Divorced from experience

Cahill, Lisa Sowle

DIVORCED FROM LISA SOWLE CAHILL EXPERIENCE RETHINKING THE THEOLOGY OF MARRIAGE It is clear to many in the church today that a new beginning point in the experience of...

...The "experience"of marriage never can be severed from the particular social, religious, and moral milieu in which it arises...
...Although both aspects are essential to marriage, the aspects which a thinker, group, or culture takes to be primary can color the analysis of marriage in decisive ways...
...She is the author of Between the Sexes: Foundations for a Christian Ethics of Sexuality...
...is in order...
...In this interpretation the temptation to read the experience so as to fit the already standard categories is not entirely withstood...
...communities over hundreds of years...
...The philosophy most central in Catholicism has been the "natural law" method which Thomas Aquinas developed from Aristotle...
...I will mention just three of the things such studies may indicate about the texts in question...
...It might be better, though, to speak of the "unity" of the couple, or even the "equality" of spouses, than of the intersubjective "gift" which John Paul II wants to associate with the body's "nuptial" meaning...
...At this point we enter into the critical dialectic between categories and experience...
...119...
...Secondly, neither the first nor the second creation story speaks of the institution of "marriage" as such, and certainly not of any "sacramental" marriage...
...The "blessing of increase" in Genesis 1:28 ("Be fruitful...
...2:23-24) of two equal partners 173 who are interpersonally committed to one another, but with the responsibility of each species to perpetuate its own kind...
...We need not capitulate to the sort of relativism which dirows up its hands in the face of complexity and abandons ^ny further search for common ground...
...For experience to have meaning and significance at all, it must be interpreted...
...In alliance with an "exploitative profit economy" is "a schizophrenic culture that divides home and work into separate spheres, segregates women as primary parents in a privatized domestic culture and alienates the male as worker from co-parenting...
...It is rather to call for another continual, mutually critical dialogue, this time among cultures past and present...
...They do resist the tendency to dissolve a relationship because it has come upon hard times, or because it becomes apparent that it does not measure up to the ideal for which the couple may have hoped...
...In my judgment, at this time in the history of the Catholic tradition of sexuality and marriage, it is important to concentrate on the discernment of areas of experience to which these categories have not drawn our attention or from which they have distracted us...
...It is undergirded by, and opens out to, family and society in ways which can vary drastically with culture and era, and which impinge radically on the nature of the relations between wife and husband, parents and children, and sisters and brothers...
...that is, it must be received and appropriated in categories of value that provide intelligibility both to those who participate in the experience and those to whom the experience is communicated...
...and some recent Roman Catholic writings about marriage which elaborate its "sacramentality" in terms of the love union of the couple, culminating in sexual intercourse...
...The social, economic, and especially procreative contributions of the spouses to this larger, encompassing order are paramount...
...A Christian perspective on any moral issue derives from the interaction of a number of insights, which originate in at least four basic reference points or sources...
...I cannot help but wonder whether the pope's ideal is not accompanied by rather traditional views of gender roles in marriage and family, in which the woman is in the home ready to welcome new life whenever it might appear, and to nurture both children and husband through whatever hard times the world "outside" the family presents to its "interior" life...
...This will not be a comprehensive study, but will briefly illustrate the direction of the thought of John Paul II by means of his phrase ' 'the nuptial meaning of the body...
...The result was a cyclical interpretation of marital intimacy, a view of marital intimacy as paradigmatic for other intimacy relationships, and a commitment to a sacramental understanding of marriage as revealing the mystery of the divine presence...
...But at the practical level, the conditions and conse quences of true, effective equality are not followed out or perhaps even recognized...
...Over and above the question of the appropriate reading of the social conditions permitting conjugal equality and commitment in marriage is that of the true reading of the conjugal relationship itself, especially in its sexual expression...
...The fact that Catholic thinkers are not always well informed regarding critical historical studies of the texts they desire to use has not assisted the process...
...Even after the critical dialectic between experience and categories is recognized, difficulties remain...
...Finally, the pope transforms the traditional Roman Catholic reading of the '' nature'' of sexuality so that it not only includes both physical and psychological aspects, but also integrally relates the two aspects in the "nuptial" meaning of sexual acts...
...As a focus for my discussion of contempo-rary Catholic vie ws of marriage, I will take the thought of the present pope as ex-pressed especially in his "Apostolic Exhortation on the Family" {Familiaris Consortio, 1981), and in some of his general audience talks on "The Theology of the Body" (1979-81...
...However, it is important to insist that in the discussion of marriage, as in other realms of Christian ethics, the critical dialogues must go on, for "objectivity," "values," and "common ground" are disclosed and given substance only in and through the lives of many individuals, relations, and communities...
...Critiques by Catholic feminists such as Rosemary Radford Ruether are even more pointed...
...This statement, like others about marriage and sexuality, should be taken at the rather abstract level of an ideal or generalization, not as a specific or inflexible moral norm...
...Yet the contributions of experiential accounts to the theology and ethics of marriage enter not only at the social le vel, but also at the level of the conjugal relation between two committed individuals...
...The practice of levirate marriage in ancient Israel (Gen...
...The authors do not deny that it is in fact possible for some marriages to fail, or that some marriages may be so destructive for one or both partners that to end them is better than to continue...
...Nonetheless, the primary purpose of sex is to serve the human community through procreation, and the primary definition of marriage is as domestic and social partnership, rather than interpersonal fulfillment...
...In the case of marriage, there is already a strong normative tradition in Catholicism which provides such categories: monogamy, indissolu-bility, inseparability of procreation and sexual acts, the dangerous quality of sexual pleasure, to name a few...
...They urge spouses to build on the commitment they have made, and to seek actively opportuni-ties for making their relation a more sarisfying one the reproductive aspects of sexuality and, consequently, we have subjected our sexuality to criteria that judge how it influences reproduction...
...Is it true to experience to say that'' sexual passion . . . must be the total aura and context of the life of the spouses" [p...
...This friendship is intensified by sexual expression and 172 has a highly personal quality...
...Roman Catholic Canon Law with its stress on consent and consummation...
...Writing inBlackfriars (May 1985), Ruether sees the modern Western family to be in a state of crisis created by 174 patriarchy and industrialism...
...To do this would be to short-circuit the mutually revelatory dialectic between theology and experience...
...Even more prominently than it is a personal and sexual relationship, marriage is a social institution...
...To speak of the natural law is to presuppose that there are some basic human moral values which are shared by all persons, no matter what their cultural or religious heritage...
...Second, he portrays the sexuality of the man and the woman as enabling a mutual relation of self-donation...
...31:3-31...
...An intimate interpersonal relation of equal affection and responsibility between spouses is not possible in a culture in which both men and women see husband as the superior, controlling partner...
...What is not so clearly a part of the Western consciousness is the degree to which a "marriage" is a nexus of interdependent relations among couple, family, and larger social arrangements...
...Some ambivalence about this claim, though, may be revealed in the qualification which follows it: "On the other hand the true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of their maternal and family role, by comparison with all other public roles and all other professions" (n...
...An alternative approach to marriage is to take as its paramount meaning the relation between the two spouses, especially its sexual expression...
...After all, a key commitment of the Catholic tradition of theology and ethics has been to seek out objectivity and shared values...
...At one level, the theoretical, equality is endorsed...
...This means that honest reflection on the experience of marriage cannot begin with an a priori commitment to render the traditional categories in more or less the traditional ways when all is said and done...
...In turn, what the natural law is said to require is determined in a context of great reliance on past teachings of the church...
...The family, paralleling the couple, is also said to be an "intimate community of life and love" (n...
...Most Catholics, including John Paul II, have not worked out adequately the relation of biblical evidence to traditional theological and moral commitments...
...1:28...
...This is not to say there are no "constants" in the experience of marriage...
...This phrase occurs during a commentary on the exclamation of Adam, ' 'This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" (Gen...
...This is not because the celibate clergy who have in the tradition made the most extensive contributions to a normative understanding of marriage are incapable of insights into an experience they do not share directly...
...In addition, when we read the words of Scripture today, we bring to them our own religious concepts and images, which will be in some ways the same as and in some ways different from those of the communities who originally produced the biblical witness...
...25:5-10) is an example of this interdependence, as are marriage customs in some twentieth-century "pre-industrial" societies...
...For instance, the collection of biblical literature already represents within itself several different strands of religious tradition, which evolved within faith LISA SOWLE CAHILL, a professor of theology at Boston College, is editor for ethics for Religious Studies Review and associate editor of"Logos and the Journal of Religious Ethics...
...This is said to be substantiated by the fact that the following verse "establishes their conjugal unity" (Gen...
...First of all, experience is an important resource for Christian ethics in all areas but it is not the only source in any area...
...More serious dialogue with married persons about the relation of having children to their conjugal commitment and to their sex lives (especially "each and every act...
...She also has stated that the assertion of a moral difference between artificial and natural methods of regulating birth and "the claim that contraception contradicts the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife" " do not seem to relate to the actual experiences of many people...
...Some theologians find this depiction less than convincing...
...marriage and family as a private realm...
...Thomas is perhaps more consistent with recent suggestions of moral theologians and canonists that love is the basic meaning and''end'' of marriage, even though marital love has sex as its expression and children as its outcome...
...Uniting with each other so closely as to become "one flesh," they will subject, in a way, their humanity to the blessing of fertility, namely, "procreation," of which the first narrative speaks (Gen...
...It is easier to get intersubjectivity out of personalist philosophy than out of the biblical accounts...
...To cement or dissolve the marriage is not the decision of the couple alone, but a decision in which both families have considerable economic and social stakes...
...The fact that the experience of everyone is not the same seems true in a special way for marriage...
...Thomas places emphasis on distinctively Christian values: the importance of humility in defining marriage, and of the cross, forgiveness, and even will power in living it out successfully...
...I would also stress that what I have defined is marital "love," not marriage in the legal or institutional senses, which may not require "love" at all...
...To be noted also and commended is the contribution of David M. Thomas in his recent book, Christian Marriage (Michael Glazier, 1983...
...2:25...
...John Paul's thesis is that the statement expresses the man's recognition of the woman's human identity, manifested bodily not only as "femininity" but also as "the reciprocity and communion of persons" which sexual difference makes possible...
...The cycles are described as "the falling in love of courtship and early marriage," "the settling down of the early years," "the painful bottoming out due to surface harmony," and "the beginning again of recapturing the beginnings and moving upward, reborn and renewed" (Marital Intimacy: A Catholic Perspective, Loyola University Press, 1980...
...A degree of distance from an experience can in fact assist appropriate analysis...
...Today, this is the case with experience...
...The cycles named may not fit the experience of every married couple but they are tied in concrete, common-sense ways to the role of sexual attraction in evoking opportunities for intimacy, to the many barriers great and small which deter all married persons at least some of the time from total intimacy, to the reality and even probability of marital discord, dissatisfaction, or boredom, and to the possibility of making a difficult relationship better if the partners use imagination and try to maximize any positive experiences still remaining in their relationship...
...With regard to this text, in The 1980 Synod of Bishops, (Leuven University Press, 1983), Jan Grootaers and Joseph A. Selling, Christian husbands as well as theologians, comment: John Paul is definitely more in favor of married women remaining in the home...
...DIVORCED FROM LISA SOWLE CAHILL EXPERIENCE RETHINKING THE THEOLOGY OF MARRIAGE It is clear to many in the church today that a new beginning point in the experience of married persons is needed in the Catholic theology and ethics of marriage...
...Even while he follows tradition and his culture in subordinating the wife to the husband, he does achieve some original insights into the quality of their relation as "friendship...
...Last but not least indeed the thing that most strikes me about the pope's development of "the nuptial meaning of the body" is its isolation from the social conditions necessary for its realization, especially the structure and social location of the family, and the roles of women within the family...
...Can it possibly be true that "every encounter between [any] two persons, even a simple 'Good Morning,' . . . must be sexual and passionate"[p...
...But since interpretation given by those outside a particular experience must rely on analogy to similar but different experiences, it seems difficult to deny that the testimony of married persons should have a prerogative in normative evaluations which has not been granted thus far...
...Finally, the "one flesh" unity of Genesis 2 is proposed in the context more of a social partnership than of a procreative one...
...Paul, 1981...
...He too sees marital sex as integrally related to having children, but relates it more basically to the commitment of wife and husband to each other, and avoids the temptations to overinterpret the significance of sexual acts as the occasions on which the relationship as a whole is at its peak moments...
...The task for Catholic Christian ethics today is to bring its interpretation of the human and Christian values which marriage represents back into fruitful contact with the actual lives of married persons...
...As we have seen, the psychological dimensions of this relationship are related to contextual factors in family and society...
...At the 1980 Synod on the Family, the bishops from Zaire reported: "The importance which is attached to the marital bond by the family is evident from the care with which the family group prepares for and progressively works out its institution...
...38:8...
...The colloquium attempted to let the "life wisdom of the participants and the perspectives of the social sciences" speak before theological categories and evaluations '' moved in...
...Such a restructuring would, however, call for significant cultural shifts such as the serious commitment of resources to parenting by both men and women (including appropriate levels of outside child care...
...Again, no one will dispute the fact that women who do devote themselves full time to child care are performing a task and following a profession on an equal footing with other professions...
...In the first place, "experience" is never "pure" and unmediated...
...While the social implications of this relation hardly go unrecognized, it is the union of the two partners which forms the basis or "bottom line" of the theological and moral evaluation of marriage...
...The first is that he attempts to engage the Roman Catholic view of marriage with relevant biblical accounts, and to recover elements which are more distinctively "Christian" than the standard "natural law" analysis of the "ends" of marriage and of sexual acts...
...Denise Lardner Carmody remarks on a "questionable even unseemly tendency" of the pope to interpret the experience of married women (and men) rather than letting them speak for themselves...
...I hesitate to say that the desire or I attempt to have children is definitive of "marital love," though I am willing to venture that having children expresses the love of spouses more fully and enhances it...
...personalization of marriage, involving greater emotional dependence between spouses...
...These situations usually manage to challenge our attempts to capture their reality with categories induced from other, albeit similar, experiences...
...Before we can give the experience of marriage its due weight, it will be necessary to consider why this move is important, and why beginning with experience is not as simple a task as it might first appear...
...Indeed, more needed in the marital experience of many is encouragement to nurture their sexual attraction, rather than to control and restrain it...
...the predilection of modern papal teaching to focus on the ostensibly "natural" meanings of sexual intercourse and to identify these with the purposes of marriage...
...As I have indicated, recent Roman Catholic teaching tends to portray this relation in idealized, even romanticized terms, to focus disproportionately on sexual intercourse as the epitome of the spousal partnership, to focus on sexual relations in discussions of marital morality, and to delimit the moral boundaries of sexual relations in a manner which is derived directly from past church teaching, which does not seem seriously open to reevaluation in the light of marital experi- ence, and which seems to presuppose fairly traditional, patriarchal views of women and family...
...To achieve this new beginning may be a complicated project...
...What is meant by this concretely...
...In turn, the family sustains marital relationships, with economic, psychological, and even procreative support...
...I think this definition would withstand the institutionaliza-tion of marriage in both traditional and modern cultures, even though I do not think all cultures have institutionalized marriage in ways which are of equal value...
...It might not be going too far to say that the institutionalization of marriage determines these relationships...
...Scripture and experience (including social-scientific studies) have been understood largely as supports for the natural law tradition...
...sexual liberalization...
...The person is embodied as a sexual being in whom physical and spiritual aspects coalesce in interaction with another...
...Most Western Christians, today take it for granted that the individuality of neither wife nor husband, nor their intimate relationship, ought to be subordinated almost entirely to the interests of family, tribe, or nation...
...For experience to serve as a beginning point will require not that all categories be set aside, for that is impossible (without categories there is no understanding), but that categories be truly exposed to a critical movement between the theological traditions they represent and the de facto relationships which they supposedly explain...
...This reality can be described in many ways, such as the personal story, or, in a more scientific manner, through biology, sociology, anthropology, and psychology...
...50) which builds up "the kingdom of God" (n...
...Both the sexual union . and the intentional commitment can express or even help I create the affective, emotional dimension of marital love, but I the good faith commitment is more definitive of marital love than the emotional response...
...The most influential author in post-Reformation Catholic thought, Thomas Aquinas, takes a solidly communal view of marriage...
...She serves on the Board of Directors for the Society of Christian Ethics and on the Institutional Review Board of the Harvard Community Health Plan...
...The affirmative and egalitarian tone of the portrayal sets it apart from virtually all official Catholic statements before the Second Vatican Council...
...The importance of each can be substantiated by any one of the four sources of ethics, and is reinforced by the experience of the married and their families...
...We tend to idealize and isolate the couple in their love, their freedom, and their responsibility, and so to arrive at an unrealistic or simplistic view of the many elements which constitute a marriage, contributing to its success or failure...
...Prov...
...Examples are Augustine's preoccupation with the problematic nature of sexual acts and their justification within marriage...
...There is a much deeper question of role identification and human classification which has always managed to keep women "in their place" and substantiate genuine discrimination and prejudice against them...
...One example of an attempt to do this is the work of Mary Durkin, who is committed both to working critically within the recent papal tradition as expressive of important religious values, and to "a better understanding of the lived experience of marital intimacy" accomplished through "the ongoing experience of various individuals and groups" (The Changing Family, Loyola University Press, 1982...
...The decision to marry is described in quite ideal terms: it is a decision of the partners "to commit by their irrevocable conjugal consent their whole lives in indissoluble love and unconditional fidelity" (n...
...n pursuit of better understanding of the essential character of Christian marriage, I would like to venture a definition of marital "love...
...In more traditional societies, marriages tend to be seen as links within a larger family structure, in whose framework they have meaning and which they perpetuate...
...In the past, Catholic teachings about sexuality and marriage have been based mostly on the natural law...
...Third, the influence of "personalist" philosophy on the pope's approach allows him to introduce into the ethics of sex and marriage the importance of the intersubjective relation of the spouses, and also to portray this relation in terms of high interpersonal ideals, which open onto the Christian ideal of self-offering love...
...First, the personalist language of "mutual self-gift" and "total surrender" of spouses through sexual union does not fit comfortably into Israelite views of marriage, nor even into the Genesis creation stories, though the latter are quite exceptional in the originally equal status given to the woman, and in the importance given to the couple as distinct from the family...
...In all areas of marital commitment marital friendship or "intimacy," marital sexuality, and the fulfillment of the social roles of spouses, parents, and family experiential situations are always diverse, and are often compromises with or adjustments to preexisting factors which are less than ideal...
...However, this is not really the issue...
...I do not mean to suggest that any theological interpretation is wrong if it goes beyond demonstrably "biblical" views, but rather to call for more explicit and nuanced development of the method or means by which one moves from biblical "evidence" to a contemporary interpretation, and for the justification of such means...
...In Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II develops the meanings of marriage and of parenthood...
...equal rights and educational and career opportunities for women, making them less dependent...
...Philosophies of course can vary, and Christianity has borrowed from many over the centuries...
...These sources are not separate, though they are somewhat distinct from one another...
...For example, the definition does not exclude love from polygamous marriages, though I believe monogamy is a far superior setting for equality and mutual respect...
...Ruether calls for a "realignment" of home and work, family and society which would allow both sexes full participation in both public and domestic spheres...
...A telling point in the papal view is his discussion of' 'fecundity...
...Two aspects of marriage can be contrasted: the interpersonal and social...
...Last, but in a sense most fundamental, is experience...
...Only on the basis of the dialogues between theology and experience, and among the complex, varied experiences of individuals and of groups, can we understand the reality of Christian marriage and rearticulate that reality in categories which are more descriptively accurate and more helpful in evaluating marriage's successes and failures...
...Attention to more equal roles is a sine qua non of credibility in twentieth-century Western theology...
...The church is invoked in support of a "Christian vision of the redeemed society as a new community of equals," and in the creation of "a new understanding of family as committed communities of mutual service...
...is not directly associated with the "one flesh" unity (Gen...
...rising rates of divorce, especially as initiated by women...
...Tradition, as another source, includes not only authoritative church teachings, but also the faith and practice of the whole believing community more broadly understood...
...Is it really true that "the divine life" is revealed in marriage most of all in orgasm [p...
...The pope, conflating the creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis, tells his audience that, moreover, Genesis 2:24 speaks of the finality of man's masculinity and femininity, in the life of the spouses-parents...
...added emphasis on communication and conflict resolution...
...Or is it in the faithful partnership, the journey through good times and bad, which is the ensemble of all marital acts and not just sexual ones...
...Eventually, it will 171 become necessary to shift the focus of attention so as to take into account the influence of sources and insights which may have been neglected...
...Another difficulty is whether the biblical ideals, or even the pope's extrapolation of a "nuptial" significance of the body, really yields the norm that every authentically loving sexual union also will be procreative...
...He also claims that "woman's access to public functions" is "fully" justified...
...There are several undoubtedly positive things to be said about John Paul's exposition of these texts...
...In an especially perceptive essay exploring the shifting social context of Christian family life, Lorenz Wachinger (Stimmen der Zeit, 203, 1984), highlights seven factors: longer average duration of marriage, calling for more numerous adjustments over the life cycle...
...An important effort in the development of such an understanding was Durkin's participation in a two-year colloquium among social scientists and theologians...
...2:24: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh''), and that it is testified that they are naked before one another without shame (Gen...
...49) through "generous fruitfulness," "solidarity and faithfulness," and by working together in a "loving way" (n...
...This commitment is expressed in and intensified by sexual union, but does not consist preeminently in it...
...2:23...
...Although ideally all four major sources should be influential in Christian ethics, it is usually the case that our attention is focused explicitly on one or two, while the influence of the others becomes for a time less direct...
...The '' nuptial meaning of the body "so disclosed is " the fundamental element of human existence in the world," and consists in the fact that "a creature God willed for its own sake . . . can fully discover its true self only in a sincere giving of self' (Original Unity of Man and Woman, Daughters of St...
...These are Scripture, tradition, philosophy, and descriptive or empirical information about human persons and communities...
...We shall return to this dialogue below...
...Now for the problems...
...The love which belongs in marriage is a commitment to partnership, that is a commitment to achieve social and domestic cooperation, mutual and equal respect, understanding and support, permanent fidelity, and the forgiveness which will be necessary to go beyond the inevitable failures in the realization of these ideals...
...They draw on the human and social sciences for improved understandings of the actual situations of married persons and families, and not infrequently provide or rely on feminist critiques of traditional family and marriage...
...Manipulation" of sexual "communion" through contraception is said to be excluded by this love and fidelity (n...
...To the pope's credit, at least in my view, he explicitly links "the equal dignity and responsibility of women with men" to "reciprocal self-giving" in marriage and family (n...
...A well-intentioned study which, to my eye, goes too far in this direction is Gallagher et al., Embodied in LovefCrossroad, 1983...
...There remains a tension in contemporary Catholic teaching as represented by John Paul II between traditional (patriarchal) views of women, family, and marriage, and a budding awareness that these views have had oppressive consequences for both women and men...
...The above article is excerpted from the book, Commitment to Partnership: Explorations of the Theology of Marriage, edited by William P. Roberts, to be published by Paulist Press in May...
...Since family structures in pre-modern societies are distinctively patriarchal, family-oriented marriages typically are patriarchal also, even allowing for quite variable influence of women within those structures (cf...

Vol. 114 • March 1987 • No. 6


 
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