Ex opere operato in the bedroom

In the last post, I expressed my preference for “rule-based” sexual ethics over the more popular “feeling/intention-based” systems of today.  The former I called the “Catholic” view, because I thought the popular image of Catholic legalism actually helped get my point across.  There are deeper reasons, though, for this identification.  At the heart of it is the sacramental worldview.

The common view is that words and actions are less meaningful than feelings and intentions.  The sacramental view affirms the opposite, at least in some special cases.  The best known example is the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist.  The sacramental churches claim that this sacrament is the heart of Christian life, that it makes the sacrifice on Calvary present to the communicants and incorporates them into Christ’s self-offering to the Father, and that it unites all members of the Church and draws them into Christ’s mystical body.  What gives the sacrament this potency?  Is the personal holiness of the priest or the congregation so great as to imply this meaning?  Heaven help us if that’s what’s needed for the sacrament to be effective!  Is it that the thoughts and feelings of the congregation at the Mass are so purely Christ-like as to establish an identification with Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross?  What could be more absurd or impertinant?  Half the congregation isn’t even paying attention, and even the half that is can hardly be said to be doing something heroic like Christ was.  No, our thoughts and feelings could never bear these sorts of meaning.  It’s the priest’s words and actions themselves that point to Calvary and identify the present congregation with the action that took place there.

The sacramental person realizes that some realities are too big for his mind and emotions, and he’s grateful for rituals–physical actions–that can symbolize these things in their fullness.  What’s true for the Eucharist is true also for sex.  It’s not the sublimity of the lovers’ feelings during the act that gives it it’s awesome meaing.  No mere mental state could bear such significance.  Two romantic adulterers might have more intense, and even more “spiritual”, feelings and intentions during intercourse than the average married couple.  That doesn’t change the fact that the former are committing a desecration and the latter a holy act.  What makes this so?  First, that certain words were said at a certain ritual, namely the couple’s wedding, and these words have an awesome meaning in themselves.  Second, that the act itself–the particular place that the seminal fluid goes–has a natural, objective meaning of awesome significance.

Is this a paradox, the idea that material facts can be more deeply significant than spiritual facts?  Perhaps to those who have a higher regard for their spiritual states than I have for mine.  For myself, I’m grateful for the clarity of objective physical facts, and I’ll cling to them.

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