The readings for this week (the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Times) touch upon certain essential themes in the Catholic view on love.  The first reading is taken from Genesis 2:18-24. God, after creating the first man, decided to create a partner for him. He created all the animals of the world, but “none proved to be a helper suitable to the man.” (Genesis 2:19) It was only when God created the first woman that the first man had a suitable partner. Here, I think that we can sense a contrast in the Creation narrative between man’s relationship to his wife and his relationship with the rest of creation: in Genesis 1:28, man is allowed to have dominion over all the other parts of creation. This can be seen in Genesis 2:19, which states, “…whatever the man called each living creature was its name”; this seems to imply a sense of dominance over the lesser creatures. Yet, even though the woman, like the animal, was created to be a helper, unlike the relationship between the animals, man’s relationship with his wife clearly takes the form of a relationship between persons.
This can be seen in the fact that what defines marital love is self-giving love. It is clear in Scripture that one should care so intently about the good of the other that one should treat the good of the other as if it were indistinguishable from the good of the self. That is, we all have self-interest; we all have an intense desire for our own survival and well-being; yet, we are called to take upon ourselves the good of the other, and be concerned with the good of the other with the same level of intensity by which we care for the good of ourselves. This is an image that appears throughout Scripture. In the Creation Story itself, Adam says, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of ‘her man’ she has been taken.” (Genesis 2:23) This is a play on words: the Hebrew term for “man” is ish, and the Hebrew term for woman is ishsha. As Fr. Richard J. Clifford and Fr. Roland E. Murphy explain in their commentary on Genesis, “In the Biblical perspective, the origin of a reality often defines the reality. God made marriage pat of creation.”  God instituted the marriage relationship in the act of creation simply by virtue of creating man as a being capable of self-giving love. And this is a fundamental existential quality of humanity. Woman, by virtue of being of the same kind as the man, is defined in terms of being “from” her man. But the opposite is also true: St. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:28, “So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” Man should not distinguish between his own good and the good of his wife. This is not meant to be taken in a selfish sense; rather, it is meant to point towards the reality that humans, as created in the image and likeness of God, are meant to imitate God, and God’s activities are defined by self-giving love. Humans thus cannot express the fullness of what it means to be human, on an existential and moral level, without love. Humans cannot attain their own good unless they, paradoxically, think beyond their own good and live solely for the service of God and others.
So, the relationship between a husband and his wife is defined by each one living for other, and through the other to God. This is something that applies to our relationships with all other humans (John 13:34, Mark 12:30-31, Matthew 5:43-48), though it is expressed in a particularly intimate manner in the marriage relationship. Man’s relationships were warped by sin, only to be restored by God’s plan of salvation. Thus, the Gospel reading for this week (taken from Mark 10:2-16) is to be read through the lens of the second reading (taken from Hebrews 2:9-11). Humans have been redeemed from their sin by the blood of Jesus and reconciled to God. A Christian is one who has recognized this fact, and who thus responds to the call of holiness contained within Jesus’ redemptive act. We act upon the call to be of the Spirit rather than the flesh (Romans 8:9), and to live as “children of glory” (Hebrews 2:10) who are perfected and consecrated to God by uniting everything we do to the salvific death of Christ (ibid.). The way things were before was merely a foreshadowing of what was to come; but with the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation, we are called to new life in Christ, to a higher standard of living. It is for this reason that in the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees mentioned in Mark 10:1-12, Jesus seemingly overturns the older law on divorce: He says that the commandment permitting divorce was revealed by God only because man, at that time, was hardhearted. Because Jesus had not come yet, mankind lacked the grace to live in accordance with the marriage relationship to the fullest extent possible. Fr. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., wrote in his commentary on Mark, “Deuteronomy 24:1-4 allowed for divorce as a concession to human weakness. Jesus’ teaching is a restoration of God’s plan for creation, not something in opposition to Scripture.” 
God’s original intention for the married life was that it was an indissoluble union. After quoting from Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24, Jesus concludes from these texts, “Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being should separate.” (Mark 10:10) Marriage is a union of self-giving love, a union which can never be dissolved. In this sense, it is meant to parallel or imitate God’s love for man: God’s love for man is for our benefit, not God’s. God loves man for man’s own sake, and nothing can stop or put an end to God’s relationship with His creation. It is the same with us humans.
Further, God created us out of love. Love is by its nature self-propagating or self-perpetuating. It always produces fruit. The bringing forth of life was the fruit of God’s love, as can be seen in the act of creation. St. Thomas Aquinas, in a sermon he wrote for the Feast of Pentecost (one of the few sermons from Aquinas that exist), attests to this point. He writes:
It is certain that whatsoever is other than God was created by God. But in what manner did God create all things? It was not by natural necessity, as a fire burns; rather, He produced all things by His will: ‘All things whatsoever that He willed, He did.’ (Psalm 113:2) … Why, then, did God make the world? Surely it is not from a needy desire, but from a loving desire. … Hence we read in the Book of Wisdom: ‘Thou lovest all things which are, and Thou hast hated none of the things which Thou didst make.’ (Wisdom 11:25) And blessed Dionysus says that ‘Divine love does not allow itself to be without seed.’ 
If Divine love bears fruits, so does all love, which derives its source from, and thus parallels, Divine love. And if one of the fruits of Divine love under certain circumstances is life, so too must that be one of the fruits of human love in certain circumstances. Love, when expressed in a sexual context, is thus ordered towards the end of reproduction. This is further exemplified when examining the biological aspects of sex (for what other reason did we evolve the capacity to have sex other than reproduction?).
Sex can thus be defined as a physical manifestation of the love shared between a husband and a wife, which takes on its unique character from being expressed within the context of or in such a way so as to be ordered towards reproduction. Married love, when expressed in a sexual context, is thus a self-giving love which perpetuates itself in the creation of new life, which provides us with an opportunity to grow in self-giving love, and thus to grow in sanctity. Birth control thus violates the nature of human sexuality.
Today, we are living in a time in which such a model of marital love is being undermined. The widespread use of birth control prevents the full manifestation of marital love, and, as Pope Paul VI noted, runs the risk of turning people inward, making relationships – and especially sex – about pleasure more than self-giving love (cf. Humanae Vitae, #17). Increased divorce rates show that something has gone horribly wrong within modern society, that modern society has forgotten the true meaning of the marital relationship. Materialism only feeds the selfishness that serves as the fuel for such trends. And this disordered self-interest has manifested itself even to the point of a willingness to sacrifice the weakest and most vulnerable among us – the unborn – for the sake of convenience or safety, forgetting that good ends do not justify wicked means.
It is only when we rediscover the Christian view of love, particularly marital love, especially as it is exemplified in and by Christ, that we can ever hope to reverse such trends.
- To see the readings for this week, visit: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/100718.cfm
- Fr. Richard J. Clifford, S.J., and Fr. Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm., “Genesis,”
- in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Fr. Robert E. Brown, S.S., Fr. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. and Fr. Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm. (Upper Saddle Hill: Prentice Hall, 1990), pg. 12
- Fr. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., “The Gospel According To Mark,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Fr. Robert E. Brown, S.S., Fr. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. and Fr. Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm. (Upper Saddle Hill: Prentice Hall, 1990), pg. 617.
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Emitte Spiritum [Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost], translated in 2005 by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski and originally published in Faith and Reason 33:1-2, pg. 99-139 (2005). Accessed on the DeSales University Aquinas Translation Project website (http://hosted.desales.edu/w4/philtheo/loughlin/ATP/Sermons/Pentecost_Sermon.html)