February 6, 2009

Spring Marriage Supplement

The great mystery of love: St. Paul offers positive yet challenging vision of marriage

By Sean Gallagher

The Catholic Church around the world has focused on the teachings and example of St. Paul in this year dedicated to him.

In his day, St. Paul presented in his preaching and letters a vision of the Gospel that attracted many people to the Christian faith.

At the same time, he often challenged his audience to re-examine their lives in ways that made many people feel uncomfortable.

What is true about Paul’s presentation of the faith in general is true about his approach to Christian marriage in particular.

His most extensive commentary upon marriage is found in his Letter to the Ephesians (Eph 5:21-33).

Paul begins by exhorting spouses in his audience “to be subordinate to one another out of love for Christ” (Eph 5:21).

What immediately follows is a teaching that is controversial today: “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands as to the Lord” (Eph 5:22).

Some versions of the Bible read “submissive” instead of “subordinate.”

Pia de Solenni can understand why some readers of St. Paul’s letters might want to put him down after reading such a verse.

But the Roman-trained, Catholic moral theologian, and national speaker on pro-life and marriage issues said that before doing that it is important to distinguish between two kinds of submissiveness.

“There’s a servile submissiveness in which you give up your will, as a slave or servant does,” said de Solenni. “And then there’s more of an economic or civic submissiveness where one person is the leader, but you’re all equal.”

According to de Solenni, the submissiveness that Paul wrote about was the latter and, in any case, needs to be viewed in the context of the Church’s historic view on women in general.

“The Church has always insisted on the fundamental equality of men and women,” she said. “It’s the Church that insists that women have a right to make decisions about their own lives, whether they want to marry and, ultimately, whom they want to marry.”

For Damon Owens, a Catholic husband and father of six children and national speaker on marriage, St. Paul’s controversial words by no means give husbands license to be oppressive because of what the Apostle wrote just a few verses later: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her” (Eph 5:25).

“It’s clear,” said Owens. “Paul is saying that masculine leadership in the home means being like Christ to your bride as he was to the Church: laying down your life for their salvation.”

Owens, who lives with his family in northern New Jersey, has helped lead marriage preparation and enrichment programs in the archdioceses of Newark and New York. He also promotes

Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” through his work at Ascension Press.

Benedictine Father Kurt Stasiak, a professor of sacramental theology at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad, said Paul’s call to husbands was “revolutionary” in his time and remains so now.

“In his time, for husbands to be told to love their wives as Christ loved the Church was an incredible charge to give to men to take care of and respect their wives,” Father Kurt explained.

Paul’s exhortation to both wives and husbands should help engaged and married couples today come to grips with the complimentary differences between men and women, said Owens.

“It becomes an occasion to help them to re-think how they can be men in the fullest sense without being oppressive, how they can be women in the fullest sense without being a doormat,” said Owens. “Both of those are spoken directly against by Paul, who’s calling out the maximum of both masculinity and femininity for their joint happiness.”

De Solenni says this can be challenging today when spouses’ incomes are equal or the wife is the family’s primary bread-winner.

“It [can be] really difficult to carve out the leadership role for the husband,” she said. “But you have to be intentional about it. … It comes down to the idea of leadership, equality and how that plays out. The key is going to be understanding that because there are differences does not mean that there’s inequality.”

Living out the sometimes tricky dynamics between husband and wife can be hard. But Paul sees the relationship as a living sign of the bond between Christ and the Church:

“ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:31-32, quoting Gn 2:24).

“I don’t know that we understand that [deep] level of intimacy,” de Solenni said. “[Everyone] wants to be loved. They want to be able to love. They want intimacy. They want some type of security.”

The security found in marriage, which is linked to the relationship of Christ and the Church, isn’t for just the here and now. It’s also about eternal security.

“[Marriage] is an explicit part of our path to heaven,” Owens said. “ … I think Paul should be credited with articulating just how our Lord elevated marriage to the dignity of a sacrament.”

(To learn more about Pia de Solenni, log on to www.piadesolenni.com. To learn more about Damon Owens, log on to www.damonowens.com.)


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