Body Beautiful

The Nuptial Mystery
Angelo Cardinal Scola
Translated by Michelle K. Boras
Eerdmans, $29, 444 pp.

Everything that pleased fans of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body will please them in this book, for it is a sustained and substantial elaboration of the themes concerning marriage enunciated by the late pope. The dependence on John Paul II is explicitly stated and is everywhere obvious—the index contains thirty-eight references to the pope. Like John Paul II, Cardinal Angelo Scola wants to rescue married love from the taint of Manichaeism that marked it for much of Catholic history, and provide a positive portrayal of marriage for contemporary Christians.

The three elements of this portrayal are sexual difference, love, and procreation. The “nuptial mystery” of man-woman-child is grounded in the creation accounts of Genesis 1–2 and in Paul’s comparison of marriage to the mystery of the church in Ephesians 5:32. But marriage is more than a sign of relation between Christ and the church! Drawing on a suggestion by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Scola (as John Paul II before him) argues that being created “in the image of God” (Gen 1:26–27) means specifically being created male and female, so that, in some fashion, the triad man-woman-child is an image of the life of the triune God.

Scola’s understanding of the nuptial mystery is, therefore, explicitly theological and implicitly essentialist. Genesis 1:26–27 and Ephesians 5:21–33 are taken to define the essence of the nuptial mystery, and a certain kind of logic takes over from there. It demands a bold step beyond Scripture, for example, to understand humans to represent the divine image precisely in their gender difference—thereby coming close to ascribing sexuality to God. But it is much bolder still to extend the notion of the divine image to parenthood, so that the child fills out the image of the Trinity—with no explanation of what happens if there are two or more children. But Scola blithely follows John Paul II down this uncharted and uncertain path, taking as demonstrated what has only been asserted. Consequently, the concept “nuptial mystery” gets extended to include both the family and also dedicated virginity in its embrace.

The concept can be so extended, because nothing of real human marriage intrudes into the discussion, certainly nothing having to do with actual, embodied sexuality. Another glance at the index shows that “sexuality” appears as a rough synonym for gender, and then under the following headings: “as constitutive dimension of the human person,” “and death,” “and fruitfulness,” “human, as different from animal,” “and original sin,” and last, “as separated from love and procreation by modern society.” And under the entry “sexual difference,” we find “and imago Dei (“image of God”)”—sixteen entries—“as insuperable,” “love and procreation linked to,” “modern attempt to abolish,” and “as nonderivative and original.”

With a starting point in essential gender difference, love, and procreation, and with a remarkably elastic definition of “nuptial mystery,” enthusiasts will be further cheered to find John Paul II’s lead being followed by Scola as well in the condemnation not only of abortion and of genetic engineering (cloning), and of birth control, but also of feminism, of homosexuality, and of cultural traits Scola associates with feminism and homosexuality, namely individualism, libertinism, relativism, narcissism, and even nihilism. The cardinal’s logic, in fact, seems to be that feminism is responsible for homosexuality, because the more women act like men, the more men are likely to want to have sex with other men.

Everything that bothered critics of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body will also bother them in this book. There are, to be sure, some superficial differences, such as the wider range of scholarly authorities used by Scola. But the reader finds the same nearly numbing repetition, with minor variations, of the same emphases: gender difference, love, procreation. The stress lands most of all on the first and third. What is said about love is in connection with agape more than eros or affection. The affective dimension of marriage is in evidence here as little as is the sexual dimension, and for the same reason: everything hangs on the procreative act between male and female.

Like the late pope’s book, Scola’s discussions (this is a collection of essays, just as John Paul published a collection of addresses) occupy an odd sort of detachment from real life-and this despite repeated claims to be representing “reality.” Propositions are stated and even repeated, but they never really develop, because they never at any point touch an empirical fact. Talking about the nuptial mystery as analogous to Christ and the church is, in this regard, just as abstract and empty as talk about it in terms of the family. When the Apostle spoke in Ephesians of marriage as a “mystery” of Christ and the church, he meant a church that was a community of reconciliation between Jew and Gentile. Marriage therefore had a specific ecclesial symbolism. What understanding of the church does Scola have in mind when he invokes the analogy? We are not told. In the same way, nothing of actual Christian marriages, with all their great tragedies and small triumphs, comes into view.

For that matter, neither is Scripture ever examined in its full scope or in its full depth on the subject of sex and marriage. Scola once more imitates John Paul II in the selectivity and superficiality of his scriptural engagement. In the same way that Scola’s propositions on marriage would gain more credibility if they appeared to have real human beings in view, so would his use of Scripture win more respect if he actually read and struggled with some of the New Testament texts that create severe difficulties for his “marriage according to God’s creation” position.

What are the implications of what Paul calls the “new creation” that has resulted from Christ’s resurrection and exaltation as life-giving spirit? Paul struggles with the implications of this good news for gender relations in 1 Cor 11:4–16 and for the absolute character of marriage in 1 Cor 7:1–40. What about Jesus’ radical call to leave family in order to follow him (Luke 14:26), or his reduction of the status of marriage in “the age to come” (Luke 20:34–38)? A failure to engage seriously such difficult passages as these—and there are many more—means a failure to consider marriage seriously within the Christian context.

Even prelate-theologians should be held to a certain minimal standard of logic and common sense. I have already mentioned Scola’s reckless correlation of feminism and homosexuality; he also associates homosexuality with narcissism and nihilism. Another example is his indignant condemnation of (I think—the prose is not altogether clear) in vitro conception, which he declares will inevitably make the child into a “product” because the child did not result from “recourse to the conjugal act”; he does not seem to appreciate the effect of his words on childless parents who seek to adopt, or children who have been adopted, without “recourse to the conjugal act.”

Finally, he praises the family’s “sovereignty” over against the incursions of the state, invoking the principle of subsidiarity, and declaring the family to be “a subject of fundamental rights.” But he fails to see that the same recognition would work to locate “fundamental rights” of decision making within the family also with respect to the sexual relations of spouses against the incursions of the church—as in the case of birth control—or that the church might have been a trifle more aware of the sovereignty of the family during the extended period of time that children were abused by priests (in disregard of the sovereignty of actual Christian parents) and the abusers were protected by the hierarchy (with contempt for the sovereignty of very specific families). Such lapses of clear thinking do not inspire confidence in the magisterium’s capacity to speak coherently or convincingly on the subjects about which it claims to have much of worth to say. This book is neither profound nor helpful. It does, though, have a very attractive cover.

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About the Author

Luke Timothy Johnson, a frequent contributor, is the R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Two of his most recent books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).