"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

We're all getting married: the new theological synthesis

The title of this blog is a triple pun. In the broadest sense, it suggests that human life itself is sacramental: a vast reality that helps to constitute God's design for us precisely by signifying that design. In a more specific sense, it refers to the sacrament of the Eucharist: by consuming the Body and Blood of Christ, we have life eternal. In another, it alludes to such magisterial documents as Humanae Vitae, Donum Vitae, and Evangelium Vitae. I make such allusion because I believe it is the "life issues," those surrounding sexuality and procreation, that are the main spiritual salient today. And those issues are closely bound up with the only worthwhile theological synthesis on the horizon today. That's why I wish Benedict XVI's "apostolic exhortation" Sacramentum Caritatis had been entitled Sacramentum Vitae instead. Nobody asked my opinion, of course; but my broader intuitions are by no means on the margins.

To papabile Cardinal Angelo Scola and to a small but growing number of educated Catholics, the most important theological development in the Church over our lifetime has occurred around the theme of "the nuptial mystery." David Delaney over at Cosmos, Liturgy, Sex thinks so too; in fact, his summary and critical discussion of the new synthesis reminded me of that fact, and his post is all the more useful for being relatively brief. Of course the development is not complete. But it ought to be cultivated; and if God so wills, I want to be one of the people cultivating it. (There's always the problem of how to pay child support while doing something like that, but "for God all things are possible"—even a solution to that problem!) What I want to do here is explain why I believe that nuptial-mystery theology ('NMT' for short) is so important. Perhaps that will motivate somebody with more leisure than I have at present.

The theme itself is not altogether new, and would be too speculative if it were. It's right there in the New Testament, where Jesus speaks of himself as the Bridegroom and where Paul develops the basic idea further, especially in Ephesians. Some of the Fathers, such as Augustine, waxed eloquent about the Church as Bride of Christ and the sacrament of marriage as an expression of the one-body relation between Christ and the Church. Thus the basic idea of NMT is not hard to state, even though the mystery is not fully fathomable. Christian marriage, an indissoluble union in one body which Jesus instituted through the Church to restore what was "in the beginning," is a sacramental expression of God's relationship with his people: specifically, of Christ the Bridegroom with his Church. As Bride, the Church forms with the risen Christ "the whole Christ," i.e. his Mystical Body. And as Eastern Christianity has long recognized, that reality is itself an expression of God's own inner life as a Trinitarian communion of persons. How does Catholic NMT present that?

What relevantly characterizes that life is the perichoresis of the divine Persons: their mutual inherence in complete, self-giving love. Each person empties himself, as it were, into the others so that none retains anything for himself and yet each is infinitely glorified by virtue of being filled with the gift of the others. Thus within God, an unfathomable dynamic of pouring-out-and-receiving takes place necessarily and without limit, yet eternally, i.e. without taking time. So patterned, the divine energeia are both the living of divine life ad intra and the life God bestows ad extra on angels and humanity, by creating them to become "partakers of the divine nature" (cf. 2 Peter 1:4). On the human level, the sexual complementarity of man and woman is a naturally sacramental expression of that destiny. What is distinctive about man's physiognomy symbolizes the pouring-forth of each of the divine persons in perichoresis; what is distinctive about woman's symbolizes the reception by each divine person of that pouring fourth. The more general differences between men and women, which we are gradually coming to understand better through research into the brain and hormones, form a fuller natural reality in harmony with that basic reproductive one. Such natural realities in turn make them supremely fit to be a sacrament of God's relationship with his people.

That basic idea of NMT ramifies directly into ecclesiology. The inner structure of the Church herself, her hierarchy or "sacred order," is fundamentally nuptial. That is why woman, as such, is actually a clearer expression of humanity's relationship with God than man. As members of the Body, we are collectively "female" in relation to God as incarnate in the man Jesus Christ. That is why Christ's union with his Church is well signified by marriage. But the sacred order of the Church also explains why only men can be individual icons of the male Christ giving himself to his Bride—both in the sacrament of marriage and in the sacerdotal priesthood of Christ as distinct from the generic priesthood of believers, even though each priesthood is a kind of share in Christ's one high priesthood. Rather than go on further here, I refer readers to my post The Ecclesiology of the Body for an explanation of the ecclesiological aspects of NMT. For now I shall content myself with reiterating that the divine constitution of the Church is itself sacramental: it helps to bring about the reality it symbolizes, which is that we are all getting married to Christ. The only question is whether our dispositions will let the marriage be happy or miserable.

Now as Fergus Kerr has pointed out, resistance to NMT has developed on two fronts. Some of the more traditional thinkers, still convinced of the normativity of neo-scholasticism in theology, dismiss NMT as woolly-minded mysticism that only distracts from what needs renewed emphasis in theology. Some of the more progressive thinkers, who might be thought to favor how NMT points much more to human experience than neo-scholasticism has, nonetheless are deeply disturbed by how NMT can be and has been used, especially by John Paul the Great's "theology of the body," to bolster some of the well-known prohibitions in the Church's traditional teaching about sexuality and marriage. Of course, neo-Cath that I am, I'm inclined to believe that such resistance from both the Right and the Left is an excellent sign. NMT is a powerful, overarching, and authentic theological synthesis still in the process of development. Let us pray that it has the effect intended by the Holy Spirit.
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