“THE GREATNESS and sublimity of marriage, the closest and most ultimate of unions, raised by Christ to the dignity of a Sacrament, is revealed at one stroke in the exhortation of St. Paul wherein he compares married love to the love of Christ, the Word made Flesh, for His Holy Church.” *
So begins Dietrich von Hildebrand’s “Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love,” a classic explication of traditional Roman Catholic views on marriage and on sexuality. Hildebrand’s reference is to Paul’s instructions (in his letter to the Ephesians): “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and give himself up for her…”
If that one statement were all Paul ever said about marriage, it would hardly seem to carry the weight Hildebrand gives it: it’s hortatory yet hardly definitive regarding the nature of marriage. But Paul in fact was decidedly ambivalent about marriage, and the evidence isn’t hard to find. He wrote, for instance, to the Corinthians, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
That is considerably less than a wholehearted endorsement of married life. Moreover, in that same letter to the Corinthians, Paul added this observation:
“I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.”
Dietrich von Hildebrand’s essay forms the crux of today’s Catholic defense of heterosexual marriage, as well as of Catholic opposition to divorce and to artificial contraception. Anything you read on those topics from the likes of Robert George or Ryan Anderson will be based, in large part, on Hildebrand’s formulations; which is why it matters that he egregiously oversimplified, not to say misstated, what Paul taught about marriage.
If you simply read the section headings in “Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love,” you will get a good summary of Hildebrand’s die-hard Catholic position: beginning with “The Greatness of Marriage” and continuing with “Conjugal love reveals the whole being of the beloved,” “Conjugal love is possible only between a man and a woman,” “Marriage creates an objective bond,” “Marriage is exclusive and irrevocable,” and “Procreation and the communion of love must never deliberately be separated”. Those are the points invariably made, and often the very language used, by Messrs. George and Anderson and their fellow traditionalists.
Traditional as all that may be, however, it also seems a lot to be gleaned from Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians. For that matter, it seems a stretch to base such paeans on the biblical phrase “And the two shall become one flesh,” a phrase first used in Genesis and later repeated by Jesus. The Catholic view of marriage, conjugal love, and sexual intimacy takes that metaphor and pushes it to the limit, as shown in this passage from Hildebrand:
“The union desired in conjugal love becomes by [marriage] objectively real in its fullest sense, and no other earthly communion of love can become objective to such a degree. Both partners now belong wholly to each other. An objective bond unites them: they are no longer two, but one.”
By “objective bond,” Hildebrand means no longer subject to the marital partners’ control, volition, or desires, individually or jointly; the two in marriage are one and there is nothing, literally, that can change that, ever. Combine this with the idea, first suggested by Paul, that human marriage should resemble Christ’s mystical “marriage” to the Church, and you have a view of marriage so elevated, so binding, and so intimidating that few people (assuming they understood it and took it seriously) would enter into it—which may well be why Paul did not encourage it.
The gospels themselves recognize this dilemma. Matthew has Jesus’ disciples respond to his pronouncements on marriage by saying, “If such is the case…it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not all are able to do this, but only those to whom it has been given,” which suggests that the unmarried Jesus also considered marriage not to be for everyone.1 For whatever reasons, Christianity through the centuries has contradicted its Lord by claiming the opposite: that Jesus’ rigorous view of marriage is for everyone, or at least for everyone who chooses to be married in the Catholic Church. On the other hand, vows of poverty (for instance) are reserved for the spiritual elite despite what appear to be Jesus’ clear and frequent instructions to the contrary. It was of course the Church that decided, in its wisdom, which of Jesus’ sayings were to be taken literally and which figuratively, as well as which were only “counsels of perfection” and which applied to ordinary Christians.
If you read Dietrich von Hildebrand’s essay (“Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love”)—and I recommend that you give it a try—you will learn that conservative Catholics have an excellent argument when they talk about the Church’s traditional view of marriage. You may also learn (at least I did) that such a view seems to have little to do with actual marriage, actual sex, or actual human beings; it’s almost as if it was conceived (pardon the pun) by people who had never experienced sex or marriage themselves.2
Not, I hasten to add, that there’s anything wrong with that.
I hope it is not ungenerous to point out that, contra von Hildebrand, it was not Christ who raised marriage “to the dignity of a sacrament” but the Roman Catholic Church, which in fact instituted/decided on all the sacraments. As the heretics (I assume) at Fordham University explain:
Although Christians celebrated specific rituals - above all Baptism and the Eucharist - from the beginning, remarkably little time was spent by the early theologians of the Church discussing the meaning of these rituals. The main focus was on Baptism, both as to its meaning and as to its juridical implications. For the Latin West this concern with Baptism was to lead to a very specific terminology for some of the rituals. The Latin word sacramentum - which meant "oath" - was applied to Baptism in connection with its establishing of a "new covenant" between a human being an God. In time this term "sacrament" became the focus of theologization of the Church's rites. For a very long period, the exact number of sacraments was undefined, and even exactly which ceremonies were "sacramental". In the 12th and 13th centuries the Latin Church saw the development of both a popular devotional focus on the sacraments (especially the Eucharist, which came, in some cases, to play the role previously dominated by relics), and of "sacramental theology"…It was in its contact with Eastern Christians that the Latin Church was forced to define - for the first time - the number and nature of its sacraments.
And please don’t get me started on the Eucharist.
1 Certainly, as far as we know, marriage was not for Jesus himself, nor was it for Paul, nor was it for Augustine, nor for Thomas Aquinas, nor…well, you get the point. As for Hildebrand’s hymn to conjugal love and to marriage partners becoming objectively “one”: Jesus’ own beloved mother Mary (“beloved,” that is, when he wasn’t embarrassing her in public) never attained that status or enjoyed that holy mystery. According to the Catholic Church, Mary’s marriage to Joseph was never physically consummated and she remained, as the Church teaches, “ever virgin”:
As explained in the Catholic Answers tract Brethren of the Lord, neither the Gospel accounts nor the early Christians attest to the notion that Mary bore other children besides Jesus. The faithful knew, through the witness of Scripture and Tradition, that Jesus was Mary’s only child and that she remained a lifelong virgin.
All in all, the Church’s view on these matters is a bit of a puzzle.
2 In fairness, I should acknowledge that Dietrich von Hildebrand was married and did have one child.