What Catholics Need to Know About Marriage and Sex, Part I

Posted by Mark Shea on National Catholic Register


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 flickering and almost forgotten, that Something more than eros was necessary for eros to survive.

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 do take away the sin of the world (John 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 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, however, Freud got it exactly backwards. Every father we have seen is, like every lamb, only the likeness, not the reality. For, as Paul tells us, the Father is the One “from whom all patria (fatherhood) 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: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 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 personal (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’” (Luke 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 Paul states, in Christ Jesus, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 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. The masculine initiates, the 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 Ephesians 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 which 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 worshipping 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 (2 Peter 1:4). Pagan goddess worship has it backwards. 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 (Revelation 22) in Heaven. That mistake of reversing Creator and creation is the essence of paganism.

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 (John 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 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 mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 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.

Of which more next time… [in Part II]

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