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

Posted by Mark Shea on National Catholic Register

[Part I of this post can be read here.]


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 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.” (cf. Genesis 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 Peter 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 “pre-nuptial 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 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, Paul instead casts husbands in the role of Christ Crucified and women in the role of His loving Bride, the Church.

In short, Paul’s message 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 to 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—promises to husbands, wives, and children—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, however ineptly, and die to ourselves for love. Do the former and we will find only death. Do the latter, and our marriages 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.


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