23 June 2010

The Conjugal Covenant

General Audience of November 21, 1979

Last time I read, John Paul introduced the theological significance of sex. He talked about how, in sexual union, male and female become one flesh. Their unity “is a powerful bond established by the Creator through which they discover their own humanity, both in its original unity and in the duality of a mysterious reciprocal attraction” (167). Sex therefore allows man to surpass original solitude by taking on both his own solitude and the solitude of the body of the ‘second I.’

Those insights come from Genesis 2:23, when man wakes from his stupor and recognizes that woman is bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh. The next verse, Gen 2:24, is also very significant. It says, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” This verse tells us that the unity that male and female were created for, by definition, derives from a choice. By generation, a man belongs to his father and mother. By choice, he unites with his wife (or she with her husband). This choice is the basis of the conjugal covenant between man and woman.

This is so interesting to me because we see imagery of a conjugal covenant so many times in the Bible. God and Israel are wedded, as are Christ and the Church. There is also the Song of Songs, an entire book of the Bible that details married love! I think it is very telling that the relationship between a man and a woman is so often used to illustrate the relationship between man and God. Everyone can relate to stories about a relationship between men and women. So too can everyone relate to God. I think it’s also important that the conjugal covenant is based on a choice. We must choose God. He is always there for us, waiting for every single human being that ever walked the Earth. It is us who have to respond and choose Him.

But that is all off-topic for now. After introducing Gen 2:24, the next thing JP2 talks about is the universality of the Genesis story. He looks at the question of why what the Bible says for Adam and Eve applies to all of us. He answers that, because they are formed in the beginning and in the image of God, Adam and Eve form a model of the communion of persons that all men and women form when they engage in sex and become one flesh. The body, which from the beginning differentiated man as male and female and thereby helped Adam and Eve find themselves in a communion of persons, becomes the constitutive element of Adam and Eve’s union as husband and wife (168).

We also see that this union takes place through a reciprocal choice: A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body (Gen 2:24). Male and female become one flesh only through the choice that one makes to leave his parents and join his spouse (168). This choice establishes the conjugal covenant. The fact that it is a choice is important because choice rests on free will and self-consciousness. A person makes a choice about what his self means when he chooses to enter a conjugal covenant. I think it’s also clear that engaging this covenant should presuppose an understanding of the theological significance of the body and of sex. This is a total aside, but that’s one of the reasons that I think the Church’s Pre Cana classes are so important.

Thinking about the conjugal covenant and how central understanding it is to our ability understand our selves as solitary beings that can participate in a communion of persons makes me a little sad about how misused sex is in our society. We’re starting to see in ToB that a proper understanding of the body can lead us to a deeper understanding of our Triune God. But I don’t see how that message could ever be mainstream in a society where sex is treated as casually as it is today. It is also sad because people who don’t treat sex casually often earn uncomplimentary labels and start to feel bad about their decisions, even when they know that their choices are right in the grand scheme of things. I know that the quest to make a greater respect of the body commonplace begins one person at a time, and I try to be optimistic about that and live my values as best I can. After all, if I found ToB then lots of other people can too.

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