A reader writes:

It’s always a bit awkward for me to email bloggers in response to their work, since I feel like I know a certain amount about you, whereas you know nothing of me. Nonetheless, your Sheavings have been quite helpful in my conversion to the Church. I grew up Evangelical (of the question-asking, apologetics-and-Powerpoint persuasion, rather than the proclaim the Holy Spirit louder and the world will change variety) but was received into the Catholic Church a year ago. Both I and my parents have found your thoughts on Mary to be very helpful in understanding. Your descriptions of the Evangelical feelings and views are, I suppose unsurprisingly, spot-on.

But as my (cradle-Catholic) girlfriend and I consider getting married, we are trying to figure out how to make sense of marriage in light of Catholic Tradition. Your post on “The Perpetual Virginity of Mary: Mary the Virgin Mother” did some of the work by confronting contemporary worries about virginity, but it seems to me there is something hard to grasp in the “marriage good, virginity better” line of thinking. The hard thing for me is not that people have different callings and those may be of different worth in some sense, but that virginity as sign of purity (of faith or whatever) seems to imply marriage/sexuality as sign or sacrament of impurity.

On the one hand, of course, the Incarnation is precisely about God entering (shockingly) the impurity of our sin-saturated world. So, maybe being called to a sacrament of impurity is the kind of death that imitates Christ (in fact, God’s making people pure that they may become Christ’s bride is integral to the sacrament)—but this still seems like an odd way of thinking about it, especially since at least some of the rhetoric in defense of virginity currently is that it is for the sake of a pure marriage (i.e., it is either for something else [marriage] or is a species of something else [chastity]).

On the other hand, it is not at all clear what the non-impure/non-pure vision of marriage might be. And it seems like the “marriage as impurity” way of thinking has a long Church history: from the uncleanness of women in the Mosaic law to the Protoevangelium’s account of Mary giving birth through her ear so that her hymen might remain intact (since that’s the most important thing about virginity!). I’ve never been married, so maybe it just becomes obvious in the daily life of marriage how it is a kind of impurity or lack of purity, but do you have any suggestions for lines of thinking here? Virginity as sign of purity + marriage/sex as sign of union = pure union? Or marriage/sex as redemptive of the impurity of the world (whatever “women shall be saved through childbearing” means)?

I suspect part of the problem may arise from the tendency of Protestant culture to think in terms of “either/or” as distinct from the Catholic habit of thinking in terms of “both/and.” Both approaches are necessary, of course, depending on the question at hand. So either Jesus is God or he is not is a perfectly sound question for a Catholic to ask. Likewise, a Protestant will typically recognize that Jesus is both God and man. But the habit or posture of Protestant culture is to posit oppositions where none may exist just as the habit of Catholic culture is to try to figure out how to embrace a very wide variety of ideas as somehow compatible with Catholic faith.

In this case, I think the either/or gremlin may not be serving you well. For I don’t see at all how the distinction “marriage good/virginity better” leads to the conclusion “that virginity as sign of purity (of faith or whatever) seems to imply marriage/sexuality as sign or sacrament of impurity.” It seems to me to be an “either/or” assumption that is in no way implied from the Church’s teaching on marriage. Indeed, a “sacrament of impurity” is a non sequitur since sacraments are gifts of God meant to give us the very life of God. One might as well talk of a “dirty Eucharist” or say that because water is clear and wine is not, the implication is that baptism is purer than the Cup.

I think a better way to approach the matter is to take natural symbols for what they are and not pit them against one another. Water is a natural symbol of baptism. It cleans, washes, drowns, kills, and gives life. Wine does not do these things. So we do not baptize in wine, but water. That does not make water “pure” and wine “impure.” It makes it the natural symbol for what baptism is.  Likewise, wine is the natural symbol for what the Eucharist does. It is convivial, it brings joy, it inebriates, it is the companion of happy fellowship. So we consecrate wine and not water at the altar. It is the natural sign of what is being spoken.

In the same way, the marriage bed speaks certain truths to us about the joy of the Bridegroom and the Bride. It is intimate. It is ecstatic. From it, new life proceeds. In it, bridegroom and bride are made one flesh in the fullest way possible. Nothing about that is impure, which is why it is a sacrament.

But at the same time, the Christian tradition takes a turn that ancient pagans failed to negotiate. The Church recognizes that sex is a sign, not the reality. It is sacramental, but it is never proposed as the sacrament of the altar. So the Church does not establish Dionysic rites in which union with God is achieved by sexualized rites with a cult prostitute, for instance. In short, the Church does not become a cult devoted to the worship of sex because it worships and serves God, not creatures. That’s not because sex is impure. It’s because sex is a raging fire that will burn out of control once you remove it from the only safe place it can be found: the fireplace of the marriage bed. Kept there, it is as pure as virginity.

What’s interesting is that virginity, as well, can become “impure” when it escapes the discipline of the Church. Various sects in the history of the Church have become as obsessed with virginity as pagans have become obsessed with sex. They have denigrated the sacrament of marriage as evil and, from time to time, had to be opposed by their principal enemy, the Church because what lies behind them is a hatred of the body and the Incarnation. (Note the great Both/And of Catholic teaching at work there.)

Antiquity generally put much more stress on virginity, particularly as heretical Christians (think “Tertullian”) hived off into rigorism. So yeah, you do get stuff like the Protoevangelium of James —but you also note that the Church does not canonize it. These days, you get a lot of Catholics who have no use for virginity—and the Church likewise resists them. This is why the magisterium is so handy. It keeps you on an even keel while various Catholics are blown this way and that by various cultural enthusiasms. The day may well come when virginity is again all the rage and sexuality is despised as evil. As Chesterton notes, the world does not progress: It wobbles. Meantime, however, what the Church tends to do is propose paradoxes to us like “marriage good/virginity better” and then challenge us to hold fast to both poles (note the Both/And thinking again) rather than pit them against each other or sacrifice one for the other. This is, I think, one of those places.