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A Brief Explanation of the Nuptial Meaning of the Body.

December 5, 2013 33 Comments

120513Some of you know that I write the Question and Answer Column for Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly. I like doing that as it imposes a kind of disciplined writing on me, where I must answer questions very briefly, in about 400 words or less.

A question recently came in about a topic that I have not written much about here on the Blog. I’d like to reproduce the question and answer here in order to include the concept in my blog compendium and also to encourage you, if you do not read my column in the Sunday Visitor to know about it and read it.

Thus here is the question and answer which will appear in the paper in an even more abbreviated form:

Q: I have heard that women cannot be priests because Jesus chose only twelve men to be apostles. I understand this. The priest recently said that another reason is because of the “nuptial meaning” of the body. What does this mean?

A: To speak of the nuptial meaning of the body, means that the very design of our body orients us toward a marital (nuptial) relationship. The man is obviously meant for the woman, and the woman for the man. And in this complementary relationship that we call marriage, there is the fruitfulness of children.

In effect, our body says to us, “You were made for another who will complement and complete you, and make your love fruitful.”

Now this image of marriage, is also an image for the spiritual life wherein God speaks of his relationship to his people in marital, that is “nuptial” imagery. In the Old Testament Israel was frequently described as God’s bride, and his relationship to her is marital. In the New Testament, Jesus is the Groom and his Church, is his bride. The Church, with all her members, is called to relate to the Lord, to be completed by Him and complemented by him; such that relationship of love bears fruit.

The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, therefore, is also a sacrament and sign of God’s relationship to His people; He the Groom, we the bride.

Even celibate men and women, priests and religious, manifest by their lives the nuptial meaning of the human person in relation to God. As a priest, I am not a bachelor, I am not single. I have a bride, and she is the Church. Religious Sisters also manifest a marital relationship, where Jesus is the groom and they manifest a relationship to him as spouse, as bride.

To speak, therefore, of the “nuptial meaning” of the body, is to insist that our sexual distinctions of male and female are not merely arbitrary physical aspects. Rather, they bespeak deeper, spiritual realities, that we must learn to appreciate, and respect. Men and women are different, and manifest different aspects of God’s relationship to these people. Women, manifest the glory of the Church Bride. Men manifest the glory of Christ as Groom.

In terms of the priesthood, this is important because Christ, in his humanity, is not simply male, he is Groom. And the Sacred Liturgy of the Church is not just a celebration, it is a wedding feast: Christ the Groom, intimately with his Bride the Church.

Thus, your pastor is invoking a rich theological teaching, which helps to explain one reason why Christ chose only men for the priesthood.

We do well to recover this understanding of the nuptial meaning of the body, especially in times like these where the meaning of the body, of sexuality, and marriage are so deeply confused.

Here is the great Wedding Song of Advent:

Here is footage of my parents Nuptial Mass in 1959. They were 46 years married. My mother died in 2005, and my Father died in 2007. My they rest in peace!

Comments (33)

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  1. Anne Marie says:

    Excellent article Msgr Pope.

    The question I have is, in regards to those Catholics who are neither married or are in the priesthood or religous life, that is, single in the world. Where would such Catholics fit in?

    Thank-you and God Bless.

    • Not sure. this remains a difficulty related to the question of whether there is a “vocation” to the single life. I think the solution must be that if one is single, that one is called to either seek marriage or religious life, or if that is not possible, use their “freedom” (As St. Paul terms it to serve the Lord, or the Church in a dedicated way). In this sense, they can undertake some semblance of a spousal relationship. But remember at the end of the day the day, the nuptial meaning of the body signifies the deeper spiritual reality of the souls relationship to the Lord. And however ones nuptials are expereinced here on earth, the spiritual call remains the same for all.

      • Jennifer says:

        I am divorcing, and have come to believe that I am living a kind of private religious vocation. I am deeply grateful to be living a life of prayer and penance. And I do feel bound to Christ. Thank you for explaining this, Monsignor.

        We do live in sexually confusing times. I was raised in a family that included many homosexuals and other sexual experimenters. But I have never been so happy as I am now that I am pursuing a life of chaste celibacy. This is true sexual freedom! But I’m afraid most people don’t see it that way.

        • Clay says:

          Regardless of your state in life, your body, whether male or female, expresses your call to be a gift to the “other”. So even single people can live out the nuptial meaning of their bodies. First, through recognizing their feminine disposition before God and so, striving to be open and receptive to the Lord Jesus Christ, allowing him to penetrate and impregnate them with Divine life and then responding through an authentic gift of themselves as male or female to build up the body of Christ in whatever way they are called.

      • Bender says:

        Yes, I am aware of those who have said that there is, or can be, a vocation to single life. Probably they say this thinking that they are being compassionate towards those who want to marry, but find themselves late in life still having not done so. But this only confuses things and is, I would suggest, a huge theological and evangelical error given the common understanding of what it means to be single.

        God was quite clear – “It is not good that man should be alone.” None of us — none — are called to solitude, which is what most people think of when then think of the single life. Rather, as scripture says, we are made in the image and likeness, not of just any generic god, but specifically in the image and likeness of a God who is a communion of persons in one divine being, i.e. the Trinity. As also revealed in our very bodies, by our very nature, we are social beings, made not for just any kind of social relationship, but there is specifically a spousal meaning of the body for everyone.

        We are all of us made for “spousal relationship.” For some of us, that takes the form of human marriage, for others it takes the form of priestly ordination or religious consecration, for the rest — the so-called single person — to be true to one’s nature, it must also take the form of some kind of relationship with God that is the fullness of love even if it is not officially consecrated life. And because it is the fullness of love, such a “spousal” type of relationship with God is by its very nature creative — that is why we could have a Virgin become a Mother.

        In making each of us, like with Adam, God left a gaping hole in our side. It must be filled if we are to be complete persons. Only God can fill that hole — even with human spouses, a gap still remains if God is not included — it take three to really make a marriage. “Single” people too need to fill the hole in their sides with God.

        To say that there is a vocation to the single life is to say that God is calling someone to be alone, to exist in solitude. That is not a vocation from God, that is what we call “Hell.” To be sure, some people do live alone, without a human spouse, without God, and their lives are in varying degrees a form of hell. Instead, we are all called to some form of relationship that finds its model in “marriage,” that is, a loving communion of persons that is necessarily unitive and fruitful, just like the Triune God in whose image we are made.

        • Yes, I think you make a lot of good points here. I am not comfortable speaking of a “vocation” to the single life. And if for some reason one has not entered religious life, priesthood or marriage, I suppose the best we can say is that they ought to try and live out to the best degree possible the aspects of a spousal relationship with the Lord or the Church. Some will probably take offense at this, I have already had some venom directed at me in previous posts about a year ago. I realize that many struggle to find their place in the traditional vocations today, but all the more reason to draw people to settle on things earlier in life today wherever possible.

      • RichardGTC says:

        If everyone has a vocation, then there is definitely a vocation to the single life. The proof of that is that the single life is the only life that some people can live, for example people who are born mentally or physically infirmed. So, the question becomes what is a vocation? If a vocation involves some special title or clothes to wear, then not everyone has a vocation. If a vocation means living the way that God wants someone to live, then, most definitely, everyone has a vocation.

        • The question isn’t resolved by saying “if everyone has a vocation” since the the point is if we find our vocation. It is not evident everyone does for a variety of reasons.

          • RichardGTC says:

            I wasn’t dealing with the question of if everyone finds his vocation. I was dealing with the question of whether or not the single life is a vocation. Most likely some people miss their vocations by becoming priests and others miss their vocations by remaining single.

            “Not sure. this remains a difficulty related to the question of whether there is a “vocation” to the single life.”–I was addressing that statement.

            The last statement in my comment would more accurately read: “If a vocation means living the way that God wants someone to live, then, most definitely, some have a vocation to remain single, as that is the only way that they can live.”

      • Michael says:

        Monsignor Pope:

        I am wondering if the concept of “spiritual friendship” is relevant here? One is still living as a “gift to other”, merely not in a sexually complementary manner, which is appropriate to the single person regarding their vocation, wherein they are enjoined to practice chastity as continence. I have heard, for example, of single non-religious persons living in the world as consecrated virgins by performing their secular occupation (doctor, lawyer, accountant, mechanic, cashier, etc.) as the means to excellence / holiness. I have also heard of single non-religious persons living as consecrated virgins and/or hermits in solitude and prayer. They, in effect, become “maids of honor” or “groomsmen” to the King and His Bride, the Church.

  2. Anne Marie says:

    I do believe by our baptisms, we are all called to serve the Lord God in very special ways, be it married, as a priest/religious, or even single in the world.

  3. Kim says:

    This rich nuptial meaning of the body has many implications, and while on the surface the meaning may seem simple, it is eye opening for people to explore the implications of this meaning (I know this from teaching a Theology of the Body class to some adults in our parish…they were all excited about it until the sexual ethics part dealing with things like contraception and masturbation…then they became very silent…I can guess the reason…but hopefully adults start to gain an understanding of the depth of God’s mercy). I do hope that more and more priests and bishops talk regularly of this nuptial meaning of the body. It is one of the keys to healing and restoring our culture, which is a process that needs to happen before we have any hope of an improved political or legal environment.

  4. Donna L. says:

    As always, this is extremely useful in articulating why the Catholic Church does what it does.

    Also, thanks for sharing the video of your parents wedding. How beautiful!! Just knowing these are your parents makes it special. How I would love a video of my own parents wedding!

  5. Maria says:

    Father, thank you for writing on this. As Clay says, we should strive “to be open and receptive to the Lord Jesus Christ, allowing him to penetrate and impregnate them with Divine life and then responding through an authentic gift of themselves as male or female to build up the body of Christ in whatever way they are called.” This is every Christian’s spousal relationship to Christ.

    This helps us to understand why Men are priests. The man gives to the woman, the woman receives and brings forth life. We must receive grace from God, though his priests, and bring forth life in the world.

    I sometimes think priests can have a “contraceptive mentality” about their priesthood when they don’t bear this in mind, believe it to be true, or simply avoid dealing with their parishioners, preferring to be administrators.

  6. kelso says:

    Thank you again Monsignor. Always an education to read your posts. A priest gave a sermon at Mass for our men’s conference this year in which he described the holy sacrifice in terms of the groom and bride in the nuptial chamber, the altar symbolizing the bed on which the consummation of the union of Christ (the priest) and the Church (all the faithful) takes place. The priest he stressed is the initiator, the Church is passive, receiving the embrace of the God-Man. It was a profound analogy that I had never heard. I also read in a book on the angels by Peter Kreft where he notes that the soul is neither male nor female, but it is masculine or feminine, hence the nature is the same, but the accidents of action/passion are typical to masculinity or femininity. Interesting, as I remember, but I am not explaining it very well.

  7. JP says:

    There is a universal call to holiness, but there is no such thing as a single vocation. The Church has no tradition or teaching of a single vocation. To be single is not a sacrament, nor is it in any way sacramental. We are never called to be single just for the sake of being single. Rather, we may be single as a matter of circumstance while serving some other particular vocation, in the context of the universal call to be holy. The nuptial character of the human body implies that we are called to communion of one kind or another, the natural or the supernatural level, and in the context of our general vocation, to friendship with God.

    I personally think the idea of a single vocation is a pernicious and horrific concept. It may be well-intended, but it is ill-considered and ill-informed. Some who propose it mean well (after all, who doesn’t want a vocation?) but we all are called to be holy. The problem is that many people who mean well buy into the notion of singleness as self-fulfillment, which is antithetical to the teaching of the Church. One sees this ironically, and disturbingly often, in Church publications directed to single people: Be single! It’s great! You’re free! But free to do what?

    Unless you are a Jan Tyranowski or a young St. Francis of Assisi, for whom being single is a secondary aspect of an intense spiritual mission, the idea of being single forever just because you happen to be single now now is not a calling, it is just inertia, or worse yet, an invitation to sloth.

    We also live in a world in which missed vocations, sadly, are becoming the rule and not the exception. There are millions upon millions of single Catholics, such as myself, who are called to marriage but whose spouses are lost… to abortion, to pornography, to the hookup culture, to bad catechesis, and so much more. God never called us to be alone; God called us to Him. But for whatever reason, our intended spouses are not with us.

    There is no way that being single, watching TV five nights a week, and maybe volunteering for a soup kitchen once a month compares the spiritual and moral exertions of raising a family and leading a spouse to heaven. There are lots of holy people who happen to be single, but being single is absolutely not a way to holiness. There has to be much, more more to our lives than being alone and eating frozen dinners. If we think we have a vocation to be single, we really need to question what we are being single for. Odds are, it’s not a good reason if it is for comfort and convenience. Odds are, we are not called to be single just because we are single now and have gotten used to living this way. There has to be some higher point in life. The divorced and the bereaved may be in the single state, but that is not because God has called them to be that way; it is because of the consequence of sin in the world.

    The Church has always recognized the high dignity of the Consecrated Life, and Consecrated Virginity, as a more “perfect” vocation in the technical sense that it is more complete, just as marriage is a more “perfect” vocation than the unconsecrated and transitional single state. That doesn’t mean that single people, especially involuntarily single people can’t be holy, but it does mean that singleness should not be what defines us.

    • Jennifer says:

      This is all true…if I didn’t have three small children, I would pursue a religious vocation.

      • Anne says:

        The issue of not finding a suitable husband or wife is a devastating problem. Finding oneself single and not by choice after the college years and into one’s thirties can be a form of suffering that can not be understood unless experienced personally.
        I hope more will be offered to address this problem in a practical way. Saying that no one has a vocation to be single is true enough but what will we do for the thousands of serious Catholic young women and men who are approaching mid thirties and find themselves with no husband, wife or children?
        I myself was in this situation. By what I consider a miracle, I married at 34 and was able to have two children. I have great compassion and concern for singles not by choice.
        And yes, JP, potential spouses have been lost to this toxic culture we live in.
        Could you go on a Catholic dating online site? If that avenue had been available to me when I was single I would have jumped at the chance. Otherwise it was like finding a needle in a haystack.

        • JP says:

          It is a devastating problem that people who might have married as a matter of course 20-30 years ago now find themselves unable to marry and remain as permanent outsiders in both secular adult society and what might have been normal parish life once upon a time. There are indeed thousands and thousands of young and not so young serious Catholic men and women who have no wife or no husband and no family. They have followed all the rules and now what? Silence.

          Often silence is God’s way of telling us something important over time, and I think the very large numbers of unmarried Catholic singles probably have a special mission of redemptive suffering in today’s world. It is definitely not easy to be at an age by which everybody was married or in Holy Orders when you are growing up only to find that marriage isn’t happening for you and that a lonely old age with no spouse, no children, not much family, and not much Catholic community seems to be in the offing for you.

          I have tried the online dating sites and find that they are no substitute for a real community. I hope they work for some people, but they definitely haven’t worked for me and I am inclined to think they make the situation worse, not better, because the online dating industry and the propaganda that surrounds it makes it very easy to ignore the problem of single Catholics over 30 getting frozen out of parish communities and having no place in the real world where they can find prospective spouses or helpful preaching about the challenges of loneliness.

          • Anne Wolfe says:

            Of my 10 children, 2 are married, 1 is a religious, and the other 7 look for spouses, convinced it is their vocation….but only to a suitable spouse (very good character, happily faithful to the Catholic Church…and somewhat attractive!). Most of the posters are not even going to Sunday Mass, let alone daily Mass. The real problem is they are experiencing the consequences of living in a world where people are profoundly confused about who God is, and therefore people don’t know how to be human, and don’t know how to love. These 7 children do suffer…with faith, hope, and charity, but they suffer

    • Michael says:

      With all due respect to your understanding of the “Church’s tradition”, Jesus Christ Himself was a layman – he was neither a Levitic or an Aaronic priest. When his “priesthood” is spoken of by Paul, it is the rather unique and mysterious priesthood of Melchizedek. So Jesus Christ lived in the world, as a single man, all His life. I understand the benefit of Blessed John Paul II’s “theology of the body” – appreciate it, study it, etc. However, I believe it is always important to go back to Jesus Christ as the touchstone. He was neither a Pharisee, a Sadducee, or an Essene – PERHAPS analogous to “religious orders” for the People of God of Israel. He was not a Levitical or Aaronic priest – the “priesthood” for the People of God of Israel. I am well aware that as the Son of God and the Son of Man His Person is unique and is the prophet, priest, and king par excellence – THE archetype for all of these offices. I am merely drawing out that from an historical perspective as it was an existential lived experience in ancient Israel, Jesus was a layman (cf. e. g. “Is not this the son of the carpenter?” of the villagers near Him, and the “You have no formal training in the Law” of the scribes and Pharisees). Jesus Himself, all His life, lived a single apostolate.

      • JP says:

        The Church recognizes the tradition of apostolic celibacy for the priesthood and particular lay ministries. There is also consecrated virginity for women. But these involve an affirmative choice and a permanent vow; they are not singleness by default

        The Church recognizes the single state as a transitional vocation which is not permanent, and which could always, in theory, give way to something else, even though it may be of indefinite or lifelong duration for some. It is a state of unfulfilled potential, and in this limited sense it is of lesser dignity than marriage or vowed celibacy.

        The distinction maters because singleness is a terrible cross for those who feel a strong call to marriage. Singleness can also result from poor life choices or the failure to seize opportunities for grace that God has given us, especially when these challenges threaten our comfort and convenience. Failure to heed God’s call and seek out opportunities for grace can in turn threaten our salvation.

        There are many people, it must be said, who have calls to a terminal vocation but remain single due to circumstances beyond their control, or for valid and praiseworthy reasons such as the need to take care of an elderly parent or other family members. For some, being single may be an unwished side effect of a demanding service profession such as nursing, the military, or diplomacy. But in today’s society there are are doubtless many, many more who could marry if they wish (or had that opportunity at one point) but remain single due to inertia, indifference, self-absorption, or past sinful relationships. Thus the Church regards the notion of a “single vocation” with caution.

        As I noted earlier, we are never called to be single for the sake of being single. In a vocation, there must be some element of gift or service involved, and not just an incidental element, but a defining one. Simply because we happen to be single now is no reason to assume that it is an ideal state of being forever.

        Rather, in the Christian tradition, precisely the opposite is true: If we are single, we have a moral obligation to examine why we are single, and be sure that it is not due to self-centeredness, bad choices, or sloth.

      • Bender says:

        Jesus was not and is not single. By his very nature, he was and always is in communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

    • Bender says:

      Thanks JP. All of that is very well put.

      As for the cause of the involuntary single whose calling is to human marriage, but for whatever reason it just does not happen, part of it is our contemporary culture which has reduced the universe of potential mates, but part of it also is due to the actions and mindset of the single person himself or herself. Not only do they – and I am one – tend to get set in their ways after a while, or they otherwise just give up and stop looking, but many have bought into the idea of there is a Mr. Right or Miss Right out there, as well as buying into the idea that “love” means “what can I get out of it?”

      And even if they are not looking for someone as a perfect match, the standard is still pretty high. The fact is that not only is there not someone perfect out there, there is not even someone who is suitable (sorry Anne). The fact is that EVERYONE is flawed. And if the single person wants to find someone, to use a phrase that is forbidden in today’s world, they will “have to settle.” Certainly that’s what God does – he settles for us lousy, unworthy people. But if we start to love as God loves, unconditionally, warts and all, then the universe of potential mates grows exponentially. Love as God loves means self-gift, giving oneself to the other without consideration for what one gets back. How else could arranged marriages work as well as they have for millenia, not to mention how else could we do as Jesus asks and love our enemies?

      Society deserves a lot of the blame for more and more people not getting married (and not being in any non-marital relationships either). But if we are to be honest, we cannot shift all the blame to society. How many people do we meet on a given day that might be possible mates, but we have immediately given them no consideration at all because we think they are too short, too tall, too fat, too bony, the wrong race, the wrong social class, a different education level, not funny enough, too much a jokester, and on and on. How many single people in their 40s and 50s bemoan “I never could find anyone,” but you look back at all the many people they interacted with throughout their lives, the many people they were friends with or acquiantences with, or those they even dated, and many of them would have made very good spouses. Not perfect soulmates perhaps, but perfectly good spouses who were loving, caring, giving, honest, hardworking, fun to be with, etc.

      All that said though, even if involutarily single do let many opportunities pass them by, there is still the possibility to form the more important lifelong relationship, the more important “soulmate,” and that is the relationship with God and a relationship with God’s family (the Church). As Pope Benedict said often, and Pope Francis now as well, no one who believes is ever alone. It is possible for everyone to be part of “a communion of persons” as part of that vocation to which we are all called, and which encompasses all other vocations, the vocation to love (aka the vocation to holiness, etc.).

  8. Anne says:

    Great post, Father. I learn so many things from you. And, thank you for sharing the footage of your mom and dad’s wedding. How cool that you have this !

  9. Barry says:

    What about people like St. Gemma, or Therese Von Neuman? Gemma sought to enter the consecrated life but seemed to find it was not God’s will for her, but she definitely lived a life consecrated to God and was a great mystic. Ditto with Therese. Perhaps they fit into that category of living a life that involves neither marriage nor religious life but still witnesses to the ultimate Heavenly reality to which both of those point?

  10. Barb Schoeneberger says:

    One vocation not mentioned is that of the hermit. Hermits are single people. Some have discerned their vocations as members of a religious community. They have left their communities by God’s call to live alone. However, most hermits I know are active in parish life in some way. They are under the bishop but not provided for by the diocese. We have five in our diocese and I wish we had many more. Their lives of prayer and penance are very important today. Unfortunately, this vocation is seldom if ever spoken of from the pulpit.

    We also have the vocation for women only called the consecrated virgin. We have a couple of them in our diocese. They are different from hermits because they can have paying jobs and regular interface with society, but they also are under obedience to their bishop and have certain requirements to meet daily: daily Mass, the Divine Office, and time for meditation. Again, this vocation is not spoken of from the pulpit. There is no counterpart for men.

    It may well be that some Catholic singles have a vocation to one of these two that I have mentioned, but the failure to make good spiritual direction available by the bishops mean that some who would be called don’t know of the vocation.

    Hermits and consecrated virgins are of immense importance to the Church today. They are every bit the prayer warriors that the cloistered communities are.

    • I’m not sure about the theology of Hermits = Single People etc., et al. A true hermit/consecrated virgin enters into a relationship with the Church, lives a celibate life, and is under the direction of the Local Bishop. This is at least quasi religious, even if not canonically so.

      Also, why do you speak of a failure of Bishops to provide Spiritual direction. Isn’t that the job of pastors? Also, lay people can, under certain circumstances provide spiritual direction. Why jab the bishops about this? Why also criticize the clergy in general for “not preaching on this” ?? I have to confess a certain weariness at times at all the criticisms laid at the feet of clergy. Lets be clear the hermit/virgin territory is largely an old field that is being revived, and that’s good. But please, it is, in the modern setting something new that most clergy know little about. Why not be less critical and more informative? Why mist everything be the fault of the clergy? I think orders and ranks in the Church ought to do their own recruiting and not leave everything to “the pulpit.” Remember too, EVERYONE complains that homilies are too long.

  11. Shel Conner says:

    Such a timely and important topic! Thank you for this post and for all the interesting comments.
    In my town, about five years ago, it was reported that one in four households were single people living alone. I don’t know if that is still the case. Nonetheless, it’s still a large number, and worthwhile looking at in terms of life and meaning.

  12. Wendell says:

    I totally read the BigPulpit trackback above as “Msgr. Ch. Pope Sneaks Out in Disguise to Help Poor, Fight Crime.”

    Great post!

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