Thoroughly researched and eminently readable, Perry J. Cahall’s The Mystery of Marriage: A Theology of the Body and the Sacrament is an impressive scholarly work, whose writing style reads as mellifluously as a contemporary whodunit. Applying St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body as the best philosophical foundation supporting the sacrament, Cahall reviews major steps in the millennia-long progression of marriage from the Hebrew Scriptures to our understanding of marriage as the primordial sacrament.
The result of years of teaching and research, Cahall’s catalog of theological concepts pertaining to marriage consists of six major subdivisions, most of the twenty-one chapters generally progressing in chronological order. Chapter 1 defines the first major concept of the book, mystery, and how it relates to marriage. Chapter 2 discusses the importance of the ancient understanding of humanity being created imago Dei, gifted with a body and a soul. As Cahall indicates, these ideas from the first two chapters that constitute Part I are not new teaching; however, contemporary Catholics, bereft of orthodox theological training over the past few decades, may find these ideas, necessary to appreciating arguments on behalf of the Catholic view of marriage, novel.
The four chapters constituting Part II concern marriage “in the Order of Creation.” Chapter 3 discusses the uniqueness of human beings as male and female beings, the contemporary distortion of gender, and some commentary on what constitutes true freedom. Chapter 4 elaborates the categories of love from C. S. Lewis’ Four Loves from a Catholic perspective, most notably emphasizing that Christianity empowers us as being “purified by a higher love” (49). This chapter also demonstrates how marriage is not a private agreement, but one with a social context. Chapter 5 affirms the nature of marriage in natural law, which ineluctably leads into the explanation of the telos of marriage. Chapter 6 introduces the idea of marriage as the primordial sacrament, based not only on its natural law foundation explicated by scholars, but also on the common knowledge derived from the experience of ordinary lay people.
The two chapters of Part III consider marriage in the Old and New Testaments. Chapter 7 reviews the Old Testament foundations of marriage, where married love was likened to a covenant love with God. Chapter 8 then analyzes marriage as a sacrament of the New Testament, emphasizing the importance of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.
Part IV, the bulkiest portion of Cahall’s work, covers six intense chapters of Christian (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) discussion of marriage, culminating in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Chapter 9 summarizes the theology of marriage in the Patristic period. Cahall’s etymological discussion of “sacrament” and “divorce” are especially beneficial at this point to understand not only the chronology of the development of sacramental marriage, but also of later Protestant secularization of the sacrament. Chapter 10 is devoted to St. Augustine’s three goods of marriage. Chapter 11 reviews Orthodox Christianity’s view of marriage, the medieval period’s generally negative view toward marriage, marriage as the “remedy for concupiscence” (a concept as misunderstood then as it is now), and a detailed analysis of St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical speculations on marriage (expressed in language surprisingly close to St. John Paul II’s ideas). Chapter 12 evaluates Martin Luther’s hermeneutic of sola scriptura as it relates to marriage, an idea which setback the theological understanding of the sacrament by centuries.
Closer to our own times, chapter 13 considers why the Catholic Church has written so much on marriage in the twentieth century and reviews the treatment of marriage in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. This chapter reinforces contemporary concepts in the understanding of marriage (such as that love is the meaning of the sacrament and how personalism helps to reorient the sacrament) and ends with brief commentary, expanded later, on St. Paul VI’s Humanae vitae. Chapter 14 expands on the notion of marriage as the primordial sacrament, based on St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (especially 5:32, the mega mysterion passage). Cahall then discusses two terms long discussed but not well known to contemporary Catholics, the form and matter of a sacrament. In marriage, the words of the sacrament are the form, and the man and the woman are themselves the matter of the sacrament; the implications of this centuries-long philosophical formulation obviously conflict with those who argue, for example, for same-sex marriage or any other distortion of heterosexual normativity. Cahall ends the chapter with a discussion of how the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the 1993 Catechism emphasize the newer appreciation of marriage.
The two chapters of Part V review some specific aspects of the sacrament. Chapter 15 comments on the “‘smells and bells’ of Catholic liturgical life” (295) and begins to turn the entire work towards the practical experience of married couples, what Cahall calls their living “in the thick of the world” (296). Chapter 16 reviews several defects of matter and form regarding contemporary marriages, affirms that civilly-divorced persons cannot receive the Eucharist (a position much debated over recent statements by Pope Francis), and ends the chapter with a discussion of sex as prayer.
The remaining five chapters which constitute Part VI involve marriage in practice. To help persons who wish to determine if marriage is appropriate for them, chapter 17 defines “spirituality” as the basis for their discernment and offers two lists of questions to help them in their exploration of marital commitment. Presuming the couple is nearly decided on marriage, the chapter ends by reviewing the remote, proximate, and immediate stages of preparation for marriage. Chapter 18 begins with commentary on tenderness and conjugal relations, considers the notions of gift and suffering in marriage, addresses emotional aridity in marriage, and argues for the irrevocable commitment that married persons express to each other in marriage. Chapter 19 identifies four principles of sexual morality and three objective features of human sexuality. Chapter 20 addresses responsible parenthood, counters erroneous claims about what the Church does not say about family size, and reviews the “many just reasons” why married persons would use Natural Family Planning to avoid pregnancy (423). Chapter 21 discusses consecrated celibacy, viewing it as another expression of how some persons address the “ache” of conjugal love (451), and elaborates on the marriage of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.
The concluding chapter of the work contains Cahall’s recommendation that “our modern culture needs to recover its roots and return to an outlook that will allow us to see the glorious mystery of marriage once again” (470).
The above highlights are, admittedly, eclectic and idiosyncratic; the electronic notes made from scribbled markings on note paper and the markings that this reviewer made on the book itself may differ from other readers. However, it is virtually certain that every reader will find something in Cahall’s work which is a new insight (if not new theological knowledge), interesting, or pertinent to contemporary discussions of marriage, especially since most Catholics have, consistent with the rest of the culture, lost their common knowledge database of things Catholic.
For example, understanding the historical development of the sacrament may shock readers when they realize that marriage was formally listed as one of the standard seven sacraments of the Church only in the twelfth century. Cahall’s discourse on the formal recognition of that historical development is illuminating. Similarly, contemporary Catholics may think that Cahall’s commentary on form and matter as constituent elements of a sacrament is new when those theological concepts have existed for millennia. Whether contemporary Catholics are intelligent enough to apply this theological development to the aggressive demands for same-sex marriage or the ordination of women remains to be seen.
While the work is not meant to be a marriage or (what would most obviously sell in today’s publishing market) a sex manual, Cahall’s work is surprisingly relevant for married couples situated in a culture where sex is deemed the essential and apparently only reason for marriage. Orthodox Catholics know better, but what Cahall provides is an intellectual frame and vocabulary which contemporary married Catholics can use to counter several cultural notions which distort marriage, such as the idea that marriage is “living-happily-ever after” when it really means being “committed-ever-after” (360) or the notion that every act of lovemaking must be “great sex”, obviously erroneous, especially when the years of marriage advance beyond the initial honeymoon stage (389).
Cahall’s conclusion could be expanded with an explicit recognition of a key element from the praxis of modern marriage: generations of Catholic men and women have lived by and followed the Church’s support and respect for marriage as a unique bond between husband and wife. The living witness of Catholic married couples, remaining faithful to Church teaching on marriage, may be the best witnesses in the New Evangelization for the sacredness of marriage in a thoroughly secular world.