Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:9)
From time to time we are all vexed by the raging of our passions, those internal desires which seem to propel us headlong into some perceived good that we seek to obtain. The spirit is willing but the body is weak, and perhaps too often we find that despite our best efforts we end up indulging yet again, even as the will may protest.
St. Paul tends to get branded as a stick-in-the-mud who doesn’t want anybody to have any fun, for in 1 Corinthians he basically seems to tell people that they would all be better off if they were like him- unmarried. No sex, no fun, right?
But St. Paul has a soft side, it would seem, for after giving us his fairly strict ideal, he then somewhat begrudgingly offers a way out- if you can’t keep your pants on, it’s at least better to get married.
Thanks Paul, for such a stirring affirmation of the good of marriage.
One interesting side note- even though Paul bears the brunt of our modern scorn, Jesus has an essentially identical outlook. When he tells people about marriage they exclaim that it’s better not to get married at all, and he responds by saying yes, eunuchs have the right idea. Well, that’s a paraphrase, but whatever. He also puts the kibosh on the whole ‘forever’ thing that we bandy about with our married-love talk, since, um, no, not really ‘forever.’
Given this apparent lackluster affirmation of marriage, it is perhaps a little odd that marriage is one of the church’s historic sacraments, a means of grace. In the modern Christian world we have hundreds of books, seminars, retreats, songs, etc., about the beauty of marriage, but Jesus and Paul seem to treat it with a little less ostentation, the latter treating marriage almost as Plan B, a concession for the weak-willed.
So how do we get from concession to sacrament? Are the two opposed, or is there some way in which the internal logic reconciles the problem?
Aquinas has a lot to say about many things, and matrimony does not escape his gaze. In a previous post I looked at his approach to lust and the parts thereof. Sex can have destructive consequences, but as something created by God for the propagation of our race it cannot be sinful in and of itself. So what are the goods of marriage? How does sex fit into it as a sacrament, when we seem to mutually oppose them?
Aquinas understands that matrimony is natural to human beings as following from natural law. He treats an objection which asserts the contrary- that is, that matrimony is not natural and therefore not subject to natural law. Thus:
Objection 1. It would seem that matrimony is not natural. Because “the natural law is what nature has taught all animals” [Digest. I, i, de justitia et jure, 1.] But in other animals the sexes are united without matrimony. Therefore matrimony is not of natural law. (ST, Supplement, Question 41, Article 1)
Another objection wonders if matrimony can be natural since matrimony is not required for procreation, which is its end:
Objection 4. Further, those things without which the intention of nature can be maintained would seem not to be natural. But nature intends the preservation of the species by generation which is possible without matrimony, as in the case of fornicators. Therefore matrimony is not natural. (ST, Supplement, Question 41, Article 1)
He begins by noticing that something can be natural from the principles of nature, like fire rising upward, or in the manner by which free-will is exercised in regards to something. Marriage belongs to the latter, he argues, for it intends two distinct results:
1. the generation and raising of offspring
2. the mutual benefit of the spouses.
He sees the rationality of humans as providing a portion of knowing and following natural law since reason is an endowment which humans have over-above the rest of animal kind. Like other animals we have offspring, but unlike other animals we have reason which must be developed in its use and requires instruction to do so; this requirement (as an example) demonstrates one way in which mere procreation is not the end of marriage but rather the entire development of the offspring. Likewise, while some other animals may pair for life, they do not have the ties that human beings have, since those social ties are distinct because of the part of reason. The long development of the human offspring has need of both parents, and thus we find the mutual support of the spouses woven into the procreative element.
And while procreation can come about in many ways- not all of which are legitimate or good- the good of the offspring is best perfected in the union and oversight of both parents. As such, the will to form this tie and to procreate comes into the second sense of what is natural and locates matrimony as natural to humans.
In enumerating the parts of lust Aquinas noted the various ways in which the concupiscence is led into sin and brings disaster. The pull from concupiscence can be so strong that it can even lead the person to do things he would not normally do, things which may ultimately endanger him. So great is this tug that it can be tempting to relegate the sexual act to being sinful in itself, a position which many Christian thinkers throughout the centuries have been close to.
Aquinas meets this objection, and articulates six positions which support such a contention. His first salvo against this creeping Manichaeanism is to remind the reader of who the author of creation is: God alone. It is a principle that God is wholly good, and that anything God creates must by virtue of that goodness be good in and of itself. To imagine otherwise is to plunge into madness:
If we suppose the corporeal nature to be created by the good God we cannot hold that those things which pertain to the preservation of the corporeal nature and to which nature inclines, are altogether evil; wherefore, since the inclination to beget an offspring whereby the specific nature is preserved is from nature, it is impossible to maintain that the act of begetting children is altogether unlawful, so that it be impossible to find the mean of virtue therein; unless we suppose, as some are mad enough to assert, that corruptible things were created by an evil god, whence perhaps the opinion mentioned in the text is derived (Sent. iv, D, 26); wherefore this is a most wicked heresy. (ST Supplement, Question 41, Article 3)
The basic idea is that, for whatever reason, God intended human kind to reproduce through the sexual act. If God intended this, then it cannot be anything but good. The bad use of a thing- even the very frequent and horrible use of thing- does not render it therefore sinful.
In this sense Aquinas has an entirely optimistic view of creation and sexuality. Sin is non-being, and thus is parasitic on the good and the virtuous for its ‘existence.’ Since God is understood to sustain creation every moment of its existence, sin cannot undo that creative act. Sexuality is not therefore sinful since God created it for humans to use towards an end.
There is a tension, however, in that the sexual act- even within marriage- always seems to carry with it a concupiscent taint; that is, the lower appetite desires the pleasure of sex even over-against reason’s consent:
Objection 3. Further, that which is shameful in itself can by no means be well done. Now the marriage act is always connected with concupiscence, which is always shameful. Therefore it is always sinful. (ST Supplement, Question 41, Article 3)
Aquinas will have none of this, for even though we have concupiscence as part of humanity’s fall from grace, this internal defect is not itself sinful, but is rather something which opens up the door for merit and the exercise of virtue.
Essentially, Aquinas is going to argue that having sex can make you holy.
The Meritorious Act of Sex
Merit, in Aquinas’ understanding, is a reward in return for work or toil. He does not imagine that God owes anyone anything in relation to justice, as if God were absolutely bound to reward. Rather, he sees merit as it presupposes God’s ordination to reward certain acts. God and humanity are greatly unequal, and every good comes from God, including that which is possessed by any man. There is thus a sense in which merit is a way of growing in goodness because one is doing what God desires- the good. It also has the end of bringing glory to God, since a meritorious act is directed towards the good, which is ultimately God himself. Merit thus always has in mind that God owes no one anything but graciously allows humanity to participate in his goodness to a fuller and fuller extent.
The objection is raised that the marriage act (i.e., marital sex) cannot be meritorious. The assertions in support of this are as follows:
1. it is not sinful but not therefore necessarily meritorious, that
2. to refrain from what is meritorious (virginity) is not praiseworthy and thus not meritorious,
3. Claiming an indulgence does not merit
4. Merit entails difficulty, but the marital act is pleasurable
5. There is always venial sin the marriage act since it arises from a venial sin
Aquinas meets all these objections head on. He begins by noting contrary assertions:
Every act whereby a precept is fulfilled is meritorious if it be done from charity. Now such is the marriage act, for it is said (1 Corinthians 7:3): “Let the husband render the debt to his wife.” Therefore, etc.
Further, every act of virtue is meritorious. Now the aforesaid act is an act of justice, for it is called the rendering of a debt. Therefore it is meritorious. (ST Supplement, Question 41, Article 3)
But he then moves on to lay down an eminently important principle: No act that proceeds from a deliberate will can be indifferent; that is, morally neutral. For the one in a state of grace, any act which arises from the deliberate will is going to either be meritorious or sinful. There is no in-between by the very nature of the act of the will.
This crucial point means that every act of our lives- even sex- has a moral dimension to it. We are either progressing in sinfulness or progressing in virtue. Far from casting a squinted glance at sex, Aquinas brings it out into the full and piercing light of truth, allowing it to flower in all of its beauty and goodness. There is a rich profundity here, for the most intimate of human connections can be the source of death and destruction or of life and growth. The coming together of husband and wife can be an occasion of holiness, for the marriage bed is in this view a training ground for virtue.
But what of the objections of venial sin and the supposed ease of the marital act? Even the saintliest of persons will be moved by concupiscence into each other’s arms- does this not invalidate the meritorious nature of sex?
Aquinas says no. Merit arises from charity, he states, and marriage entails a certain debted-ness of husband and wife whereby if they fulfill this debt, they are acting from charity (and from justice) and as such the act is meritorious.
But his final response is more striking. The first movement of concupiscence towards sex is only a venial sin if it is towards an inordinate object of pleasure. The object of the marriage act- the spouse- is not an inordinate object, and thus the first movement of concupiscence in regards to marital sex is not sinful. He further elaborates:
Hence it should be noted that the conjugal act is sometimes meritorious and without any mortal or venial sin, as when it is directed to the good of procreation and education of a child for the worship of God; for then it is an act of religion; or when it is performed for the sake of rendering the debt, it is an act of justice. But every virtuous act is meritorious, if it is performed with charity. (St. Aquinas; Commentary on 1 Corinthians, 7:1-9)
This requires a bit more explication, because it is so incredible. Sex, as we have seen in the parts of lust, can be an incredibly powerful and destructive thing if used improperly. And concupiscence is so strong that it can pull us away from reason to do that which we would never do. Outside of marriage sexual desire is a minefield, and it is incredibly easy to wander in, never to get out.
But within marriage sex can be a meritorious act. The concupiscent desire is not removed, but still directs the appetite towards the object of its desire. But the good of marriage takes this drive and removes what would otherwise be a sinful first movement and transforms it into an opportunity for merit. The pleasure sought in the martial act can actually propel one into greater virtue, as the husband and wife fulfill their debt to one another and bring about the good of their offspring.
Incredibly, one of the most disaster-fill aspects of life can be channeled into one of the most meritorious, for marriage sanctifies the act and directs it towards its proper ends.
It is in this sense that St. Paul’s words begin to finally make sense. It is a great good to be single, and fighting the desires of the concupiscence is meritorious for the one in a state of grace. The virgin has a foretaste of union with God as he or she will be in the resurrection, where one is neither married nor given in marriage. In this manner the celibate life is a higher virtue.
But God does not desire the same vocation for us all, and sometimes the path of virtue lies along a different road. St. Paul fully understands the drive of the passions and how they can incessantly burn. Thus, for those who desperately want to grow in virtue but have difficulty with their concupiscence, he assures them: marriage is not only not sinful, but can be a path to virtue as well. It is better to marry than to burn, because marriage can be not only a tutor for the passions but can also use them to bring about a life of virtue and holiness.
Closely related to this is the nature of marriage as a sacrament as historically understood in Christian history. After Aquinas treats of whether or not marriage is a sacrament he moves on to an interesting question: Should it have been instituted before sin was committed?
The nature of the question is as such: the sacraments as an instrument of grace have as part of their nature a remedy for sin; for example, baptism removes the stain of original sin. But if matrimony was established before sin was committed, it is not clear how it can actually be a sacrament.
Aquinas begins by reminding the reader that marriage as a natural institution has different goods to which it tends, such as the production of children and the mutual benefit of the spouses. The part of procreation requires matrimony, as was seen earlier, since procreation is necessary for the good of the continuance of the human race. Thus, even without sin matrimony was necessary given the nature of human reproduction and development.
While marriage was not a sacrament before sin in the sense that it is under the auspices of the law of Christ, Aquinas traces the same institution through the ages to find it is the same one and in the pre-fall state prefigures the sacrament in the way that matrimony is a sign of the union of Christ and the Church.
The temporal priority of matrimony over its sacramental character highlights how it has several institutions associated with it- that of offspring, that of mutual support and that of sacramental grace. This grace Aquinas does not locate merely in the suppressing of concupiscence but also by (as we saw before) turning what would otherwise be a sinful act into a meritorious act.
This is an important point to make, because Aquinas sees the sacrament of marriage as providing a way into holiness, since any deliberate act of the will will either be sinful or meritorious.
In what can be seen as a grand thread running through the biblical narrative, Aquinas understands that God takes the primordial man and woman, uniting them in a bond in which grace already existed. The fall removed this original grace but could not undo the bond, and even the sexual act which could be so abused was still intended by God to further the human race and give support and love to each spouse. Under the Mosaic Law the strictures of marriage were delineated to help curb the concupiscence and remove the darkness of ignorance. In the New Law of Christ matrimony is brought full into bloom, for it does not merely return to its former state but is superseded in that it signifies a mystery greater than itself- the union of Christ and the Church. It is in this sacrament that the deepest drives are allowed to find their rest and are even turned to lead one to find grace and grow in virtue. This sacrament will one day pass away when it is brought into the glory of the resurrection, where all believers are united with Christ as one body.
Sex is a powerful drive, and too often it can get the better of us. For all who desire to grow in virtue and the love of God, our appetites will forever be warring against us. We are not all called to celibacy, and each vocation is as God wills and distributes. If virginity is not your calling but you want to be holy, the battle is not lost, for God has given us grace even in the pull of our passions.
It is much better to marry than to burn.