Book Reviews2 The Great Mystery

“Male and Female He Created Them”: On Marriage and the Family, by Jorge Cardinal Medina Estevez (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2003), 236 pp., $14.95 at, (published originally in Spanish as “Y los creo varon y mujer”: Escritos sobre el matrimonio y la familia).

If you decide to travel as far north as you can, you will eventually come to the North Pole. If that’s not far enough north for you, you can try to go further. But, you will discover that, despite your best intentions, no matter which way you turn, your next step will be to the south, away from the north you desire.

Christ is the pole of compassion. He is compassion itself. If you try to be more compassionate than Christ, you will find yourself being less compassionate, no matter how good your intentions or how hard you try.

So, in every age and place, Christians must remember not to step away from Our Lord’s teachings in an effort to be compassionate. No matter how hard those teachings seem to be, they are far more compassionate than any possible alternative. Nowhere is this more true than in the areas of human sexuality, marriage and the family.

We have the dubious privilege of living in the first human society in history to have no idea of what sex is all about. Other societies have had mistaken or incomplete ideas about sex, but ours is the first to fail to understand that it has something to do with the relationship between a man and a woman. The reasons for our confusion on this point are several, but one is a misplaced compassion that deters us from speaking the truth about sex and marriage simply and directly.

Cardinal Medina Estevez of Chile, labors under no such misconceptions. Formerly the Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, he wrote the first version of “Male and Female He Created Them” in 1981, as a homage to the fiftieth anniversary of Pope Pius XI’s encyclical, Casti Connubii. His aim was, in his own words, “to set forth Catholic doctrine [on marriage] with fidelity and precision ….” Its text revised and expanded up until its Spanish publication in 1997, his work succeeds in presenting a clear and simple explanation of Christian marriage.

The Cardinal begins by acknowledging that “[n]o human institution is so deeply rooted in the heart of man and of woman as marriage and the family,” but that, despite the high regard for marriage throughout human history, “[t]his most noble institution, … like all of human existence, bears the disruptive and debasing marks of sin.” He continues:

The disordered sexual appetite has distorted the relationship of love between man and woman, to the point where the word “love” is used nowadays to describe situations that have little or nothing to do with the profound experience that the term implies. The word “love” is sometimes used in ways that are truly a sacrilege or at least a deformed and grotesque caricature. [emphasis in original; compare the discussion of “love” in Pope Benedict XVI’s recently-issued first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, nos. 2-5.]

The Cardinal then sets forth an “inventory of the degradation of love,” including polygamy, polyandry, divorce, adultery, prostitution, free love, premarital relations, incest, sexual abuse of minors, and homosexual activity, all to remind us that “the eminent dignity of love and marriage is as beautiful as it is fragile,” and “to emphasize more clearly the radiance and beauty of the Christian and Catholic message concerning love, marriage and the family.”

What is that message? In the ensuing pages, the Cardinal presents the most complete review of the Biblical foundations of the Catholic teaching on marriage which I have ever seen in a work so accessible to the general reader. From the Old Testament, he ranges from Genesis’ description of the creation and fall of Man and the history of the patriarchs, to the “lyrical poetry” of the Song of Songs, to the many references to “woman, marriage, purity, fidelity, and the education of children” in the Wisdom books, to the Book of Tobit’s exposition of the “spiritual significance” of marriage, until he finally culminates his review in a discussion of the link made by the prophets Ezekiel and Hosea between the conjugal love of spouses and God’s steadfast love for his people, Israel. These prophets emphasize the seriousness of Israel’s sin of religious unfaithfulness by presenting it “under the form of marital infidelity,” presupposing “a teaching about marriage that stresses the immense importance of mutual fidelity between spouses.” [pp. 26-28, citing Ezek 16:4-63; Hosea 2:4-25.]

Turning to the New Testament, the Cardinal comments first on the witness of John the Baptist, who, at the hands of Herod, “died a martyr for defending the indissolubility of marriage.” This is, as the Cardinal says, precisely the same issue that Jesus takes up when the Pharisees ask Him whether it is “lawful” for a man to divorce his wife. [Mk 10:2-12] Jesus answers by quoting Genesis 2:24 [“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.”], as did the Book of Tobit. By answering this way, Jesus rejected the Pharisees’ appeal to the law of Moses, which allowed divorce. Further, Jesus “not only rejects the act of adultery [arising from divorce and remarriage], but also demands of his disciples purity of intention and chastity of heart.” [Mt 5:27-28] Jesus’ absolute rejection of the closely-connected sins of impurity, adultery and divorce must be seen in light of the Baptist’s description of Jesus as “the Bridegroom,” [Jn 3:28-30] by which he applied to Jesus “[t]he theme of God as the Spouse of his people.”

St. Paul sums all this up in his Letter to the Ephesians, 5:22-33, a passage whose language (beginning, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord,” and concluding, “This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church….”) is so inflammatory to feminists that some parishes leave it out of the readings altogether. But Cardinal Medina Estevez describes it as “classic,” “sublime,” and “an epitome of Christian doctrine of marriage.” [pp. 30-31]  He distills from it the following:

- The Christian union between husband and wife represents the covenant of love that exists between Christ and the Church.
- This union extends beyond the natural plane, since it is a mystery of sanctification, as is the union of Christ with the Church.
- The husband’s authority as head of the household must be modeled on that of Christ: a loving, tender, delicate authority.
- The wife’s respect for her husband must also be modeled on the Church’s devotion to Christ: the fruit of love and not of fear. [p. 31]

He concludes:

Yet the element that truly stands out in this beautiful passage by Saint Paul is the concept of marriage as a spiritual and supernatural reality, a means of sanctification that strengthens the union of each of the spouses with Christ. Thus marriage appears, for the first time, as an explicit path to sanctity ….

There is a great deal more in this book (e.g., discussions of long and short-term preparation for marriage, of the formal requirements for a Catholic marriage, of annulments, of the natural state of marriage as contrasted to its character as a sacrament, of the role of celibacy and its relation to the married state, and an especially intriguing section on “Presuppositions for a Full Understanding of Chastity,” which enumerates and explains the “basic conditions” of mind and heart required to understand “the profound significance of chastity”), but there is nothing in it more important than its understanding of marriage as a path to sanctity, a path that is both modeled on and represents the unbreakable bond between Christ and His Church. No matter how rocky this path may become, spouses should never despair of their vows. The path they walk has been walked by Christ. It is, whatever its joys or sorrows, the path of Love, the path up Calvary. It is the only path to salvation. We show them no compassion if we tell them anything different.

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