The Trinity, Sexual Complementarity, and Authentic Marriage

The Trinity, Sexual Complementarity, and Authentic Marriage artwork

One of today’s most pressing errors is concerned with the confusion about the human person as male and female, and the increasing rejection by Christians of the revealed truth about authentic marriage. This is significant because it affects the Church, as well as society, on a plethora of fronts. In the civil sphere, these effects range from religious liberty to social stability; in the ecclesial sphere, they range from threats to the stability of the domestic church, and vocations to the complete undermining of the theological foundation for the Church and its sacramental system. In a 2014 Pew tracking poll, the numbers do not look good for Christianity. Among Catholics and mainline Protestants, those supporting so-called same-sex marriage are 57% and 60% respectively. The numbers are better among black Protestants who come in at 40%; the lowest approval rate is among white Evangelical Protestants at 21%. These approval rates have almost doubled for each group in the last decade. If we are to turn society around, it is obvious we must begin in the Church.

Such a restoration of Christians to accept this truth about marriage will require a variety of approaches in order to be effective. However, I propose that all efforts must start from an adequate theological anthropology. Only an adequate anthropology will satisfactorily address what I think is the central question raised by our contemporary social situation: “Why does the Church insist that authentic marriage can exist only between two persons who are sexually complementary?”

Before answering the question, it may be helpful to turn first to eight brief propositions which outline the overall argument that explains the relationship between the human person and the marital covenant, and why this covenant is so crucial to the Church and civil society. Addressing the question of sexual complementarity fits within this context. Let us keep in mind these following 8 points:

(1) The human person is created in the image of God, and this reveals his dignity and his purpose for existing.

(2) Marriage is ordered by the way man images God, so marriage necessarily plays a fundamental role in integral human flourishing—that is, social flourishing and individual flourishing for both the body and the soul.

(3) Marriage irreplaceably contributes to integral human flourishing because it is uniquely ordered to the deepest truth about the human person, namely, that individuals are created for rightly ordered relationships with others; the sign of authenticity of the unique human relationship, called “marriage,” is its ordering toward giving life, or fruitfulness.

(4) Marriage and the family are the foundational social institutions upon which every larger social institution depends for its health; therefore, a flourishing society is possible only when it is comprised of healthy and flourishing marriages and families. Authentic marriage is never a purely private matter; it is eminently a social concern as well.

(5) Marriage can only be understood properly when it conforms to nature’s divinely instituted order as we have described it; that is, it must be an irrevocable, faithful, complete communion of two sexually complementary persons which is ordered to life-giving fruitfulness. In other words, the only relationship which can be called marriage is the covenantal communion between one man and one woman.

(6) A man and a woman, and only a man and a woman, have a right to marriage because, for those called to the covenantal union, they have a unique capacity, and so an attendant duty, to contribute to integral human flourishing (of themselves, of their children, and of society).

(7) This view of marriage is not legal positivism; rather, it is based upon the order of nature, which arises from creation’s participation in God’s perfection. In other words, no one is able to redefine or distort the institution of marriage without necessarily experiencing negative consequences which follow a causal progression, similar to violations of other laws of nature.

(8) God reveals the essence of these truths in the Bible, from the first Genesis creation narrative to the Lamb’s wedding feast, which closes the Book of Revelation. This truth, so fundamental to human nature, may be reached also by the use of reason alone, through a dispassionate consideration of the order of nature.  The natural law consideration is essential for addressing a society which neither accepts the authority of Christ’s revelation, nor thinks it admissible to promote absolute Christian truths in a pluralistic society.

In this article, we will focus on the received tradition of the Church. These propositions form an outline for a remedial curriculum to educate the disconcertingly large number of confused Christians. We must now turn to what I have suggested is the fundamental question.

What is the theological rationale underlying the Christian tradition’s insistence on reciprocal, sexual complementarity for authentic conjugal unions? The best place to start in order to answer this question is the creation narrative account in the first book of Genesis:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen 1:27-28)

Here are many remarkable implications for the dignity and meaning of the human person, but two stand out for our purposes. The first is that man is made in the image and likeness of God; the second is that man is also the image of God as male and female. Humanity’s complementary imaging of God is directly tied to man’s capacity for procreative fruitfulness.

Let us first consider the image of God, or as the schoolmen (scholastics) called it, the imago Dei. Theologians have traditionally emphasized the imago Dei in terms of man’s spiritual faculties, that is, the intellect and the will. However, the ultimate telos of these faculties is love. This is corroborated, via the imago, in the First Letter of John in which he twice says that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8, 16). The imago Dei further infers that we must make recourse to what we know about God’s immanent order if we are to understand the structure of human love.

The tradition describing the hierarchical structure of the relations among the Persons of the Trinity is called “the divine Processions,” and reviewing these Processions is necessary for our task here, as they are ultimately the structure of divine love. Before explaining them, I should point out that the tradition has emphasized that the spiritual faculties reflect man as imago Dei from the perspective of God as pure Spirit; that is, in the philosophical category of substance, or nature. However, recently the imago has been studied from the perspective of Christ’s revelation that God is a Trinity, that is, a Communion of Persons—a Family. The Processions describe this Communion in terms of the structure of their relations to one another. In the Creed, Christians profess that the Son is begotten, not made (not a creature); this is the first Procession. Of the Procession of the Holy Spirit, we say that he proceeds from the Father and the Son; this is the second Procession. The Son’s procession is called Generation (of the Word), or Begetting (of the Son), and the Holy Spirit’s procession is called Spiration, or the breathing forth of the Holy Spirit from the reciprocal love of the Father and the Son.

The early Church understood these two divine Processions in light of John’s Gospel Prologue, in which we hear that the Son is the Eternal Logos (Word) of God. Looking at the analogy of this with respect to the human intellect, the Son eternally proceeds from the Father, just as a mental word (verbum mentis) does in man; one’s verbum mentis is one with one’s own nature, but it is still not an identity of “who” he or she is. So in the eternity of God, the Son receives himself completely from the Father in the Father’s eternal knowing, God’s eternal act of the divine Intellect. The Son is one with the Father in nature, but distinct from him in “who-ness,” which we call “person.”

The Son returns himself to the Father in an eternal, reciprocal act of total self-gift, which the early Church Fathers understood to be God’s eternal act of the divine Will. This reciprocity in eternity, in infinite, perfect Being, is a third divine Person, the Holy Spirit. The Church Fathers called the Holy Spirit “Love,” the love that binds the Father and Son. They also called him “Communion.” This is divine love, an act of reciprocal, total self-gift that is fruitful and life-giving. The state of communion is therefore defined as a union of total, self-giving love. Therefore, the ultimate telos of the human intellect is to know the other, and that of the will is to love the other. In the Trinitarian Communion of Persons, this eternal knowing and willing is fruitful; it is life-giving. Trinitarian love is the archetype for human love, and this brings us to the second way in which man images God, which we read in the Genesis text.

St. Thomas Aquinas, in his “Treatise on Man” (see Summa Theologiae, I, q. 93, a. 3), is the first reference I have found which suggests the unity between these two aspects of man (intellect and will) being like God, though he certainly does not develop it. St. Thomas says that in an absolute sense (according to nature) angels are more like God, since God and angels are both pure spirit. Yet, and this is his surprising insight, Thomas says that man is more like God in a relational (or a relative) sense. In divinity, God begets God, just as in humanity, man begets man; however, Thomas makes it clear that this human image of divine begetting necessarily presupposes the rational faculties, or all animals would share the image. So the body of man gives him the capacity to reflect God’s life-giving, fruitful love in a way that is like God; a manner which not even the angels possess. Notably, the difference between man’s form of begetting, and that of God’s form of begetting, is infinitely greater than is the similarity. Here, it is important to say a bit about the reason why man necessarily reflects God’s perfection and, therefore, must conform himself to it.

To understand better the reason God is necessarily the archetype for man, indeed for all the created order, we should review the analogia entis (analogy of being). The analogia starts from the fact that God creates out of nothing. That is, all created being is contingent. Everything we see in the world has a cause for its existence. This regression in causality cannot go back indefinitely because there has to be a starting point, or no contingent being ever gets started. This starting point must be God, who is Non-contingent Being. God’s very essence is “to exist,” and his very nature is “to be,” as he reveals to Moses in the burning bush: “I Am Who Am” (Ex 3:14). It is important to note that in saying that God’s very nature is existence, we are not simply asserting a truth, but also arriving at a necessary logical deduction.   Thus, when God creates, he has only himself upon which to base his creation. In other words, he cannot be “inspired,” for nothing exists outside of him that he did not already create which could do the inspiring.

The created order is not arbitrary, so creation must conform itself to the divine archetype, or it necessarily suffers “dis-order.” In fact, the failure of any being to conform to its divine archetype, purposeful or not, is the very reason for disorder in the world. For this reason, man must understand himself as having been created in the image of Love, which is total self-gift, and understand what this means for his authentic flourishing. Man is made for love.

We must add that love is not first a feeling. Rather, feelings are an admixture of the appetite for, and the fruit of, love. Love, as we can see by analogy with the divine Processions, is, first of all, an act of the will; it is willing and acting for the good of the other for his own sake.

How this total self-gift manifests itself in human relationships varies based upon the requirements of the particular relationship. However, what is common to all relationships, regardless of the depth of mutual obligation, is that in every relationship, one must will and act in such a way that is disinterested; that is, one wills and acts for the good of the other, without regard to self-benefit. As a consequence, we can never simply “use” another person for any reason. This disinterested love is an act of total self-gift. The more disinterested the love, the more authentic it is, and the more it contributes to human flourishing.

This is what we might call the Trinitarian paradox. St. Paul of Tarsus quotes Jesus, saying, “[I]t is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).   The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council restate this paradox: “{M}an, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et spes [GS], 24). St. John Paul II reformulates GS 24 in a way which more explicitly illuminates the Trinitarian aspect of the paradox: man can only fulfill himself by giving himself away. To the degree we fail to live our relationships in this way, we diminish ourselves, deny ourselves the joy of authentic relationships, and may damage, or even destroy, our relationships.

We now come to the issue of human complementarity. Recall that the analogia entis indicates that every positive creation in the created order reflects the divine archetype. Masculinity and femininity are created goods, so they necessarily reflect some perfection in God. In terms of the Trinity, we can see that Father and Son are relational names. There is no Father without the Son, and no Son without the Father; the same is true of the Holy Spirit (though admittedly, this is not as obvious from his name). The Persons are eternal Relations. Some theologians see a divine complementarity in the Father and Son which leads to the fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit. Created masculinity and femininity are finite reflections of this eternal, infinite complementarity. Man and woman are made for each other, and this can be seen in their unique capacity to be fruitful, to give life; the very command to “be fruitful and multiply,” which God gave to man, included God’s acknowledgment that man was made in his image as male and female. As such, the most intimate manner of human love is spousal love, and such love is marked by total self-gift of the entirety of the persons, including their fertility. The two becoming one is predicated on the form of the act being ordered and open to their becoming three.

The body is a way of reflecting God’s love for man, and a theory developed by Aristotle, and adopted by St. Thomas Aquinas, called hylomorphism, which can help us to see this seamless integration of a unitive act of love with a procreative act of love. Hylomorphism declares that all visible beings are a unity of an immaterial aspect, called the “form,” and a material aspect, called “matter.” Form and matter are not two pre-existing things, but one seamless entity with two aspects. Applied to human beings, the soul is the form, and the body is the matter.

The soul is the cause of the body’s existence—its shape, its self-organization, and its locomotion. The soul is the principle of the spiritual faculties; it is also the source of communion because these faculties provide man the unique capacity to know and love another. The soul, therefore, is the foundation of communion. The body and soul form a seamless unity; wherever the body is, there is the soul. When the soul is separated from the body, death comes about; the matter and form cannot exist in this world without one another.

This radical unity also indicates that the body makes the soul visible and touchable. The matter is the principle of individuation, or the cause of our being an individual. Thus, we are individuals who, simultaneously, are made for communion. The body is also the principle of fruitfulness in procreation. Parents give to the child only his body, his materiality. The unitive and procreative meanings of the marital act arise from the soul and body respectively, so they form a seamless unity; there cannot exist one without the other. In this way, when one attempts the marital act of love, that is, sexual intercourse, the act “dies” if the unitive and procreative meanings are not simultaneously present as one unity. Any other act of sexual intercourse does not conform to the divine archetype of total self-giving; so, by definition, it is dis-ordered. In this way, such an act is not one of love, but one of use; each person uses the other as a means of achieving some end. However good the end may seem to be, the use of another is never justified.  This truth is defined by the act’s object, and no human intention can change it.

But there is another aspect of the body-soul unity that provides us insight into the necessity of reciprocal complementarity for spousal love. Recall, the body reveals the soul because the soul gives the body its form, or shape, so when we see the body, we see, in a sense, what the soul looks like. Love, as we saw from the divine Processions, is hierarchical. The Father initiates, the Son actively receives, then re-initiates, and then the Father receives the Son back, all in one eternal act. Human complementary sexuality reflects this. We can see that masculinity is first initiating love, and then is receptive in return. Femininity is first actively receptive, and then re-initiating in returning love. This can be seen in the body from gross anatomy down to the level of gametes, the initiating of the masculine and active receptivity of the feminine. Thus, the structure of the body reveals the structure of the soul; a male soul first initiates love and then receives; a female soul first receives and then initiates; but the soul and body are an inseparable unity. Sexual love, then, is necessarily complementary for it to be authentically human. Ultimately, the marital act is ordered toward love; it is ordered to initiatory and receptive loves, which are imaged in the body. Spousal love is necessarily complementary and, thereby, necessarily ordered to procreative fruitfulness.

The sexual expression of love is always spousal and, as such, must be ordered to the created, sexual differences which arise from humanity’s Trinitarian archetype—there is no other source. This does not mean that corporal sex exists in God, but rather that, in the created order, the hierarchy of divine love is most perfectly manifested in spousal love, including sexual complementarity. The Trinity, and the human person created in that image, are the foundations for the Church’s teaching about the requirement for sexual complementarity for the divine—and only—institution, called “marriage.” This rootedness in the nature of man, in the most unmistakable of ways, alone explains the universal agreement of the nature of sexual complementarity, with respect for this institution over all times and cultures. For the new evangelization to bear fruit, society must be open to Gospel values. It is now headed in a contrary direction at an increasingly rapid pace. To stem this societal degeneration, and reclaim society for Jesus Christ, much larger numbers of Christians must recover the beauty and truth of the human person, particularly the truth that as man and woman, we are made for each other alone in the institution of marriage.

David H. Delaney, PhD About David H. Delaney, PhD

David H. Delaney is Director and Senior Fellow at Mother of the Americas Institute in San Antonio, Texas, a think tank for the new evangelization. His research interests include the Trinity, Christology, ecclesiology, theological anthropology, and the new evangelization. He also is professor of systematic theology teaching seminarians, deacon candidates and laity in the Archdiocese of San Antonio.


  1. Avatar Fr. Jules A. Brunet says:

    CCC 246 of the Holy Spirit “He proceeds eternally from both as from one principle and through one spiration…
    .” How is this reconciled with the “Holy Spirit’s procession is called Spiration, or the breathing forth of the Holy Spirit from the reciprocal love of the Father and the Son” and “The Son returns himself to the Father in an eternal, reciprocal act of total self-gift” Delaney.
    How can a reciprocal act be ‘as from one principle’?
    I would sincerely appreciate your response. Father Jules A Brunet

  2. David H. Delaney, PhD David H. Delaney, PhD says:

    Fr. Brunet – thank you very much for your inquiry. In a nutshell, the 2 acts are a dynamic, interpersonal approach to referring to the two Processions in God (the Begetting of the Son and the Spiration of the Holy Spirit). The “reciprocal” adjective refers to the four divine Relations of the Thomist tradition. In this way, I am simply describing the traditional way of referring to the theology behind the Filioque, in dynamic, interpersonal terms. This of course, it not original to me, even if I do apply it to topics not yet fully explored. It can find its roots in Pseudo-Dyonisius and Richard of St. Victor. It is used widely by those who are of the loosely affiliated Communio School; particularly in my case, St. John Paul II.

    Let me describe this in a bit more detail in case this might be helpful. We first must say that when we describe God in Himself, the words we use must be by analogy (i.e. there is always similarity but an even greater difference in relating something in God’s finite creation to its archetype in God’s infinite Nature). For example, when we describe the Begetting of the Son as “before” the Spiration of the Holy Spirit, we cannot mean temporally prior because time is created. In God there is no before or after in terms of time or change. What we are describing in this case is a divine hierarchy of relationship which derives from the tradition of the Monarchy of the Father and the Patristic analysis of the Economic Trinity in John 8-16. In a similar manner, in God we describe there being two acts; the eternal act of the one divine Intellect which is the Begetting of the Son and the eternal act of the one divine Will which is the Spiration of the Holy Spirit. But we know God is simple and infinite, so again, when we say “two” we cannot mean numerically “2” because this would contradict God’s simplicity and infinity since numerical difference would mean complexity and number would imply finitude. The “two” is simply a reference to diversity in the divine Relations that are the divine archetypes for the created rational faculties: intellect and will.

    The paragraph you cite from the CCC is therefore, indeed the foundation of the description you cite from my article. Again, what this article describes is simply the dynamism of interpersonal communion (i.e. total self-gift, or love) that the CCC discusses from the perspective of metaphysics. In other words, the Self-gift of the Father to the Son is what the Thomist tradition calls the Personal Relation of Paternity. The Self-gift of the Son to the Father is the Relation of Filiation. The Holy Spirit as the fruit of the total Self-giving of the Father and the Son is the non-personal relation referred to as Active Spiration. It is non-personal, because both the Father and Son possess it (i.e. the Filioque). The return in Self-giving of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son is the Personal Relation of Passive Spiration (belonging only to the Holy Spirit). The “one Principle” the CCC refers to then is this eternal, reciprocal Self-gift between the Father and the Son –Active Spiration arising from the Relations of Filiation-Spiration; it is God’s act of knowing which is “one Principle”. The CCC’s ‘one Spiration” refers to the Procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son (Filioque), which can further be described in terms of 2 Relations: Active Spiration (which Thomas refers to as simply “Spiration” in his Summa) and Passive Spiration (which Thomas refers to as Procession).

    I hope that this is helpful.

    • Avatar Fr. Jules A. Brunet says:

      Thank you for the quick reply. It is indeed very helpful. However, it is taking me a few days to comprehend the implications of your message. This is enlightening.
      Pardon my boldness to continue, but I would very much like to have my thoughts critiqued by one such as you, especially because of your interest and research in the Trinity. If you will bear with me, I will present my views, while trying to examine them in the light of your research.

      Perhaps it is my thoughts which are the trouble for me….

      “The CCC discusses from the perspective of metaphysics.”
      From this perspective it seems to me that philosophically the word ‘reciprocal’ definitely implies two subjects, two principles. If you say ‘reciprocal’ how can it be ‘as from one principle’?
      The CCC 246 states that the Holy Spirit is the spiration as from one principle.

      Here is how I see the problem. If the procession of the Holy Spirit is to be understood as the Father breathing love to the Son and this love is reciprocated by the Son breathing love to the Father, we posit two acts, two principles, two ‘breaths’. Yet the Holy Spirit is the ‘breath’ of God, not the ‘breaths’ of God.

      It seems to mean that the Father and Son acting as one spiration is an act of the will, willing/loving God, willing/loving the ‘Be-ing’ of God. The procession of spiration is to be understood as God loving God.

      Of course, in the divine hierarchy of relationship this means God the Father and the Son acting as one principle loving God. In this single act of the Will arises the relationship of the Holy Spirit.

      It cannot be denied that the Father is loving the Son and the Son is loving the Father but in my view this is not the explanation of the procession of the Holy Spirit. The procession is Father and Son loving the ‘Be-ing’ of God, not loving each other.

      From the perspective of the ‘traditional’ and the ‘dynamism of interpersonal relations’.
      In this interpersonal realm, the Father reciprocates love for the Son as ‘love-gift’: so the Son reciprocates love for the Father as ‘love-gift’. Can we not say that ‘love-gift’ is also reciprocal to the Father and the Son and as well to the Holy Spirit, as is every attribute of God.

      I think what I am trying to say is that the interpersonal dynamism is not the explanation of the procession of the Holy Spirit but results, if you will , ‘after’ the processions.

      In other words the interpersonal dynamism is not the procession but follows it.

      Thank you ever so much for your kind attention,
      I will certainly look forward with anticipation for your comment.
      Father Brunet

      • David H. Delaney, PhD David H. Delaney, PhD says:

        Fr. Brunet,
        Thank you for your insightful comments. I completely agree with you that the first Procession is Father’s act of knowing, and the second Procession is God’s act of the will. However, I would say that we must guard against trying to import our idea of causality in terms of these Processions as that would seem to necessitate potency in God. It is best to understand these eternal acts in terms of a description of the hierarchy of the one eternal act of God. All Three Persons fully possess the one divine intellect and one divine will and there “was never when” any of the Three Persons did not fully possess and act, so there is always interpersonal dynamism.

        This non-causality also can be shown in another way. As you suggest, it is the Father who is the Sole Principle of divinity (the Monarchy of the Father as the Greek Fathers termed it). As such, the Generation of the Word and the Spiration of the Holy Spirit are eternal Processions. Recall, that these Processions are in the metaphysical category of relation, the Persons are divine, subsisting Relations. This was St. Augustine’s great insight which permits God’s nature (nature being in the category of being of substance, though strictly speaking Thomas does not admit of substance in God because its definition includes accidents). Thus, the Persons and interpersonal dynamism together must belong to the one, simple, immutable divine nature. Therefore, we need to avoid suggesting that God’s love is the fruit of His knowledge, even though that is the case in created persons, and though hierarchically, love follows knowledge in God (though not temporally or causally). In so doing, it is possible to understand the interpersonal dynamisms as one with the Processions-Relations.

        Let us now go back to your concern about subjects and principles. Principle and Subject (though for the same reason as Thomas avoids substance for God, he uses Hypostasis, Persona, or Subsistence rather than Subject for the divine Persons) are not always equivalent to Subject. If this were so then Vladimir Lossky and the other radical “Father alone” Orthodox theologians would be correct in their rejection of the Filioque. Rather, Thomas calls God’s act of knowledge itself a vital operation from a conjoined principle. This act of knowledge is distinguished into two Relations, Paternity and Filiation (which I would say is what we must assume to be the one principle of Spiration), demonstrating that when we use principle in God, it is solely pointing to the hierarchical origin or foundation of some Relation and not necessarily to a Person, and of course Active Spiration belongs to both the Father and Son.

        That said, it is true that I have not rigidly delineated the act of knowing from the act of willing when I refer to the total self-gift of the Father and the Son in interpersonal terms; a distinction which I strongly agree is necessary to maintain when discussing the distinction of Generation from that of Spiration. However, in God, all Three Persons know and love, as they all Three Possess this one nature which is Knowing and Loving. Thus, in interpersonal terms, I think it permissible to discuss the reciprocal Relations of Knowing (Paternity and Filiation) also in terms of total Self-giving love, which I think you agree with except for your concern to place interpersonal dynamism “after” the Processions.

        Thank you again for your interest and for taking the time for this exchange.

        God Bless


  3. I like that you point out that the “marital act ” outside of marriage and the contraceptive marital act is disordered. Same sex partners don’t like this term applied to them and I would bet that unmarried sexual partners and married would not also. It is obvious in looking at our bodies that one is disordering their use when going outside the will of God. I also like you pointing out that love is total self giving and any variation of this is just using another for a means. That is convicting of many people not only in sexual gratification, but in general terms of every day life. Christianity has been taken over by the mantra of how one feels or how one makes another feel and God has been left out of the equation.