The Synod and the Meaning of the Marriage Act

The recent Vatican conference on the Complementarity of Man and Woman (November 17-19) got high marks from reviewers. Pope Francis invited speakers from a wide spectrum of religious traditions including Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Jains, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Muslims and Sikhs from around the world to discuss marriage consisting of male husband and female wife. It was good to see such a widespread agreement on traditional marriage, but from the reports I read, it seems that the speakers avoided those subjects on which they would differ.

That is, there seems to be wide agreement that marriage is a divine and natural institution between one man and one woman, but nothing was said about the events that have led up to the growing acceptance of “same-sex marriage.” For that we turn to an unusual source, a book review in the Wall Street Journal (weekend edition Oct 11-12, 2014).

In Henry Allen’s review of a new book, the Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig, he favorably quotes journalist Margaret Wente as saying, “The pill decoupled sex and marriage, and it also decoupled marriage and procreation. The purpose of marriage was mutual satisfaction, not children. And once that happened, gay marriage probably became inevitable” (my emphasis).

A problem with traditional natural-law theology is that it commonly explains various evils in terms of their natural effects rather than in terms of their violation of the created order. For example, the evil of fornication can be seen in a consequentialist way—it might cause the birth of an out-of-wedlock baby with all the difficulties that entails for both the child and the parents, especially the mother who is typically the permanent caregiver. That explanation is by no means erroneous, but effective contraception makes it seem that fornication no longer has evil consequences. (Of course, it is never 100% effective in real life.) Something more is needed to explain its evil, regardless of the effectiveness or failures of contraceptive devices and drugs.

I suggest a theology that starts with a stated norm. “Sexual intercourse is intended by God to be, at least implicitly, a renewal of the marriage covenant.”

That means several things. First, God has a plan for love, marriage and sexuality. Second, in that plan, sexual union is reserved exclusively for marriage. If you believe that, then it is easy to understand that most sexual sins are evil first because they are not marriage acts and then also because of their evil consequences. Regardless of affection in adultery and fornication, they still contradict the divine plan and are evil. Third, within marriage, the marriage act ought to be a true marriage act, renewing and not contradicting the marriage covenant. Within marriage, a contraceptive sexual act is not a true marriage act; its body language clearly says, “I take you for better but definitely NOT for the imagined worse of possible pregnancy.” That contradicts the “for better and for worse” of the marriage covenant, and such an act is thus dishonest and immoral.

It seems to me that the Pope and bishops simply have to find a way to clearly express the evil of sins against love and marriage. They have to preach and teach meaning, not consequences. The renewal-of-the-marriage-covenant theology offers one way to do this. Many have found that it makes good sense, and some have found to be helpfully persuasive.

Somehow, the Pope and bishops need to make it clear that they believe that God really does have a plan that gives beautiful meaning to married love and sexuality. The marriage act is meant to be a renewal of the marriage covenant. That can help young people tempted to fornication to realize that sex outside of marriage is seriously dishonest, violating the very meaning of sexual union. It can help married couples to realize not only the evil of marital contraception but also that their marriage act ought to be a renewal of the faith and caring love they pledged on their wedding day.

The bottom line is that the sexual act has a God-given built-in marital meaning, and Pope Francis and his fellow bishops need to make this meaning clear and promulgate it enthusiastically to the entire world. They also need to clarify and preach the essential dishonesty of all sexual sins. And along with Blessed Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, they need to encourage the weak and the fallen to make good use of the sacrament of healing and reconciliation given us by the Lord on Resurrection evening.

John F. Kippley, November 29, 2014

 

 

 

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