Few issues are as pressing or sensitive today as the nature of marriage and the family. Battle lines have been drawn on all sides in the public discussion – politically, legally, theologically, spiritually –, and more fronts form every year. Angelo Cardinal Scola in The Nuptial Mystery develops an admittedly incomplete theological anthropology in order to lay a foundation for then discussing the topics that make the headlines.
Originally published in Italian in two volumes, in 1998 and 2000, the English translation is a welcome contribution to the scholarly discussion in the United States. While certainly not complete or always clearly expressed, Scola’s explanation of the nature of love, gender and marriage, built upon the foundation of christology, ecclesiology and Trinitarian theology, is as persuasive and compelling a defense of Catholic teaching as any that has been developed.
Scola claims that his book is “an inquiry into love, carried out by following the ‘guiding thread’ of nuptiality” (xxv). Taking as its point of departure the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church, the book is not meant to be “a comprehensive treatment of ... the sacramental or moral theology of marriage” (xxv), nor does it enter directly into present-day controversies, though, of course, these are very much in the background.
Following the lines of his previous work, the cardinal explicitly draws upon the writings of John Paul II and Hans Urs von Balthasar throughout The Nuptial Mystery. He has a book and numerous articles on Balthasar and taught at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Rome for twenty years. The book is divided into four principal parts. The first provides a theological anthropology which grounds the unity in difference of man and woman. His exposition takes the form of an unfolding of the content of John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem and Wednesday catecheses, arguing that “the difference of the sexes belongs to man’s being as image of God” (9). Thus, “in a world which seeks to eliminate God, it becomes impossible to consider sexual difference,” for sexual difference is rooted in a God who is supreme difference in supreme unity. In no other context can sexual differentiation make sense (23).
In the second part, the cardinal develops a theological understanding of the nuptial mystery, grounding human marriage not only in the union of Christ and the Church (99), but ultimately in the relations of the Triune God (102), despite the traditional resistance to this latter analogy. Just as with the “divine nuptiality” (118), in which the love of the Father and Son would be impossible without the uniting force of the Holy Spirit proceeding from them, so too, marital “fruitfulness is the full ‘face’ of asymmetrical reciprocity [nuptiality]” (125). If procreation is cut off from sexual union, then procreation is reduced to reproduction and the child becomes a product to be bought and sold. Conjugal love is also degraded, turning from reciprocity, which maintains difference, to complementarity, which pursues “the phantom of androgyny” in which “two halves seek a lost whole” (129).
Part three takes a more practical turn, which shows itself in the greater readability of this section. With a keen eye, Scola diagnoses what he sees as the central problems faced by marriage and family life: individualism, privatization, and romanticism, among others. Discussions of the (mis)direction of bioethics, the education of children, care for elderly relatives, and family continuity are also included.
Part four begins with an historical sketch of the theology of marriage. Because Catholic theology in this area has been so poorly developed, Scola turns to the problems and lacunae remaining today, primary among which is the lack of sufficient theological grounding in the mysteries of the faith. Remaining chapters are thus devoted to God the Father and parenthood, especially fatherhood; Christ and the Christ-church nuptial mystery; the Holy Spirit and the enlivening of marriage; and finally the Eucharist.
Seven appendices offer further reflections by the author, some previously published, on such topics as the reservation of holy orders to men, Donum Vitae, Humanae Vitae, and engagement before marriage. The table of contents and two indices are relatively extensive and the book is repetitive enough to allow for easy browsing or research.
The most substantial drawback to the book is its heady and meandering nature, following the style of Scola’s two theological heroes. Thus, its practical audience is limited to specialists and graduate students. In addition the use of “man” and gender-specific pronouns is confusing, at best, and some explanations are obtuse or incomplete (e.g., why exactly contraception leads to a kind of androgyny is never made clear).
However, for academics in the fields of sexual ethics, theological/philosophical anthropology or marriage and family, this book is well worth reading.