christ’s love, and therefore marital love, is redemptive as well as spousal. Spousal love is designed by God to be a means of grace.”
Those are humbling words to think that spouses can be a channel of the very life of God to each other and to a brand new human life through one-flesh union. To violate the inner truth of this bodily union by intentionally impeding the total gift of self (and grace) constitutes, John Paul II says, “the essential evil of the contraceptive act.” It brings dis-integration between body and spirit, a separation between conjugal life and love, which can tragically spill from the bedroom into the couple’s life as a whole. Physical contraception can lead to emotional and even spiritual contraception, where I withhold the whole of me from my spouse and God.
Does living redemptive and spousal love require heroic sacrifice? Absolutely. The difficulty in giving up contraception is, ironically, the struggle to integrate body and spirit. Without recourse to contraception, husband and wife must practice periodic abstinence in order to postpone pregnancy. This requires self-mastery, or what has traditionally been called chastity.
Ultimately, Humane Vitae, John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, and 2000 years of Catholic Church teaching center on protecting and promoting chastity. Chastity is the integration of body and spirit so that we are free to give ourselves away according to our state in life and God’s design. It is, John Paul II says, “a progressive education in self-control of the will, of sentiment, of emotions,” in order to reach mastery over our sexual drive and arousal. In doing so, this opens up “interior room” within ourselves to “become ever more sensitive to the deeper and more mature values” inherent in divine and human love.
But won’t abstaining from sexual union interfere with the expression of love between husband and wife? The concern is valid. John Paul II’s response moves the question from a single frame (sexual union) to the entire motion picture (all of marital life): “The task of conjugal chastity…lies not only in protecting the importance and dignity of the conjugal act in relation to its potentially procreative meaning, but also in safeguarding the importance and dignity proper to the conjugal act inasmuch as it expresses interpersonal union, by revealing to the consciousness…of the spouses all the other possible ‘manifestations’ that are to express their deep communion.”
Sexual intimacy is one (albeit very important, life-giving, and grace-channeling) dimension of conjugal life but it is an expression of the couple’s entire life of total, self-giving love. Ultimately, such a life in which union and procreation, body and spirit, spousal love and redemptive love are integrated and held in inseparable esteem matures in fully developed personalities enriched with spiritual values. Deep, personal communion is fostered from the breakfast table to the dinner dishes especially when abstinence is the order of the day. Total self-giving in the bedroom becomes total, redemptive self-giving in every aspect of daily life. That’s indeed something every human being is capable of seeing as deeply reasonable – and fulfilling.
St. John Paul wrote: Christian spouses are therefore the reminder to the Church of what happened on the cross. (Familiaris Consortio 48/49)
Total, self-giving love.