“The Nuptial Mystery of Life in Christ as Revealed in Scripture and Liturgy”
Lecture for Annual Meeting of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy
Monastery of the Angeles, July 10, 2014
Presented by Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone
“Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?”
“Will you love and honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?”
“Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?”
These words sound very familiar to all of us; maybe too familiar. We can too easily become immune to the profound reality and awesome commitment these words express and effect: a man and a woman binding themselves to each other for life, in mutual love and fidelity to each other, to bring new human life into the world – new human beings, with an immortal soul, needing the love, affection and material, emotional and spiritual support that only a mother and father together can uniquely provide. I would like, then, in this talk to reflect upon marriage and responsible parenthood in the current cultural context, and then consider its deeper, mystical meaning as revealed in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s liturgy.
The State of Marriage in Society
This “statement of intentions” establishes what is necessary for a canonically valid marriage – all marriage, natural as well as sacramental: free will, and then the three “Augustinian goods” of marriage – permanence (bonum sacramenti), fidelity (bonum fidei) and openness to offspring (bonum prolis). It is these three bona, goods of marriage, that distinguish marriage from any other type of relationship, and identify what it is in nature and define what it is in the law.
Considered in this light, it becomes clear that the current crisis of marriage of which we are all painfully aware has really been going on in our society for a very long time. This latest debate about the very definition of marriage is simply the next logical – albeit thus far most radical – step in the redefinition of marriage in the social consciousness. That is, marriage has already been redefined in the culture, and the law is now beginning to reflect that. Looked at from the standpoint of the three goods of marriage, we can see how this banalization of the concept of marriage has been going on for at least the last fifty years, that is, since the so-call “sexual revolution” of the 1960’s. Just consider:
Permanence: There is no question that the widespread acceptance of no fault divorce dealt an extremely severe blow to the concept of marriage as a life-long commitment. This already redefined marriage as an adult-centered institution based on what the adults look to get out of it. To put it in the terminology that comes to us from the teaching of St. John Paul II, this is the quintessential “utilitarian” norm: one person becomes the means to another person’s end. When the needs of one are no longer being met by the other, the basis of the relationship is gone and the disappointed party can legally back out of it, even against the wishes of the other spouse who wishes to keep the marriage together. Perhaps you, as I, have known people who have been severely harmed by this decision – they wanted to stay in the relationship and keep it working while the person’s spouse simply backed out and filed for divorce. Now, if we add to this the now almost universally accepted practice of cohabitation outside of marriage, and recognize how easily couples move in and out of relationship, whether it’s cohabitation or marriage, we can see that there is not really that much difference the popular mentality ascribes to those who are married and to couples who are not.
Fidelity: Certainly widespread promiscuity does violence to the idea of marriage as a commitment of exclusive fidelity. Commonplace cohabitation also contributes to the loss of the sense of fidelity as one of the defining goods of marriage, even if, of the three, this one does still have some resonance in the popular culture, at least as an ideal. The social changes that erupted fifty years ago also eventually saw such aberrant practices as so-called “open marriages” and “swinging.”
Offspring: We are now witnessing the phenomenon, until recently inconceivable, of couples marrying with the intention of not have any children at all. Remember “DINKS”? With contraception and then – necessarily, given the mentality – abortion, sex has become redefined, no longer understood as procreative and unitive, but seen rather as a means for pleasure. Thus, we have here again the utilitarian norm: the other person becomes a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. Because the concept of sex has now become disconnected from procreation and, in turn, from marriage, motherhood today is seen as a matter of choice and increasingly a lifestyle choice. We hear absurd things such as, “just because she chose to be a mother doesn’t mean I chose to be a father.” Or the woman who says, “I don’t know how I got pregnant, it wasn’t supposed to happen.” (I have actually heard this one myself!)
When the choice to have a child is simply a lifestyle choice, then increasingly it is seen as a means to fulfillment separated from marriage, for the sake of the adult making the choice, with roles of motherhood and fatherhood becoming interchangeable. Just last Sunday the New York Times had a front-page article on surrogacy, “wombs for hire,” whether the couples are same-sex or opposite sex. And what if the couple decides later they do not want to have the child, but the surrogate mother wants to keep the child and is willing to raise the child herself? As you may know, this has happened, and the surrogate mother was forced to abort the child against her will. What could be a more blatant and outrageous example of a child being treated as an object of desire, a means to an end, rather than a gift of equal value and dignity to the adult and worthy of unconditional self-giving love – what St. John Paul calls the “personalistic norm”?
Sadly, this sort of thing isn’t new. When I was working in Rome – already this was in the late 1990’s – I remember walking past what was obviously a feminist bookstore. And this was just a few blocks from the Vatican, very close to the Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. And there proudly displayed in the window was a book with the title, “Self-Insemination.” I thought to myself, “How ironic. When I was young and ‘women’s lib’ was in full force, the question that women who were with the spirit of the times would ask themselves was, ‘How can I do it without getting pregnant?’ Now the question they ask is, ‘How can I get pregnant without doing it?’”
When the two ends of marriage become not only separated from each other but irrelevant, it’s no wonder that many people cannot make a distinction between heterosexual and same-sex relationships, or between marriage and cohabitation for that matter.
So, you can see how all of this has whittled away at the three defining goods of marriage, and therefore at the very concept of marriage itself. No fault divorce was, especially, the pivotal moment, for that put into the law the idea that marriage is for the gratification and benefits of adults and not about the needs and rights of children. But ultimately it can all be traced back to the contraceptive mentality, which is nothing more than the utilitarian norm applied to sexual relations.
“Living together without the benefit of marriage”: remember that old phrase? You don’t hear it anymore. But just what are those benefits? It’s not simply those material perks the government gives to married couples, which seems to be the exclusive focus these days. Most especially, it’s those two “ends” of marriage, the procreation and education of offspring, and the “mutuum adiutorium,” the mutual good and unity of the spouses: the consolation of children, love becoming incarnate, passing on one’s lineage; and the care the spouses give to each other, being faithful, not just in their sexual behavior but in all aspects of their affection and the practical support they give to each other, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health – to have that kind of security, to always count on that other person, who has made a sacred vow to bind him or herself to the other, is a great thing. Notice, it’s not a one-way street: because the benefits are mutual, so are the responsibilities.
The three “goods” of marriage define what marriage is, the three things the spouses must intend in giving their consent for the marriage bond to be put into place, such that if a spouse were to intentionally exclude anyone one of them from his or her consent the marriage would not be valid. The two ends of marriage, on the other hand, define what marriage is for, the purposes for which marriage is ordered: whether or not they are attained, and the extent to which they may or may not be attained, does not invalidate the marriage or minimize its value. However, if the couple willingly places obstacles to the attaining of these ends it does do harm to the marriage in the sense that the marriage does not become that “school of self-perfection” to the full extent that it is meant to be, training the spouses to live ever more perfectly conformed to the personalistic norm, that is, living the spirituality of responsible parenthood at its deepest level, the heart and most intimate part of the couple’s marital relationship: their spiritual-sexual union.
If you think about it, the formula is quite simple and clear: healthy societies are built on healthy, united families; healthy, united families are based on healthy, happy, harmonious marriages; and at the heart of marriage is the spiritual-sexual relationship between husband and wife. It all really comes down to that. The whole point is the plan of God for our happiness: it is clear that in the plan of God marriage is meant to be a faithful, fruitful, life-long union between a man and a woman. This school of self-perfection is necessary not only for the flourishing of the individual but also for society as a whole. That is why societies that don’t manage the procreative implications of the sexual act don’t last for very long. Just look at our inner city neighborhoods: think of what those neighborhoods were like fifty years ago, and what they are like now. Is this not due, in large part, to the scourge of fatherlessness? As someone much smarter than I on this subject put it, when a baby is born, the mother is sure to be somewhere nearby; there’s no guarantee, though, that the father will be. Society needs a cultural mechanism that attaches fathers to their children and to the woman with whom they brought those children into the world. That cultural mechanism is marriage, and it’s the only one there is; there simply isn’t any other. Marriage is the only way societies have figured out how to harness the erotic energy of youth and channel it into this narrow but very fruitful way.
So you can see how the evil one works: it is the Garden of Eden all over again. Just as in the Garden, so in our own time the evil one has infected this awesome plan of God for our own human flourishing and happiness with Him at its root: he attacks the most intimate part of who we are; he attacks the woman’s fertility so that it is no longer seen as a good and as a blessing, but rather more like an appliance to turn on and off at one’s pleasure or, worse yet, as a problem to be “fixed.” And in doing so, he edges the father out of the picture, acknowledging how critical the father is to a child’s healthy development. This, then, instills the utilitarian view: the other is no longer seen and treated as an inherent good deserving of love simply on the basis of being a human person (the personalistic norm). And the evil one does this precisely because he does not want our human flourishing; no, quite the contrary, he wants our eternal demise.
Marriage and Evangelization
The consequences of all this, then, couldn’t be more serious. But there is even more to it than that. To understand what it is, though, we have to look at the Bible, and then at the Church’s liturgy.
So, let’s begin at the beginning: Genesis chapter one, the first account of creation. As you know, Genesis 1:27 presents the creation of the man and woman as the culmination of God’s creative activity: “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and femalehe created them.” The next chapter speaks of God creating the man first, and then the rest of creation to be a suitable helpmate for him, none of which, though, meets the mark until He creates the woman from one of Adam’s ribs while he is asleep. In his first Encyclical, God is Love, Pope Benedict, with original insight, sees here a connection between monotheism and monogamy; at the same time he give another original insight in reclaiming the love that is “eros” with a Christian meaning. He says (n. 11):
… the idea is certainly present [here] that man is somehow incomplete, driven by nature to seek in another the part that can make him whole, the idea that only in communion with the opposite sex can he become ‘complete’. The biblical account thus concludes with a prophecy about Adam: ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh’ (Gen 2:24).
Two aspects of this are important. First, eros is somehow rooted in man’s very nature; Adam is a seeker, who ‘abandons his mother and father’ in order to find woman; only together do the two represent complete humanity and become ‘one flesh’. The second aspect is equally important. From the standpoint of creation, eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfill its deepest purpose. Corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage. Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa [emphasis added].
This passage of Genesis is critical, because it sets the pattern for the whole rest of Bible, and for all that will later be revealed and, indeed, for all of salvation history
We can already see this in the next step through the Bible, the prophets. They frequently speak of Israel’s relationship to the Lord as a bride to her bridegroom. There is also a book of the Old Testament that is nothing but a collection of love poems: the Song of Songs. Why in the world would a collection of love poems be entered into the canon of Scripture? Pope Benedict explains why, also in God is Love (n. 10):
… the reception of the Song of Songs in the canon of sacred Scripture was soon explained by the idea that these love songs ultimately describe God’s relation to man and man’s relation to God. Thus the Song of Songs became, both in Christian and Jewish literature, a source of mystical knowledge and experience, an expression of the essence of biblical faith: that man can indeed enter into union with God – his primordial aspiration. But this union is … a unity in which both God and man remain themselves and yet become fully one. As Saint Paul says: ‘He who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him’ (1 Cor 6:17).
Is this nothing other than the nuptial mystery, that is, the two becoming fully one, yet remaining themselves, each retaining their unique individual identity? This is why the Song of Songs was the most commented upon book of the Bible in the Middle Ages. You may have noticed, in fact, in the Office of Readings for this very day, the second longer patristic reading is from an exposition of Psalm 118 by St. Ambrose, and he mentions there the Song of Songs. And then he says: “We read in Scripture what the Lord Jesus said through his prophet: Open for me the gates of holiness. It is the soul that has its door, its gates. Christ comes to this door and knocks; he knocks at these gates. Open to him; he wants to enter, to find his bride waiting and watching.” So you see, the fingerprints of the nuptial mystery are just all over the place in Scripture, in Tradition, in our entire theological and spiritual heritage.
Moving onto the New Testament, we have various sayings and parables of Jesus alluding to this imagery, such as the parable of the ten virgins (five wise, five foolish) who took lamps with them to go out and meet the bridegroom (Mt 25:1-13). It is also significant that Jesus chose the occasion of a marriage feast to perform his first miracle; his response to his mother, “My hour has not yet come,” is a reference to the consummation of God’s marriage to His people that will be accomplished by his death on the cross.
A truly pivotal passage in the New Testament, of course, is the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, in which he teaches about the sacramental meaning of marriage, the man symbolizing Christ and the woman the Church. He then points to this as the fulfillment of that prophecy from Genesis: “‘For this reason a man shall leave [his] father and [his] 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). It is a pity that so many preachers avoid this as too controversial when they have the chance to preach on it, or (worse) dismiss it as no longer valid because it pertains to a previous age when women were considered inferior. Actually, quite the contrary is the case, as St. John Paul II points out in his Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, where he speaks about the mutual submission that the husband and wife must make to each other.
Finally, in the Book of Revelation the culmination of all of history at the end times is revealed by the wedding feast of the Lamb. In relating his vision to us, St. John says, “[T]he wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready. … Then the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb’” (Rev 19:7.9).
So it is that the Bible begins and ends with a marriage – Adam and Eve and the wedding feast of the Lamb – and it is replete with this nuptial imagery all throughout. God’s Covenant with Israel is a marriage Covenant; it is fulfilled in the blood of Christ on the cross, establishing the new and eternal Covenant between him, the bridegroom, and his bride, the Church. This imagery is then taken over in the Christian liturgy, which traces its inspiration back to the Jewish liturgy in the Jerusalem Temple. There, the altar stood behind a veil marking off the Holy of Holies, where the priest would enter on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) to offer sacrifice for his sins and those of the people. In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Volume II, Pope Benedict speaks of how the definitive destruction of the Temple, and therefore of the Temple sacrifices, coincided right at the moment that Christianity was established, and the Christians understood the sacrifice of the Eucharist as replacing the provisional Temple sacrifices, as the Eucharist is the re-presentation to us of the one, perfect sacrifice of Christ.
The Christian liturgy is, in fact, heavily influenced by this Temple theology. As the Jewish-Catholic art historian Helen Ratner Dietz explains (in a chapter entitled, “The Nuptial Meaning of Classic Church Architecture” from the book, Benedict XVI and Beauty in Sacred Art and Architecture), the “fourth-century Christian altar hidden by its canopy and curtains had a deliberately nuptial meaning … reminiscent of the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple.” Understanding their Covenant with God to be a marriage covenant, the canopy and curtains in the Temple represented for the Jewish people a “chuppah,” the bridal chamber used in Semitic marriage rituals.
The Christian practice of hanging a curtain between the columns of the baldacchino (the canopy over the altar supported by four pillars) to veil the altar continued throughout the first Christian millennium (see Pope Benedict in The Spirit of the Liturgy, citing Bouyer). This served as a “sacred tent,” sheltering the divine presence, harkening back to the Ark of the Covenant located the within the Holy of Holies. The veil “sheltered” the divine presence. The purpose of a veil is to conceal. What is concealed is what is most sacred, and it is most sacred because it is most intimate – thus, the appropriateness of sheltering it.
Think about our human experience, keeping in mind here that revelation builds on what is already in the created order, it does not superimpose itself upon it: clothing is a veil, it shelters what is most intimate, that is, what most sacred to us about our bodies, which is why we always keep that part of our body veiled. But the veil has to be removed – unveiled, revealed – in order for a marriage to be consummated. So we can understand the meaning of the veil in the Temple being torn in two from top to bottom at the moment of Christ’s death (Mt 27:51): it symbolizes that, through the sacrifice of His Son, God has now revealed what before was concealed to us – His intimate, inner life – and has granted us access to it. The veil, then, conceals what is most intimate – and therefore most sacred – precisely so that it can be revealed to allow the nuptial communion of Christ and the Church. Extrapolating on this, we can see even more clearly the nuptial meaning of the sacrifice of the Eucharist: just as the consummation of a marriage is preceded by the unveiling of what is intimate and therefore most sacred to the spouses, so in the liturgy the marriage feast of the Lamb to his bride the Church is consummated by him giving us his flesh to eat and blood to drink, drawing us into a mystical nuptial union. The Church’s insight into this truth can be seen from the ancient Latin translation (Vulgate) of the verse recounting Christ’s last words on the Cross, “it is finished” (Greek): consummatum est – literally, “it has been consummated.” The drawing back of the curtain before Communion signifies this entering into nuptial union with Christ.
In a retreat given to priests in Ireland, Archbishop Fulton Sheen even spoke of Christ’s blood on the Cross as his “seminal fluid.” We know this, too, from the Fathers of the Church: as God created Adam’s bride, Eve, from his side while he slept, Christ gave birth to his bride, the Church, through the blood and water that flowed from his side while he lay in the sleep of death on the Cross. As the bridegroom, Christ gives the seed of life to the Church; as his bride, the Church receives it, generates new life for his Kingdom through the water of baptism and nourishes that new life through the grace of the sacraments – especially the Eucharist (his blood) – and by teaching his children the truth received from him, the “deposit of faith.” This is why we can speak of “Holy Mother Church.”
This also explains the traditional practice of the “houseling cloth” on the altar rail: in times past, communicants would put their hands under this cloth when they knelt to receive Communion. This was done not only out of respect for any particles that might fall, but it had a deeper symbolic meaning as an extension of the altar cloth. The Eucharist is about bed, board and hearth: the altar cloth not only has the meaning of a table cloth, but all the more it symbolizes bed linen, covering the marriage bed where the Covenant between Christ and his Church is consummated. The houseling cloth, then, was an extension of the altar cloth bringing Christ’s people into that mystical nuptial union through Holy Communion. From this, too, we can understand all the better the importance of worthiness to receive Communion, being in a “state of grace,” a teaching that goes back to St. Paul (cf. 1 Cor 11:27-29). Holy Communion is not a simple gesture of hospitality, much less of affirmation! We should think of Holy Communion not merely as being welcomed to a dinner table but being admitted to a bridal chamber; one must be worthy.
While the practice of the veil in front of the altar (drawn back at time of Communion) has been preserved in the liturgy of many of the Eastern rites of the Church, it has been extinct in the West for over a thousand years. However, the sense of the veil has been preserved in other – albeit diminished – ways up to recent times. Examples of this would be a veil placed in front of the doors of the tabernacle or immediately behind them inside the tabernacle, and the veiling and unveiling of the chalice during the celebration of the Mass. This also gives a deeper meaning to the old practice of women veiling their heads in church. In Christian liturgy, the sacred is veiled, and so again here there is a deeper, symbolic meaning: it is not just a matter of feminine modesty (which in itself is a sign of respect for women, so that men not see them as objects of desire), but consideration given to women as having a special sacred status because they are the bearers of life.
All of this is indicative of a movement away from paganism toward worship of and allegiance to the one, true God; and, it is a movement that happens by way of marriage. Picking up on that point made by Pope Benedict about Adam’s drive for the other that would complete him, Helen Ratner Dietz explains it this way:
… as the ancestors of the Jews gradually emerged from paganism, God let them know that … polytheistic worship of nature deities was unacceptable to Him…. [T]he God of Israel is hetero, ‘other’. He is beyond and before the universe. His bride Israel yearns for Him because He is other. And God, in His own way, yearns for Israel in her earthliness because she, too, is hetero, other than Himself.
When King Solomon in his later years lapsed into the worship of Ashtoreth the earth goddess, thereby denying the oneness and otherness of the divinity, God let him know that there would be deleterious consequences in the next generation. It was with great effort that Israel emerged from pantheism. Pantheism was like a vortex, tugging at Israel to suck her back in, just as today pantheism is like a vortex tugging at the Church [emphasis added].
Likewise for us, there will be deleterious consequences for future generations – there already have been for the current generation; they are the first victims of the demise of the marriage culture, if we think once again of the many inner city neighborhoods across the country as emblematic of the social costs of family fragmentation. But the most deleterious consequence of all if we lose the basic understanding of marriage in the culture is that we will no longer be able to evangelize. And this is not because of the well-documented connection between marriage redefinition and diminishment of religious liberty. Yes, we bishops are very concerned about encroachments of the government on our right to carry out our public ministries in accordance with our moral principles, but, as serious as that is, it is not the most serious threat to evangelization.
When you consider that the entire Judeo-Christian religious tradition is premised on the concept of sexual difference and complementarity in marriage, and then you will understand that, if we lose that concept, nothing of our faith tradition will make any sense in the culture. Precisely because revealed truth is not super-imposed on nature but builds on it – that is, builds upon truths that are accessible to reason alone from the observation of nature – when the culture can no longer apprehend those natural truths, then the very foundation of our teaching evaporates and nothing we have to offer will make sense. The result is a societal reversion to the paganism of old but with a unique post-modern variation on its themes, such as the practice of child sacrifice, the worship of feminine deities, or the cult of priestesses. Since the Church cannot but be immersed in the contemporary society, this is that pantheism tugging at her like a vortex to which Ratner Dietz refers.
Let’s dwell on this for a while, and take note of a similar occurrence that has been going on in society and the Church for an even longer time. Another foundational Christian belief – in fact, the foundational belief – is the Trinity: God is a communion of three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Moreover, this is not a theory composed by the human mind in order to help us comprehend the mystery of the Godhead; no, this is a truth that God has revealed to us, He has taken the initiative to reveal to us His inner life. But now, for a lot of people, the idea of God as Father is oppressive and offensive, the product of a male-dominated patriarchal society (so the worn-out rhetoric goes). So, if we are going to address God as “Father” we must also address God as “mother” (note that Jesus never prayed to his mother, only to his Father). And of course, we must avoid using the male pronoun in reference to God, no matter how contorted or redundant it may sound (such as the rephrased line from the hymn Let All Things Now Living: “the depths of the ocean proclaim God divine – isn’t “divine” the very definition of God, such that the two are synonymous?).
Why would this be? Is it not because we are now living in a fatherless society? Many people today cannot understand the concept of father, or if they do have a concept of father it’s a negative one because of the experience of an abusive or deadbeat dad. Just look at how fathers (and men in general) are portrayed in the culture, in TV shows and in advertising especially: at best they are superfluous; more often, they are portrayed as buffoons.
Here, as with marriage, God uses what He put in the created order to reveal to us a deeper, transcendent, spiritual truth: His love for us, His very inner life. Now, however, because of the crisis in fatherhood, many people cannot comprehend this basic truth, which is really Good News: God is not distant and uncaring, but is our Father, and loves us with a Father’s love. But that doesn’t seem like such good news to a lot of people.
So you can see what will happen if we lose the understanding of marriage – we will not be able to evangelize – not because of laws that forbid it (diminished religious freedom); rather, given that the entire Judeo-Christian religious tradition is premised on the concept of marriage, if we lose that concept, nothing of our faith tradition will make any sense in the culture. And, just like now some people take pains to avoid using any male reference to God, the same sort of thing will happen with marriage. Now, I’m sure you all are not averse to using the male pronoun in reference to God, but you probably have been self-conscious in doing so in certain contexts. Well, the same thing will be true of marriage. This hit me last year at a meeting of the USCCB, when we were praying Evening Prayer together. One of the intercessions was the following: “From the beginning you intended husband and wife to be one. Keep all families united in sincere love.” Sounds fine, right? What’s wrong with that? Well, we will not be allowed to speak of “husband and wife” anymore. So, a petition such as this will have to be changed to, “From the beginning you intended spouses to be one.”
The Church’s Answer to the Crisis of Our Time
But we have the answer to advancing the new evangelization right within the Church’s tradition. As has happened so many times at critical junctures in the Church’s history, Christ gives his Church, his Bride, just what she needs to respond to the challenges to the Gospel in the age in which she lives.
To illustrate this point at a more recent juncture in the Church’s past I would point to the development of Catholic Social Teaching. Think about what was going on in the world back in 1893 when Pope Leo XIII wrote his landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum, which began this whole body of teaching: the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and justice in the workforce was the big question of the time. There were all kinds of oppressive practices in labor at the time. As a result, the political philosophy of Marxism was on the rise, with its promise of justice and equality for all. But Marxism is based on a false understanding of the human person, because it is an explicitly materialistic philosophy. It excluded any sense of the spiritual or the transcendent dimension of the human person. And we know what happened. They promised justice and equality, but what resulted were the most brutal regimes in human history. The Church’s response ushered in her tradition of social teaching which is based on a correct understanding of the human person, seeing the human person as primarily a spiritual being with a transcendent end open to God and to eternity. And so it is that we understand work not as merely a means to build up the economy, but as a means to sanctification. It’s one of the privileged places where people, within the context of society, work out their salvation.
Fast forward three quarters of a century, and we see the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960’s, revolutions that promised freedom, but, guess what? The philosophy of this revolution was based on the same mistake, the mistake of a purely materialistic understanding of the human person. What has been the result? They promised freedom, but have produced oppression, people trapped in poverty, cycles of violence, despair. It is curious that we are witnessing in our country now a similar phenomenon to what happened in the Marxist regimes of the last century. An incorrect understanding of the human person will always result in untold suffering. The Church’s response? Thanks to Pope John Paul II we can now look at the world through the lenses of the Philosophy of Personalism and the Theology of the Body, giving us keen insights into the issues the world is grappling with today based on the nuptial imagery of Scripture. Here the promise of true freedom is realized, because we live in conformity with our spiritual dimension and transcendent purpose.
We’re at a critical juncture in the history of our country right now, and I think we as Catholics have the answer that our nation desperately needs, an answer that comes from our spiritual understanding of life and our intellectual tradition. This is a tradition that has continued to develop through the ages. All of these breakthroughs, all of these developments – Catholic Social Teaching, Responsible Parenthood, Philosophy of Personalism, Theology of the Body – they’re precisely great gifts to the Church and developments in her thinking because they have not come out of the blue, created brand new from scratch. Rather, they look back into our tradition, see what was already there, and bring it out into the light and develop it thoroughly, drawing out the virtualities of what was already there implicitly. What was always there in our tradition now becomes more explicit as a response to what we’re facing in our time. At each of these critical junctures of history Christ has given to the Church precisely the breakthrough she needed to offer the world an authentically human alternative to the trail of destruction blazed by defective philosophies and social movements.
It was Blessed Pope John Paul II who pointed out to us that the Bible begins and ends with a marriage, and that it is replete with the nuptial imagery all in-between. Let us not forget the exhortation with which he began and ended his Pontificate, and constantly reminded us all throughout in-between: be not afraid! It is easy to be onboard with “be not afraid” when there is nothing to be afraid of, when there is no adversary who might cause us some harm. “Be not afraid” only counts for something when there is a perceived imminent threat. I would ask, though: what is this threat? So far, the only harm we risk incurring is being called names, having to deal with angry parishioners who need extra pastoral care to understand God’s plan in all of its depth and beauty. Things are actually much worse for our lay faithful. They suffer in very real ways for taking a stand for marriage – losing their jobs or otherwise having their career advancement blocked, being stigmatized and marginalized in the workplace, at school, and in other communities in which they interact, and even worse things than these. But for us, it’s just a matter of being called names and getting people mad at us. So, I say: big deal. We who are ordained have a great advantage, because we won’t suffer those other things. So I would say that we should not back down on preaching and teaching the truth in charity. You know as well as I do that when people finally get the Church’s teaching – not just the “do’s and don’ts,” but what the Church really teaches and why, the wisdom underlying that teaching – they are converted completely. Especially, the young people. The most common comment from the young people one hears is, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before? It would have saved me untold heartache.”
That’s why God’s plan for marriage, at its very root, its deepest core – the spirituality of responsible parenthood, and the powerful good it holds out for the couple, the family, and society as a whole – is, I believe anyway, the key to the New Evangelization. It’s that ah-ha moment: “if the Church is right even about this, maybe it’s right about everything else, too.” The uniquely sacramental character of Catholic worship will help to instill this – if we priests celebrate the Mass properly, reverently and devoutly (and insure its celebration in this way, providing much needed formation and instruction for liturgical ministers), the Church will be renewed for her mission from the heart. Just think about the married couples you’ve known who are faithful to the Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood and living God’s plan for their married lives – aren’t they the ones who are most generous, most supportive, most faithful and devout overall, and happiest and most secure in their marriage?
When you think about it, the Catholic Church is the world expert on marriage. No one has been involved with marriage more than we have: for 2,000 years we have been reflecting on it philosophically, theologically and mystically; for 2,000 years we have been legislating on it and dealing with it pastorally; we have the vocabulary, the philosophy and the anthropology, we know how to speak from the perspective of natural law. We can make the case for marriage better than anyone else. And we shouldn’t be afraid to do so. I am reminded of a film I saw on the life of Fr. Jerzy Popielusko with my seminarians last year. He really did have something to fear. In a film clip of an interview with him, he spoke of the suffering of Christ and the apostles, even to the point of death, and he spoke of how the priest must do likewise. He said: “The role of the priest is to proclaim the truth, to suffer for the truth, and if necessary, to die for the truth.”
The wisdom the Church has to offer us, in light of the social and political trends we are facing today, is precisely what we need to advance the New Evangelization. And the best way to advance it is for each of us to live our vocation well and faithfully. When we do that, we bear witness to the joyful, better way of the Good News. It is both good and new, in fact, eternally new. What gets old is using someone for your own gratification. Giving of yourself, unconditionally to the other, never gets old. Yes, it’s really hard, but when we do that, our vocation becomes what it is designed for: a school of self-perfection, forming us into people capable of giving and receiving love, above all, God’s love, and so we attain our common human vocation: happiness with Him now and forever in the perfection of heaven. So let us prepare ourselves to suffer for the truth: our people are counting on us, and expect no less from us.
BE NOT AFRAID!