One of my favorite and one of the most basic documents regarding the basis for Christian marriage is Ephesians 5:21-33, “21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ 32 This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church; 33 however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (RSV-CE)¹.
This passage is not about wives being subservient to their husbands, allowing themselves to be controlled or dominated. Rather, it is about wives giving themselves wholly and completely to their husbands the way the Church gives itself to Christ. This idea is a little more obvious when one looks at St. Paul’s directions to husbands. They are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. How much did He love the Church? So much that He gave Himself on the cross for her. In that same way, husbands must be willing to give themselves wholly and completely to their wives to the point of death. Not just physical death, but also dying to themselves for the benefit of their wives. Also, and this is most important, husbands have the duty of acting as Savior to their wives and in doing so they are responsible for leading them to Christ.
This whole and complete giving of self occurs everywhere within a marriage, especially in the bedroom. Sex is about giving oneself wholly and completely to their spouse. It is not about controlling one’s spouse or about the pleasure one can receive from them. When one solely seeks pleasure through sex, they have turned their spouse into an instrument of pleasure and they have completely forsaken the human dignity that their spouse possesses. When one allows them self to be used for pleasure, they have completely forsaken their own human dignity. Finding pleasure in sex is not evil, but it should not be the desired end for sex.
I continue to emphasize whole and complete because that is what a marriage is. It is not a 50/50 exchange. In a marriage, each spouse gives 100% to the other. In most marriages today, even the most faithful marriages, there is not a true 100% giving of one spouse to the other. Many hold something back. The most important and most precious gift they can give to their spouse – their fertility. A marriage is to be a visual representation of Christ’s love for His Church. Every aspect of a marriage should mirror that love. Christ’s love for the Church was a Total, Free, Faithful and Fruitful gift of Himself. Marriage must also be a Total, Free, Faithful and Fruitful gift of oneself to the other.
The one place where husbands and wives most mirror Christ’s love is inside the marital embrace. It is for that reason that the Church teaches that sex must be BOTH unitive AND procreative, just as Christ unified the people to God and brought to them new life in the Resurrection. This does not mean, as many would suggest, that the goal of sex or the only reason to have sex is procreation. However, it does mean that each and every sexual act must be open to procreation. This is why contraception, elective sterilization and homosexual acts are contrary to Church teaching.
While marriage is a visual depiction of Christ’s love for the Church, one aspect of this union should not be visible – the sexual aspect. This is something meant just for the spouses to share with one another. When sexual acts are taken out of the bedroom and put on display for others to see, read, hear, etc., this is a violation of the sacred bond between the spouses. This removal of sex from the private arena into the public arena is what we refer to as pornography, which comes from the Greek word πορνε?α (pornea) which translates to mean an unlawful sexual union – see Matthew 19:9, In English, this translates to, “I say to you,whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery” (NABRE)².
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that pornography is an offense against chastity and describes it as follows, “Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials” (CCC, 2354)³.
Pornography often leads to other offenses against chastity including lust, masturbation and fornication. Fornication can even occur inside a marriage when the spouses allow themselves to be overcome with lust and pursue pleasure removed from the unitive and procreative natures of sexual intercourse – see paragraph 2351 of the Catechism4. Pornography, as the Catechism states is not limited just to graphic images and videos of sexual penetration, but also includes simulated sexual acts like those found in many movies today. As Catholics, as Christians, we must fight the temptation and the urge to seek pleasure in those things that are morally improper. It is difficult. Sin, especially sins of the flesh, is attractive, fun, pleasurable and addictive. This is not a temptation that we can fight alone. We need the help of our spouses, others in our faith community and most importantly, we need the help of Christ. We must center our entire lives on Christ. We are human; we suffer from concupiscence (or the predisposition to sin). We will sin. However, it is through Christ that we can battle against temptation to sin. The next time you find yourself in the near occasion of sin, remind yourself of this, “I can do all things through Him, who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, RSV-CE)5.
Christian marriage is the holiest institution on the planet today outside the Church. In fact, some might argue that marriage is holier than the Church, for it is through marriage that we build the Church. However, in order for marriage to remain holy, the spouses must will to make it so. One spouse cannot do it alone, as I mentioned earlier a marriage requires 100% from both spouses. The home is known as the domestic Church. In order for parents to raise holy children, they themselves must live holy lives. There is a famous quote that is often misattributed to St. Francis of Assisi, it goes like this, “Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words”. It is this thinking that should govern our actions, including the types recreational and entertainment choices we make. As spouses, we should not have to tell people about Christ’s Gospel of love, others should see it in our actions. I end today with a prayer for spouses, “O God, we want to live our life together with you and always to continue it with you. Help us never to hurt and never to grieve each other. Help us to share all our works, all our hopes, all our dreams, all our successes, all our failures, all our joys and all our sorrows. Help us to have no secrets from each other so that we may be truly one. Keep us always true to each other, and grant that all the years ahead may draw us ever closer to each other. Grant that nothing may ever come between us and nothing may ever make us ever drift apart. And as we live with each other, help us to live with you, so that our love may grow perfect in your love, for you are the God whose name is love. This we ask for your love’s sake. Amen.”
- Ephesians 5:21-33, Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition
- Matthew 19:9, New American Bible – Revised Edition
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2354
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2351
- Philippians 4:13, Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition