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Good marital sexuality mirrors the love of God


The idea that marriage is a sacrament is rooted in the Epistle to the Ephesians, which makes the relation of husband and wife analogous to the relation of Christ and the church. This idea was picked up in St. Augustine’s writings on marriage in the late fourth century. Augustine spoke of three reasons for the “good of marriage”: the goodness of progeny, the control of lust, and “mysterium” or the imaging in marriage of the relation of Christ and the church.

Yet Augustine also argued, with other church fathers of his time, that the blessings on progeny given by God in Genesis 1:28 had been superseded by the coming of Christ. Marriage was still good and allowed in the Christian era, but the highest way of life was virginity or sexual continence. It was this way of life that represented the redemptive community of heaven where “there will be no marriage or giving in marriage.” Following Luke 20:35, those who are accounted worthy to attain that heavenly time will anticipate it by not marrying now. Augustine argued for a spiritual hierarchy in heaven, with the virgins and continent widows on a higher level than the married. Thus the married were distinctly third rate in Augustine’s view of the church and the kingdom of heaven.

Augustine also believed that all sexuality, even within marriage, had been corrupted by the fall. It was not possible to engage in the sexual act without sinful concupiscence. This was forgiven within marriage if sex was engaged in solely for the sake of procreation, but sexual pleasure in marriage that impeded procreation is equivalent to fornication. This is the root of the anti-birth control tradition in Western Christianity. For Augustine, marital sex even for procreation was always tainted by lust, which “dragged the manly mind down from its heavenly heights to wallow in the flesh.” Hence marital sex could never properly be an expression of love that mirrored the love of humans and God. Rather he thought of marital sex as always having an element of enmity between husband and wife, since the act itself corrupted the soul toward its lower, sinful self.

Augustine expressed this view in a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount where he compared sexual love of one’s wife to loving one’s enemies. Husbands are told “in one and the same woman to love the creature of God whom he desired to be renewed, but to hate the corruptible and mortal conjugal connection and sexual intercourse: to love in her what is characteristic of a human being, but to hate what belongs to her as a wife.” Augustine thought that love between husband and wife could lose this enmity only when sexual relations were given up.

These views of the inherent negativity of marital sexuality prevented the Western Christian tradition from developing the insight that marriage is sacramental in a way that included marital sexuality. This was in sharp contrast to the mystical Jewish tradition that believed that the sexual embrace of a faithful Jewish couple, especially on the eve of the Sabbath, mirrored the embrace of God and his Shekinah. In this sexual embrace, the union of the masculine and feminine aspects of God is prefigured, pointing toward the ultimate healing and redemption of the world in union with God.

For mystical Judaism, marital sexuality was itself sacramental, an expression of sacred and redemptive communion. By contrast, the Western Catholic tradition used the idea of marriage as a sacrament primarily to argue for its indissolubility and hence the inadmissibility of divorce and remarriage. But, following Augustine, marital sexuality itself was tainted, and those who would be genuinely spiritual should give up sex.

In the 16th century, Luther and the Reformers rejected the whole tradition of celibacy as a higher spiritual vocation than marriage and a requirement for ordained ministry. For Luther, marriage is an ordinance of creation, and all human beings are normatively called to marry in order to continue the creation of the world. For Luther, sexuality is corrupted by lust, but also hardly anyone is capable of living without it. Thus celibacy leads primarily to falling below faithful marital sexuality into fornication, not rising above it. On these grounds, Luther rejected celibacy as a higher vocation and demanded that all Christians, with some rare exceptions, marry.

But Luther also rejected marriage as a sacrament. For Luther a sacrament is an ordinance of Christ related to redemption. Marriage was not founded by Christ as an expression of redemptive grace, but is an ordinance of creation given by God at the creation of the world. The only sacraments, for Luther and other Reformers, are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Since marriage is not a sacrament, it is also dissoluble. Divorce with remarriage is possible, although only for very serious reasons: primarily for desertion and adultery. Thus Protestantism and Catholicism have sharply differing views of the sacramentality of marriage.

The Protestant view that marriage is an ordinance of creation has not only allowed for divorce and remarriage. But it also is the basis for the Christian Right view that the male-headed family is founded by God at creation. Family is not a historical construct with several possible forms. Rather, there is only one right form of the family, mandated by God at creation. It is this view of the male-headed family as an unchangeable ordinance of creation that underlies the current “family values” debate in the United States.

It seems that the time is overdue for a serious discussion of the sacramentality of marriage that might mediate between these two contrary traditions. We can think in a different way about marriage as a sacramental imaging of the relation of Christ and the church. Rather than thinking of one form of the family (the male-headed family) as a creational norm, we should think of marriage as an expression of the quest for redemptive community. Male domination is not redemptive but an oppressive human historical construct that needs to be transcended by redemptive mutuality between spouses, family members and community.

Marriage is related to church as one expression of redemptive community, rather than being either negated by redemptive future hope, or made an unchangeable expression of an oppressive relationship of the past. Christians need to ask whether good marital sexuality itself might be understood as a means of grace that mirrors the love of God and the healing of the relation of God and the world, as in the Jewish tradition, rather than as sinful lust forgiven for the sake of progeny, but having in itself no redeeming value.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill., and the author of Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family (Beacon Press, 2000). Her e-mail address is Rosemary.Ruether@nwu.edu

National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 2001