Catholicism

A Letter to Mary, Queen of Heaven

Dear Mary,

I have so many questions. I must admit that, for as long as I can remember, I’ve seen you as an amazing but also baffling woman. In many ways, your story is like a fairytale—and your unrelenting faith is like a superpower. How could I ever begin to understand you, let alone emulate you, in my own life?

As a young girl on the cusp of a new marriage—challenges all their own—you faced one of the most profound trials ever presented to mankind: you were asked to carry, bear, and raise the Son of God. You, Mary, were visited by an angel and told that this heaviest of burdens—and greatest of privileges—would be placed squarely on your shoulders. And you said yes. You pronounced your fiat and said “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Then the angel departed from you abruptly; what went through your mind? Did you wonder if it had all been a dream until your body started changing and there was no denying the Truth? Did you fret over what your new husband would think? Did you quake in anticipation of the judgment you might receive from others? Did you struggle to picture yourself, a first-time mother, as the caretaker of the most important child ever to enter this world?

Now that I am a mother myself, and have felt the joy and anxiety of very conventional pregnancies, I can only wonder at what you must’ve felt in your position—to be so truly gifted with this immense role in Salvation History, and yet struck by what an unthinkable responsibility it must be.

When you visited your relative, Elizabeth, and she sang your praises and greeted you with joy as the child in her womb leaped at the closeness of the child in yours, did it feel real? You were perhaps too early in your pregnancy to feel your child moving within you. So, when Elizabeth reacted so vividly to your new identity as the Mother of God, how did it strike you? What knowledge did it place in your heart about the fruit of your womb?

With both of my babies, things didn’t seem real to me that early on. Even after I could feel their kicks and rolls, I couldn’t help but wonder at the individuality and separateness of those babies who lived and grew in my body. How on earth could such a miracle be real?

Is that how you felt, too?

As your husband contemplated quietly sending you away upon discovering your pregnancy, were you anxious? Did you wonder, even for a moment, what would become of you and your child? Did you doubt the path that you had accepted? And when Joseph had his own encounter with an angel and trusted in God’s instructions to start a life with you as planned, what did your smile look like? Did you know that this gentle and selfless man would be on your side all along?

My husband is my greatest partner, friend, confidant, and supporter in life. The briefest thought of losing him makes me shiver. I hope that you felt warmed by God’s reassurances all along during what must have been a very stressful time.

During your ninth month, large with child and fleeing to safety with your husband through an ancient landscape, were you frustrated when you were told all of the inns were full? Did you feel the gradual rise and fall of labor pains even then, as you trekked with Joseph from place to place and found nowhere to rest your weary, swollen body? Did the pain frighten you? And when you found shelter in the company of livestock and hay and a lowly manger, did you wonder at the irony of your position?

What joy and relief did you experience when that miraculous child made His way into the world, and you were finally able to hold Him in your arms? The two of you were the perfect pair—spotless and selfless. I have long thought that, if I could go back in time to any one moment, it would be to the Nativity. I imagine the mere sight of the delight on the face of each member of your Holy Family must’ve been enough to erase many years of pain and suffering.

In the following years, watching your son grow from a helpless newborn to an energetic child and, finally, to a serene and hardworking young adult, how often did you wonder at His godliness?

Was the Trinity any easier for you to comprehend than it is for me? In some ways, I imagine your proximity made it harder, for how could a child who refused your meals and laughed at your jokes and wept in your arms with the pain of a bump on the head be both human and God? And yet you knew of His two natures, and you trusted in that transcendent reality and the path God had laid out for your family.

Jesus as a boy sat in your lap—a true Throne of Wisdom—and learned from you. In those days, a mother took responsibility for the care of her young children—she was their teacher, leader, friend, and caretaker as they grew and learned to live in this world. Though He was always God, Jesus was also always human, and needed His mother just like any of us would—needed her guidance, her soothing voice, her discipline, her compassion.

At some point during Jesus’s childhood, you lost your husband. How painful it must have been to mourn him while a child—this child—depended on you constantly. How scary it must have been to be alone in the raising of your son for the rest of His life.

Despite all of this, you and Jesus emerged from His youth just as the Father intended: perfect, without stain, unfailingly loyal to the ultimate destiny of this most precious Lamb of God.

Both guests at the wedding at Cana, you and Jesus must’ve made an inspiring duo. You, the greatest mother, proudly encouraged your grown son, who, in His humility, hesitated to perform the miracle you knew He could enact. And He, the greatest man, complied—though not without a bit of protest (was it playful?)—and made someone else’s wedding day quite memorable, to say the least.

What does perfect motherly pride feel like? To know that your child is quite literally wonderful in every way, to be happy for your part in that wonder, and yet to retain the wisdom that these facts can only be a gift from God?

And then there’s the question I’m most afraid to ask: what did it feel like to see this precious child, grown into a man, rejected, humiliated, and crucified by people He could only ever love? Selfishly, as a mother myself, I hesitate to know the answer. I can only hope the glory of His resurrection overshadowed immediately that pain for you. And, of course, I can thank you for your part in His sacrifice—the role of a mother who must let her only child die for the sake of so many children she doesn’t even know.

I can’t wait to ask you all of this when, hopefully, someday, I am blessed to meet you. In the meantime, I pray that your example makes me a stronger woman, a more patient and selfless mother, a more loyal daughter, and a more faithful child of God. Truly, thank you.

With love,

Your daughter

The Healthiest Habit of the Happiest People

There are some very chipper people in the world who just radiate joy. You know them when you meet them: they’re smiling, kind, and content. They’re sure of the goodness in their lives, and the goodness in you—even if you’re still a stranger. And they just don’t seem to see the gloom that simply must be around them.

Sometimes we see these people and envy them. How can anyone be so positive all the time? How can life feel so easy to them? Why can’t I feel like that?

We’ve all heard (and maybe told) the anti-sunshine-and-rainbows jokes. Because the fact is that, much of the time, life isn’t pretty. And that might make us think that viewing the world “with rose-colored glasses” is rarely the best idea.

But this tendency is, in fact, a very positive quality. Studies find that people who foster a positive outlook on life (in a realistic way, of course) are happier, more successful, and even healthier.

Gratitude as a Virtue

Anecdotally, every one of those joyful people I’ve met in life have one thing in common: thankfulness. Simple gratitude goes a long way, it seems, in building a happier, healthier mindset; a more meaningful spiritual life; and a more positive outlook with which to enjoy the good things in our world.

For me, gratitude is a habit. It’s the best habit, because it works on your heart in so many ways. Gratitude forces us to recognize the wonderful things around us. It encourages us to hold onto our respect for others, and to speak positively to them. It fosters a consistent, positive prayer life. It humbles us. And it inspires us to be better people.

Though not listed among the Cardinal or theological virtues by Catholicism, the concept of thankfulness has been top-of-mind for many of our saints, and it is all over Scripture. Christ Himself gave thanks to God many times, often during some of the most pre-eminent miracles and moments of the Gospels.

Gratitude is part and parcel of many of our cardinal virtues. It is woven into justice, in that it acknowledges and rewards the rightness and generosity of others; it is a part of prudence, in that it requires mindfulness, care, and wisdom in practice; it is supportive of temperance, in that it shows us how to be selfless; and it is rewarded by fortitude, in that a thankful person is often a courageous and strong person.

And what better way can we supplement our practice of the theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity—but by expressing gratefulness to God for those gifts, and to our neighbors for practicing them along with us?

The Wisdom of Giving Thanks

What makes thankfulness so important to us, as humans? We are responsible for so much in life, and yet so little. We are gifted with so much in life, and yet deserve so little of it. The least we must do is acknowledge this generosity and show our thanks for it. We must take nothing for granted, lest we learn the hard way how fragile our lives truly are.

Here are some bits of wisdom I love:

“No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.” – St. Ambrose

 “Remember the past with gratitude. Live the present with enthusiasm. Look forward to the future with confidence.” – Pope St. John Paul II

“The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for what He is sending us every day in His goodness.” – St. Gianna Beretta Molla

“Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve You as You deserve.” – St. Ignatius of Loyola 

How to Be More Thankful

I have met so many beautiful people whose positivity is unwavering. Their secret, I think, is that they always find something to be thankful for. They always choose to acknowledge and lift up the good that surrounds them, rather than focusing on their struggles. They know that, in the end, we can control very little—but we can be grateful for very much.

In learning from them and from my own experience, here are five ways I try to make thankfulness a habit in my life:

  1. Always acknowledge the little things. When you come across your favorite number by happenstance, give a little thanks for the small smile it brings. When someone holds the door for you, always thank them out loud and with a smile. Upon learning to recognize the tiny moments of every day for which we can say “Thank you,” we become much more grateful for the bigger moments, too.
  2. Pray with proper order. There are several key elements to prayer, and thankfulness is one of them. It should come before we make requests to God. Remember ACTS when you pray: Adoration, Contrition, Thankfulness, and Supplication. My humility and penchant for gratitude improves greatly when I keep prayer in perspective this way.
  3. Share your gratitude with people you love. Regularly telling your family and friends about what you’re grateful for in life can help you and them be more thankful day to day—but do it humbly, and not to brag. For example, try going around the dinner table to have everyone share one thing they’re grateful for more frequently than just once a year at Thanksgiving.
  4. Hold yourself accountable to say thanks. I recently heard a lovely suggestion that’s specific to marriage: each night before bed, thank your spouse for at least one thing they did for you that day—something that made you feel more loved. It might also help to keep a gratitude journal, or to fill up a jar throughout the year with notes on what you’re thankful for each day, week, or month. The important thing is to set a goal and be consistent. It’s excellent for your mental health!
  5. Resist gossip. I find that gossip and judgmental thinking tend to become habitual—and that’s really too bad. The way we think and speak of others is influenced by paradigms. If my automatic reaction is to say, “Boy, that barista was sloooow today,” I might not even notice that the person behind me paid for a stranger’s drink while I was waiting just as a random act of kindness. I’d be too busy dwelling on my coffee’s delay.

There’s Always Something

Although certainly there are some trials in life that, when we emerge from them, remind us in no uncertain terms that we have a lot to be thankful for. Perhaps you’ve survived a horrific car crash. Perhaps your loved one beat cancer. Perhaps you got the job that makes providing for your family straightforward instead of stressful.

But if gratitude is truly a habit, then it’s the in-between times that call us to be most thankful—the times when no apparent miracle has occurred, but the simple pleasure of a 70-degree day in March left you feeling just a little warmer (inside and out). That’s something to be thankful for.

I’m Not a Feminist, But…

I am anti-abortion. I am also pro-life.

So when I hear politicians, super PACs, and activists say things like “women need access to abortion” or see blog posts like “10 Reasons to Have an Abortion – Illustrated by Adorable Cats,” I get sick to my stomach worrying about the value we place on healthy, happy, well-informed women.

The groups sharing those opinions often fight against informed consent laws that are designed to teach women in a vulnerable, emotional position the science behind their pregnancy. (A 14-year-old girl who’s frightened out of her wits—and uneducated on both pregnancy and the procedure of abortion—shouldn’t be denied a guaranteed opportunity to learn more about them before she decides to abort. Still, in many states, she is. If that’s not backing young women into a corner, I don’t know what is.)

Similar groups also fight against notification laws that are designed not just to protect young women from rash decisions and protect parents from losing influence over their children’s lives, but also to protect victims of rape and incest from continued abuse. They say they want abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare,” but they virtually never support initiatives that would make that last one true—and, in fact, they fight actively against those efforts. More than 3,000 abortions take place every day in the United States alone. The number of abortions that have occurred in America since 1973 exceeds the number of U.S. military deaths in every war we’ve ever fought combined. There’s nothing rare about that.

The most outrageous among them claim that pregnancy is an “unnatural” or “unhealthy” state, which is a direct insult to the biology of the feminine genius. To suggest that our anatomy makes us “unnatural” or “unhealthy” is the most perversely anti-feminist thing I’ve ever heard.

The fight for abortion uses the same shaming I’ve mentioned before: it forces women to feel their ability to open themselves to the physical intervention of scalpels, suction, and chemicals is what will protect their health and independence, and help them avoid social judgment. It makes pregnancy shameful and pushes women to make them fit society’s opinions of who and what and how they should be. The argument that “women need access to abortion” seeks to force women’s opinions with perceived normalcy and education. It pretends to be the smarter, more forward-thinking majority. It says: “Trust us when we say you need a reactive way to ‘solve’ your problem—and it is your problem, since you’re the one who’s pregnant. We’re here to tell you what’s best for you now that you’ve gotten here, because you can’t be responsible for proactive options, and you shouldn’t have to think of anyone but yourself. It’s not selfishness; it’s independence.”

I won’t even get into how much this hurts the men involved, who have played an equal role in starting a pregnancy—with total consent from both sides, the vast majority of the time—and yet have no weight in the argument over whether that pregnancy can continue. Removing fathers from the equation hurts women, too. It puts those women into a very lonely place, wherein one of the most impactful decisions of their lives must be made alone because society tells each of them that the man’s opinion doesn’t matter, and this must be her choice and hers alone. That makes it her ‘problem’ to solve, as if she’s solely responsible for both its creation and “cleanup.” It is isolating, terrifying, and unfair for her to endure that struggle on her own.

Those are the insults to womanhood that make me feel like a feminist. Those are the claims that devalue me as a female member of society, fully capable of understanding my body, controlling my impulses, and sharing my life.

We should be teaching each other to understand the way our bodies work. We should be encouraging each other to make the safest, healthiest decisions to protect our wellness and accomplish our goals. When unplanned circumstances come our way—even when they’re by our own actions—we should be supporting each other the whole way through, not shaming each other for the decisions that have gotten us there.

The vast majority of the time, women seeking abortions are healthfully pregnant by their own—and the father’s—shared choices. We are too smart to be telling each other that’s not the case. We all know that sex is a procreative act. We all know that birth control fails. So to say, “I consented to sex, but I didn’t consent to pregnancy” is a fallacy and an example of profound ignorance. And we are too smart to tell each other that abortion doesn’t end a life, or that its graphic violence is ever our best or only option.

We are all called to love and respect one another and ourselves. So why can’t we do a better job of helping each other do just that? Pro-lifers should support mothers and babies, as the sincere ones do, both before and after a decision is made. Even if a tragedy occurs, we should be there to hope for and help support healing. And advocates for abortion should welcome conversation, equal education, and support into the equation before a decision is made.

Women need each other as much as they need the men in their lives and as much as those men need women. We are social beings and should not isolate ourselves or each other. That’s not how we were made to be. Instead of subjecting ourselves to shame, objectification, violence, and ignorance, we should stand hand-in-hand in our toughest moments. Those are the moments of history that people remember, and that inspire us to be better. We must make a decision to support our most frightened, most vulnerable, and most unprotected—whatever that looks like.

Top Five Reasons Marital Sex is the Only Sex You Need

Pop culture makes casual sex look easy and expected. When you’re watching a romantic comedy, the turning point in a couple’s budding relationship is usually their first sexual encounter. It isn’t them getting to know each other, learning what they have in common, or just plain deciding to “go steady.” It’s getting into bed—as if that proves something.

But sex was designed to be something meaningful and productive between a close, committed husband and wife. It was designed to be at least as much about giving as it is about receiving; as much about pleasing as it is about being pleased; and much more about love than it is about lust.

Instead of recognizing the true beauty of it, we’ve decided, as a society, to focus on its primal side. The thing is, lust and animalism don’t make us human. Love does.

You are more than a hook-up—more than “that girl” or “that guy” from college, the bar, or spring break. You are the girl or the guy your future spouse is looking for. And you deserve real, one-of-a-kind, wouldn’t-trade-it intimacy with that person who will love you more than anything else in the world.

So here are my top five (though, of course, there are many more) reasons for keeping sex in marriage.

5. Security trumps safety every time.

Safety: The condition of being protected from danger or injury.

Security: The state of being free from danger or threat.

One of those is reactive, and the other is proactive. Safety means shielding oneself from danger; security means never encountering danger in the first place.

Marriage is all about security, and marital sex is no different. A man and woman who are fully committed to one another and practice the virtues of true marriage will not put each other in any kind of sexual danger. If both spouses have been faithful all along, STDs become a moot point. Because they share the height of trust, they learn each other’s likes and dislikes, and would never be hurtful. Pregnancy—which can be easily delayed, if they choose—is not a scare in a healthy marriage; it’s a blessing. There will be no heartbreak or loneliness because neither spouse can break the union. There is no fear of judgment.

In short, sex in a healthy, happy marriage is free from risk. It is secure in every way.

4. We all deserve to be someone’s other half—not just one of any number of “partners.”

Neither men nor women are toys to be played with and forgotten, or vessels to be filled and emptied. We are all worthy of finding and clinging to someone who values us as a life partner. You are worth much more than someone else’s pleasure. You are worth devotion, commitment, fidelity, and years and years of happiness.

Even long-term relationships are subject to that “-term.” That’s not permanence or forever. That’s “for now.” Even if it adds up to many years of your life, some part of you—and the people around you—questions when it might end. I don’t mean to say those years aren’t valuable—they can be some of the most meaningful of your life. The eight years my husband and I were together before marriage were wonderful. The difference is that those were years of my life. These are years of our life. Our wedding day started a new forever for us.

If you take marriage seriously and practice it accordingly, there is nothing comparable to the union of husband and wife. Marriage is more than a new chapter: it is a change in your identity. It is a full gift of self and a full reception of your spouse. The years you spent together beforehand were temporary. The years afterward are forever.

3. Your body is a temple. And you both know it.

Sex is pleasurable for a reason. There’s nothing sinful about that. It is meant to be that way. The beautiful thing about marital sex is that you already know the unrelenting love is there; you both give and receive it all the time, day and night. When you know that to be true, sex is natural, easygoing, and unashamed.

There is this awful assumption that sex in marriage must be boring. How sad for those couples, and for the people who think it’s going to be that way and so waste their time sleeping around.

Sharing this part of you with just one person means constant respect and continuous learning. There is infinite opportunity to try new things, understand each other’s preferences, and make it all feel easy. You never need to feel self-conscious or ashamed, and neither does your spouse. There’s nothing dull about that.

2. It isn’t everything.

Some days you want to wear sweats and not wash your hair. Sometimes you put off doing the laundry for too long, and you’ve got nothing left but your ugly underwear. Sometimes you’re just not in the mood. We all have busy, off, stressful, or uncomfortable days.

No matter the reason, a comfortable, loving marriage means neither of you feels obligated to perform, impress, or make yourself available. You have your whole lives to enjoy each other. So when sex isn’t on the menu, a good cuddle, a game, or a meaningful conversation will do the trick, too.

1. It is everything.

Marital sex is a full giving of self, a full receiving of your spouse, a chance to let go, a chance to act, a reason to relax, a reason to excite. It’s not about impressing someone, seeking satisfaction, making a good story for your friends, proving your love, or hoping the object of your desire will return your affection. It isn’t about winning, it’s never a loss, and it’s always shared equally.

There aren’t words to express what two people share through sex. Marriage makes that a wonderful thing; not a risky, confusing, or potentially regrettable one. Marital sex never becomes a wedge that drives you apart, or breaks your heart. It makes your relationship stronger, not weirder, and brings you closer.

Above all, we define marriage as a sacred and sacramental union, and marital sex is the closest we can get to physically understanding what that means.

 

You deserve to be loved and respected in the most meaningful way, because you are worthy of that recognition and dedication. When people say, “If they love you, they’ll wait,” it’s true. They mean it. Because sex isn’t just for fun, it’s not everything, and it won’t get you the respect or attention you deserve on its own.

It is a gift of self that can’t be taken back, and it will be the most precious gift you can give to your future spouse—your soulmate. You are a unique gift all your own, and the recipient of another. Stay true to that. Don’t give yourself up.

Wedding Rings II

Defending Chastity (and the Feminine Genius)

I recently read an article vilifying the virtue of pre-marital virginity. The writer claimed that girls—and the families of those girls—who make a promise not to have sex before marriage are afraid of female sexuality, devalue girls and women who aren’t virgins, and perpetuate patriarchy.

I disagree on all counts. And so does the Church.

Catholic teachings on pre-marital sex are both misunderstood as patriarchal and misconstrued as outdated. To begin with, the Church’s teachings on sexuality apply to both men and women. In the eyes of the Faith, men are not held to any different standards, nor is their worth greater than that of their female counterparts. Any suggestion to the contrary comes from a skewed cultural perspective—not from the catechism. No one can dispute that pop culture glorifies men for sexual experience and mocks women for it, but that doesn’t make it right, and it certainly doesn’t make it the position of the Catholic faith.

In truth, the Catholic Church holds the feminine genius in incredibly high esteem. During his papacy, Saint John Paul II was outspoken and passionate about the unique character and contributions of women in the Church, and in society at large. I’d encourage you to read his writings in his Letter to Women and Mulieris Dignitatem, which discuss the feminine genius—and the many and splendid roles of women in the Church—at length.

Moreover, the Church is, herself, personified as the bride of Christ. She is an essential partner in the salvation of humanity, and is both devoted to Christ and loved by him. If you truly reflect on that imagery—which was established centuries ago, at the foundation of the Church’s beginning—and it still doesn’t convince you of Catholicism’s love for femininity, I don’t know what will.

While it may seem easy to quote historically significant theologians who touted anti-feminist teachings, it’s essential to remember one thing: no person since Christ and Mary themselves has been without sin, and no one but God is always right. Because many of even our greatest theological minds may been tainted by perspectives built by the societal hierarchies of their times, it’s critical to remember that the words and teachings of no Catholic—whether saint, sinner, pastor, or nun—are taken without question. We all must recognize that, humanly speaking, wisdom is selective, conditional, and not without influence.

One of the many beautiful things about Catholicism is that the Church, as the bride of Christ, is perfect—even if her members are not. Such is the structure that has kept her faithful for 2,000 years.

In addition to her teachings against patriarchy, the Church’s teachings say nothing to reject the worthiness of women—or men—who’ve lost their virginity before marriage. Is any one of us made less valuable by sin? Less loved by God? Less capable of being forgiven? Of course not. After all, our Church knows of only two individuals who spent their entire lives without bending to the temptation of sin: Christ himself, and Mary, his mother. No person, obviously, could ever match the perfection of God. But we haven’t even managed to emulate the devotion of Mary—a fellow human, through and through.

Without exception, “Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God’s image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are” (Centesimus annus, #11).

Finally, the Church isn’t fearful of female sexuality—or sexuality in general, for that matter. A thorough, end-to-end education on Catholic teachings regarding sex can be found in the Church’s theology of the body, as well as the catechism. Neither resource refers to human sexuality alone as wrong, evil, frightening, or disgusting—or, in fact, any negative quality at all. In truth, the Church regards sexuality as one of God’s most precious gifts to mankind: it is a surreal, unique opportunity to express and strengthen the bond between a married couple. More importantly, it blesses us with the opportunity to take part in God’s greatest act: creation. There’s nothing dirty or unbecoming about an honest, truly committed, selfless, and open-to-life expression of sexuality by a man or a woman.

So what, then, does the Church say is wrong about pre-marital sex?

To understand that, it is essential to understand Catholic teachings on marriage. Please check out this post for a holistic discussion on that, but here’s an abridged version:

  • Catholic marriage is a sacrament—which counts it among the seven holiest experiences anyone in the Church could ever experience.
  • Among other reasons, marriage is treated as a sacrament because:
    • It was ordained by God Himself, who joined Adam and Eve together at the very beginning of everything humanity has ever known.
    • It is the relationship in which we take on an extremely blessed and sacred role in God’s creation: that of participants in the creation of new life, which is the formation of everything out of nothing.
  • The marital bond is permanent and unyielding. As a relationship of choice—the only permanent relationship we choose to experience with a specific person, as opposed to being born into a family of blood relatives—it requires the most profound commitment there is, and therefore cannot be revoked or undone. Thus, husband and wife “become one flesh,” and cannot be separated.
  • Because that permanent, unique union joined by God cannot be fully comprehended by our limited human understanding, the Church teaches that sex is a tangible, experiential way for us to begin to grasp its profundity, in that it is inherently bonding and there is no other experience like it.
  • The relationship between husband and wife is central to the family, and thus plays an essential and unmatched role in the Church.

So chastity outside of marriage is taught by the Church neither as the selfish command of an overprotective parent, nor the devaluation of sexually active single people, nor the rejection of female empowerment. It is a holistic approach to valuing oneself for all that we are worth, because a true spirit of chastity is about more than just withholding from sex. It is taught to be a simple, selfless decision to choose love over pleasure, permanence over brevity, giving over receiving, and life over egoism.

Purity

Why Catholic Teachings on Sex and Marriage are Basically Perfect.

I want to provide a better definition of the Catholic marriage, and how it relates to human sexuality. There are many more (and better, and more reliable) definitions in the catechism, papal encyclicals, and innumerable other resources composed by the Church herself—so I’d encourage you to check those out. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve learned.

The first thing to note is that the Catholic ceremony of marriage is a sacrament. It is on par with the most meaningful experiences a person can undergo as a Catholic, including Reconciliation (the reception of complete forgiveness conditional only on our ability to say I’m sorry and mean it); Baptism (a cleansing of all past sins, and one’s introduction to the Faith); Confirmation (a full and official welcoming into the community, including a special blessing of the Holy Spirit); Holy Orders (the initiation of a lifelong commitment to religious life); Anointing of the Sick (the special blessing for profound illness, and often a person’s last interaction with the Church on earth before passing into eternity); and, most wonderful of all, the Eucharist, which is the single most profound, humble way we can bring Christ into ourselves, body and soul.

Marriage is a sacrament among those holiest of religious experiences. It is so immense a blessing that it stands alongside God’s most meaningful, impactful gifts to His people.

That is why the Church’s teachings on marriage are both rigid and essential. As children of God, we are blessed with a select and precious few moments in life in which we can assuredly know that God is present in our experience, fully endorsing of it, and entirely giving of His grace. It is neither our place nor our capability to change the way those moments are encountered. Who are we to place God—and, to a greater point, His approval—at our beck and call?

According to the Church, marriage is given such profound standing in our day-to-day life for a few reasons. Chief among them is that God Himself instituted it. When He created man and woman to be entirely complementary to one another physically as well as spiritually, He created humanity to feature different but unopposing partners who could, together, “be fruitful and multiply” as participants in the creation of life itself. Coming from an omniscient Creator who, at that moment, must have been fully aware of our eventual fall and betrayal of His unconditional love, that is a surreal gift. It emphasizes that love for us, as well as His desire to make us free-willed, intelligent sons and daughters for our own sake, to heighten the genuineness of our love for Him and for each other.

In those first acts of creation, God establishes the nature of the family: that man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, as she will to him. To quote Saint John Paul II, this tells us that “man and woman were created for unity…that precisely this unity, through which they become ‘one flesh,’ has right from the beginning a character of choice.” The act of choosing to commit oneself to a unique, lifelong partner in everyday living, love, and procreation creates a bond unmatched by any other interpersonal relationship we experience. Even blood relatives are given to us—they are not chosen. We are born to our parents, our siblings are born beside us, and our children are born to us. Those relationships are also deeply emotional and profound, to be sure, but by actively choosing the person with whom we will spend the majority of our lives elevates the marital bond all the more.

Naturally, the intangible, ethereal truth—and greater spiritual significance—of the marriage bond is difficult for our limited human awareness to fully comprehend. In addition to its role as a procreative act, sexuality in marriage is the tangible, experiential near-equivalent to that truth. By giving us this opportunity to make a complete and loving gift of our self to our spouse—and, in turn, receive that gift in response—God has provided us some small insight into the intensity of the emotional connections inherent to true marriage.

Even more affecting than that insight, though, is our ability to take part in the creation of new life. Sex makes us participants in the creation of a new human being—it is the miracle of life and, for many of us, the most meaningful experience in an entire lifetime. To take that love which joins us, permanently, in marriage and see a child born of its expression is an incredibly special blessing. It is true that—biologically—not every sexual act will produce a child, and, of course, that’s okay. So long as husband and wife treat it as a healthy expression of love and are open to its life-giving nature, marital sex is inherently good. The Church teaches us that, at its core, marriage—and, consequentially, sex between a husband and wife—is at the heart of family. So, whether it results in the conception of a child or simply binds a husband and wife more closely to each other, sex helps perpetuate love.

Knowing that, I hope it is clear why the Church refuses to allow her members to treat sex as a vehicle for something as basic as a few minutes of physical pleasure. Sex was not meant to be treated as simplistically as a satiation of some physical hunger.

To be blunt, if you can eat a piece of cheesecake or a big steak and groan “This is better than sex” and almost—even a little bit—mean it, you’re doing it wrong.

Sex had for simple pleasure is inherently selfish and objectifying for both people. When purely based on lust, sex is abused as a way of taking another person’s body for the sake of one’s own physical satisfaction. It treats the other as an object of temporary excitement and pleasure, and allows each participant to view the other as a means to an end instead of as a human being. People are not toys to be played with and then cast aside. We are meant to be true partners—in the purest sense of the word—who live and work together in a permanent trek toward a good and honest life.

Basically, when you think of sex as the ultimate expression of love; the unequivocal bonding of a husband and wife who will truly, deeply need one another for the rest of their lives; the act of participating in the creation of new life, which forms everything where there was once nothing; and a completely unique and purposeful gift from God—it’s easy to see why twisting it into a means to the satisfaction of hunger, like a cheeseburger or a slice of pizza, is completely unjustifiable.

So what about pre-marital sex between people who love each other?

As I mentioned above, the Church values the marriage bond as one of the seven most sacred experiences available to Catholics. Marriage is a vocation—a calling to fulfill one’s mission in life—and is beyond our generalized ideas of commitment in today’s culture. True marriage doesn’t mean, “Let’s live together until I get tired of you,” or “I mean ‘til death do us part’ now, but I might fall out of love with you later.” It doesn’t accept “Hey, what can you do? We gave it all we’ve got,” or even “There are some things I can’t forgive you for.” It means two people are one flesh that is impossible to separate because God Himself has joined them together. It means two partners who will live and create life and be a family together, because that’s how humanity maintains its growth and penchant for love. It is like a chemical reaction as opposed to a physical change in matter—it cannot be reversed, undone, or taken back.

A man and a woman who share that kind of bond deserve to give and receive each other completely. We cannot take back the pieces of ourselves we give away during sex. So, by having sex with someone before making the permanent commitment and bonding only true marriage—formed through the sacrament—can impart, we rob ourselves of the ability to make that full gift of self, and we rob our spouses of their right to have all of us as a completion of the marital unit.

The Church takes marriage that seriously. It is the end-all of I and me, and the be-all of us and we.
Because it is unconditional and, above all, because it is designed, witnessed, and blessed by God, there is no other relationship like it—and, therefore, there should be no other experience like sex with the person you’ll love forever, without a shadow of a doubt.

Wedding Rings

How and why Catholics are devoted to the saints.

Catholicism is unique for a myriad of reasons, but one of my favorites is our devotion to the saints.

I know that’s sometimes a misunderstood quality of my faith, and that breaks my heart. The most common misconceptions, in addition to being inaccurate, truly miss the point at the heart of this devotion.

Saintly devotion, for Catholics, is not equivalent to the worship of the Trinity (or any of its persons). Let’s make that clear right off the bat. Catholics define three types of worship. The highest form is latria, and is reserved for God and God alone. Latria is adoration, which can only be given to God—given to anyone else, it is idolatry and, therefore, a grave sin.

The Church describes adoration in a few ways, but here are some of my favorite for this context:

  • “Adoration is the acknowledgement of God as God, creator and savior, the Lord and master of everything that exists as infinite and merciful love.” CCC 2096
  • “Adoration is homage of the spirit to the King of glory, respectful silence in the presence of the ever greater God.” CCC 2628
  • “True adoration involves a docile heart, an assent to God’s sovereignty over our lives, a constant posture of humility before Him, and gifts of love offered in homage.” CCC 2111
  • Adoration is “the highest reverence to be offered only to God, our creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, who alone should be worshiped and glorified.” Concise Dictionary of Theology

This worship can be given, inherently, only to God. It is one of the four ends of prayer (comprised also of atonement, supplication, and thanksgiving), and captures our respect, love, and subjection for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The two other forms of worship—hyperdulia and dulia—are directed toward Mary and the rest of the saints, respectively.  Both are defined by reverence, as opposed to the adoration involved in latria. Catholics are not called to pay homage to the saints, nor are we praying for them to perform any kind of miracle on their own.

Here’s the thing about saints: we ask them for their intercession, not their intervention. The saints intercede for us by praying for us to God. They are credited with miracles not because of their own power or ability, but because God responded to their devotion by sharing His gifts with and through them. In fact, many saints objected to being credited with miracles because they insisted their actions were performed by God’s hands alone.

Though it sounds complicated, sainthood comes down to a simple principle: it means we’re confident—based on their actions and devotion to a life lived for God—a person is truly in heaven. That’s why people aren’t made saints until after they die; it’s why it takes a long time for the Church to canonize anyone, since some investigation is required to make this statement confidently; and it’s why we have All Saints Day, which recognizes and shares love with the saints whose names we don’t know.

The short of it is that everyone in Heaven is a saint and, because they’re in Heaven, they’re closer to God than we can ever be whilst here on earth. Since we know they are close to God, we ask for their intercession because we know their prayers on our behalf will be heard. We all have a penchant for making mistakes and breaking promises, so we can use all the help we can get. Prayers of intercession from souls who may literally be sharing a table with God at this very moment certainly couldn’t hurt our hopes of staying on the righteous paths we are made to walk.

In their incredibly helpful roles as prayerful supporters, the saints aid our efforts to seek forgiveness, of course, but also to be stronger, to improve ourselves as people, and to be closer to God. They do this by praying for and with us, as well as by serving as examples of holy living here on earth. What I mean is that saints are brothers and sisters whom we can look up to, both literally and figuratively. There is no better role model than a person who’s won the true battle and made it to the ultimate realm of happiness, love, and spiritual “success.”

While we’re admiring the saints, we’re also invited to identify with them. They struggled and misstepped and tripped just as we do; they know our suffering. Fortunately for us, they—and their real compassion and wisdom—are always there to help.