Spousal union is sacramental because it makes visible the invisible reality of God’s spousal love for his people.
Our Catholic faith is lived through an array of spiritual traditions. While each observes the same theological truths, the Church is enriched by the different emphases within each tradition. The same is true of conjugal spirituality. Married couples, who give rise to the Domestic Church, are as varied as the schools of spirituality. While Catholic marriages are built upon a common theological foundation, each couple’s spirituality may emphasize certain aspects of their vocation to which they are particularly drawn, and in which they can live quite well. This paper explores perspectives of conjugal spirituality that cultivate reverence for, and understanding of, spousal love. First, a masculine perspective is presented, through which husbands are tutored in spousal love as they contemplate Christ, the Divine Bridegroom, whose agape is poured out from the cross. A feminine perspective approaches Mary’s fiat as a model for wives, who are called to image the Church as they receive and respond to spousal love. Next, a liturgical analogy is presented as a means for fostering reverence for what is sacred in conjugal union. Finally, contraception is critiqued as an antithesis to conjugal spirituality, while conceiving new life through the chaste practice of natural family planning is lauded as a noble fulfillment of it.
Christ’s Agape Tutors Husbands in Spousal Love
“Precisely because Christ’s divine love is the love of a Bridegroom, it is the model and pattern of all human love, men’s love in particular.” 1 Both the crucifixion and conjugal union consist in pouring out love for the bride; therefore, husbands can be invited to contemplatively place themselves at the foot of the cross in order to learn the meaning of spousal love.
In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI invites us to reflect on the pierced side of Christ as a starting point for contemplating love. He writes:
His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (cf. 19:37), we can understand…“God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). It is there that this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move. 2
The beauty of the crucifixion is that it communicates the total outpouring of Christ’s love for his Bride. On the “marriage bed” of the cross, 3 Jesus exclaims, “It is consummated” (Jn 19:30). Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household, describes the union of Christ and the Church as coming about, not in a “bed of pleasures,” but “‘in blood,’ on the cross.” 4 The consummative love of the Divine Bridegroom is not satisfied in stopping short of death, of suffering, or of withholding anything; rather, Christ is completely poured out as a libation. The Gospel of John recounts that “when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (Jn 19:33-34). As we stand beneath the crucified Christ and “look upon him whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:37), we are bathed in the blood and water that pours forth from his wounded side.
Water carries rich symbolism in our Christian faith. It “signifies the Holy Spirit’s action in baptism, since after the invocation of the Holy Spirit, it becomes the efficacious sacramental sign of new birth.” 5 The “living water” that wells up from Christ crucified purifies the soul, unites us in the Spirit, renews baptismal faith, and leads us to eternal life.
Similarly, blood symbolizes life. In the sacrificial liturgies of the Old Testament, blood had a central role. In Leviticus, the Lord explains: “Since the life of a living body is in its blood, I have made you put it on the altar, so that atonement may thereby be made for your own lives, because it is the blood, as the seat of life, that makes atonement” (Lv 17:11). The Israelites believed life was in blood, so it contained a force that opposed death, a force which had its origins in God. Therefore, blood was used in their liturgies to oppose sin, and any forces that were hostile to salvation. Blood was also used to consecrate persons and things to signify that they were removed from the sphere of the profane. Consecration, through a sprinkling of blood, conveyed holiness and nearness to God. 6 Furthermore, in salvation history, Christ redeems his Bride through his own blood, thereby establishing a new covenant, and offering salvation through the forgiveness of sins. The blood and water from Christ remove us from the sphere of the profane, cleanse us, and draw us into communion with God.
When a husband enters into this sacred mystery, he will find himself as a recipient of the grace that is bursting forth from the side of Christ. He will also discover the perfect love of the Bridegroom that he is called to emulate. St. Paul teaches:
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.…This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:25-32)
This passage, together with the blood and water that pours forth from the Pierced One, presents us with a beautiful image of agape. Agape may be considered a “descending love.” From its origin in God, this love is completely poured out, spills into the heart of the Bride, sanctifies and cleanses her, and then draws her into a more intimate communion with God. Agape moves the Divine Bridegroom to go in search of his beloved, in order to lead her back into the sanctuary of his own heart. In Pauline theology, the love between spouses must embody this mystery. Every husband’s gift of himself to his bride, consummated in spousal union, finds its spiritual source in the mystery of the crucifixion. If he desires to be a source of love, he must first receive love as a gift from God. A husband’s love, in order to be an efficacious source of grace, needs to be a participation in Christ’s outpouring of love. The human heart is a vessel which needs to be filled, stretched, and poured out for others. “Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet, to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34).” 7 In other words, the agape of Christ must flow through the husband. This becomes possible when the husband repeatedly returns to Christ as his own source of love and then gives his whole self to his bride out of reverence for Christ.
Sexual union sacramentally expresses this outpouring of love and efficaciously communicates this love to the bride, as long as the profession made in the body is indeed intimately connected to the spiritual life. 8 The language of his body should speak of the deepest truths of the husband’s heart and radiate the call to love as God loves in a life-giving communion. In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI teaches that spousal love:
…is total, that is to say, it is a very special form of personal friendship, in which husband and wife generously share everything, without undue reservations or selfish calculations. Whoever truly loves his marriage partner loves not only for what he receives, but for the partner’s self, rejoicing that he can enrich his partner with the gift of himself. 9
Mary’s Fiat Tutors Wives in Spousal Love
While the essential role of a bridegroom is to be poured out in love for his beloved, the subordinate stance of the bride is to receive and reciprocate the bridegroom’s generous gift of love. 10 Paul tells us: “As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands” (Eph 5:24). In the general audiences that comprise the Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II expounds on this teaching beautifully by stating:
The husband is above all, he who loves and the wife, on the other hand, is she who is loved. One could even hazard the idea that the wife’s submission to her husband, understood in the context of the entire passage of the Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33), signifies above all the “experiencing of love.”
When a wife offers herself in a stance of humble receptivity, she at once discovers herself as a recipient of the outpouring love of Christ flowing through her husband. Indeed, she welcomes the love of the Divine Bridegroom spilling from the vessel of her husband’s heart and beckoning a response from her.
When Mary pronounced her fiat at the Annunciation, she became the example, par excellence, of receptivity and response to the gift of God. The angel Gabriel announces to the young virgin, “‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus’” (Lk 1:30-31). In awe of this mystery—that God is inviting her to be the mother of his Son—Mary asks, “‘How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?’” And the angel says to her in reply, “‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’” (Lk 1:34-35). In the divine plan, God desired to stoop down to our humanity, overshadow Mary, and unite himself with her in a life-giving communion. She may not have comprehended the mystery of how she would conceive, but she recognized that if the Holy Spirit desired to enter her deeply, then she should allow him to do so. Actively taking part in this relationship with God, she emptied herself and became spiritually poor. In essence, she died to herself so that the Holy Spirit could fill her, and live for her Beloved One. Mary’s response is the only fitting response to the gift of God—a complete gift of self.
At the Annunciation, Mary chooses to become vulnerable, exposed, and spiritually naked before the living God. She welcomes the pronouncement of the angel and, of greater import, she receives the Holy Spirit into herself as she assents: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). The Lord sees her as she is, in all simplicity, and he surely smiles upon her beauty. Mary consents to the Incarnation, and accepts her vocation as the Mother of God. She understands “her own motherhood as a total gift of self, a gift of her person to the service of the saving plans of the Most High.” 11 Therefore, in “putting herself at God’s service, she also put herself at the service of others: a service of love.” 12
Mary serves as a beautiful icon of the Church. Therefore, each wife can enter the spousal analogy described in Ephesians 5 by befriending Mary as her model. The wife participates in the mystery of redemption as she becomes vulnerable, exposed, and spiritually naked before her husband. With humble submission, she welcomes the total love professed by her husband, both in body and spirit. She rejoices, as her bridegroom sees her as she truly is, and loves her unfailingly, for she, too, is beautiful. The wife is not simply passive in this “experiencing of love.” Rather, as she receives her husband’s outpouring of love, her heart becomes filled to the brim, and she responds in kind by being poured out in love for her husband. Out of reverence for Christ, she serves him in daily life with the same fidelity and zeal as the Church exudes when serving the Redeemer.
A Liturgical Analogy
Let us make use of a liturgical analogy as a means of exploring the significance of spousal union within conjugal spirituality. The liturgical analogy consists of three parts. First, as has already been presented, the Church recognizes that Christ’s gift of self in the crucifixion is the consummation of love between Christ, the Bridegroom, and the Church, the Bride. The outpouring of blood and water reveals the depths of agape and sets the standard for spousal love.
Second, let us look to the Eucharist, which “is the Sacrament of the Bridegroom and of the Bride.” 13 During Mass, the Church gathers together, repents of her sins, listens to, and then reflects on, the Word of God proclaimed. In unity of heart, she offers petitions to the Lord. Through the Liturgy of the Eucharist, Christ’s gift of self on the cross is made present again, and received by the Church. The Church relives Calvary, and receives the body and blood of her Divine Bridegroom. “God incarnate draws us all to himself. We can thus understand how agape also became a term for the Eucharist: there God’s own agape comes to us bodily, in order to continue his work in us and through us.” 14 The Church has described our participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice as “the source and summit of the Christian life.” 15 As the “summit,” the Eucharist is the highest expression of prayer that the Church can offer. As the “source,” it strengthens us and spurs us forward to go beyond ourselves, in order to share the saving message of Christ. This is precisely why the Church is sent forth in the Concluding Rite: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
The third part of this liturgical analogy relates spousal union to Calvary and the Eucharist. 16 John Paul II teaches that the “language of the body” can become “the language of the liturgy, because it is on its basis, on its foundation, that the sacramental sign of marriage is built.” 17 Conjugal life is sacramental because it reveals the mystery of God’s love. John Paul II continues: “On this road, conjugal life in some sense becomes liturgy.” 18 In other words, conjugal life, in its totality, as well as spousal union, in particular, become a means of participating in the work of God. This understanding allows us to recognize that: “Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is directed and enriched by the redemptive power of Christ.” 19 The mutual exchange of conjugal love, which demands indissolubility, fidelity, and openness to fertility, 20 welcomes the grace proper to the sacrament of matrimony. Through grace, the couple’s love is perfected, and their unity strengthened. 21 This should not be understood in an oversimplified way, as if conjugal union per se sanctifies spouses. Rather, when baptized spouses welcome the grace that is properly theirs, and unite themselves with the mystery of Christ’s redemptive power on the cross, and the salvific action of the Church, 22 then their total self-giving in chaste conjugal union becomes a participation in the work of God. As spouses contemplate the significance of their “one flesh,” they discover the depth of love that they are called to live—the Eucharistic reality and the mystery of the cross; in sum, the Paschal mystery. John Paul II says:
This seems to be the integral meaning of the sacramental sign of marriage. In this way, through the “language of the body,” man and woman encounter the great “mysterium” in order to transfer the light of this mystery, a light of truth and of beauty expressed in liturgical language, into the “language of the body.” 23
This threefold liturgical analogy offers spouses a deep reverence and beauty for sexual intimacy. 24 Their bedroom can be seen as a sanctuary of love, where they deepen their communion. As sacred space, the bedroom should be a place of peace, intimate sharing from the heart, repentance for offenses against one another, and prayer offered in one spirit. The marital bed may be likened to an altar upon which they offer their bodies and selves “as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” and to each other (Rom 12:1). The act of lying down on the bed together becomes a symbol of Christ’s lying down on the cross. After all, eros is meant to express the language of agape, by means of a healthy integration of body and soul. The “language of the body” must be aligned with the inner truth of their hearts. Spousal union is sacramental because it makes visible the invisible reality of God’s spousal love for his people. Furthermore, this is an expression of eucharistia because conjugal union is meant to be a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving. Spouses give thanks to God for the gift of each other, and through the outpouring of their love, they show gratitude for all they receive. The conjugal act may also be considered the “source and summit” of marital love. As the source, it energizes and renews the couple in their marital commitment; and as the summit, it is the fullest expression of self-giving union. From this expression of love flow forth their other acts of self-giving and sacrificial love. In a sense, they are sent forth in peace to love and serve each other out of reverence for Christ. And so they renew their commitment to working, cooking, cleaning, caring in sickness, and so on.
Contraception: the Antithesis
The Magisterium has repeatedly taught there is an “inseparable connection…between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning.” 25 If a couple makes recourse to contraceptives, then it inevitably contracepts the rich spiritual significance of their union. John Paul II asserts, “anti-conceptive practices and mentality” constitute “the antithesis of conjugal spirituality.” 26
Within the masculine perspective, contraception bears the spiritual significance of placing an impenetrable barrier between Christ and the Church. Symbolically, the Divine Bridegroom’s consummation of love on the cross becomes sterile, because the blood and water does not pour forth from the Bridegroom, or because it is stifled from reaching the spiritual womb of the Bride where it would conceive new life in her. When spouses contracept the conjugal act, the husband ceases to reflect the divine mystery described in Ephesians 5. He cannot realize the demands of his vocation to love his wife “even as Christ loved the church” (Eph 5:25). Rather than washing his bride clean, they become stained by sin; rather than cultivating reverence for what is sacred, they remain in the sphere of the profane; and rather than being drawn into communion, they stand isolated.
Within the feminine perspective, contraception turns the wife’s Marian receptivity into a rejection of love. If Mary had rejected the love of God by somehow preventing conception in her womb, her lauded fiat would have lost its integrity, and become a lie. The words she proclaimed from her lips would have been contradicted by a striking dissent in her body, and a lack of openness to the Divine Will. Of course, the real interchange between Mary and her Spouse, the Holy Spirit, was an interchange made in truth and love by which she received the total gift of God, and conceived new life in her womb. Mulieris Dignitatem teaches that Mary’s assent to the will of God—“‘May it be done to me according to your word’” (Lk 1:38)—signifies every woman’s “readiness for the gift of self, and her readiness to accept a new life. 27 By contrast, using contraception restricts wives from entering the mystery of the Annunciation, and identifying with Mary. The beautiful fiat of the bride cannot be lovingly spoken in truth to her husband, nor to God.
By withholding their fertility, spouses do not become complete gifts to each other, nor do they fully receive their beloved. Familiaris Consortio summarizes it this way:
Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love. 28
Natural family planning, on the other hand, which never places an artificial barrier between spouses’ self-giving love, allows them to retain the rich, spiritual significance of their intimacy. While recognizing that this discipline demands ongoing effort, Paul VI upholds that married couples are blessed with invaluable benefits, including the full development of their personalities and enrichment with spiritual values. 29 John Paul II also propagates the spiritual significance of natural family planning. He teaches: “The whole practice of the honorable regulation of fertility, which is so strictly tied to responsible fatherhood and motherhood, is part of Christian conjugal and familial spirituality.” 30 Indeed, when spousal union is chaste, it deepens the couple’s capacity to live what their union signifies. 31 Husbands more clearly reflect the outpouring agape of Christ revealed on the cross, and in the Eucharist. Likewise, wives more fully receive and respond to their husband’s love like Mary received the Holy Spirit, and the Church, her Savior.
Conceiving New Life
Mary’s fiat welcomed the conception of new life in her womb, allowing the Incarnation of the Christ Child. Thirty-three years later, Christ’s consummative love on the cross was received into the spiritual womb of his Bride, who has continued to conceive new life for two thousand years. Through baptism, adopted children of God are the spiritual fruit of this redemptive, spousal love.
While not all married couples are blessed with the gift of children, a chaste conjugal life remains ordered to the twofold end of marriage: the good of spouses and the transmission of life. 32 Therefore, as spouses share in the mystery of redemption, it is necessary for them to remain open to conceiving new life through the practice of natural family planning. For those who do conceive, parenthood brings about a unique fulfillment in their conjugal spirituality. They are invited to draw near to Christ, who offers them strength for their noble role as fathers and mothers. 33 By staying close to Calvary and the Eucharist, and by living out their conjugal spirituality, parents model for their children Christ’s agape and Mary’s fiat, and their children, in turn, learn how to receive the redemptive love of God and share it with others.
- John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 1988), §25. ↩
- Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), §12. ↩
- “In the Church’s ascetical and mystical tradition the cross has often been defined as the ‘marriage bed’ in which the soul is joined to its divine Spouse. Blessed Angela of Foligno used to say to Christ: ‘On Your cross I have made my bed.’” Raniero Cantalamessa, Virginity, trans. Charles Sérignat (Staten Island, NY: St. Paul, 1995), 38. ↩
- Cantalamessa, 39. ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, §694. (hereafter, CCC) ↩
- Louis F. Hartman, “Blood,” in Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1963), 255-258. ↩
- Deus Caritas Est, §7. ↩
- “Love not only unites the two subjects, but it allows them to penetrate each other so mutually, thereby belonging spiritually to each other, that the author of Ephesians can affirm, ‘The one who loves his wife loves himself’ (Eph 5:28).” John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), §117:4. (hereafter, TOB) ↩
- Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 1968), §9. ↩
- I am especially indebted to my wife, Sarah, for this feminine perspective. At the Institute for Priestly Formation in July of 2010 we gave an initial presentation on the spiritual significance of NFP. As she prayerfully prepared for the talk she was drawn to Mary’s fiat as the primary source of her own inspiration as a wife and daughter of God. ↩
- John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 1987), §39. ↩
- Letter of Pope John Paul II to Women (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 1995), §10. ↩
- Mulieris Dignitatem, §26. ↩
- Deus Caritas Est, §14. ↩
- Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, §11, in Vatican Council II, Volume 1: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, O.P., new rev. ed. (Northport, New York: Costello Publishing Co., 1992). ↩
- The intention here is not to diminish the sacred mysteries, but to deepen our reverence for conjugal union through our understanding of Calvary and the Eucharist. ↩
- TOB, §117:5. ↩
- Ibid., §117b:6. ↩
- Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes, §48, in Vatican Council II, Volume 1: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, O.P., new rev. ed. (Northport, New York: Costello Publishing Co., 1992). ↩
- CCC, §1643. ↩
- Ibid., §1641. ↩
- Gaudium et spes, §48. ↩
- TOB, §117b:6. ↩
- Spouses who prayerfully cultivate a gift of reverence for what is sacred, may press more deeply into this liturgical analogy. It is a gradual journey, similar to how catechesis and prayer allow our understanding of Mass to mature over time. The clergy can foster appreciation for the spiritual significance of spousal union by providing catechesis on the Sacrament of Matrimony and prayerfully leading couples into the mysteries of Christ’s agape and Mary’s fiat. ↩
- Humanae Vitae, §12. ↩
- TOB, §132:2. ↩
- Mulieris Dignitatem, §18. ↩
- John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 1981), §32. ↩
- Humanae Vitae, §21. ↩
- TOB, §131:6. ↩
- Gaudium et spes, §49. ↩
- CCC, §2362. ↩
- Gaudium et spes, §48. ↩