John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
The themes of humility and service have been prominent in the Gospels for the past several weeks. Just recently, we read three Sunday Gospels about children: how we should be like them, not scandalize them, and “suffer them” to come to Jesus. A child, as the Servant of God Leonia Nastał observed, is utterly dependent on the other and naturally trusts the other, thus providing us a model for spiritual infancy.
Today’s readings return to this same theme: service and dependence. The Apostles, hoping they have picked the winning Messianic side, are jockeying for position for when—according to their expectations—accounts get settled. Jesus disabuses them of those expectations by proposing a model of service—“whoever wishes to be great among you must be a servant”—and the Church reinforces His teaching by taking the First Reading from Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Song.
This should not surprise us, since those of us who remember the Baltimore Catechism recall that its first question, “why did God make me?” had the answer: “to know, love, and serve Him…..”
Preachers who would like to connect today’s readings to marriage are likely to point out the sacrificial nature of love. St. Paul (from a text not among today’s Readings, I Corinthians 13: 4-13) offers a catalog of love’s characteristics. Among them is the acknowledgment “love is not self-seeking,” quite the opposite of James’ and John’s campaign today for box seats at the eschatological victory celebration.
Love is a servant that “does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth.” That criterion is extraordinarily important to our considerations.
We are sometimes prone not to consider the full breadth of what marital love should entail. Of course, it involves the joint life, the communio personarum, which exists between a husband and a wife. But it does not stop there, and we should not break off our considerations of that love there.
The love of spouses involves the whole truth of each person, which includes their capacity to become parents through an act proper to them as spouses (which is why the Church often calls sexual intercourse the “conjugal” or “marital” act). That act is not just a physical reality; it is an act that contains meaning and conveys meaning, meaning of self-giving and of love.
This idea may seem somewhat strange to the modern ear, inclined to find meaning only where we attribute it. But let me suggest an example to you. If I were suddenly to raise my hand and slap you hard across the face, you would be startled and ask, “Why did you do that?” If I were to reply, “Because I love you,” you would either think I was mocking you or that I was insane, because the act has a meaning in itself that is incompatible with the meaning I want to attribute to it. Whether we like it or not, what we do says things independently of what we explicitly want to attribute to them. That’s why Judas’s kiss is inherently fraudulent: the meaning of the act and the intention of the actor cannot be reconciled.
The Church has also taught that the conjugal or marital act has a meaning, in fact, two meanings: it is intended by God to express the full truth of love that exists between a man and a woman (which, by that very sexual differentiation, includes their possible gift of parenthood to each other) and it is connected by God with His own work of creation by being a potentially life-giving act.
So, how does this connect to today’s Readings?
If I am “the servant of the Lord” (as Mary par excellence reminds us is our vocation, Luke 1:38), then I am at the service of Him who “is Lord and Giver of life.” God invites a man and a woman to participate in His life-giving, creative work, but God remains God and man, man. The servant of the Lord is the one who recognizes that what God has joined to His life-giving work is not just something to be remade according to my desires by technical means (contraception, sterilization) but deserves the respect due to the value of life which is sacred. Consistent with that respect, that recognition of whom God is and whom I am, I may choose (or not choose) to engage in an act that is connected with God’s life-giving act. But I am not free to mutilate that act to meet my own specifications and desires, fundamentally changing it by destroying its potential life-giving capacity.
If I am “the servant of the Lord,” I also seek the truth of the beloved, of the spouse, i.e., of the one whose personhood could potentially also include parenthood. It “trusts,” “preserves,” and “rejoices in the good” of the other. It does not distrust, redesign, or destroy some part of the spouse’s personhood because I am not “patient.” That is not serving love; that is self-serving “love.”
As our Second Reading from Hebrews reminds us, God is aware of our weaknesses, but His Love invites us to strike out in the deep of faith, not to wallow in those weaknesses or use them as excuses for persisting in them.
Nor are we doing God a favor. In Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyła includes the discussion of collaboration with God’s creative work under the rubric, “Justice Towards the Creator.” Recognizing that God is God, and that we are invited to co-create with Him in the gift of life is a matter of justice, i.e., of giving God His due. Today’s social justice conscious world should especially appreciate that.
This vision certainly clashes with modernity’s, especially in the area of sexuality. The very fact that the Church equates sexual intercourse with the “marital” or “conjugal” act already clashes with a world in which sex is thought of as first and fundamentally “mine” and where sexual morality is reduced to “whatever I consent to do,” inside or outside marriage. Modernity sees only one sin in the sexual arena: non-consent. Anybody with the least awareness of religion knows that both classical Judaism’s and Christianity’s, especially Catholicism’s, code of sexual morality is far more comprehensive than that.
If sex is an act of “love” and not just pleasure, then it is inherently other-centered, which means it inherently brings into play the whole truth of love and service of the other through faithfulness to truth and goodness. That is why a morality that reduces sex to “my” choices and questions of “my body, my choice” can ultimately not be reconciled with the fundamental insight of Christianity: “You are not your own; you have been bought, and at a price” (I Corinthians 6: 19-20). You are not your own because, first and foremost, you are God’s: you belong to Him, who made you. Your body is His temple, the “Temple of the Holy Spirit.” You are part of His created order. And you are not God, which is why a Christian understands He was created to “know, love, and serve God in this life ….”
You are also not your own because you are called to love, and fidelity to love means fidelity to the other person in the whole truth of that person. Love by its very nature is a servant, because it cannot be “self-seeking.”
So, today’s Gospel, in teaching us that the Christian is called not to self-aggrandizement but to self-service, gives us an attitude or a posture that is relevant especially in today’s world, and especially in the realm of sexual morality. It’s not the world’s model, but Christians are also called not “to conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2) in the service of Christ.