Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The sacramentality of assertion

Some Catholic thinking about sexuality goes something like this:  There is a sacramentality to the marital act.  The giving of self to another, and the seeking of the other's receiving and reciprocation, is a symbol of the union between God and his people, and maybe even has a Trinitarian significance of imaging the self-giving and generative nature of God.  This, in turn, suggests that mixes up holding-back with self-giving and expresses love in a context in which one is fighting against one's generative striving, producing a parody rather than image of Trinitarian love.

I think it is worth thinking about the sacramentality in assertion as well.  In assertion, one reaches out to offer one's testimony, inviting the other to receive one's testimony in trust.  This is some sort of an image of the Father's sending his Word to us in time, to offer his truth to sinners, some of whom will accept him with trust and some of whom will reject him.  It is even an image of the Father's eternal generative speaking of his Word.  There is a kind of sacrilege, then, when one knowingly asserts falsely.  One is parodying the life of the Trinity rather than imaging it.  One is being faithless to those whose faith one is inviting by one's testimony.

It does not matter that the end for which one contracepts or lies is good.  To do something that parodies the life of the Trinity is wrong regardless of what further end it subserves.

Of course, in both the case of marriage and speech prudence is called for.  One can legitimately refrain from marital union or from assertion when it would be imprudent to generate children or communicate truth.  To do that does not image, in the relevant respect, the life of the Trinity, but also does not parody it.  We cannot image the life of the Trinity in all its respects anyway--we are but finite.  And when refraining for the sake of a virtue V, say, the virtue of prudence, from imaging the life of the Trinity in one respect, we are thereby imaging the life of the Trinity in a respect shown by V.  And even when cannot image the life of the Trinity in some respect, we can and must refrain from parodying it.

There is a cost to doing the right thing here, and the tragic cases are where the cost will be borne by others.  But that is how it is in our world.  The cost of Christ's birth was borne by many a newborn and his family.  Yet we honor them as the Holy Innocents, for they have received the salvation that came through Christ's incarnation.  And likewise the benefit of the Christian's imaging in truthfulness and sexual integrity the life of the Trinity extends mysteriously to all by the communion of the saints.

This is some sort of a reply to Janet Smith's article on lying in First Things, which saddened me much as I greatly respect her work in sexual ethics.


Gorod said...

I really liked this post and I find the concept in the title very interesting.

A concept that is implicit in the ideas stated here is that of the "language of the body" that John Paul II used to explain the sacramentality of sexuality, and which obviously looks like an analogical extension of the sacramentality of assertion as you explain it here.

The sacramentality of assertion is the wider concept; then if we accept that there is a "language" of the body we arrive at the sacramentality of the assertions of the body and of sexual union.


It is interesting to note that the language of the body is taken as pre-defined, God given; we are to use it, not redefine it. We are free to form our sentences and ideas in ways that respect the words and grammar ("re-reading the language of the body in truth", JP II). This shows the richness of the analogy, since that is what we expect from the use of language in conversation: some measure of joke, irony and metaphor is allowed, but not a misleading subversion of meaning, as in lying.

It is clear that the enemies of God often feel the need to redefine language for their purposes: the attacks on words like marriage, gender, life, etc., are frequent and violent. (The most extreme example I find is that of the expression "free love", two of the holiest words turned into an excuse for impurity...).

In the same way that spoken language is a pre-defined (even though flexible and evolving), relational, communitary asset, so the language of the body is no ours to re-invent.


Within the sacramentality of assertion, I find a particular relevance in the sacramentality of the body and sexual union - it not only a "conversation" between two persons ("I give myself to you", "I receive your gift of yourself"), it is also a very real, unique conversation with God ("please give life, here, now!"). This reinforces the idea that the language used must be God's, not just that of the couple.


PS - you were preparing a book on sexuality, is it close to publication? Need a reviewer?

Alexander R Pruss said...

All this is well put.

It is an interesting difference that we have an authority over spoken (and written and signed) language that we do not have over the language of sexual union. Another difference is that spoken language can be used to communicate truths that are merely trivial, while sexual union does not communicate mere trivialities. (This may explain why contraception is always gravely wrong, while lying is sometimes only venially wrong.)

Notice, though, that some of our sexual bodily language is something we have authority over. That a kiss on the lips (bracketing the weird-to-me practice I've seen of kissing infants on the lips) has the meaning it does in our culture is something that can legitimately vary between cultures. But the essential meaning of intercourse does not vary. There is an essential core here.

Could there be such an essential core in our non-sexual language? I think there might well be, but it will be more abstract and at a higher level--rather than there being particular words whose meanings are fixed by nature, there would be some fundamental patterns of meaning-conferring practices that are fixed by nature.

Alexander R Pruss said...

As for One Body: An Essay in Christian Sexual Ethics, the manuscript was delivered to the publisher about 2.5 years ago. The publisher took very long to get it out to two reviewers, but finally did that half a year ago. So far I have one reviewer's report, and it's very positive. The publisher is waiting for a second.

Gorod said...

Yes, I'd say the "essential core" of the language of the body is sexual intercourse and things very directly related; all other gestures, touches, etc. are things we have a different authority over.

For spoken language I believe the "essential core" can be found somewhere along the lines of the 2nd Commandment. It seems God's name and other Holy things are the words we can't play with, perhaps not even use in vain.


One thing I've often wondered is why can't spouses use contraception when in full understanding of how that represents a lesser communion; in the same way that I can tell someone: "my next sentence is not for real", and then lie away innocently. The sentence would be false but I would not be guilty of misleading, or lying.

But it seems the sexual act itself is mandatorily sincere. Spouses can't agree on a different meaning...

The same holds with the 2nd commandment and God's name. I'm not supposed to play with it or joke about it even if I warn everybody and state my full submission to God. It's the name itself that is somehow larger than my use of it.


A final thought on words we must respect: the words of the consecration in the Mass. These are spoken words that cannot even be substituted for others that would mean exactly the same, or the sacrament would be invalid and the priest guilty of sacrilege. So, they are part of that "essential core" of nonnegotiable words, but in a different sense.

I find this very strong in analogy with body language as it regards sexual union: they are (I wish I could find a better expression) "magic words", they are the only way to bring about a new and surprising reality, just like a consummated sexual union is (or should be) the only way to generate life.

Thanks for your answer and the update on the book - I'll be waiting in line to get it as soon as it is out!

Unknown said...

To continue the sexual union analogy here, I think lying need not always be like contraception in a spousal context, but that it might sometimes be like the use of contraception for self-defense in non-spousal contexts.

There are times when having a contraceptive intention are not wrong. When there is no question of a spousal relationship, it may be permissible to have a contraceptive intention for self-defense, such as when a nun is anticipating possible rape and so avails herself of a barrier, or in the case of emergency contraception after a rape where it is certain that conception has not yet occured.

In these cases, the relationship that makes contraception a lie does not exist.

Likewise, we could think of a relationship where telling the truth is not due or expected. You mentioned a relation of trust between two people. But what about relationships where trust in not present (or due). It may be possible in these circumstances to not tell the truth as a means of self-defense.

Since they are not trust-relationships, not telling the truth would not be a lye in a moral sense because they are lacking the context in which telling the truth is expected and due.

If the Church's teaching about contraception is a teaching about spousal love, then maybe we could think of the Church's teaching about lying as a teaching about a trust-relationship?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the difference is that while we are called to sexual union with at most one person, trust is not like that: every pair of people is called to a mutual relationship of trust, though in some circumstances trust in some particular respect is not appropriate (just as in some circumstances sexual union between spouses is not appropriate).