On liberation from false marriages and sexual sin
In considering all the false unions which pass for marriage nowadays, we find that they are so endemic in our culture as to present two highly significant temptations. The first is to deny the grave evil of entering into these marriage substitutes on the grounds that they are so commonplace as to be considered natural and normal. The second is to despair of our ability to escape the bonds of such false unions on the grounds that, even if the ties that bind are false, the couple’s happiness is as thoroughly bound up in the relationship as it would be if the ties were true.
On the whole, then, it is very difficult in our secular culture to regard the irregularity of such unions as anything more than a technicality, which should not be allowed to impair the happiness of the couple in question. The issue of true marriage is rendered even more difficult by our culture’s failure to perceive sexual sins as morally significant. Because modern technocratic culture tends to regard the body as a kind of mechanism which the true self ought to manipulate for maximum utility, we find traditional attitudes toward sexual probity incomprehensible—as close to irrelevant as makes no difference.
If all this is so, then I can imagine quite a few readers found their eyebrows twitching when I wrote yesterday that St. Paul, in roundly condemning sin, placed special emphasis on sexual sin (see When questions are perceived as threats, a guilty conscience is at work). I don’t mean that many would have questioned that assertion, for it is obviously true. But the modern Catholic might suddenly realize that he or she has no idea why it should be true. Might this mean that St. Paul was hung up on sex?
That, of course, is what the world has always wanted us to believe. But the real reason is that St. Paul understood what it means to be a human person—a being composed of both body and soul, a person whose very perfection consists in the full integrity of that union as created and intended by God Himself, and as exemplified in Jesus Christ. Indeed, just as the soul, even in its disembodied state between death and the last judgment, is not a complete human person, so too does the integration of the body with its soul (and the soul with its body) determine both our character and our destiny.
Each person’s body is a key part of that person’s identity, and the body plays a defining role not only in our interaction with other persons, but in our response to God’s invitation to be united with Him. This response is the whole reason for our existence in the first place; our very ability to possess a more than natural happiness depends on an ever-growing “yes” to God’s dwelling within each of us. St. Paul emphasizes the horror of sexual sin for the simple reason that it pollutes what God has chosen for Himself, refusing to allow Him entry to (or insisting on driving Him out of) the very habitation He desires to bless with His infinite goodness, love and life.
St. Paul wrote a good deal about this in his letters to the Corinthians. Here is his most complete statement of the mystery (and note that the English word “immorality” in passages of this kind is a catchall for sexual sin in general, and especially fornication):
The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body…. [H]e who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. [1 Cor 6:13,17-20]
And in another place, Paul wrote: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are” (1 Cor 3:16-17).
We could also examine sexual sin from the perspective of what it means, in our own bodies, to be members of the Church, for “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom 12:5). If we did so, we would be led into an even fuller and deeper reality. For true marriage is itself a Divine mystery, and St. Paul wants us also to understand that “this mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:32).
But this is enough to be getting on with. We cannot properly respond to sexual sin and counterfeit marriages without, first, understanding what it means to be a human person; second, recognizing our creation, redemption and adoption in Christ; and third, trusting the power of the Holy Spirit to make us far happier than we are now—precisely by breaking our bondage to sin.
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