Nuptial Meaning of Human Body

(Homily for Twenty-Seventh Ordinary Sunday, Year B)

The world today has two major theories about the meaning of the human body. In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins expressed the idea most favored by our culture. He says that our bodies are essentially vehicles which individual genes use to replicate themselves – that is, to continue their existence in offspring.

It is hard to argue against that theory because in a sense it explains everything: marriage, polygamy, fidelity, infidelity, rape, chivalry, nurturing, war, economics – in effect, all human behavior. It even explains why some never “mate.” My bachelor brother won’t be projecting his personal genes into a future generation, but he somehow helps his nephews and nieces to further our segment of the gene pool. The theory does explain everything, but like all mechanistic models (as Chesterton pointed out) it does so only by leaving out almost everything we know to be true.*

A second theory - less well known - was articulated by Pope John Paul. Early in his pontificate he gave a series of audiences, reflecting on Genesis (particularly, the reading we heard today). He spoke about the nuptial meaning of the human body. Our bodies are not just made for procreation (what Dawkins calls “gene replication”). That is an instrinsic part of their purpose - as the Bible say, “Be fruitful and multiply.” (Gen 1:28) But there is something more profound. Our bodies by their very structure are oriented to self-giving. After narrating the creation of the first woman, the Bible states, “For that reason a man leaves his father and mother, joins himself to his wife and the two become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24)

Because of this nuptial meaning, the human body has a language. To speak more precisely, it is a language. It is our most fundamental form of communication. We recognize that language most strikingly in the fact that we are male and female. As such we are meant for a total donation, a self-giving which holds nothing back.**

Unlike the theory of The Selfish Gene, the pope does not offer this as an explanation of everything. Still, to see the human body as nuptial, as meant for self-donation, does have explanatory power.*** It stands behind much poetry, drama and music. It explains why humans want to not only couple, but to bind – and why we desire the bond to continue even if progeny do not result. It explains our intuition that words like “noble” and “despicable” mean more than “it suits my fancy” and “it makes me queasy.” A man who deserts his wife and children for a younger woman might be following an evolutionary impulse, but who would call him noble?

Sometimes the language of the body says things we do not want to hear. We have a classic example in today’s Gospel. When the disciples asked Jesus what constitutes adequate grounds for divorce, he responds with words, not only difficult for his hearers, but perhaps even more so for us. Try to imagine a proper suburban congregation posting this verse on its readerboard: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her…”

Some skeptical scholars maintain that certain parts of the New Testament are “later additions.” I am not in much of a position to judge their claims.**** Nevertheless, I do feel sure of one thing: No Christian writer would have invented Jesus’ unequivocal prohibition of divorce. Besides seeming both harsh and naïve, it risks alienating many people. Yet something deep inside tells us that Jesus is speaking the truth.

Jesus knows a language which speaks to our souls. It goes back to the days of primal innocence. Perhaps it has become confused – on account of our sins, our “hardness of heart.” But no one has entirely forgotten that language.

As he states so clearly – and as the Holy Father reminds us – our bodies have a nuptial meaning.


*An ironic example: Dawkins talks about the selfish gene, but he denies that such a thing as a "self" exists. Obviously a gene does not have a self, but for Dawkins neither does a human being. "We are survival machines--robot vehicles programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes." [The Selfish Gene, 1976 edition, pp. v, 2.] For other things which consistent naturalists leave out see: Evolution - Philosophy Masquerading as Science?

**This is the ultimate basis for our teaching regarding birth control.

***In confronting naturalism (a.k.a. materialism or mechanism) we have certain disadvantages. Their theories have the appeal of simplicity because they believe there is ultimately only one thing - "matter." A theistic view is more complex - we do not believe reality can be reduced to one thing. Modern sympathies go against us since we are committed to a hierarchical view of reality - some things being greater, others lesser - whereas a naturalist is completely democratic. (For them every phenomenon from Shakespeare to sunsets to slugs can be reduced to chemical reactions, i.e. tiny particles interacting.) Not only that, a naturalist in principle is perfectly tolerant whereas for us some behaviors are wrong. All this works against us as long as one refrains from pushing naturalism to its logical conclusion: e.g., that there is no moral difference between a rapist and research scientists because both are merely responding to an evolutionary impulse. At that point even the most resolute naturalists begin to backpedal. We then have an opening to say, "I admire and greatly value your commitment to analyzing all things, even man. But I ask that you be more cautious, more scientific, in your use of words like 'only, merely and simply'."

****Biblical criticism has much to offer, but unfortunately it suffers from the evolutionary fallacy - the notion that you can explain amazing things just by saying they emerged slowly.

Final Version

Versión Castellana

From Archives (27th Ordinary Sunday - Year B):

2015: Discernment in Action Week 1: Masculinity & Femininity
2012: A Difficult and Controversial Gospel
2009: Male and Female He Made Them
2006: What God Has Joined
2003: Nuptial Meaning of Human Body
2000: The Holiness of Sex

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(September 2009) Bulletin (First Quarter Report, Chicago Conference, Galileo's Mistake)


It is very easy for us as Catholics to slide into a secularized (naturalist) way of thinking and talking. On his weblog psychotherapist Gregory K. Popcak identified the difference between the secularist and Christian humanist approach. He does this in response to an article in the Gaylord diocesan paper quoting Gov. Jennifer Granholm:

"There are things that are particularly Catholic that should remain in the faith realm," she said."Personally, I believe life begins at conception, but I don't believe that, as secular human beings we will ever get agreement on the question of when life begins," she continued. "This is not something we can legislate. It is a private matter, just as contraception is."

To which Popcak responds:

Contrary to what the Governor says, we do know when life begins. Crack open any embryology textbook and you will see that everyone admits that human life begins at conception. The problem is not that people do not agree when human life begins, the problem is that not everyone agrees about the significance of that life. In the end, the science is on our side. The actual battle in not between science and the Church (we would win if it were), but between the secular materialist view of the person (i.e., we are just matter, there is no special significance or dignity to human life save what we give it) versus the Christian humanist view of the person (i.e., God is the author of human life and has its own unique dignity).

And from Mark Shea's blog:

I'm sure glad artists are finally mustering the courage to make sculptures of bishops with penis-shaped hats

Wow! That took guts! Talk about your courageous counter-cultural statement! Bucking the thin-lipped Catholic religiosity that dominates both academia and the arts community must have required a titanic level of independent thinking and raw courage. I stand back in wonder and admiration at this lone, brave Hero who *dared* to Think Different from his peers and professors. I can only hope that other bold and independent thinkers in the Arts community will reach down deep into their souls and also find the sheer grit it takes to spit on the Catholic faith.

Bravo, you courageous lad! And I see you were "raised Catholic"! Well, of course! Then you're an expert as well as a Great Artist! I am lost in transports of admiration for your bravery!

New Deacon Abel Magaña (Ordained September 13, 2003)


Scenes from PASSION

Another newspaper does an article on my brother Louis quintessential American citizen

Show Truth to America
(Demonstration at Seattle University, September 27, 2003)
Warning: Contains Graphic Images