What Separates and Unites

Book cover
The Nuptial Mysteryby Angelo Cardinal Scola, Translated by Michelle K. Borras

Eerdmans. 445p $29 (paperback)


“But what if Scola becomes pope?” Such was my e-mail response to America’s request that I do this book review. John Paul II had just died. Benedict XVI had yet to be elected. And Angelo Cardinal Scola was on the papabile list.

Needless to say, Scola, the patriarch of Venice, did not become pope. At least not this time around. But at age 64, this former rector of the Lateran Pontifical University and author of numerous publications may well be on the short list the next time the church awaits white smoke.

Scola, who for 20 years taught at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, laments that the church has not developed an adequate theology of marriage and has had even less to say about a theology of family life. To be sure, canon law speaks of contracts and impediments, moral theology has its long list of sexual sins, spirituality talks of family prayer and pastoral care addresses problems that plague marriages and families. Systematic theology, however, has until recently largely neglected this pervasive part of Christian life.

John Paul II recognized this deficiency and devoted several documents to it. He urged theologians to show how marriage and family are related to the Trinity, Christology, ecclesiology, sacraments, salvation and so forth.

In The Nuptial Mystery, Scola takes up the task. Developing John Paul’s celebrated “Theology of the Body,” he holds that sexuality is fundamental to the meaning of culture. Where some hold that culture is a product of economic forces or biological adaptation, Scola argues that marriage/family is the determining factor in culture. For example, he states that contraception is the most important characteristic of our disjointed postmodern culture, since it separates love, sex and procreation. He worries that wide-scale cloning in the future will be more destructive than the atomic bomb, because it annihilates the very meaning of being human.

In recent decades, theologians have developed liberation theology, feminist theology, transcendental theology, postmodern theology and so on. Scola proposes to let “marriage and family” serve as the interpretative key for doing what might be called “nuptial theology.”

Thus he highlights, instead of glossing over, those parts of the Scriptures and tradition that say God is father and Christ is son or that Christ is bridegroom and the church is bride. He analogizes the hypostatic union of two natures in Christ to a “spousal union.” The Eucharist, as the supreme act of Jesus’ self-gift, illuminates sexual intercourse as complete and total self-giving.

Reciprocally, Scola’s nuptial theology rethinks earthly realities. For example, while traditional theology understood sexuality as what we share with the birds and bees, Scola says that one cannot positively understand sexual difference and unity without understanding the Trinity. Similarly, Christians should understand the man-woman pair as derived from the Christ-church pair.

This new approach builds on two theological innovations. Where the tradition said that the “image of God” refers to our rationality, John Paul II claimed that our sexuality is also part of the imago Dei. Second, where Augustine and Aquinas thought it “absurd” to use family as a model of the Trinity, John Paul II described family as authentically imago Trinitatis. For Scola, the connection in each case is that sexuality comes to mean reciprocity, and spousal love is taken as the primary analog for all levels of love.

In the heat of argument, I recently asked a feminist theologian whether she would be a woman in heaven. To my surprise, she replied she was not sure. Her reservation—paralleling Paul’s claim that in Christ there is no male or female, no slave or free—was that sexuality is not that central to being human. Not so for Scola. Sexual difference is one of the essential, irrevocable polarities of being human.

Shortly thereafter, I listened to another Catholic theologian give a paper on whether there will be sexual intercourse in heaven. Her answer was emphatic: Yes! What is interesting is that her answer would flow from Scola’s theology. He argues that love, sexuality and fecundity are “inseparable” and that marriage and family are “essential” for a spiritual subject’s personal fulfillment.

Nevertheless, he suggests that we will be celibate in heaven. Like most theologies that stress the importance of sexuality, his theology bends over backward when it comes to celibacy. While he usually argues from analogy, on this issue he stresses paradox. For him, as for John Paul II before him, the “summit” of nuptiality is virginity. In turn, sexually active married people should be detached “virgins.” Such language obscures more than it enlightens, and it points to a major weakness of the book.

The theme of nuptial mystery was developed in good part to buttress the church’s sexual norms. The problem is that this theology tends to prove too much. For example, since, according to Scola, sexual love and difference are essentially related to procreation, does the church err in teaching “responsible parenthood” or in letting infertile couples marry? Similarly, Paul VI’s teaching on “inseparability” leads to the conclusion that spouses who intend contraception—whether artificial or through natural family planning—do not really love each other.

Cardinal Scola may be our next pope. If that happens, we will have a pope with doctorates in theology and philosophy but also one at ease with poetry and literature. We will have an au courant member of the hierarchy who acknowledges that the magisterium appears more often than not as “antiquated or obsolete.” In the meantime, we have a pioneer in the theology of marriage and family who offers a new way of doing theology, namely, seeing God through the lens of the “nuptial mystery.”

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