6.3.5 CST’s high view of the marriage relationship

Back to 6.3.4

Unit 6 Contents



(iii)  Beyond hedonism and voluntarism to ‘nuptial mysticism’

The third way in which I hope some comments can enable clearer understanding of the last reading from Familiaris Consortio builds on the second.  It can be very helpful to locate what the last screen says more fully in Catholic theology.

You have seen in earlier units the way in which CST’s vision is deeply different from the mechanistic worldview which emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and led, among other things, to the emergence of economic liberalism and capitalism.  In the area of sexual relationships, marriage and family, CST’s stance is probably even more dramatically different from what that worldview leads to than it is in the areas of working life and economics.

This is reflected in Pope John Paul’s statement that sexuality “is by no means purely biological” (FC, #11).  In a purely mechanist way of seeing things (see 6.2.1), sexual pleasure is an unusually intense kind of pleasure among many others.  But it isn’t more than that; it is essentially biological, and in this it is the same kind of thing as all pleasures or satisfied desires – it gives ‘utility’.  They are all experienced by stimulation of some part or other of the human biological mechanism and none is inherently better than any other. In this perspective marriage has value only as one means by which each partner seeks to maximize their own ‘utility’.

Near the start of this unit (6.2.1), we looked at the view of human wellbeing to which that mechanistic worldview leads, namely ‘hedonism’.  We also gave attention to an alternative to this in modern secular thinking, namely ‘voluntarism’, a similarly individualistic view.  You will recall that, in voluntarism, human wellbeing is a matter of each person exercising their free will, of each freely pursuing their own projects.  In this perspective, any sexual relationship is fine, as long as the individuals involved have each freely chosen it, and in this respect sexual relationships are no different from other things in life.  It is the individual’s choice of his or her actions that means they contribute to his or her wellbeing, so sex is just another thing you or I might freely choose to do.

As we saw above (6.3.3), Catholic teaching does strongly emphasize the decisive importance of human freedom in relation to marriage.  Yet there is a great difference between how Christianity and voluntarism see sexual relationships.  This can be put in terms of CST’s view of natural law, with which you are now familiar.  While the cultural forms of marriage differ in different times and places, there is, according to CST, a form of relationship we call marriage that is good and fulfilling for most human beings, given their human nature.  People choose to enter or not enter a marriage.  But they don’t by their own free will construct what marriage is.  Rather, this is a gift to human creatures, an institution that, for most people, forms the ordinary way towards human wellbeing in this life.

As you will already be able to see, FC presents a much higher view of sex than either hedonism or voluntarism does.  The Christian view of whole persons means that sexuality “concerns the innermost being of the human person” and is inseparable from a kind of “self-giving” that, to be coherent, has to be total (#11).  This goes a long way towards explaining the emphasis on marriage as the proper context for full sexual relationship: “The only ‘place’ in which this self-giving in its whole truth is made possible is marriage” (#11).  This is obviously not a negative view of sex but, in the context of Christian insistence on the goodness of God’s whole creation, is the complete opposite.  Some would be inclined to critique it, not for seeing sex negatively, but because it presents what they see as an implausibly elevated view of what many regard as not more than biological.

The reading from FC brings out something of the background of this very high view in wider Christian theology.  Marriage is not only about human beings.  Rather, in light of several biblical passages, the Church has long seen the relationship between God and his people on the analogy of marriage.  On the last screen I referred to the eschatological image of the marriage feast of Christ and the Church.  Pope John Paul appeals to the analogy between human marriage and God’s relation with his people at several points (see e.g., #12-13).

The significance of this analogy for Catholic teaching about marriage is immense.  Indeed there is a strong argument that it has become more significant in the last 50 years than ever before.  This is because the theme of the ‘nuptial’ relationship between God and humanity came to be a major focus of some of the greatest and most influential theologians of the twentieth century, including Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, as well as Pope John Paul II.  The author of perhaps the most respected book introducing recent Catholic theology, Fergus Kerr, even says that this is its leading theme at the start of the twenty-first century, calling it “nuptial mysticism”.1

Exploring this further would take us way beyond the subject matter of this module.  But I’ve brought it in as you need to be aware of that important part of the background to what CST says about family life.

As we saw in earlier units, CST has a higher view of the purpose of working life and of business than the dominant neoliberal capitalism does.  In a parallel way, Catholic teaching has a much higher view of sexuality and marriage than do either of the forms of individualism, namely hedonism and voluntarism, that generate many of the assumptions in current secular thinking about these areas of life.

Familiaris Consortio ##11-21: Conclusion

On this and the previous two screens I’ve commented on three main aspects of what is in the part of FC that you’ve read.  These are:

(i)  the primacy of the spouses’ personal freedom in marrying;

(ii)  the different theological backgrounds, in the doctrines of creation and eschatology, of how Catholic teaching sees family life / marriage, on one hand, and ‘religious’ life / singleness, on the other;

(iii)  the analogy between human marriage and the relationship between God and his people – and the high view of marriage to which this leads.


Optional re-reading  (10pp)

In light of these three explanations, skim-read FC, ##11-21, again to see if you can appreciate what it is saying more fully than on first reading.

Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio##11-21 (Part 2 and some of Part 3.I)


We are now going to move on to look at family in the context of wider social life much more directly.  What you have learned through the last reading and commentary on screen is useful background for now exploring what can be seen as more important aspects of the topic for this module, given that we are studying it in the context of Catholic Social Teaching.2

If you wish to pursue further some of the basic ideas about human persons as male and female and about marriage which John Paul sets out in that part of FC, one way of doing this would be through his extensive writing on these topics published as The Theology of the Body.  You will recall that I mentioned that this title was given to a series of 129 addresses he gave in Rome during the early years of his papacy.  This can be seen as the main source for Pope John Paul’s ‘nuptial mysticism’.


Further reading

While pursuing this will take you beyond the scope of this module (so avoid being distracted!), John Paul’s addresses known as The Theology of the Body can be accessed at:

EWTN, Library: John Paul II’s Theology of the Body

There is a substantial debate among Catholic theologians about The Theology of the Body.  One focus for this is the interpretation offered by Christopher West, probably its best-known expositor, many references to whose work you can see at websites listed below.  Among prominent contributors to this debate are David Schindler, Alice von Hildebrand, Dawn Eden and, in the UK, Tina Beattie.  Searches on the web would very quickly lead to discussion of some of the main contributions to this area of academic debate.

It is especially in the United States that The Theology of the Body has generated a huge amount of interest.  Something of an industry has emerged in advocacy and exposition of it, as the following websites show.

Theology of the Body Institute

Theology of the body.net

The Theology of the body.com




End of 6.3.5

Go to 6.3.6 Family as “domestic church”: source for a radical vision


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  1. Fergus Kerr, Twentieth Century Catholic Theologians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptual Mysticism (Blackwell, 2007). 

  2. A note on same-sex marriage  This unit was written before the UK government legislated in 2013 for same-sex couples to have a legal right to marry.  For reasons that will probably be clear from the last few screens, the Catholic Church has not supported such legislation.  (The Catechism, as quoted on 6.3.4, understands marriage as “written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator”, that is as a certain kind of male-female relationship.) For one articulation of the case made by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in opposition to the legislation, see, ‘Briefing to Members of Parliament on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill’, Tuesday 29th January 2013, at http://www.catholic-ew.org.uk/Home/Featured/Marriage-Same-Sex-Couples-Act-2013/Marriage-Bill-Briefing/Briefing-Overview (accessed 8 Jan. 2014).

    I hope it will be helpful to comment briefly on one aspect of this subject, to do with discrimination, although the following does not seek to address what is substantively at issue in this difficult debate. The Bishops’ briefing has a section entitled, ‘Retaining marriage solely for opposite sex couples is not discriminatory’.  The quotation from the Catechism just given – and the Article from which it comes as a whole (Part 2, Sec. 2, Chap. 3, Art. 7) – can help us to see the most basic reason why it is not.  It is important to appreciate this, both because the charge that it is is serious and because this claim has been so prominent in political arguments for same-sex marriage. When the Church’s teaching speaks about marriage, it is referring to a kind of sexual relationship that is inherently male-female (partly constituted as it is by consummation), whatever else is said or might potentially be able to be said theologically about same-sex relationships (positively, negatively or indifferently).  In other words, the Church’s teaching about marriage is simply about something other than same-sex relationships.  Given this, it is illogical to say that this conception of marriage per se is discriminatory against the latter.

    Although this point becomes obvious when you see it, the shift taking place to a new meaning of ‘marriage’ (see below) can make it difficult to see.  Hence I’ll explain further: if A and B are words referring to two different groups of people that are similar in some ways and dissimilar in others – e.g. ‘hospital doctors’ and ‘general practitioners’ – and Z is a word – ‘doctors’ – that encompasses both A and B, it is not coherent to say that describing A is in itself discriminatory against B.  Rather, there is discrimination when Z (‘doctors’) encompasses A and B but action or speech excludes B (‘GPs’) from the requirements of justice for Z.  In the Church’s teaching (and in the English language generally until very recently), the word ‘marriage’ has meant a certain kind of male-female sexual relationship (A), so in this meaning it does not encompass same-sex relationships (B). It isn’t coherent to say that marriage, in this sense, is discriminatory against same-sex couples.

    This said, changes in law in the UK and elsewhere, and the practice this makes possible, are rapidly shifting the meaning of the word ‘marriage’ in ordinary English usage away from that sense, i.e. from A towards Z, namely (roughly speaking), ‘all committed relationships between two (non-biologically related) people, regardless of sex/gender’. Hence ‘marriage’ has come to have two contradictory meanings, a traditional meaning found in most Christian teaching and (at least until recently) many other discourses, and a new one determined in law and now becoming widespread in ordinary use. This is unlikely to be sustainable because languages tend to develop distinct words for different kinds of thing. (Self-evidently legislators can’t turn B into A.)

    Of course, after the meaning of ‘marriage’ has changed from A to Z, the claim that it is discriminatory to exclude same-sex couples from it becomes valid.  But this anti-discrimination argument is certainly circular when made as part of a case against the traditional meaning of marriage and for same-sex marriage.

    Sadly this circular argument has been rhetorically effective, but it has not helped to bring clarity to debate about gay marriage. Discussion has needed to focus, rather, on substantive differences between the contrasting conceptions of marriage that are at issue.  If this subject is of interest to you, here are two pieces of writing that can enable thinking about it in a serious way:

    • David Matzko McCarthy (with whom you’re familiar) has argued for the applicability of some main aspects of Christian theology of marriage to same-sex unions, and in effect for a development in Church teaching, in ‘The Relationship of Bodies: A Nuptial Hermeneutics of Same-Sex Unions’, in Eugene F. Rogers, Jr, Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Blackwell, 2002).
    • Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George argue in a philosophically rigorous way for the traditional understanding, in What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (Encounter, 2012).