Note: the following borrows heavily and freely from the work of Jesuit theologian Theodore Mackin, especially his essay "Understanding Marriage as a Sacrament" in Commitment to Partnership: Explorations of the Theology of Marriage (New York: Paulist Press, 1987).
This essay focuses on the question of how sexual communion can be understood as a sacrament, as a sign of God’s love. How does a couple’s self-giving love, which is given its fullest expression in sexual union, advance the mission and ministry of the Church as a sacramental sign? While the Church eventually taught that marriage is a sacrament, it wasn’t until the 12th Century that the dogma of marriage as one of the seven sacraments of the Church was promulgated.
Moreover, throughout its history the Church has been, at best, ambivalent about the role of sex even in marriage, only sanctioning the amount of sexual activity necessary for procreation. By the middle ages the Church forbade sex 40 days before Christmas, 40 days before and 8 days after Easter, 8 days after Pentecost, the eves of feast days, on Sundays in honor of the resurrection, on Wednesdays to call to mind the beginning of Lent, on Fridays in memory of the crucifixion, during pregnancy and 30 days after the birth of a child (40 days if the child was female), during menstruation, and five days before communion. This all adds up to 252 excluded days plus approximately 30 feast days, leaving 83 days (aside from pregnancy and menstruation) where a married couple could have (but not enjoy) sexual intercourse so long as they intended procreation.
While there have been hints here and there in the tradition of a more positive view of sexual love, it has really only been in the last 50 years or so that a fully developed alternative understanding of sexual love has emerged. I’d like to share this alternative perspective on the sacramental nature of sexual love. In doing so I will speak of the sacrament of marriage, or more specifically of marriages as sacraments. As a matter of clarification, let me say up front that in using the term “marriage”, I mean it in the sense of a lifelong covenant between two people blessed by the Church, and not in the sense of a legal institution. As such, I will use “marriage” as a shorthand term for both heterosexual and same-sex covenanted relationships. As will become clear, I understand sexual communion to be at the heart of the sacramental nature of such covenants.
But first, a word about the meaning of “sacrament” more generally. According to the catechism, “The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” In our tradition, the dominical sacraments (those instituted directly by Jesus) are Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. Confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent (penance), and unction (anointing of the sick) are considered sacramental rites – also means of grace, but not necessary in the way that baptism and Eucharist are central to Christian identity.
Interestingly, the catechism goes on to say that “God does not limit himself to these rites; they are patterns of countless ways by which God uses material things to reach out to us.” While the common experiences of water and bathing, and of eating and drinking, have become the chief signs of how God makes us new and nourishes us in baptism and the Eucharist, all of our experiences are, potentially, sacramental in nature. Thus, the Anglican tradition affirms what is known as the “sacramental principle” – the idea that the whole created world is rooted in and expressive of the divine life, capable of conveying or revealing God’s love for us. God uses the ordinary, material realities we experience in daily life to make himself known to us.
All of the Church’s sacraments begin as actions, as sensate, human phenomena, which subsequently are developed into ritualized actions. This ritual action consists of two components: God’s action joined to the human action that is used to work the effect God intends. So we have two aspects of sacrament: the divine intention revealed through Christ’s death and resurrection and the matrix of human experience.
The Church is the context for all of the sacraments. As Christians we are called to holiness, to a union with God that is oriented toward the neighbor through sharing God’s creative and redemptive love. This love is revealed to us in the paschal mystery – God’s self-giving through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, reconciling and drawing all of creation into union with himself. We live out our call to holiness through participation in the community of women and men carrying on the paschal mystery – the Church. As the Body of Christ carrying on Christ’s work in the world, the Church is itself a sacrament – the visible, tangible sign of God’s creative and redemptive love revealed through Christ. Because the Church is a sacrament, all of its life processes are sacramental – including marriage.
What is the nature of the work the Church is called to do? And how does marriage contribute to it? The Church is called to be a sign of the loving unity of humanity with God. This work takes place in a world torn asunder by sin, a world in which people are alienated from God and from each other, and are resistant to the loving unity that God intends for all. This makes the Church’s work an historical struggle whose ultimate outcome will only be fully realized with the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven at the end of time.
The Jesuit scholar Theodore Mackin argues that at the core of sin is fear – a primitive and pervasive fear of the loss of self that prevents us from embracing the self-giving love of God that we are called to imitate in union with him. As Mackin says, “It follows that Christ’s work in the world, the unfinished work he left his followers to carry on, is to heal men and women of this fear of loss. It follows finally that marriage as a specific sacrament within the inclusive Church-sacrament is a specific strategy for this healing.”
How does this healing work itself out in marriage? What is the human matrix of marriage as sacrament? There are two key aspects to the human matrix of marriage: covenant and union. As covenant, marriage is a love relationship marked by personal choice and commitment. This love relationship forms an intense union between the spouses, an undivided sharing in the whole of life. This union is formed by a covenant of irrevocable personal consent. It is an act of informed, mutual self-giving.
One can say that the covenant provides the structure wherein the union of the spouses can develop. This “personalist” understanding of the matrix of marriage has several important consequences:
1. Only the couple making a gift of their persons to one another can create marriage as a sacrament. This gift-giving must create a union of their persons that is a sharing in all of life.
2. Couples act out their sacrament at other times than the marriage rite itself (both before and after), in every act of self-giving that shares what is specific in their lives toward the end of enhancing their union. Spouses either live out their sacrament or they don’t; the marriage rite is not magic, it simply publicly declares and affirms the couples’ intention to make of their life together a sacrament of God’s self-giving love for the sake of the world.
3. Finally, marriages have the capacity to become more sacramental over time as the union of the spouses becomes an ever deeper participation in the paschal mystery, God’s own self-giving love. As a marriage becomes more sacramental it also becomes more indissoluble. This approach to the issue of divorce seems to me to be much more humane and helpful than the traditional juridical approach.
Now, to the role of sexual communion in the sacrament. The specific sign action at the heart of the human matrix of marriage is the spouse’s sexual communion. It is the fullest, most complete, most characteristic expression of the union of persons that is marriage. Sexual communion for the married is a way of expressing and completing a love designed and awakened in them by God. It enacts and strengthens the giving away of their persons to one another as gifts to one another, enriching one another as persons.
In addition, the tradition speaks of this self-giving love being ordered toward the good of procreation. The good of procreation, however, is more generally an embracing of generativity, a life-enhancing quality that may take forms in the marriage other than bearing or adopting and rearing children. Even so, if marriage is a participation in the paschal mystery, it will be most evident in the orientation of the spouse’s love toward the neighbor, beginning with each other and expanding to welcome the stranger, including the strangers who come to us in the form of children. The main point is that sexual communion is a kind of death of the self that gives life (biologically and spiritually), and such self-giving love can be an imitation of God’s love revealed in the paschal mystery.
It is important to note in this context that sexual love is much more than genital urgency. It is a giving of one’s self that is ordered toward psychological maturity, emotional interpenetration, and holiness. The healing power of sexual intercourse lies in its ability to overcome the fear of loss of self, and the distrust and alienation that result from it, by accepting our vulnerability to the beloved and, ultimately, to God.
Sexual pleasure, on this more inclusive understanding of sexual communion, is a giving of self for the happiness of the beloved. This happiness goes beyond sexual pleasure to embrace the joy of being desired, trusted, and respected. A generous reciprocity is at work in the sharing of such pleasure and it is a vital dimension of the healing potential of sexual love-making, a potential that is bound up with the extent to which all other dimensions of married life exemplify this same self-giving love.
This sexual healing is the sign action specific to marriage, which is manifest in the whole of the couple’s life in community. It is a commitment to co-work with God specifically by means of sexual self-giving. This self-giving love marks marriage as a genuine Christian vocation, a way of participating in and advancing the work of the Church. It is at the heart of the way married Christians focus and live out the ministry given to them in baptism. This sacrament is not simply for the benefit of the couple; rather, the healing and reconciliation to which it gives rise moves outward from the couple themselves to the Christian community and the human family. Marriages as sacraments rooted in the paschal mystery give expression to a love that is an event of salvation. Thus, sexual communion can make us holy.
Can same-sex relationships evidence self-giving love, and can the sexual communion of same-sex couples open them to the depths of the paschal mystery, thereby making their life together a sacrament of the Church? These, it seems to me, are the main questions that the Church must answer as it grapples with the issue of the blessing of same-sex unions.
Unless it can be demonstrated empirically that heterosexual unions are somehow more sacramental than same-sex unions, the institutional and liturgical form given to same-sex covenants must be equivalent to marriage. To fail to do so would be diabolical – a failure to give expression to the unifying impulse of the paschal mystery in the life of the Church.