Holy Matrimony in DC

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Same-sex marriages are taking place in the nation’s capital, but the controversy over the Catholic church’s reaction to that development has not quieted down. Comes today a biting letter to the directors of Catholic Charities in DC from Tim Sawina, until last year the organization’s chief operating office, It rips the Washington Archdiocese’s decision to stop offering coverage to spouses of employees, lest this somehow lend the sanction of the church to same-sex marriage. (Update: WaPo story here.) Meanwhile, on the archdiocesan website, Msgr. Charles Pope assails changes to traditional marital rules (i.e. traditional Catholic marital rules), and advances the suggestion that the church should reserve for itself the term Holy Matrimony, to distinguish it from the unholy matrimony being perpetrated by secular society these days.

In such matters, medievalist that I sometimes am, I turn to good old Hugh of St. Victor, regular canon and theologian of the 12th century, who wrote the first summa in the scholastic tradition, the De Sacramentis. In Hugh’s view, the sacrament of marriage–then a new thing under the Catholic sun–is partly carnal, partly spiritual. In its carnal form, it stands for the relationship of Christ and the church, which is pretty good–but not as good as in its spiritual form, where it stands for the relationship of God and the soul. Or, as Hugh puts it:

The office of marriage indeed is a sacrament of society, which is in the flesh between Christ and the Church…to which sacrament woman cannot attain with whom carnal commerce is known not to have taken place. Yet she can attain to another sacrament, not great in Christ and the Church but greater in God and in the soul. Why? If that which is in the flesh is great, is not this much greater which is in the spirit?

Hugh was a good old Augustinian, and had little regard for things of the flesh. For him, marriage didn’t have to be fleshly to be marriage. He believed that the essence of Holy Matrimony was not coitus but the loving association of the partners. Such a theology opens the door to, yes, a recognition of same-sex marriage. (Pace, Msgr. Pope.)

Today’s conservative Catholic celebrants of marriage (e.g. Robby George), get almost pornographic in their enthusiasm for the carnal–in a way that would have shocked the Augustines and Hughs of the Catholic past. Ironically, the good old Catholic tradition was, in its hostility to the carnal, more open theologically to same-sex unions than what passes for traditional today.