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Is Marriage Un-American? Secret of Good Sexuality

When the American Institute of Health insisted that the words “husband and wife” could no longer be used in their offices, little did they realize how prophetic was their action in commenting on the state of affairs of love and marriage in the United States.

By suppressing the use of the words “husband and wife,” and giving constitutional reasons, the American Institute of Health gave us several messages about the denigration of matrimony. They did it with society’s permission, making it sound as if marriage is un-American.

The sexual revolution has brought about different American perspectives concerning our attitudes toward sexuality.

Like the French revolution, the sexual revolution has tried to bring us liberty, equality, fraternity, but also brought us the baggage of the revolution: modernity with the religion of science and faith in progress with the goodness of reason enthroned.

The French revolution also brought us the guillotine.

We celebrated the 200th anniversary of the French revolution in Houston several years ago by participating in one of the greatest modern operas, The Dialogue of the Carmelites (text written by Bernanos), which commemorates the deaths of the Carmelite nuns in Paris by guillotine.

Like Marxists, the French revolutionists couldn’t handle liberty. The same is true of the proponents of the sexual revolution. It will be interesting to see how they will respond to those who disagree.

The Rights of Children

The present form of sex education and sale of sex as a commodity in the media has taken the joy out of sex.

With the focus on anatomy, condoms and acrobatics, children are being deprived of their right (one day) to a meaningful and profound experience of human sexuality, not to mention the sacramentality and complementarity of sexual relationship.

Sex education, where human sexuality is presented in all its beauty within a partnership of intimacy of love and life, is good and necessary, but today’s ersatz sex education tends not to be.

The style of modern sexual information neglects any reference to personhood and friendship, so important in sexuality, depriving children of their right to have a beautiful experience in a committed relationship.

This is tragic.

The great casualty of the sexual revolution and condom education is the loss of the meaning of sexuality.

We must find a way for teachers to impart the convictions of our religious communities about the joyous, sacred aspects of sexual expression and sexual restraint.

There is not only the loss of innocence promoted by early use of contraception, but the gigantic loss of the meaning of love, mystery, passion and beauty.

Children’s rights demand rites. Rites are not un-American.

Now we know the meaning: we ask for bread and you give us a stone. This premature, mechanical approach to sex has led not only to the diminishment of the joy of sex, but will contribute to the creation of a generation of frigid lovers who aren’t good at it. Great passion will be unknown to them.

We plan to approach the ACLU about the restoration of the rights to good sexuality for our children and grandchildren.

Sexuality is Like Good Wine

Preparation for marriage must take place for many years before the actual event. Young people should have models to teach them that we find true happiness through the sincere gift of self, that we are called to live in truth and love. This gift of self is not just the body, but a spiritual friendship as well.

Sexuality is like good wine. It should not be drunk before its time. Wine requires a good barrel, the right temperature and the right timing.

So with sexuality. It requires right relationship and commitment and the right time. In the past, some have referred to this as marriage.

Deprived of Ecstasy

The decrease in appreciation of the beauty of sexuality has put in jeopardy our ability to understand the great mystics and saints who could only explain their deep union with their beloved (God) in nuptial terms. They were in love. With today’s emphasis on the physical only, sometimes tinged with superficial romanticism, the passionate love of the Saints may be incomprehensible. People are being deprived of this insight and the foretaste of the beatific vision, the culmination of a great love affair.

Dorothy Day, in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, spells out this nuptiality: “I had known enough of love to know that a good healthy family life was as near to heaven as one could get in this life. There was another sample of heaven, of the enjoyment of God. The very sexual act itself was used again and again in Scripture as a figure of the beatific vision. It was not because I was tired of sex, satiated, disilusioned, that I turned to God. Radical friends used to insinuate this. It was because through a whole love, both physical and spiritual, I came to know God.” (p. 140)

Dorothy saw no need to apologize for her celibacy. She shamelessly embraced it and is a good example of the implementation of celibacy, not only as a witness to eternal values and the beatific vision, but as a witness of one loving the Lord passionately in our brothers and sisters.

After her conversion, she remained virginal in her pursuit of the Kingdom. She gave her life in love and understood the power of celibacy. She loved quoting St. John of the Cross, who so passionately describes the LOVE relationship, where he says, “Where there is no love, put love and you will find love.”

Dorothy was a contemplative and would have fit into any Carmel.

Unless we love God and others passionately, how will we ever understand the poetry of St. John of the Cross or the Catnicle of Canticles or the book of Osee?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church runs the risk of being banned in Boston in saying to couples that their love relationship on earth is a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb: “How can I ever express the happiness of a marriage joined by the Church, strengthened by an offering, sealed by a blessing, announced by angels, and ratified by the Father? … How wonderful the bond between two believers, now one in hope, one in desire, one in discipline, one in the same service! They are both children of one Father and servants of the same Master, undivided in spirit and flesh, truly two in one flesh. Where the flesh is one, one also is the spirit.” (Tertullian) (1642)

The Sexual Revolution needs to be De-mythologized

The sexual revolution’s goal was to free us from guilt and inhibition and bring us to new heights in sexual enjoyment. It may have increased so-called guiltless promiscuity, but it has not increased the enhancement of sexuality as an expression of love. Instead, it has freed us from appreciating the tremendous bond that can exist between two human beings.

The changes in sexual behavior and moral assumptions–which we call the sexual revolution–have been not only costly, but devastating.

It is a revolution, and it appears that men have won and women are paying for with their bodies–in the name of equality. A revisionist look at the current consequences of the sexual revolution asks if there are ways to reduce what it is costing millions of women. In reality it has also diminished the humanity and spirituality of many men.

Women speak of having control over their bodies–but their bodies are out of control, lost to the control of men who infect them with diseases and impregnate them with unwanted pregnancies.

The figures on sexually transmitted diseases are absolutely incredible. Can we believe the Center for Disease Control that 60 million Americans, two-thirds of them under 25, now suffer from more than 20 common and 30 rare sexually transmitted diseases, many incurable? Or that about 12 million new cases of these diseases are acquired each year? Or that currently over one in four teenagers has a serious STD? (NOR, January 1998).

Even Ann Landers, the perennial optimist and America’s most influential “theologian,” stated in her Christmas message of two weeks ago that there is “more bad news…veneral disease is epidemic” (Houston Chronicle 12/25/97).

The sexual revolution brought us no-fault divorce, a disaster for women and single-parent families; now they bring us no-fault sexuality, another disaster.

The major legacy of the sexual revolution is the attainment of a new level of selfishness encouraged by a hedonistic culture and the genital obsession of the media and advertisement, in addition to diseases of epidemic proportions. Those who do research and have no so-called “morality” ax to grind indicate that the promotion of condom use actually promotes promiscuity and thus disease and pregnancy. Current instruction at the elementary, junior high and high school level communicates approval of this behavior. (The authors’ daughter went to a national education conference for teachers and was taught there to demonstrate to fourth graders how to put on a condom.)

Where have all the Flowers Gone?

The children of the sixties’ Flower Children of the Haight Ashbury (We knew them in the San Francisco Bay Area), begotten of parents who brought sexual freedom to the world, feel betrayed. These children feel that their flower-children parents, who epitomized the glories of the sexual revolution, have produced weeds.

Naomi Wolfe (Atlantic Monthly writer) tells in her new book of her libertine upbringing by her parents (flower children) in which a sixteen-year-old lad was her sexual guru, a sixteen year old imprisoned by the pleasure principle and whose ability to comprehend anything about meaningful sexuality was severely limited, to put it in the most complementary way.

Children of flower children are wondering whether they want their young virgins deflowered in this way.

Recently, we told of a young couple who were planning to marry. This couple, in fact, we thought too young, and we questioned them about their preparedness for marriage. They responded quickly and joyfully: “But we are such good friends!”

The immediate response of a young man in the audience was, “What in the world does friendship have to do with good sex?” He was among the college students who believe that anything is ethical as long as you don’t get arrested for having intercourse with someone who is drunk. (Witness the date rape accusations at Brown University).

Condom Power

Those of us who work with immigrants can almost understand the concern about AIDS that welcomes the undocumented and showers them with condoms.

The immigrant may have just arrived with dirty, filthy, clothing from riding under or on a train or have shoes with toes showing through, having walked for days from Central America or Mexico. Their stomachs may be wretching from not having eaten in a week, but the only thing that U. S. agencies are allowed to give them legally is a package of condoms. Other kinds of help (housing and transporation) may lead to one’s arrest. Even food assistance is prohibited for the undocumented by a number of ecumenical religious social service coalitions in Houston.

The passion and religious fervor of condom distributors approaches that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and leaves Catholic Workers shamefully jealous and envious for not having the same fervor for peace and justice.

A tremendous example of condom power was the showering a few years ago of a newly ordained priest and his mother with condoms as he gave her his very first blessing. Meant as an attack on the Church, this invasion of sacred space was also an example of the unawareness of the sacredness of sexuality.

Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” does not have to be our response in this situation.

Hildegard of Bingen and Dorothy Day

Contemporary discussions and arguments about gender issues obfuscate our understanding of the great gift of marriage. These arguments often demonstrate an ignorance or unawareness of the history of philosophy, particularly as it relates to women. They also overflow into Catholic Worker discussions and life, sometimes causing pain and confusion.

In an understanding of women and men, which rather obviously affects marriage, Dorothy Day and Hildegard of Bingen would seem to have similar views.

Sr. Prudence Allen, R.S.M., in her book The Concept of Woman: the Aristotelian Revolution, 750 B.C.-A.D. 1250 (Eerdmans, 1985, 1997), presents Hildegard of Bingen as the foundress of a philosophical foundation for sex complementarity–“a theory which claims that women and men are significantly different and that they are equal” (p. 3). Allen shows how Aristotelianism won out as a philosophy of women and was institutionalized at the University of Paris and then at other institutions, at which time Hildegard of Bingen’s ideas also were buried until recent times.

Allen contrasts her thought with that of the Platonists and neo-Platonists and Aristotelians, including St. Thomas Aquinas. The Platonists and neo-Platonists believed in sex unity, that men and women are equal and that they are not significantly different (deriving from Plato’s theory of the soul imprisoned in the body; this theory devalued the materiality of the person). The Aristotelians believed in sex polarity, that women and men are significantly different and that men are superior to women.

In the twelfth century, Allen tells us, “for the first time in history significant numbers of women and men together studied and discussed philosophy within the context of double monasteries.” In this context the “genius” of the great Benedictine Abess Hildegard had the opportunity to flower. “Integrating the rational, material and spiritual aspects of human nature into a unified whole, Hildegard argued that women were equal to but significantly different from men.” (p. 408)

Allen suggests that contemporary scholars seek the kind of integration of rationality, materiality and spirituality found in Hildegard’s work, while going further in developing a more contemporary understanding of the significance of the factor of individuality in understanding the person as such. The Concept of Woman is a fascinating book for those interested in further study of this topic.

As Catholic Workers study the writings of Dorothy Day, or as couples live and work as CW’s these philosophical questions arise. Dorothy is outspoken about differences between women and men, but also very concerned about poor women and their lives, and appears to have no doubt about her capabilities as a woman.

The writings of Dorothy reflect her belief in complementarity of the sexes, with the same integration of rationality, materiality and spirituality emphasized by Hildegard. The excerpt below from The Long Loneliness (p. 60) reflects on the time before her conversion to Catholicism.

“Emma Goldman was the great exponent of free love in those days, and lectured on the subject, as well as on birth control, literature, anarchism, war, revolution. She had many lovers, and later when she wrote her story Living my Life, she spoke most frankly of her affairs. As I remember it, I was revolted by such promiscuity and even when her book came out would not read it because I was offended in my sex (read “gender”). Men who are revolutionaries, I thought, do not dally on the side as women do, complicating the issue by an emphasis on the personal.

“I am quite ready to concede now that men are the single-minded, the pure of heart, in these (radical) movements. Women by their very nature are more materialistic (concerned with the material), thinking of the home, the children, and of all things needful to them, especially love. And in their constant searching after it, they go against their own best interests. So, I say, I do not really know myself as I was then. I do not know how sincere I was in my love of the poor and my desire to serve them. I know that I was in favor of the works of mercy as we know them, regarding the drives for food and clothing for strikers in the light of justice, and an aid in furthering the revolution. But I was bent on following the journalists’s side of the work. I wanted the privileges of the woman and the work of the man, without following the work of the woman. I wanted to go on picket lines, to go to jail, to write, to influence others and so make my mark on the world. How much ambition and how much self-seeking there was in all this!” (Dorothy often wrote in this style of examination of her conscience in all things.)

Integration vs. Separation

Hildegard of Bingen used many natural metaphors and in all of them she emphasized “the complete integration of soul and body. In this way, she rejected the Platonic tradition in which a soul was considered separate and distinct from the body. At the same time, although Hildegard’s theory paralleled the Aristotelian integration of human rationality and materiality, it avoided the devaluation of the female that is so central to Aristotelian thought. In this way, Hildegard offered a new synthesis of body and soul that led to a complementarity, rather than a polarity of the sexes.” (Allen, p. 301) This integration is lacking today.

Complementarity and Sexuality

The biggest obstacle to meaningful sexuality and marriage is the rampant spread of narcissism and individualism, the opposite of what Hildegard and Dorothy Day taught. There is a strong focus on: my space, my time, my job, my house, my car, my clothes, my body, that can only lead one to cry out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken us? How could we have forgotten that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, so well known by Hildegard and Dorothy Day. The body is not separate from spirituality and reason. The Platonic influence is very strong still and people feel spirituality cannot be expressed through the body–to the great detriment of marriage in our time.

Part of the discomfort with the body and spirituality is that people may be participating in sexual relations without any human reason or relationship. Their bodies are lying!

Marriage as Martyrdom

Catholics are called by our Holy Bible and by Pope John Paul II to give up all and follow Jesus. Married couples are not only those who give up all and follow Jesus, they are also those who give up all to follow each other.

A great symbol in the Bible is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and his mandate that others do the same. This epitomizes our responsibility as followers of Jesus to serve the poor and one another. In the early Church some considered the washing of the feet a sacrament, i.e., “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.”

The washing of the feet symbolizes the Spirit of Jesus and the Gospels: It is better to serve than to be served. It is better to give than receive, it is better to love than to be loved and the paradox of gaining by giving. This describes the followers of Jesus. It is also a challenge to married lovers who are followers of Jesus.

Besides washing the feet of the poor, married couples must wash the feet of each other. They must serve one another. They must seek to love rather than be loved. They must seek to give rather than to receive.

It is crucial for couples not to engage in self-navel gazing. It is crucial that couples look at each other, but above all, it is essential for couples to look out–together. “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

Yes, marriage is martyrdom, because it means death to the self. It means giving up your life for another. It means dying for another.

The promise of the marriage vows is faithfulness in sickness and health, until the death! “Oh death, where is thy sting!”

St. Paul is so good in affirming this martyrdom. He says profound married love is a great mystery, like Christ loving the Church (His Body) and giving His life for it. Married people must give their lives for one another.

Union in Christ

Fr. Louis Trivison, a Cleveland, Ohio, priest, used to keep his audiences of married couples in awe as he regaled them with his description of how they were closer to Jesus when making love than at any other time–and they should give thanks!

Another Cleveland priest and theologian regaled seminarians with stories about his ministry before he became a professor. His favorite was the story about the late night call he received from one of his prominent parishioners who wanted him to rush to her house and give the “last rites” (anointing of the sick) to her husband who had just died. When he arrived, she was very embarrassed and felt guilty because her husband had died while making love.

“But he died in your arms,” Fr. Baughman protested. “Is there a better way to die than to die in the arms of your beloved in the very act of carrying out the outward sign of inner graced union in Christ! Your bodies were telling the truth.”

She was comforted and gave thanks. What a way to go, she thought. If marriage were approached in this way, imagine the ecstatic joy of two lovers as they come together in Christ to be two in one flesh, one love in Christ. We would know why the Saints and mystics used nuptial language to anticipate the ecstacy of the beatific vision or why researchers say that the greatest sexuality is with long-term committed relationship.

What couples bring to the marriage bed is not their latest style clothing or other material possessions, but love and commitment. What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and doesn’t have a good marriage and sexual relationship? At the same time, if husband and wife are going to carry out their vow to the poor, as one good local Catholic capitalist calls it, they must use their ingenuity to support themselves and their children and not depend on the Church or the state to care for them.

Couples can be witnesses to the paschal mystery, Christ’s victory over sin and selfishness. Through their love, married couples can become the Good News and contribute greatly to evangelization.

Catholic Catechism says it Very Well

“Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter–appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility. In a word it is a question of the normal characteristics of all natural and conjugal love, but with a new significance which not only purifies and strengthens them, but raises them to the extent of making them the expression of specifically Christian values.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1643).

Restoring the Meaning of Husband and Wife

Maybe we do need better words to describe our marriage partner, like “significant other.” Unfortunately, in English we are stuck with words which are short and concise.

Possibly, we need to borrow from the Spanish or Native American languages, using phrases for names. For example, Juan Diego was called “He who Speaks like an Eagle,” or our house outside Mexico City is in Nezahualcoyotl, which means “hungry coyote,” or a certain white man is known as “He who speaks with a forked tongue.”

Maybe we could use phrases to describe our wife or husband:

May I present “She whose feet I wash?”

May I present “He who will die for me?”

May I present “She with whom I am in one flesh?”

May I present “He who tries to live out this great mystery–I mean Christ and the Church?”

May I present “She with whom I share martyrdom?”

May I present “She with whom I anticipate the beatific vision?”

May I present “He with whom I am bonded to Jesus?”

May I present “My best friend?”

May I present “The one with whom we have new creations?”

May I present “The one who is a fruitful vine?”

This is the one I share a sacrament with.

This is the one with whom I perform the works of mercy, as we are called to do by Our Lord.

This is the one who complements me in so many ways that we live and work together as one whole.

Perhaps the search for language to however inadequately describe the incredible beauty and the human and divine reality of the Sacrament of Matrimony will lead us all to deepen the living of our daily lives. We will then be able to make our daily decisions in the intregration of faith and humanness that the Gospel presents to us as our vision.

This could also be a great gift to our American culture and allow us to be good Americans.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, January 1998.