When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. (1 Cor 13:11)
A society that trashes marriage will be a society unable to give up childish ways. Marriage is about growing up, not just in age but in how we love. In marriage we are called to give up childish ways and give ourselves completely to another as Christ gave himself for us. In how we live our marriages we teach adult love to both our children and, through them, we teach generations to come. When we give incompletely we slip back into childish ways, denying our children a guiding vision of adult love. When we give completely as husband and wife we teach our children both the true meaning of our sexuality and through it the love of Christ. Challenging this is a modern heresy that proclaims we can give ourselves sexually while giving nothing at all. The Catholic Church alone stands against this contradiction, asserting love as a gift given and defending the unity of sex and marriage.
Unfortunately, not only is there growing hostility to a Church unwilling to succumb to modern whim, but even most Catholics in the Western world now ignore Church teachings. Like many others, they prefer today’s de-sexualized sexuality, a sexuality without gift. They have been seduced by a sexuality divorced from procreation, the single event that defines sex and beyond which it finds neither definition nor fulfillment. The Catholic Church continues to teach and will always teach the indivisibility of sex and love, because to separate them is to destroy both. But the Church needs more than the teaching authority of its Magisterium. It needs married couples as its natural teachers, living their sexuality completely, making real what is otherwise academic. In fully sharing body and soul, these couples powerfully pass onto their children the teaching of a life lived rather than mere words spoken. As these couples dwindle to an ever smaller minority, future generations will grow untaught in a love that best represents the unitive love of Christ.
The definition of love is simple. It is the total gift of self and nothing less. But it’s meaning in our lives is difficult to fully comprehend and difficult to live. I find it useful to see the story of the Bible as both a story of mankind learning how to love and a revelation of who it is loving. As with a growing child, love is revealed to Israel and to mankind historically. We grow up as Israel did, starting with the childlike faith of Abraham, retreating in adolescence into rebellion and the desert as did the children of Israel under Moses, and, finally, advancing to the mature filial love of David. However, the love of the Old Testament is incomplete. The God of David is paternal and David loves him like a grown child who realizes that maybe dad was right all along, even through those terrible adolescent years when all those rules, he now realizes, really were for his own benefit. David’s god was one who would smite his enemies, cover his back, and straighten him out as he needed to be straightened out. In his psalms David loved him and worshiped him as a father who protects and encourages. Yet the god of the psalms is not fully revealed, nor is his love fully understood. In the Old Testament we learn to love as grown children, but not yet as adults. A parental relationship centers on the child. The parent gives and the child receives. Having grown beyond a sense of entitlement and now comprehending the gift his parents have given him, the mature love of a child is gracious. But there is more.
The New Testament tells a story of adult love, love that is mature and complete. The revelation of Jesus exposed love in all its fullness. The story of God’s love turns from the military victories of Joshua and David to the victory of martyrdom. No longer do we smite our enemies, but conquer them with self-sacrificing love. The revelation of God to Moses, “I am,” now seems only the beginning of a sentence that the life of Jesus completes as “I am yours.” We are invited not to serve under him as children but to become one with him as adults. The angel Gabriel’s salutation to Mary, “Hail, full of grace” (Luke 1:28) is not simply a great greeting but a harbinger of what we are to become. St. Paul tells us in Galatians, “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me … who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). No longer are we invited to God’s kingdom as children but as spouses joined in union with him. Jesus revealed a love that is not paternal but matrimonial. We are not called as children responding to parents. We are called to love as adults accepting a nuptial invitation.
This invitation requires an adult response. Unfortunately, many of us have refused to move beyond adolescence, have refused to give up “childish ways” and have persisted in seeing the “mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:11-12). Our reply to his gift, the offer of himself, has often resembled, “Gosh that’s great, Lord. Um, I’m going out, please leave the lights on.” When we choose to see the mirror properly as men and women who have given up childish ways we will see that there is only one answer to “I am yours,” and that is with our mirrored reply, “I am yours.” Jesus showed us with the cross that his gift was complete. He withheld nothing. We love as a child because we have been declared worthy by those who have generously given us their lives. As adults we love by giving back that which we received. Adult love requires death to self. This is not a physical death but the death of “I want,” “mine,” and “myself.” Jesus reveals a love that is the death of the ownership of our own lives. Though we can answer this invitation to love in many ways, it is in marriage that we are offered the opportunity to live and respond to this invitation sacramentally. When a man and woman in marriage say to each other, “I am yours,” they cede ownership of each individual life to the marital union, bridging heaven and earth to share in the work of God’s creation.
But as we see in the Bible and know from our own lives, love must be taught and learned. If only a few are teaching only a few will learn. As mankind was taught to love we must learn to love in our own lives, first as children and then as adults. We learn it from many people throughout our lives, but the love that is most complete, adult love, we learn from our parents, not as parents, but as husband and wife. When we parent our children we show them the love of God as understood in the Old Testament Psalms. It is in our relationship as husband and wife that we teach them the fully revealed love of Jesus. When we hold back any part of ourselves in our marital relationships, we shortchange our children and leave them searching for that which we did not teach them.
The Catholic Church has been maligned in our modern world as behind the times, but it alone still teaches what we need to hear about divorce, contraception and sex outside of marriage, and it alone continues to point to the critical importance of a marital relationship based on a man and woman truly giving themselves to one another. While the progressive elements in our political sphere continually cry about the need to protect our children and their children and so on, only the Catholic Church realizes that the future is not in the mere existence of environmentally compatible humanlike beings but in children who are both loved as children and learn to love as adults. Without adult love we will find our future not in heaven but in William Golding’s tale, The Lord of the Flies. Children who learn to love as adults will carry humanity forward, because to be human in God’s image is to love. When we alter marriage to mean anything we want it to mean, we destroy the tree from which adult love grows.
Marriage and living our sexuality are inseparable. It is as sexual beings we are born and it is in living our sexuality that we learn to love. Seeing our sexuality for what it is, not for what we want it to be, should strike us with awe. Our sexuality is the part of us that creates life. It is a trust we hold over the lives of others. When we live sexually we live right by others. We cannot live sexually and not respect the power we hold. This power requires that we place others before ourselves. When we live sexually we learn to love because only through the denial of transient desires can we truly respect the sexual being of the other. When we live nonsexually, when we separate our sexuality from its inherent purpose, we say “no” not only to a part of who we are but to a part of every person we meet. Our relationships will be not with the real people we meet but with what we want them to be. To live sexually is to live chastely. Chastity is no more than the proper use of a powerful gift. Marriage is its natural result and the nexus where self-giving love approaches the divine in the act of creation. It is in this nexus that the consummation of marriage, the full realization of sexuality in a lifelong relationship, becomes truly sacramental.
In this light, I believe, the Church’s teaching on contraception and sexuality must be seen. When we obscure the purpose of our sexuality with artificial birth control or disconnect it from creation we de-sacramentalize or desecrate it. In removing it from the realm of creation we separate it from the divine and render marital love incomplete. Many of us have found ourselves bewildered, if not betrayed, when we approached the Catholic teachings on sex and contraception and saw only prohibitions. In looking at the trees we missed the forest. In thinking these teachings demand the production of children, we miss that they point to the unitive and self-sacrificing love of a man and woman. Children are not a byproduct of a loving relationship anymore than a branch is the byproduct of a healthy tree. Children are integral to love, its natural outgrowth. The Church does not say you must have children, but that love requires that husband and wife give themselves completely to each other as the man and woman they are. In this way they mimic the love of Christ. Children will be a natural part of this love. For couples beyond childbearing years or those couples with one or both naturally sterile, the Catholic teaching remains consistent as these couples can give themselves to each other completely as man and woman, and it is that complete gift of self that we are ultimately called to.
When we see that the love of a husband and wife is not in having children but in the completeness of their relationship, we can then begin to see that natural family planning differs significantly from artificial birth control. Artificial birth control cuts off the sexuality of both oneself and the other. Natural birth control accepts the other as a sexual person. It requires that husband and wife truly interact and accept each other as male and female with its natural rhythms of fertility. This difference is not minor but radical. One is the denial of sexuality. The other is its affirmation. One rejects while the other accepts an intrinsic part of one’s self and one’s spouse. One requires no denial of self. The other does. Only in the denial of self will love move toward completion, because one can only give what one does not hold onto.
In a world inundated with references to love and sex that have little to do with either, only the Catholic Church is actually talking about sex, love and where they meet in marriage. As children we grow under the parental love of the Old Testament. When we are no longer children, but men and women, it is in the nuptial love of the New Testament we are called to. Church teaching on sexuality guides us toward such love, but the true teachers are parents living that love in their relationship as husband and wife. But that love has fallen on hard times. A culture of broken homes, non-sexual marriages, and non-marital couplings has us teetering on a precipice. Those who teach their children the unitive or nuptial love of Christ in their relationship as husband and wife are now in a tiny minority, even within the Catholic Church. It is more than the nuclear family that forms the basis for society. It is the self-sacrificing love of a man and a woman fully sexual that teaches the next generation to give up its childish ways and to truly become adults who love completely. In our silence, in our reluctance to offend, and in our refusal to lead with our own lives, we are on the verge of losing much more than the nuclear family.
Editor’s note: The image above entitled “The Holy Family with St. Francis” was painted by Peter Raul Rubens in 1635.