The Wedding Garment

This reflection was given at Morning Prayer at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on the feast of St. Bernard, August 20, 2020. The audio is available here.

“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son” (Mt 22,1). There is “a great mystery” echoing in these words: do you hear it? “I speak in reference to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5,32), the great mystery of the love of the Bridegroom and the Bride thrilling through the very heart of God and down through the history of creation and salvation. For who else can this beloved son of the king be, the Son for whom His Father prepares a joyful wedding feast, but Our Lord Jesus Christ? And who else can His bride be but the Church, whom He “loved” so much that he “handed himself over for her to sanctify her … that he might present to himself the Church in splendor” (Eph 5,25-26), St. Paul says, as His own spouse?

In his magnificent poem, “Romance of the Creation,” St. John of the Cross, the great poet of divine love, imagines an eternal dialogue between the Father and the Son:

“I wish to give You, My dear Son,
To cherish you, a lovely bride,
And one who for Your worth will merit
To live forever by Our side.

And she will eat bread at our table
The selfsame bread on which I’ve fed:
That she may know the worth and value
Of the Son whom I have bred,
And there enjoy with Me forever
The grace and glory that You shed.

‘Thanks to You, Almighty Father,’
The Son made answer to the Sire,
‘To the wife that You shall give Me
I shall give My lustrous fire,

‘That by its brightness she may witness
How infinite My Father’s worth
And how My being from Your being
In every way derived its birth.

‘I’ll hold her on My arm reclining
And with Your love will burn her so
That with an endless joy and wonder
Your loving kindness she may know.’

‘Let it be done, then,’ said the Father,
‘For your love’s surpassing worth.’
And the moment he pronounced it
Was the creation of the Earth.”

The poem continues to describe in dazzling splendor the creation of the heavens and the earth, the stars, the oceans, the heavenly hierarchy of angels – last of all, the human race. And this is the wedding which the eternal Father has prepared for His Only Son: the union of our humble human nature with His own divine glory:

“Then, to a deathless music sounding,
Bride to Bridegroom will be pressed,
Because He is the crown and headpiece
Of the Bride that He possessed.

To her beauty all the members
Of the just He will enlace
To form the body of the Bride
When taken into His embrace.

Tenderly in His arms He’ll take her
With all the force that God can give
And draw her nearer to the Father
All in one unison to live.

There with the single, same rejoicing
With which God revels, she will thrill,
Revelling with the Son, the Father,
And He who issues from Their will,

Each one living in the other;
samely loved, clothed, fed, and shod.
She, absorbed in Him forever,
She will live the Life of God.”

Dear friends of Christ, realize the height of the glory for which you were made, and to which we are all invited! The Father sent His servants, the apostles and prophets, and in the end His Son, to gather us in to the feast – not only to witness this union – but to become the Bride. Little and lowly though we are, we were made from all eternity for union with God. 

It was for this that you were clothed in white on the day of your baptism and instructed to “keep it spotless until you arrive at the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you may be rewarded with everlasting life” (Rite for Baptism of Children).  And this white wedding garment signifies nothing else than charity, as the Apostle says: “Over all these [virtues and good works] put on love, that is, the bond of perfection” (Col 3:14). Love is a bond; it unites the lover with the beloved. And it is love, and only love, which will unite us to God. 

Now we understand why this poor man who came improperly attired to the wedding is punished so harshly by the king. It’s not a matter of violating the dress code. “He [who] enters in to the wedding feast, but without the wedding garment,” says Gregory the Great, “has faith … but not charity” (Catena Aurea). I’m sure it will not come as a surprise to you to hear that there are many in the Church, in the pews, even in the seminaries and the holy priesthood, who have faith, but lack love. Faith is good and necessary, indeed indispensable—by faith we come to believe in the love God has for us—but as the Apostle teaches, “if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing“ (1 Cor 13:2). Faith is a means to an end; it is a stepping stone to charity. In heaven, faith and hope will pass away; love alone, “the greatest of these,” remains forever, because love alone unites us to God.

“Many are called, but few are chosen,” says the Lord. All are invited, we might say, but some do not wish to come. Others come only so far, but lack the resolve to come all the way: “I will answer the invitation and come into the hall, into the Church, but I will not put on the garment of charity which Our Lord offers.”  Why? 

Here Saint Bernard, whose feast we celebrate today, may be of some help to us. The Church honors Saint Bernard with the title of “Doctor Caritatis,” the Doctor or teacher of charity. Saint Bernard distinguishes four stages of the growth of love in us; we might call them four steps in putting on the garment of charity.

In the first stage, which he calls “carnal love,” we are drawn to the love of Our Creator simply by considering all the gifts He has freely given us, His creatures: free will, self-awareness, hearts capable of loving, an intellect to comprehend the truth, the beauty of the world, the love of our families. One need not even be a Christian to love God with this kind of love. But it is more about the gifts than the Giver.

In the second stage, as we come to know God better by faith, we begin to love Him for what more He can do for us. This is the way children in the faith love the Lord. Saint Bernard calls this stage “mercenary love” because it remains self-interested: “It is weak, for if this hope [of gain] is removed, the love may be extinguished, or at least diminished. It is not pure, as it desires some return.”

But gradually, over long experience and many trials and failures, our love is purified. We begin to love God with what St. Bernard  calls “filial love,” that is, as sons and daughters love their Father, for His own sake, because He is good and beautiful, trustworthy and true. This is more and more an unselfish love, indeed a self-forgetful love, for the more our hearts are occupied in loving God, the more they expand and take on the dimensions of His love. This is the love that regards our neighbors and even our enemies as ourselves. This is the love of great martyrs and saints. 

Yet there is even a fourth stage of the growth of love in us. Saint Bernard simply calls it “pure love.” The characteristic of the fourth and most perfect stage of love is that we “learn to love ourselves for God’s sake. This is to love the self that God desires, to love God’s will for the self: and so it means the final purging of the will from self-aggrandizement and desire for control. It is ‘to be emptied out of oneself, to be brought almost to nothing’ (X. 27), to accept the reality of God as entirely definitive of one’s identity. The self has no other will than God’s. Its only prayer is: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Dr. Margaret Turek, Notes on Monastic Spirituality)

You may notice this is precisely the opposite of our culture’s present obsession with self-care and self-esteem. The wisdom of the world holds that we must love and provide for ourselves before we can love anybody else. So long as we continue to make the anxious cravings of our hearts the primary object of our concern, our love remains weak and imperfect. The wisdom of God, which is folly and a stumbling block to the world, but to us our salvation and our hope, is that if we are ever to learn to love ourselves in truth, we must first fall in love with God in a quite absolute way, such that we abandon everything to Him. In the beauty of His eyes, we will see ourselves reflected, and come to love ourselves there, as He loves us.

“This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?” Yes, the ideal is high, and this is why many refuse. It is one thing to believe, another to surrender oneself to a love as demanding and all-consuming as this. But if we strive to advance in love and place our trust in Him, throwing ourselves confidently on His mercy as often as we fail, the Father looks on our feeble efforts with great tenderness and will soon lift us up to the heights of perfection. And the reward for which we strive is the greatest of all, the only reward any lover worth the name has ever sought: to possess the Beloved and to be possessed by Him forever. 

Lord Jesus, in your Most Holy Name, grant that every one of us gathered here today in your Church may come to the wedding banquet clothed in the garment of pure love. May all of us, whom you have called, find the way to light, to love, to life. 

The Seven Promises to “Him Who Conquers” in the Revelation of St. John

The revelation given to Saint John opens with seven messages to seven particular churches in Asia Minor. The evangelist is instructed by the Son of Man to “write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter” (Rev 1:19 RSV2CE).1 These messages, recorded in chapters two and three, have several features in common. Each is addressed to “the angel of the church” of that place (2:1).2 Each begins with a different phrase identifying the divine person who addresses them, such as “the first and the last, who died and came to life” (2:8) or “the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze” (2:18). Presumably these seven unique identifying marks given to the churches differ according to the particular church to which the Son is speaking, since He to whom David sang, “O Lord, you search me and you know me” (Ps 139:1-2) surely knows how best to disclose His identity to each individual church and each member thereof.

That there are seven titles given, however, would also seem to express something of the inexhaustible plenitude of the divine being which is at once revealed and hidden by each of them, since “Revelation uses numbers symbolically—that is, qualitatively rather than quantitatively” and “seven and ten normally represent completeness.”3 The mystery of “Him who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4) is infinite, utterly beyond our comprehension; He is glimpsed only “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) in the symbolic words and images of the titles He Himself has revealed to his servant John. The seven titles, even taken together, cannot begin to exhaust the mystery of God’s being, but they point to the perfection of that being which is beyond words.

Each of the seven messages to the churches also ends with a particular promise to “him who conquers” (ὁ νικῶν). This victorious one shall ”eat of the tree of life” (Rev 2:7); he will be given “the crown of life” (2:10), “hidden manna and a white stone” (2:17), and “the morning star” (2:26-28); he shall be “clothed in white garments” (Rv 3:5), made “a pillar in the temple of my God” upon whom is written “the name of my God” (3:12), and finally “sit with me on my throne, as I also have conquered and sat with my Father on his throne” (3:21). Each of these promises may be uniquely suited to the hearers of the message in that particular place; Ephesus, for example, was the site of the Temple of Artemis, who was frequently depicted in art as a fruitful tree, and it is to Ephesus that the promise to eat of the tree of life is given.4 Each of the promises, however, according to our limited human powers of comprehension, must also express aspects of the one infinite and ineffable mystery which is promised to all. Like the divine names, they do not exhaust the mystery; they point to its “unspeakable majesty and grandeur.”5

What is the essence of this gift which stands behind the seven promises? St. John of the Cross takes up this question in his commentary on the Spiritual Canticle, a love song he composed in mystical ecstasy expressing the romance between the soul, conceived as Bride, and God the Bridegroom. Near the end of the Canticle, the bride sings:

There you will show me
what my soul has been seeking,
and then you will give me,
you, my life, will give me there
what you gave me on that other day.6

These words are spoken as she looks forward to her entry into eternal beatitude, “the consummation of the love of God, which she had always been seeking.”7 This consummation is twofold. God will show her that which she has long sought, “that is, to love God as purely and perfectly as he loves her.”8 He furthermore will give her a gift which, St. John says, is nothing less than “essential glory, consisting in the vision of God’s being.”9 Interestingly, the soul avows that God has given her this gift already “on that other day,” which is taken to mean “the day of God’s eternity … in [which] God predestined the soul to glory, decreed the glory he would bestow on her, and gave it to her freely from all eternity before he created her.”10 

As to the nature of this gift, this essential and eternal glory which God bestows and has bestowed and will bestow on his chosen and beloved bride, the “one who conquers,” St. John says it “is in point of fact the vision of God, but that which the vision of God is to the soul has no other name than ‘what.’”11 It is sheer, indescribable beatitude. He proceeds to quote “what Christ said of it to St. John seven times in the Apocalypse with many expressions and words and comparisons, for this ‘what’ cannot be understood by one word, nor at one time, for even with all these terms it still remains to be expressed.”12 As St. John of the Cross enumerates them, each of the seven promises seeks to express more perfectly what was inadequate in the last; “everything he said falls short of the mark,”13 and so another and another is added, like a lover’s stammering to express the unspeakable praises of her beloved. These promises, in the end, “cast the ‘what’ in very perfect terms, but they still do not explain it. This is a peculiarity of a thing that is immense: All the expressions of excellence, grandeur, and goodness are fitting, but do not explain it, not even when taken together.”14 

One thing more remains to be revealed. Who is the one who conquers, to whom the indescribable gift is given? In the Spiritual Canticle of John of the Cross, it is the lover, the bride. This insight accords perfectly with the theology of John the Evangelist, who elsewhere writes, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments … for whatever is born of God overcomes (νικᾷ) the world; and this is the victory (ἡ νίκη) that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes (ὁ νικῶν) the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:3-5). Faith in Jesus, shown forth in a life of love and obedience to His commandments, conquers the world and wins the indescribable prize of love’s consummation: everlasting life in union with Him.


  1. The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament: Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010). 
  2. Cf. also Revelation 2:8, 12, 18 and 3:1, 7, 14.
  3. Peter S. Williamson, Revelation, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 28.
  4. Cf. Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 495, fn. on Rev. 2:7.
  5. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, 38:8,in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991), 621.
  6. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, 38:1, in Collected Works, 618.
  7. SC, 38:2, in CW, 618.
  8. Ibid.
  9. SC, 38:5, in CW, 620.
  10. SC, 38:6, in CW, 620.
  11. Ibid.
  12. SC, 38:7, in CW, 620.
  13. SC, 38:8, in CW, 621.
  14. Ibid.

Called to Communion: Pastoral Considerations for Same-Sex Attracted Catholics

It is well established that same-sex attraction constitutes an inclination of the sexual appetite which is intrinsically and objectively disordered.1 This paper is not intended to defend or explain this definition, a project which has been undertaken abundantly well already by scholars more apt to the task. Although it will be necessary to touch on these questions to some extent, this paper seeks rather in a pastoral spirit to find what hope may be offered to those faithful Catholics who experience same-sex attraction and for whom it “constitutes … a trial.”2 To be sure, Jesus extends to each one of us the call he offered to his first disciples: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 DRB).3 The Catechism aptly recalls this divine invitation in the case of Christians with same-sex attraction, calling them to “unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”4 However, it must be acknowledged that the cross weighs particularly heavy in their case, since their disordered desires are rooted precisely in that area which makes us most fully human: the sexual urge, which drives man to express at the level of the person—physically, emotionally and spiritually—his natural desire and capacity for self-gift and personal communion. Too often, therefore, the call to carry the cross and die to self in this area may be heard by same-sex attracted Catholics as an insurmountable challenge, akin to a permanent denial of that which is most human in them, that call to communion in which man most fully finds himself and realizes his human potential.5

It is not sufficient to ask Catholics suffering under the burden of same-sex attraction, who are seeking to live holy lives and submit faithfully to the Church’s magisterium, to merely bear their crosses without offering them also some grounds for hope that their deepest and most distinctively human aspirations—desires which are God-given, even if distorted by sin—may be fulfilled. This paper is an attempt to do just that. Drawing on the teaching of St. John Paul II, I will argue that those who suffer with same-sex attraction, being made for communion in the image of the Blessed Trinity, are called to a generous life of self-gift and may find their fulfillment as human persons in such a life, no less than those who experience the sexual urge in accord with the divine and natural order. I will then consider the Lord’s invitation to virginity for the sake of the kingdom in Matthew 19:12 as a “live option” for those who experience deep-seated same-sex attraction, arguing that, though they may fall into the category of those who are born eunuchs or made eunuchs by men, this in no way excludes them from also making a voluntary and generous offering of themselves to God in a life of committed spiritual virginity. This commitment constitutes a path by which such persons may satisfy their deepest inclinations to love and gift, entirely and without reservation, and live a fruitful life in generous service to God and his people.

Called to Communion

At the heart of St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” is the fundamental conviction that God, Who is Love, created man and woman out of love, for love.6 This concise statement reveals much about the nature and destiny of human beings, as well as the nature of God, our creator and exemplar. God subsists in an eternal and reciprocal exchange of love: the Father generates the Son in a perfect and eternal “event of absolute, self-surrending love,”7 giving over His own divinity to the Son, a totally free gift by which He gives Himself utterly and holds nothing in reserve; the Son, receiving the Father’s self-donation, gives Himself freely and perfectly back to the Father in an eternal, reciprocal, loving assent to His Sonship. The generative love of the Father begets the filial love of the Son in an “eternal interplay of divine freedom, since this filial disposition is the infinitely free response of love engendered by love.”8 Furthermore, this love engendered by love is fruitful in the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. Thus the Blessed Trinity is a communion of three divine persons in one Godhead constituted by an utterly free, eternal, perfect, fruitful, and loving exchange.

Because we are made in the imago Dei, we human beings are likewise “called to communion,” to fruitful self-donation and mutual belonging. In fact, man and woman, made in the image of God, constitute together an imago Trinitatis on the human plane, a “true and living icon”9 of the divine communion of love which is the Blessed Trinity. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” says YHWH in Genesis 1:26. Commenting on this verse, St. John Paul II writes, “Before creating man, the Creator withdraws as it were into himself, in order to seek the pattern and inspiration in the mystery of his Being, which is already here disclosed as the divine ‘We’.”10 The pattern of God’s own inner Trinitarian life, of loving self-surrender and communion, thus becomes “the eternal pattern of the human ‘we’, especially of that ‘we’ formed by the man and the woman created in the divine image and likeness.”11 It is precisely together that man and woman constitute an image of the Trinitarian communion of God. 

The complementarity between man and woman is thus written into human nature from the beginning as a fundamental and irreducible characteristic at the service of communion. It belongs to the “stamp” of the divine and Trinitarian nature which God has impressed upon us from the moment of the creation of our first parents. However, St. John Paul II distinguishes a still more fundamental sense in which we are made in God’s image. Prior to imaging the divine nature in the complementarity of the sexes, man is stamped with the imago Dei in the very fact of his being endowed with a rational nature, that is, with the capacity to know and to love. Man’s being made in the image of God at the level of his rational human nature is “prior, not only in the chronological sense, but rather in the existential sense”12 to his being made in the image of God as male and female. If we were not first made in God’s image by being rational, that is, capable of knowing and loving, then the Trinitarian likeness in the communion of human persons made possible by the complementarity of the sexes would be unintelligible.

This is well illustrated by the second creation account found in the book of Genesis. In the beginning, Adam stood alone between God and the rest of creation, a bodily creature like the animals, yet endowed with a rational nature like God. He experienced a radical need for communion, being made in the image of communion itself, yet found none of the animals capable of satisfying this need; he could know and love them, calling them by their names, but they did not have the capacity to know and love him in return. Therefore, the Lord says, “It is not good for man to be alone: let us make him a help like unto himself” (Genesis 2:18), that is, a creature endowed with the same rational nature as Adam himself, such that she can know and love him as she is known and loved by him. To be sure, Adam realizes when he sees Eve—“bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh!” (Gen 2:23)—that he was not just seeking any other rational creature, but also a certain hitherto unimagined “communion of complementarities.”13 Man, before the creation of woman, could not have conceived of the great gift of the complementarity of the sexes; he could only desire one “like unto himself,” capable of making a free return of love for love. The creation of Eve reveals to him the possibility of a true communion of persons, not only in reciprocal knowledge and love, but in bodily, emotional and spiritual self-gift and mutual belonging, and thus a more perfect realization of the imago Trinitatis

Nevertheless, it should be a consolation to same-sex attracted Catholics that “the first and most essential aspect of [the imago Dei] is on the level of rational creaturehood.”14 If, through no fault of their own, such persons do not experience the natural attraction of man to woman or woman to man in the sexual urge, they are not for that reason excluded from the possibility of communion. Same-sex attracted persons are still “stamped with the image of God in love and gift” at the deepest level of their nature, and thus are both made for and capable of “the real warmth of rational human communion: the remedy for man’s deepest solitude.”15 In fact, John Paul II teaches that, since

the need for betrothed love, the need to give oneself to and unite with another person, is deeper and connected with the spiritual existence of the person … it is not finally and completely satisfied simply by union with another human being. Considered in the perspective of the person’s eternal existence, marriage is only a tentative solution of the problem of a union of persons through love.16

If their disordered experience of the sexual urge prevents them from seeking that communion in marriage, then persons who suffer from same-sex attraction may find a way of fruitful and generous self-gift in a different expression of betrothed love found in the tradition of the Church.

Called to Virginity

It cannot be denied that the intrinsic and objective disorder of same-sex attraction constitutes a real obstacle to giving of oneself in betrothed, spousal love in the normal way. This obstacle may be considered analogously to that experienced by the first two kinds of eunuchs mentioned by the Lord in conversation with his disciples in Matthew 19. This conversation occurs just after Jesus has spoken a prophetic word against divorce to the Pharisees: “Moses by reason of the hardness of your heart permitted you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so … Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery” (Mt 19:8-9). It is in this context that the disciples shrewdly remark, “If the case of a man with his wife be so, it is not expedient to marry” (v. 10). 

Without reading the disciples’ comment uncharitably, one cannot help but detect in their words a hint of utilitarian calculus, seemingly weighing the risks of a lifelong commitment which cannot be broken and judging it more prudent to remain celibate. Jesus, however, shifts the terms of the discussion with his reference to three kinds of eunuchs. There are eunuchs “who were born so from their mother’s womb,” he replies, “and there are eunuchs, who were made so by men: and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:12). His reply distinguishes between those who are incapable of marriage because of a physical defect (those “who were born so”) or else due to the action of another (those “made so by men”), on the one hand, and those who voluntarily forsake marriage “for the kingdom of heaven” on the other. Crucially, the Lord speaks to his disciples here not in the categories of expediency and convenience, as they had begun the conversation, but in terms of sacrifice and generosity: “He that can take, let him take it” (v. 12).

John Paul II’s interpretation of this passage is crucial for understanding Christ’s call to take up the cross of virginity for the kingdom as an invitation to loving and generous self-gift. “It is a characteristic feature of the human heart to accept even difficult demands in the name of love, for an ideal, and above all in the name of love for a person,” writes the Holy Father: 

the love for Christ himself as the Bridegroom of the Church, Bridegroom of souls, to whom he has given himself to the end … In this way, continence ‘for the kingdom of heaven,’ the choice of virginity or celibacy for one’s whole life, has become in the experience of the disciples and followers of Christ the act of a particular response to the love of the Divine Bridegroom, and therefore acquired the meaning of an act of spousal love, that is, of a spousal gift of self with the end of answering in a particular way the Redeemer’s spousal love; a gift of self understood as a renunciation, but realized above all out of love.17

Far from a life of self-indulgent “perpetual bachelorhood,” chosen to avoid the responsibilities and risks of radical self-commitment to a spouse, or else a resigned and bitter celibacy into which one is forced by some exterior or interior necessity, then, the choice to live virginity for the sake of the kingdom is a particular and radical kind of self-donation, a free gift of love made in response to Him who “first hath loved us” (1 John 4:19). Indeed, John Paul II calls this gift of self to God in spiritual virginity “an act of spousal love,”18 the essence of which is that “two people give themselves each to the other”19 in a quite absolute, irrevocable way, as Jesus insists in his dialogue with the Pharisees. It is an act of “the fullest, the most uncompromising form of love,” which “consists precisely in selfgiving, in making one’s inalienable and non-transferable ‘I’ someone else’s property.”20 The exterior form of the commitment differs for the spiritual virgin in that it is made not between two human spouses, but between a creature and his Creator; the “interior form” of the commitment in the human heart, however, insofar as it involves “the will to give oneself, entirely and without reservation, to God,”21 is the same. Therefore, it is an act truly capable of fulfilling man’s deepest and holiest aspirations to love and gift.

Furthermore, such a generous commitment of oneself to Christ the Head necessarily entails also a gift of self to his Body, the Church. The Head and the Body cannot be separated; neither then can one’s commitment to spiritual virginity for the kingdom as an act of betrothed love for Christ be separated from the supernatural and spiritual fruit of that betrothal, that is, service in charity to the members of His Body. The spiritual virgin is “to have a deep care for them, expressed in service, such that there is a real and enriching personal communion.”22 This service may take many forms. John Paul II muses that it might be expressed in “the relationship of a doctor with his patient, or in a teacher, who devotes himself with utter dedication to the education of his pupil,” or even by “great public figures or apostles [who] devote themselves to many people at once, people for the most part personally unkown [sic] to them, whom they serve by serving society as a whole.”23 It is for the individual to discern the particular path by which they will best serve the body of Christ, listening to the voice of God, the Bridegroom of their soul, with due attention to the needs of their community and loving, filial obedience to the Church. Finally, it must be reiterated that this life of service will only be personally fulfilling insofar as it is the spiritual fruit of the person’s betrothed love for Christ the Head. Service in itself is insufficient to slake the desires of the human heart, which desires not only self-gift, but “the giving of the individual person to another chosen person.”24 Thus the spiritual virgin’s life of service must be the fruit of their communion with the Lord, not a replacement for it.

This path of spiritual virginity is open to Christians who experience same-sex attraction, just as it is to those who experience the sexual urge in the natural way: “He that can take, let him take it” (Matthew 19:12). Whether these followers of Christ were made eunuchs “from birth” or “by men,” that is, from biological causes, psychological trauma, or other undiscovered reasons—and the Catechism acknowledges frankly that the “psychological genesis [of same-sex attraction] remains largely unexplained”25—the words of Jesus reveal that the dignity of making a free choice to give of themselves is not denied them by the fact of their condition. There is an irreducible difference between those eunuchs who are made so and those who choose to become so for the kingdom of heaven. Those who are made so have had no choice in the matter. Their choice lies in how they will live out their lives: seeking communion in vain by gratifying their sensual and sentimental desires, a quest which is doomed to failure since, as John Paul II puts it succinctly, “only if it is objectively good for two persons to be together can they belong to each other”26—or following the difficult road of “renunciation … realized above all out of love,”27 a daily death to disordered desires which enables a life of truly generous gift and communion.


In conclusion, far from condemning same-sex attracted persons to a lonely and loveless life, Catholic moral teaching acknowledges that such persons are radically made for communion and self-gift. In so doing, the moral tradition of the Church firmly rejects any notion that same-sex attracted persons are defined by their disordered inclinations, as if same-sex attraction constitutes a kind of fundamental identity distinct from that of persons who naturally experience the sexual urge as an inclination toward members of the opposite sex. Rather, the Church affirms that same-sex attracted persons share the same fundamental orientation as all other members of the human family, by virtue of their being rational creatures made in the image and likeness of God: the inclination to generous love, to self-donation, to communion. The Church further acknowledges such persons’ fundamental dignity and freedom to choose a way of life which will allow them to give of themselves to another, in accordance with their own objective good as human persons and the objective good of the other, as well as with the whole divine and natural order, and therefore in a manner which affords them the opportunity for real self-fulfillment as human beings in the image and likeness of their Creator. If the normal means of betrothed love, that is, matrimony, is closed to them, the Lord invites them to walk the path of spiritual virginity for the sake of the kingdom, a commitment to self-giving which is no less generous, no less radical, no less fruitful, and no less fulfilling of their deepest inclinations as human persons. Those who choose this path will no doubt encounter difficulties, but in daily renewing their commitment in love for Christ, “they can … gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection,”28 that eternal beatitude in which alone our hearts may all find their rest.


  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 2357-8.
  2. CCC, 2358.
  3. The Holy Bible: Translated from the Latin Vulgate with Annotations, References, and an Historical and Chronological Table (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1950).
  4. CCC, 2358.
  5. Cf. Paul VI, Gaudium et spes [Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World] (7 December 1965), §24.
  6. Jeffrey Froula, lecture on Theology of the Body (Menlo Park, CA: St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, 15 January 2020).
  7. Margaret Turek, SD-5211: The Trinity – Course Reader with Commentary & Notes (unpublished manuscript, 2019), 134.
  8. Turek, Course Reader, 133.
  9. Francis, Amoris Laetitia [The Joy of Love] (19 March 2016), §11.
  10. John Paul II, Gratissimam Sane [Letter to Families] (2 February 1994), §6.
  11. Gratissimam Sane, §6.
  12. John Paul II, TOB 5:3, in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 148.
  13. Froula, lecture (15 January 2020).
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 153-4.
  17. John Paul II, TOB 79:9, in Man and Woman He Created Them, 436.
  18. Ibid. Emphasis mine.
  19. Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 96-7.
  20. Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 97.
  21. Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 252.
  22. Jeffrey Froula, lecture on Mystical Virginity (online, 20 April 2020).
  23. Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 98.
  24. Ibid.
  25. CCC, 2357.
  26. Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 131.
  27. John Paul II, TOB 79:9, in Man and Woman He Created Them, 436.
  28. CCC, 2359.

“He Has Become Visible for Us”: On the Christological Heresy of Iconoclasm and the Triumph of Orthodoxy

In the eighth century, there arose in the Christian East the new mania of iconomachia, an unprecedented movement in Church history characterized by its violent opposition to the ancient Christian custom of the veneration of icons of Christ, the saints, and the Mother of God. The rise of iconomachia constituted a decisive break with universal and apostolic tradition; indeed, replying to a letter from the iconoclastic Emperor Leo III, who had asked him why the six ecumenical councils held theretofore had said nothing about icons if their veneration was truly apostolic in origin, Pope Gregory II replied, “Do you not see that they … did not occupy themselves with that which is adopted and admitted by everyone?”1 The century of widespread iconoclasm was nothing short of a cultural revolution which took the Christian East by storm.

As with all such revolutions, the iconoclastic revolt can be interpreted according to many different lights and from a multiplicity of perspectives. For example, the sociological and historical angle suggests that Islam, Christianity’s principal rival in the East, with its stringent prohibition on the use of representative images in worship, might have exerted a gradual influence on the Eastern Churches, leading to the sudden and decisive break from their traditional iconodulia to fanatical iconomachia. No less a theologian and historian than Alexander Schmemann points to “the decision of the [Byzantine] authorities to reach a compromise with Islam”2 under Leo III as a historical cause of the iconoclasm which followed; in those days of the declining fortunes of the Byzantine Empire, many of the Christian faithful in the East were no doubt beginning to feel themselves inferior to their Muslim neighbors, “who presented themselves as the representatives of a purer religion.”3 Ordinary Christians may thus have been more susceptible to their claims that the worship of icons was to blame for their Empire’s apparently inexorable calcification and decline, “considered as the punishment of God for the idolatry of the people.”4 In this light, iconoclasm may have appeared as a progressive, reforming force, a movement to remove those falsifying corruptions which had accreted to Christian piety and restore Byzantine Christianity to the glorious purity of the apostolic faith. However, such analyses, while illuminating, must ultimately take second place to considerations of a theological and especially Christological nature, for the arguments employed by the iconoclasts to justify their radical position were ultimately founded on a misunderstanding or else misuse of the Christological teaching of Chalcedon on the natures of Christ. 

The Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, held in 451 AD—almost three centuries before the outbreak of iconoclasm—solemnly taught “that one and the same Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, must be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion or change, without division or separation.”5 This concise definition served to dispatch both the Nestorian and Monophysite heresies which had hitherto plagued the Church. On the one hand, Nestorianism, which had already been condemned twenty years earlier by the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus, was definitively excluded by the Chalcedonian teaching that Christ is to be acknowledged “in two natures … without division or separation”; on the other hand, Monophysitism, that Christological overcorrection propounded by Eutyches and his disciples, was ruled out by the teaching that these natures are united in Him “without confusion or change.”6 As the definition of the Council explains, “The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one Person and one hypostasis.”7 This magisterial teaching on the hypostatic union of Christ’s human and divine natures, called the “Chalcedonian synthesis,” clarified definitively how Christ is to be understood at once as fully God and fully man.

Yet precisely this “christological problem [of the union of the two natures in the one divine person of the Word] was implied in all the discussions about images”8 of the iconoclastic period. The acts of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum of 754, the first official attempt to develop an adequate theological justification for iconoclasm, held that any iconographer who dares to make an image of Christ “either depicts the Godhead which cannot be depicted, and mingles it with the manhood (like the Monophysites), or he represents the body of Christ as not made divine and separate and as a person apart, like the Nestorians.”9 Consequently, the one who makes the image and the one who venerates it alike are held “guilty of a double blasphemy–the one in making an image of the Godhead, and the other by mingling the Godhead and manhood.”10 

St. John of Damascus, an early and ardent defender of orthodoxy against the iconoclasts, argued in the beginning of his first treatise in defense of the holy icons that the iconographer “represent[s] God, the Invisible One, not as invisible, but insofar as he has become visible for us by participation in flesh and blood … We are not in error if we make the image of the incarnate God, who appeared on earth in the flesh, and who, in his ineffable goodness, lived with human beings and assumed [our] nature.”11 This argument is founded on a truly orthodox understanding of the synthesis of Chalcedon, which confirmed that the visible human nature, assumed by the divine person of the Word, “came together in one hypostasis”12 with his invisible divine nature. Icons of Christ, then, do not represent the invisible and indescribable Godhead, which the iconoclasts were surely right in condemning; “if someone dares make an image of the immaterial and incorporeal divinity, we repudiate him,” St. John himself wrote elsewhere.13 Rather, they represent “what is visible in God (θεοῦ τὸ ὁρώμενον),”14 namely, the humanity assumed by the Word, which is not mixed with His divine nature, but is hypostatically united to His divine person. Therefore, one who venerates an icon of Christ truly gives worship to God, that is, to the divine person of the Word, made visible in the humanity He assumed.

It is most interesting that both the iconoclastic and iconodulist arguments, summarized here in their strongest forms (as set forth by the iconoclastic council and by St. John Damascene, respectively), were presented in the language of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. The council taught that

when … [the iconographers] are blamed for undertaking to depict the divine nature of Christ, which should not be depicted, they take refuge in the excuse: We represent only the flesh of Christ which we have seen and handled. But that is a Nestorian error. For it should be considered that that flesh was also the flesh of God the Word, without any separation, perfectly assumed by the divine nature and made wholly divine. How could it now be separated and represented apart? … They fall into the abyss of impiety, since they separate the flesh from the Godhead, ascribe to it a subsistence of its own, a personality of its own, which they depict, and thus introduce a fourth person into the Trinity. Moreover, they represent as not being made divine, that which has been made divine by being assumed by the Godhead.15

Whether by malice or by ignorance, however, the would-be defenders of Chalcedon at this iconoclastic council were in grave error about what Chalcedon had taught. Their error may be seen plainly in the choice of words in the above quotation, that the humanity of Christ was “perfectly assumed by the divine nature and made wholly divine.16 This formulation “seems to ignore completely the main assertion that Chalcedon had borrowed from the Tome of Leo: ‘each nature preserves its own manner of being’ and ‘meets the other [nature] in the single hypostasis.’”17 For this reason, lacking “the conception of a properly hypostatic union, implying a real distinction between nature and hypostasis, and making possible the preservation of the natural characteristics of the divinity and of the humanity within a single or personal hypostatic existence,”18 iconoclastic Christology regards the divine nature, and not the divine person of the Word, as the subject of the union. They have failed to assimilate that crucial distinction between person and nature, hypostasis and substance. Thus also their conclusion that the iconodules must regard the assumed human nature of Christ as  “a subsistence of its own, a personality of its own,”19 confuses the terms of Chalcedon, mistaking the human nature—assumed and hypostatically united to the Word, yet remaining distinct from the divine nature—for “a fourth person [in] the Trinity.”20 This, however, does not follow from a truly orthodox interpretation of the Chalcedonian synthesis, which holds that the human and divine natures are united in the person of the Word “without confusion or change, without division or separation.”21 

In the end, then, “while formally accepting the decisions of the councils of Chalcedon and of Constantinople” and framing their arguments as a defense of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, “iconoclastic Christology places itself clearly on Monophysite or Monothelite positions.”22 The necessary corrective to iconoclasm was a full and orthodox appropriation of the teaching of Chalcedon, above all that “the human nature of Christ is precisely hypostatized in the Logos’ hypostasis, and it is the latter that is represented in the image,”23 which was provided by such valiant defenders of orthodoxy as John Damascene and Theodore of Studium. In the words of that latter saint, “every portrait is, in any case, the portrait of a hypostasis, and not of a nature,”24 for one can only see a nature insofar as it is made concrete and individual in a person. It is precisely for this reason that icons of Christ to this day are inscribed with the letters Ὁ Ὤν, “He who is,” the Greek translation of the Divine Name. The holy icons of Christ are icons of a divine person, God the Son, “the visible of the Father,”25 made visible to us in the human nature He assumed. Therefore, on the first Sunday of Great Lent, 842, the holy Synod of Constantinople formally condemned iconoclasm and restored the holy icons to their places of honor in their churches—a feast that is kept in perpetuity in the Eastern Churches as the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.


  1. Karl Joseph von Hefele, Histoire des conciles de l’Eglise, trans. Dom H. Leclerq (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1907),3:671-72, qtd. in Blagoy Tschiflianov, “The Iconoclastic Controversy—A Theological Perspective,” in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 38, nos. 1-4 (1993), 243.
  2. Alexander Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), 200. 
  3. John Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975), 174.
  4. Tschiflianov, “The Iconoclastic Controversy,” 231. Cf. L. Brehier, “Sur un texte relatif au debut de la querelle iconoclast,” Echos d’Orient 37 (1938), 17-22. 
  5. H. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum, 43rd edition, ed. Peter Hünermann (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), DS 148.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 177.
  9. “Epitome of the Definition of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum, Held in Constantinople, A.D. 754,” from The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, trans. H. R. Percival, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace (repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), XIV, pp 543-44, at Internet Modern History Sourcebook, 1996.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Qtd. in Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 179. Cf. Or. I, PG, 94, col. 1236 c.
  12. DS 148.
  13. Qtd. in Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 184. Cf. Or. III, col. 1332 b.
  14. Qtd. in Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 179. Cf. Or. I, col. 1245 a.
  15. “Epitome of the Definition of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum,” at Internet Modern History Sourcebook, 1996.
  16. Ibid. Emphases mine.
  17. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 181-2.
  18. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 182.
  19. “Epitome of the Definition of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum.”
  20. Ibid.
  21. DS 148.
  22. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 182.
  23. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 188.
  24. Qtd. in Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 188. Cf. Theodore Studite, Antirrh., III, col. 405 a. 
  25. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, IV, 6, trans. Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut, from Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885, at New Advent,

Spiritual Resources for the Coronavirus

Dear friends,

Praised be Jesus Christ!

I know our lives have all been turned upside down by this growing pandemic. For my part, the seminary was shut down last week and all of us students sent home to our various dioceses. Public Masses have been cancelled nearly everywhere. In my archdiocese, they are suspended all the way through Holy Week. Our familiar routines have been put on hold; friends and family are separated as we shelter in our different places; freedoms long taken for granted are curtailed, and even our lives of faith can be shaken by the absence of the sacraments and the closing of churches.

It is a time of great uncertainty and fear for many. But for that reason, it is also a time of great spiritual opportunity. It is no coincidence that this is all taking place during Lent!

And make no mistake, friends. God is very near us!—more so than ever in this time of suffering and distress. The mercy of His heart reaches to the depths of the abyss of our misery to raise us to the heights of divine love.

The bishops and priests of the Church are doing great work throughout the world to remain spiritually close to the faithful: live-streaming Masses, hosting parish groups online, hearing confessions in parking lots or on porches behind glass. In addition to uniting myself to their prayers and remaining faithful to my own prayer, especially of the Divine Office and the rosary for the salvation of the world, I feel called during this time to make a little offering of my own for the spiritual benefit of those who are cut off from Mass and the sacraments.

Therefore, in addition to my usual weekly podcast, I will be offering daily reflections on the Gospel read at the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite for as long as Masses are suspended here in the Archdiocese of Portland. These will be short spiritual reflections of 5-10 minutes each, intended as food for your own meditation and life of prayer, and as inspiration to live extraordinary lives of love in the midst of suffering and hardship! The reflections will be published as part of the normal In Your Embrace podcast. If you are already subscribed, they will show up in your podcast player as usual, beginning today. If not, please subscribe to get the latest updates.

I will also be hosting a weekly contemplative Bible study called Song of Ascents online through Zoom, a video-conferencing platform. We will be reading the Mass readings assigned for the coming Sunday in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite on Saturday nights at 7pm. It is “contemplative” study in that we are listening together for the movements of the Holy Spirit and for the Word which God is speaking to us in our particular circumstances through the treasury of readings selected by the Church. These readings are layered atop one another as a kind of “compound lens” through which we can read anew the mystery of His love. All are invited to join, and you don’t need any special equipment or software: just a computer, phone or tablet with a camera. Click here to join the video chat.

Let us keep one another very close in prayer and draw near to the heart of the Trinity, the fount of divine love.

Yours in Christ crucified and risen,


The Priesthood of Christ and the New Covenant in Martin Luther’s Lectures on Hebrews

During the portentous year of 1517, when a certain young professor and Augustinian friar at Wittenberg was drafting his “Ninety-five Theses,” the same Martin Luther was also engaged in teaching a very popular series of lectures on the Epistle to the Hebrews. The timing is more than coincidental. In fact, Luther’s commentary on this epistle, which has among its major themes the priesthood, sacrifice, and atonement of Christ, contains at least in seed form almost all the major theological concerns of the Protestant Reformers. In particular, Luther’s early interpretation of Christ’s priesthood advanced therein anticipates the later Reformers’ reconception of the ministerial priesthood of the New Covenant and of Christian worship generally. 

Luther’s commentary takes the form of a gloss on the text which closely follows the structure of the epistle. His comments of relevance to Christ’s priesthood begin, then, with Hebrews 5:1, in which the Apostle enumerates the characteristics of Jesus the High Priest: like “every high priest,” Christ was “chosen from among men” and “appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”1 These three characteristics likewise form the backbone of Luther’s portrait of the priesthood of Christ. Sharing our human nature, Luther’s Christ stands in stark contradistinction to God the Father, a Mediator standing in the breach between fearful, sinful humanity and a wrathful God. “No other refuge is left,” he writes, “than that one sanctuary which is Christ, our Priest, in whose humanity alone we are protected and saved from judgment.”2 For Luther, the priesthood of Christ is principally to be understood in terms of this mediation, by which God’s wrath toward us due to our sins is satisfied:

As priest, Christ through his mediations between God and us … ‘protects us from all sins and the wrath of God, intercedes for us, and sacrifices himself in order to reconcile us to God.’ Luther expressly adds, ‘Now he makes us so secure in our relationship to God and gives peace to our conscience that God is no longer against us.’ … Everything depends on the fact that God has been reconciled.3

Christ in his humanity thus stands as mediator between mankind and “God the Father as a celestial child abuser … who unleashes violent fury on his Son for sins of which his Son is innocent.”4 This theology of the angry Father-God would be picked up and amplified by the later Reformers, particularly Calvin, and even find its way back into Catholic theology via Jansenism.

With regard to the final characteristic of Christ the high priest identified by the Apostle, that he is appointed “to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins,” however, Luther does not choose to emphasize Christ’s bloody sacrifice of his own flesh in atonement for the sins of mankind, as one might expect. Instead, he interprets Hebrews 5:7 f., “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications,” as referring to a bloodless, spiritual sacrifice of praise in contradistinction to the bloody sacrifices of the Old Law. “This text elucidates beautifully the mystery of the old sacrifices,” he writes, “for against the gifts and sacrifices which ‘the priests chosen from among men’ offered, Paul here sets the ‘prayers and supplications’ which Christ, who was mystically prefigured among them, offered … For Christ made the justification of the new law so easy that we can accomplish with the mouth what they could scarcely obtain with everything they had.”5

This is not inconsistent with Luther’s overall theology. Though he holds fast to a theology of atonement in which the wrath of the Father against us is expended on the innocent victim of His Son, Luther likewise holds to a dialectic of law and grace, Old and New, works and faith—one might even say flesh and spirit—between which there must be an “absolute distinction.”6 Of greater significance in Luther’s overall theology than the bloody offering of Christ’s body, then, is the spiritual offering of his “godly fear” (Heb 5:7), manifested in his prayers and supplications. One need not strain to detect here the germ of the doctrine of sola fide. Indeed, Luther states elsewhere that “the priesthood of Christ consists in taking on the evils of our own nature” and the punishment which is their due “and sharing with us the good proper to his own nature (his faithfulness).”7

What might be the role of the ministerial priesthood in the New Covenant, given these preliminary conclusions on Christ’s priesthood as our mediator and source of faith? This question hinges in large part on “the question of the mediation of the grace and knowledge of God … whether Christ alone is Mediator or whether Christ mediates along with the Church in its authoritative tradition, priesthood, and sacraments.”8 The Catholic tradition holds the latter, understanding the ministerial priesthood as partaking in the one priesthood of Christ; the Reformation may be seen in broad outline as a violent affirmation of the contrary position. Luther’s close contemporary, John Calvin, for example, who wrote his own commentary on Hebrews some thirty years later, is not shy in concluding that “[Jesus] is the mediator of the new testament” and therefore “there is no further need for another priest … When this office was attached to Christ, all other mediators were repudiated.”9 

The Luther of the 1517 lectures was not quite so direct. He writes of “the office of the new priest,” which is certainly not to offer sacrifices, as the priests of the old law did, but to stir up faith by preaching and teaching and “to point out the grace of Jesus Christ, which is the fulfillment of the Law.”10 Within three years, however, the implications of Luther’s Christological conclusions on the priesthood have for him reached their logical conclusion: “A priest should be nothing in Christendom but a functionary.”11 Likewise, Christian worship is to be a “sacrifice of praise,” understood not as a Christian θυσία αἰνέσεως, the fulfillment of the todah offering under the Old Law by our liturgical participation in Christ’s once and for all sacrifice of atonement, but as “prayers and praises … with the mouth.”12 The Christological conclusions reached by Luther in these early Lectures on Hebrews thus foreshadow the major concerns of the Protestant Reformation which would follow: salvation by faith alone, Christ as the sole mediator between God and man, and the absolute superiority of the New Covenant of faith over the Old Law of works, manifested in spiritual, vocal worship rather than vain “repetition of the same liturgical acts,”13 and leading ultimately to the abolition of the ministerial priesthood and the sacraments. 


  1. The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament: Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010).
  2. Martin Luther, Lectures on Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews, vol. 29 in Luther’s Works, trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 167.
  3. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 222. Emphases mine.
  4. Margaret M. Turek, “Atonement: Soundings in Biblical, Trinitarian, and Spiritual Theology” (unpublished manuscript, November 21, 2019), 3.
  5. Luther, Lectures, 175-176.
  6. Mickey L. Mattox, “Christology in Martin Luther’s Lectures on Hebrews,” in Christology, Hermeneutics and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation, vol. 423 in Library of New Testament Studies, ed. John C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 107.
  7. Luther, Lectures, 142.
  8. Stephen Edmondson, Calvin’s Christology (London: Cambridge UP, 2004), 28.
  9. John Calvin, Calvin: Commentaries, vol. 23 in The Library of Christian Classics, trans. and ed. Joseph Haroutunian (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1958), 151.
  10. Luther, Lectures, 194.
  11. Luther, “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate,” trans. C. A. Buchheim, at Internet Modern History Sourcebook, 1998.
  12. Luther, Lectures, 176.
  13. R. Michael Allen, “The Perfect Priest: Calvin on the Christ of Hebrews,” in Christology, Hermeneutics and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation, vol. 423 in Library of New Testament Studies, ed. John C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 124.

“Be Subject to One Another Out of Reverence for Christ”: Unity, Charity and Mutual Submission in Ephesians 5:21-33


Few passages in the Pauline corpus are more controversial for modern readers than the “household code” of Ephesians 5:21-6:9. In three sequential pericopes, St. Paul first offends modern notions of equality by exhorting wives to “be subject to your husbands as to the Lord” (5:22 RSV),1 justified by the assertion that “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church” (5:23); he likewise insists that “children … obey [their] parents in the Lord” (6:1), perhaps the least controversial of his commands, which however is offset at once by a suggestion entirely outrageous to modern sensibilities, that “slaves … be obedient to those who are [their] earthly masters, with fear and trembling” (6:5)! There is an unambiguous hierarchy in the Pauline household: those who hold places of less power—wives, children, slaves—are to submit to those with more, and St. Paul’s exhortations to husbands to “love your wives” (5:25), fathers to “not provoke your children to anger” (6:4), and masters to “forbear threatening” (6:9) hardly seem to balance out the radical inequality of these relationships.

Modern scholars tend to approach this text from a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” likely due to the problem of satisfactorily interpreting it without scandalizing present-day sensibilities. One trend in modern scholarship has been to focus on apparent contradictions within the text and certain unusual features of the text compared with the rest of the Pauline corpus, leading to the conclusion that the text is not of genuine Pauline authorship. For example, some scholars point out, St. Paul appears to contradict the exhortation with which he opens the pericope, “be subject to one another” (5:21), with the highly traditional household code which follows it: “While the household code is introduced by a plea for mutual submissiveness, the submissiveness enjoined in the code itself is not mutual.”2

Household codes such as this, typically known in modern scholarship by their German name, Haustafeln, were common in the ancient world. Therefore, Paul is supposed to have adopted an extant Haustafel of Jewish or Hellenistic origin, or at least the common features and language of one, and woven it into his letter to the Ephesians with a light Christian gloss.3 Scholars such as Raymond Brown also point out apparent theological differences between Ephesians and the undisputed Pauline letters, such as that the author of Ephesians uniquely refers to Christ as “head” of the body (cf. Eph. 1:22; 5:23). The analogy between the relationship of husband and wife with that of Christ and the Church is likewise new in Ephesians (cf. 5:23-32), as well as the presentation of “the whole Church (rather than individuals or the elect) as the object of God’s saving action in Christ (1:22-23; 5:25-27).”4 For these reasons, some scholars, Brown foremost among them, dispute the Pauline authorship of Ephesians altogether.5 Whether St. Paul is the author of some, all, or none of the letter, the thrust of this argument is that “in this Haustafel Christ or some Christian formulae are placed in the service of a marriage concept inherited or recast by Paul [or another pseudonymous author] from the views and customs of his environment,”6 and therefore “the change of time and culture permits or requires present-day Christians to reject the injunctions”7 of Ephesians 5:21-6:9.


In this paper, I will argue against the practitioners of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” that the “household code” of Ephesians 5-6 is not a mere cultural artifact which might or ought to be disregarded to avoid giving offense to modern Christians; rather, it is a thoroughly Christian and Pauline text, which is part of the apostolic deposit of faith and need only be correctly interpreted for modern readers. Indeed, interpreting this passage rightly is an urgent need in a culture such as ours, which is currently experiencing the total breakdown of marriage and family life.

I will begin with a sociolinguistic study of two key words, ὑποτάσσω (v. 21)and χεφαλή (v. 23), arguing that by choosing these words St. Paul is deliberately subverting the traditional language and pattern of a household code. These words are critical to understanding the analogy of the unity of the body, which is the foundation of Paul’s exhortation to mutual submission. I will therefore go on to briefly examine St Paul’s analogy of the Church as Christ’s body and bride in the letter to the Ephesians, since the Christ-Church relationship is the model Paul gives for the relationship of husband and wife.

Finally, I will examine the two commands with which Paul concludes his advice to married couples: the husband is to “love his wife as himself,” while the wife is to “respect her husband” (v. 33). I will argue that this twofold command in fact particularizes the exhortation to mutual submission of v. 21. The role of the husband is first to love the wife and give himself up for her in total self-gift; the role of the wife in the first place is to be loved and then to make a reciprocal self-gift, which includes her respect and obedience to her spouse. I will thus argue that St. Paul really means what he says when he calls for the mutual submission of husbands and wives, as modeled on and motivated by the reciprocal self-gift of Christ and the Church, first of the Bridegroom to the Bride and then of the Bride to her Bridegroom. I will conclude that, far from adopting a conventional text of his culture and giving it a Christian flavor, St. Paul has “colonized” a preexisting cultural form and used it as a vehicle to transmit the Gospel of Jesus Christ, ever ancient and ever new.

Against a “Hermeneutic of Suspicion”

If the content of the household code were merely a cultural artifact, a bit of historical detritus left over in the Pauline corpus, then Christians would indeed be free to reject it. The declaration Inter insigniores by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified this question concerning St. Paul’s instruction to women on wearing veils in 1 Corinthians 11:6. The Congregation teaches that Paul’s counsel was “probably inspired by the custom of the period … concern[ing] scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance” and therefore that “such requirements no longer have a normative value.”8 However, the Sacred Congregation contrasts this minor disciplinary precept with another controversial Pauline instruction to women, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, in which the Apostle requires them to remain silent in the churches. This instruction “is of a different nature” and, indeed, “is bound up with the divine plan of creation (1 Cor 11:7; Gen 2:18-24).”9 For this reason, the Congregation concludes, “it would be difficult to see in it the expression of a cultural fact.”10 Rather, it is an authentic and perennial Christian teaching, part of the apostolic deposit of faith, which it is the duty of exegetes and biblical theologians to interpret in our own cultural context. 

The same criteria of interpretation would seem to apply a fortiori to Ephesians 5:21-32, in which the mutual submission of husbands and wives is explicitly related by Paul to the divine plan of creation: “The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body … Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies … for no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church … ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’” (Eph 5:23, 28-29, 31; cf. also Gen. 2:24). Indeed, Christ is present in every line of this instruction to husbands and wives: both are to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v. 21), wives in obedience to their husbands “as to the Lord” (v. 22), and husbands in love to their wives “as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). This is no minor, culture-bound matter of household discipline; rather, it springs from the very heart of how Christians are to live out their faith in relation to one another as “imitators of God” (5:1).

The Significance of Ὑποτάσσω and Χεφαλή

Nevertheless, there are interpretative questions which must be addressed. The objection raised by Bruce, that “the submissiveness enjoined in the code itself is not mutual,”11 seems a good one. How are we to understand the command to husbands to love their wives as an expression of “mutual submission” when the wives are commanded far more strongly to “be subject in everything to their husbands” (v. 24)? The beginnings of an answer may be found in a closer inspection of St. Paul’s use of the words ὑποτάσσω in v. 21 and χεφαλή in v. 23. The first is a compound of the preposition ὑπο, “under,” and the verb τάσσω, “to arrange.” A slavishly literal translation of the verb would thus be something like “to arrange under” or “to place beneath,” namely, one person, idea or object below another.12 In v. 21, the verb is used in the middle/passive voice, ὑποτασσόμενοι, which “describes a voluntary act of submission to another person,” specifically a “permissive action” by which “one complies with the wishes of another.”13 This accords with the typical English reading of the verse. However, it is significant that St. Paul has chosen ὑποτάσσω here instead of ἄρχω (“to rule or govern”), the latter of “which is more prevalent in contemporary Greco-Roman Haustafeln.14

St. Paul’s reference to the husband as “head” (χεφαλή) of the wife is also unusual in this context. A reader familiar with other classical Haustafeln would more likely expect ἄρχων (“one who rules”). Aristotle, for example, uses the passive participle τῶν ἀρχομένων (“those who are ruled”) to describe the children and wife in relation to their husband and father,the ἄρχων (“ruler”).15 Other typical texts of the time refer to the husband and father of the household as δεσπότης or κύριος (roughly “master,” as of slaves, or “lord”).16 To be sure, χεφαλή may also convey the meaning of “one entrusted with superior rank, authority, or power,”17 as for example the book of Judges refers to Jephthah as “the man who would be the Israelites’ head (χεφαλὴν) and captain” (Jdg 11:11) or as David confesses to the Lord, “You have preserved me as the head (χεφαλὴν) of the nations” (2 Sam 22:4). Yet St. Paul has chosen to describe the husband here not as the lord of a little fiefdom, to whom those who are ruled must submit, but as the head of a body, in which reciprocal, voluntary submission must be the rule. That χεφαλή has been more commonly interpreted to mean unilateral headship, as if it were a synonym of ἄρχων, unfortunately ignores “how metaphor plays a vital, interpretive role in this passage”:18

We need to also factor in the author’s choice of χεφαλή (‘head’, v. 23) in relation to σῶμα (‘body’, v. 28) and σάρξ (‘flesh’, v. 29). This relational metaphor strongly implies that χεφαλή and σῶμα are symbiotic. The instruction is that the husbands should ‘love their wives’ (ἀγαπᾶν τὰς ἑαυτῶν γυναῖκας) ‘as their own bodies’ (ὡς τὰ ἑαυτῶν σώματα, v. 28). With respect to the husband and wife metaphor, the connection between body and head (with the implication that neither can function without the other) is further cemented by the reference to Gen. 2.24 where husband and wife become ‘one flesh’ (σάρxα μίαν).19

Two other features of the verb ὑποτάσσω support this reading. First, the “subject-affectedness” of the middle voice in Greek, coupled with the use in v. 21 of the pronoun ἀλλήλοις (to one another), “evinces an unfolding, ongoing, reciprocal activity between subjects.”20 This verb thus belongs to a semantic category known as the “reciprocal middle,” which particularly emphasizes the mutual interactivity of the subjects.21 Furthermore, though it expresses a command, this verb is not in the imperative mood; rather, it is the last of five successive participles attached to a prior imperative, “Be filled with the Spirit” (πληροῦσθε ἐν πνεύματι), found in v. 18b. Although it can also be understood as an independent participial imperative, as the RSV and most translations render it, this participle belongs grammatically to the preceding verses and might thus be translated differently: “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father, being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (vv. 18-21). All Christians are to be filled with the Spirit and, in consequence of this, to be subject to one another.

Rather than the unambiguous categories of “ruler” and “ruled” found in contemporaneous texts such as Aristotle’s, St. Paul is presenting an image of a family so closely united in the Spirit as to be one body. To be sure, the husband is the head of the body, but “the body does not consist of one member but of many … The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’ … but God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another (ἀλλήλων)” (1 Corinthians 12:14, 21, 24-25). Indeed, “in using the metaphor of head and body, Paul is not accenting the notion of authority but rather of profound union and mutual belonging.”22 This union between husband and wife is precisely the same “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” realized on an interpersonal, individual level, which St. Paul exhorts the Ephesians to maintain in 4:3; it is the selfsame unity which unites all the members of the Church to one another and the whole Church to Christ. The means of realizing and maintaining that unity is to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love” (4:1-2) and therefore “being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21).

The Church, Body and Bride of Christ

Christ’s own headship of the Church is the model and archetype of the husband’s headship of his wife, as St. Paul writes in v. 23: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” In the first place, it is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3) who establishes Christ as head over the Church: “He has put all things under (ὑπέταξεν) his feet and has made him the head (χεφαλή) over all things for the Church, which is his body (σῶμα)” (Eph 1:22-23). This assertion comes at the conclusion of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, that they might know “the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might” (1:19). What was the event in which God’s great might was revealed? The Paschal mystery, “which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places” (1:20). It is in the context of Christ’s self-sacrifice and especially His resurrection, then, that the Father has subjected all things under his feet and made him head over his body, the Church. Christ’s headship of the Church is inseparable from his self-gift: “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (5:25-27).

The beautiful and detailed imagery of these verses portrays the Church as a maiden for whom Christ laid down his life. “The goal, mentioned twice,” comments Mary Healy, “is that the Church be ‘holy,’ that is, set apart from what is profane, and presented to Christ as a resplendent bride. With the ‘washing of water’ Paul alludes to the sacrament of baptism, envisioning it as a prenuptial bath—only in this case the Bridegroom shows his humility by himself bathing the bride, rather than female servants or family members as was customary.”23 The washing of baptism, of course, is the participation of each of the members of the Church in Christ’s sacrifice, for “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death … buried therefore with him … so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4). Christ’s self-gift on the Cross for the sake of his beloved, then, is the very act by which he “washes” and prepares the Church for their wedding; his resurrection consummates forever the nuptial union of Bridegroom and Bride, constituting Christ as the Church’s one head and savior (cf. Eph 5:23).

The inseparability of headship and self-gift reveals the true meaning of χεφαλή in Ephesians. It is not primarily about the unilateral authority of the head over the body but rather “precedence in the giving and receiving of love:the ‘husband is above all the one who loves and the wife, by contrast, is the one who is loved. One might even venture the idea that the wife’s ‘submission’ to the husband, understood in the context of the whole of Eph 5:22-23, means above all ‘the experiencing of love.’”24

“Husbands, Love Your Wives”

Given that the husband has precedence in the order of giving and receiving love, it is not surprising that “the part of Paul’s instruction addressed to husbands (5:25-30) is far more extensive, and perhaps more challenging, than that addressed to wives, as it has absolutely no precedent in Greco-Roman or rabbinic literature.”25 The husband is to love his wife with Christ-like agape-love, which includes giving himself up for her: “As Christ demonstrated his limitless, unconditional love by dying for us on the cross, so husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives by seeking their good, regardless of the cost to themselves (cf. 1 Cor 10:24; 13:5; Phil 2:4). Paul could not have set a more demanding standard.”26 Indeed, it is an impossible standard, as Mary Healy admits, “except by experiencing Christ’s paschal mystery as a power at work in one’s own life. A person is able to imitate Christ only by participating through grace in the act of love in which he died for us.”27 This bespeaks the vital necessity for the husband to first receive Christ’s initiatory, self-sacrificial love, for “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3). If “head” bespeaks precedence in giving love, the man must first receive this love from Christ and then “go and do likewise,” corresponding to Christ’s self-gift in his own gift of self to his wife.

It is precisely this union with one another in Christ which St. Paul emphasizes in vv. 28-32. At the beginning of the pericope, his exhortation was to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ (ἐν φόβῳ Χριστοῦ)” (v.21), or more literally, “in the fear of Christ,” a “spherical use” of the pronoun ἐν which suggests “a ‘corporate mystical union between the believer and Christ’ [such that] ‘one is in the sphere of Christ’s control’.”28 Husband and wife are only able to fulfill the radical demands of agape-love “because we are members of his body” (v. 30). St. Paul is outside the realm of analogy now:  “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (v. 28) because “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (v. 31), as indeed Christ is “one body and one Spirit” (4:4) with His Church (5:32). Here the analogical language of body and head earlier in the pericope is revealed to be more than a rhetorical device: it is “a great mystery” (v. 32), a sacrament of union. Being filled with the Holy Spirit (cf. v. 18), the husband is to love his wife and “nourish and cherish [her], as Christ does the Church” (5:29), and indeed with the very same love with which Christ loves and cares for the Church. 

The final verse of this pericope serves as a summary of St. Paul’s advice to husbands and wives: “Let each one of you love his wife as himself (ἀγαπάτω ὡς ἑαυτόν), and let the wife see that she respects her husband (ἡ δὲ γυνὴ ἵνα φοβῆται τὸν ἄνδρα)” (v. 33). The typical English translation of this verse is a bit misleading, however, in that it portrays the two commands as if they are on an even plane. Admittedly it is difficult to render the nuance in translation, but “whereas ἀγαπάω is in the imperative, φοβέομαι is a subjunctive”29 which is part of a ἵνα clause. The typical function of a ἵνα clause is to denote purpose: let A be done in order that (ἵνα) B might be done. Hence, Armstrong argues, 

It seems that ἵνα is expressing an ‘ideal’ state of the relationship between the subjects (husband and wife) … The more specific command is for the husband to love his wife (as himself), and the wife (ἡ δὲ γυνὴ), so that she might respect her husband (ἵνα φοβῆται τὸν ἄνδρα). There is a reciprocity and dependency between subjects here—if the husband fails with his task, she just might not respect her husband.30

These are Paul’s final words on the form that mutual submission is to take in a Christian marriage. It is the husband’s initiatory self-gift, laying down his own life in love for his beloved, which makes possible and calls out from her a reciprocal self-gift in the form of obedience and respect. Both husband and wife are called to a radical kind of loving sacrifice which is made possible only by union with and in Christ Jesus, “who has made us both one” (2:14).


In this paper, I have argued that, “although the source of the New Testament Haustafeln has its roots in Greco-Roman writers, especially Aristotle, the Ephesian code is unequivocally different.”31 In the first place, St. Paul’s choice of the words ὑποτάσσω (v. 21)and χεφαλή (v. 23), instead of more common and more unambiguously authoritative language such as ἄρχω, seems deliberately to subvert the traditional language and pattern of a household code. Rather than conceiving of the family as a tiny kingdom over which the husband and father is the undisputed ruler, St. Paul describes it as a body of which the husband is the head. His headship, however, is modeled on Christ’s headship of the Church, which is characterized and constituted by Christ’s initiatory act of love on the Cross, a total self-sacrifice without remainder for the sake of his beloved. The husband is called to give of himself to his wife with the very same love, which will in turn enable his wife, receiving his self-gift, to entrust herself to him in obedience and respect. Just as the husband’s initiatory act of self-sacrifice love “makes room” for his wife’s reciprocal response, it is Christ’s act of love first of all which enables the husband (and indeed the whole Church) to love likewise. All Christians are members of Christ’s body; likewise, the husband and wife are “one flesh,” and thus become “an earthly image of, and in some way participate in, the ineffable mystery of Christ’s love for his people.”32 

Above all, I hope this argument has shown that Ephesians 5:21-33 is a thoroughly Christian text, “premised on the fact that the Gospel has power to radically transform the dynamics of family relationships and the social structures marred by sin.”33 Though the form of the Haustafel and the social structure of the household it presupposes belong to Paul’s cultural and historical context, the content of this Haustafel is the pure Gospel of Christ. Its call for mutual submission, its radical demands for the husband to love his wife as himself and to sacrifice himself for her and its insistence that both spouses are united in one flesh, with the consequences of truly reciprocal love which that entails—these would have been quite as shocking to readers in Paul’s day as the text’s purported sexism is in ours. Now more than ever, in our age of skyrocketing divorce rates and an epidemic of broken families, it is essential that we read and preach this text rightly, with conviction and without fear, to remind men and women of the dignity of their vocation. They are called to love one another not out of pragmatic self-interest, but to make visible and tangible, to one another and to the world, the very love of Christ.


  1. Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).
  2. F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1984), 383.
  3. For a representative survey of scholars who hold variations on this perspective, cf. Markus Barth, Ephesians: Translation and Commentary on Chapters 4-6, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), 551, fn. 249. Cf. also Barth, Bibliography 19, “Ethical Catalogues and Haustafeln,” in Ephesians: 4-6, 824-825. 
  4. Peter S. Williamson, “Who Wrote Ephesians? An Online Postscript,” 4, at Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture,
  5. Raymond E. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 627–30. Brown claims on pg. 629 that “70 to 80 percent of critical scholarship” rejects Pauline authorship, although Williamson corrects this claim with a later study, which indicates that by the 1990s, authors publishing works on Ephesians were evenly divided between accepting and rejecting Pauline authenticity.
  6. Barth, Ephesians, 655.
  7. Barth, Ephesians, 652.
  8. Paul VI, Inter insigniores [Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood] (15 October 1976), §4. 
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Bruce, Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 383.
  12. David Michael Park, “The Structure of Authority in Marriage: An Examination of Hupotasso and Kephale in Ephesians 5:21-33,” The Evangelical Quarterly 59, no. 2 (1987): 118.
  13. Karl L. Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō in Ephesians 5.21-33: A Linguistic Approach,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 13 (2017): 158.
  14. Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 154.
  15. Aristotle, Politics, 3.1278b.38-1279a1, translated by Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 2nd ed., 72. Qtd. in Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 168.
  16. Kelvin F. Mutter, “Ephesians 5:21-33 as Christian Alternative Discourse,” Trinity Journal 39 (2018), 1-29 (16), qtd. in Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 158, fn. 23.
  17. Cf. Park, “Structure of Authority,” 118-119.
  18. Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 158.
  19. Ibid, 159.
  20. Ibid, 165. Emphasis added.
  21. Ibid, 163.
  22. Mary Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review 111, no. 8 (2011): 13.
  23. Ibid, 14.
  24. Ibid, 13. Inner quote is from St. John Paul II, General Audience (September 1, 1982), in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 485.
  25. Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 748.
  26. Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” 14.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2nd. ed.(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994),pp. 157, 159, qtd. in Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 169-170. 
  29. Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 159.
  30. Ibid, 159-160.
  31. Ibid, 167.
  32. Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” 15.
  33. Ibid.

The Triple Analogy: Reciprocal Divine Love as the Source and Model of Interpersonal Complementarity

Introduction: The Fatherlessness of Modern Man

From as early as the fifteenth century to the present day, modern man has suffered under a tremendously disordered view of God the Father. To be sure, one could trace man’s false vision of God much further back in history, as far as the Garden and the serpent’s first lie to Eve: “God knows that when you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5, RSVCE).1  In this key verse, comments St. John Paul II, one encounters “the mystery of man … who turns his back on the ‘Father’ (even if we do not find this name of God in the account). By casting doubt in his heart on the deepest meaning of the gift, that is, on love as the specific motive of creation … he in some sense casts him from his heart.”2 The “whole business” of man after Eden has ever been “to heal the eyes of the heart whereby God may be seen”3 rightly and thus, by faith in and union with Christ Jesus, to turn back to the Father, repudiating our first parents’ faithlessness in turning away from Him. A right vision of the God who is love is necessary if we are to entrust ourselves to Him in faith.

It would seem, however, that the ‘spiritual astigmatisms’ from which the eyes of the heart must be healed will differ in every age according to the unique distortions of God which are widely accepted and taught at the time. Truth may be distorted in countless ways and, as the famous phrase of Chesterton has it, the saint “will generally be found restoring the word to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age.”4 Our specifically modern distortion, underlying the present-day crisis of faith in God’s fatherhood, may be traced back to the problematic of divine omnipotence and human freedom as conceived by Martin Luther in the fifteenth century. According to Luther, 

God’s omnipotence rules out the possibility that God could allow his almighty will to be ‘dependent’ on anything else—certainly not on a creature’s freedom of will vis-à-vis Himself … Luther denies human freedom a cooperative role in its encounter with divine freedom. Human freedom is not unfailingly persuaded to actively cooperate (which is Augustine’s view), but remains purely passive in relation to the overpowering force of the divine will. For Luther, the proper counterpart of omnipotence can only be impotence.5

In the words of Henri de Lubac, then, God the Father “began to seem [to modern man] like the enemy of his dignity.”6 It is no wonder that society would reject such a Father, in relation to whom mere human beings must always stand in the position of impotent children, utterly subject to the whims of an infinitely superior power.  “In rejecting God,” de Lubac concludes, modern man “is overthrowing an obstacle in order to gain his freedom.”7  

Without confusing correlation for causation, it is worthwhile also to note that “there is a father absence crisis in America,” with more than one in four children in the United States living without a father in the home in 2017.8 Between forty to fifty percent of marriages in the Untied States end in divorce.9 It would seem that the “freedom” man has gained from rejecting God has had catastrophic consequences for society, much like the deadly fruit of man’s first rejection of the Father. What is urgently needed, then, is a recovery of the true vision of the Fatherhood of God as one whose divine omnipotence is best expressed as “all-powerful powerlessness,” a loving Father who gives Himself without remainder and without compulsion to his beloved, holding nothing of Himself back, and thereby makes room for the beloved’s free response. The supreme image of this self-sacrificial divine love is Christ giving himself up on the Cross for his bride, the Church, the definitive act by which he “made the two one” (Eph 2:14) and reunited fallen humanity with the Father. Following the pattern of his perfect and redemptive self-offering, the union of man and woman in marriage becomes a sacrament, a “great mystery,” which reveals the hidden drama of loving self-gift in the very heart of God and in His relationship with humanity. A recovery of the true vision of divine fatherhood, then, will lead man and woman to entrust themselves, not only to God, but to one another in reciprocal love and self-donation, mirroring and making present the mystery of divine love in the world.

The Divine Image: The Love of the Father and the Son

All our knowledge of the inner life of the Trinity comes from what is revealed by the Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, in His earthly existence.10 Therefore, it is fitting to begin with the Lord’s own words about his filial relationship to the Father: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). This cannot be taken to mean a strict identification between Father and Son, as if the two were interchangeable modes of divine being or one single hypostasis. Rather, these words of Jesus point to the unity in action of the Father and the Son. The Son so closely mirrors the Father’s activity that, in seeing Jesus living and acting in the world, one sees the “shape” of the Father’s own being and activity. A fitting analogy might be a dance in which one of the two partners is invisible; by watching the movements of the visible partner, one can “see” the movements of the invisible dancer.

Furthermore, as Jesus says in the following verse, “it is the Father, living in me, who is accomplishing his work” (Jn 14:10). Hans Urs von Balthasar discerns from this Biblical data a “twofoldness” in the identity of Jesus vis-à-vis his Father: “Jesus is at once the expression of the Father and his own active imitation of the way his Father is God.”11 The Father is truly at work at every moment in the activity of his Son, while the Son is also truly at work at every moment by corresponding volitionally to the initiatory activity of his Father. The Father acts first; he “beget[s] the Son as man to be his definitive image and revealer.”12 The Son, who does “nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19), conforms himself to the Father’s activity: he “let[s] the Father produce in his humanity the perfect, unparalleled likeness” to Himself.13 Yet the Father remains at work even in the Son’s act of correspondence, as Jesus says: “He who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him” (Jn 8:29), and again, “My Father is working still, and I am working” (Jn 5:17). At every moment, the Father is fathering his own perfect likeness in the Son, an act to which the Son is at every moment saying “an entirely grateful Yes.”14

This sketch of the interpersonal dynamic of Father and Son in the economy of salvation reveals something of the Father’s proper pattern of acting, and it looks nothing like the Lutheran model of divine fatherhood. In no way is Jesus a puppet or slave of the Father, compelled by the Father’s omnipotence to obey his will, but neither is he an “island,” a “free agent” sent by the Father into the world, with whom the Father no longer maintains any involvement. Rather,

In calling Jesus to willingly collaborate with his paternal work, the Father delivers himself over to Jesus’ free decision. And conversely … Jesus, on his side, realizes his freedom by reciprocally “making space” for the Father’s work in him (thus in filial fashion entrusting himself to another) … [in] active imitation of the Father’s form of freedom. Indeed if Jesus learns obedience through what he suffers (cf. Heb. 5:8), his obedience is elicited by reason of his seeing in his Father a love which, in bestowing freedom, is willing to “suffer” the beloved’s exercise of freedom without revoking the gift.15

It is the gift of the Father not only in begetting his Son as man but in leaving him free to correspond with his begetting which “makes space” for the Son’s free correspondence to the gift. This “self-determined dependency” or “all-powerful powerlessness” of the Father vis-à-vis the Son, however, is not a way of holding himself “at a purely passive and impotent distance over against Jesus’ freedom.”16 Rather, the Father’s “self-surrender” to the Son in leaving him free is precisely what makes room for and evokes from the Son a mirroring self-surrender in obedience. “Whatever [the Father] does,” says Jesus, “that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing” (Jn 5:19-20). The Father’s love truly “has the power to evoke from the beloved the answer of love which it seeks. Indeed the Father’s ‘defenselessness’ proves omnipotent, since in delivering himself over to the disposal of the One Sent, the Father engenders in Jesus an entirely grateful Yes to his paternal self-donation.”17 

Making an inference from the economic activity of Father and Son to the inner divine reality of the immanent Trinity, von Balthasar finds the same pattern of God’s paternal self-surrender in the eternal generation of the Son. The begetting of the Son as man and his historical mission is a “temporal translation”18 of his generation in eternity; thus Balthasar argues that the Father “leaves-free the Begotten”19 in eternity as He does in time, and that the perfect and eternal self-gift without remainder by which the Father generates the Son “includes, as intrinsic to it, a modality of letting-be that begets in turn its mirroring counterpart in the Son.”20 The Father not only generates the Son, giving over his own divinity in an act of absolute, self-surrending love; in so doing, He “lets the Son be,” leaving him free to answer the Father’s love with filial love. The Son’s eternal assent to being begotten and his utter and reciprocal self-gift to the Father takes place in an “eternal interplay of divine freedom, since this filial disposition is the infinitely free response of love engendered by love.”21 

What is most remarkable about this theology of divine fatherhood is that the Father’s omnipotence can no longer be defined as his capacity to do whatever he wills or to impose his will on another. What act of God could be greater than the generation of the Son, “not another God,” as von Balthasar notes, “but another in God?”22 No other divine act can surpass this, which takes place precisely in an eternal “event of absolute, self-surrending love.”23 Therefore, the almightiness of the Father must be defined as his capacity to “give without limit,”24 to make himself “powerless,” a loving surrender by which he fathers a corresponding movement of love and self-surrender in his coequally divine Beloved. 

The True and Living Icon: The Love of Christ and the Church

This pattern of loving self-surrender in the inner divine life of the Trinity is played out on the historical stage in the Son’s mission for the salvation of the world. Jesus does perfectly as man what he has done for all eternity as the Son: He mirrors the Father’s eternal act of self-donation. In the first chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul narrates this mission of the Son in the context of a beautiful prayer for his readers, that they might know “the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might” (1:19).   What was the event in which God’s great might, his “all-powerful powerlessness” which, as we have seen, is defined as his capacity to give without limit, was revealed above all? It is the Paschal mystery, the Son’s total self-donation on the Cross, by which “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27). 

The beautiful and detailed imagery of these verses portrays the Church as a virgin bride for whom Christ laid down his life. “The goal, mentioned twice,” comments Mary Healy, “is that the Church be ‘holy,’ that is, set apart from what is profane, and presented to Christ as a resplendent bride.”25 Of course, Christ is acting in accord with the divine pattern of “self-determined dependency” which he sees first in his Father. He will not defeat sin and render his Church holy by divine fiat. Rather, it is his sacrificial self-donation by which Christ at once sanctifies the Church, atoning for the sin of mankind, and by which he evokes in her a corresponding response of obedient and reverential love. As natural marriage on the human plane is effected by the exchange of consent of the bride and groom, Christ’s Paschal mystery may analogously be called the moment at which the marriage covenant is sealed between Christ and his Church: He gives himself up for her utterly, a total and irrevocable ‘yes’ spoken with the language of his whole being and life, both to the Father’s plan “to unite all things in him” and to the bride. His initiatory act of self-surrender “makes room” for his bride’s reciprocal self-gift in love. Just as the Son’s reciprocal self-gift to the Father takes the form of correspondence to the Father’s will, so the reciprocal self-gift of the Church to Christ will take the form of obedience and self-entrustment, handing herself over to him as he handed himself over for her.  

“Let Us Make Man in Our Image”: Man and Woman Made for Communion

Before exploring in depth the mystery of human marriage as an icon of divine love, it will be worthwhile to spend a few moments on the nature of man.Man and woman are created by God as an imago Trinitatis, in the image of the divine communion of love which is the Blessed Trinity. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” says YHWH in Genesis 1:26. Commenting on this verse, St. John Paul II writes, “Before creating man, the Creator withdraws as it were into himself, in order to seek the pattern and inspiration in the mystery of his Being, which is already here disclosed as the divine ‘We’.”26 The pattern of God’s own inner Trinitarian life, of loving self-surrender, thus becomes “the eternal pattern of the human ‘we’, especially of that ‘we’ formed by the man and the woman created in the divine image and likeness.”27 It is precisely together that man and woman, the fullness of humanity, constitute an image of the Trinitarian communion of God. 

The complementarity between male and female is written into human nature from the beginning. The creation of woman from the side of man (Gen 2:21-22) is an expression on the human plane of that “letting-be” which is intrinsic to divine love: the one who comes forth from the man is coequal to him in every way, but irreducibly and non-interchangeably other. As the Father’s generation of the Son includes an “intrinsic modality of letting-be,”28 by which the Father surrenders his own paternity to the Son’s judgment and voluntarily renders himself “dependent” on the Son’s response, so the creation of the woman from man necessitates that the man let the woman be other than himself. The man’s exclamation, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” reveals a love mirroring the pattern of the the Father’s which is willing to let the other be other. Though springing from a common origin, she is irreducibly different, and for that reason “a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18) and cause of his rejoicing. 

Bearing in mind that there is always an infinitely greater unlikeness than likeness in analogies between creation and God, we may with caution draw a line connecting the Father (in eternity), Christ (in the economy of salvation) and man (on the natural plane), and a parallel line connecting the Son (eternal), the Church (economic) and woman (natural). In each of these three relationships, one (the Father; Christ; man) primarily initiates love and the other (the Son; the  Church; woman) primarily receives love. Thus John Paul II writes that “the understanding of the fundamental meanings contained in the very mystery of creation, such as the spousal meaning of the body … is important and indispensable for knowing who man is and who he ought to be, and therefore how he should shape his own activity.”29 The spousal meaning of the body refers to these primordial roles of love which are written into the very created natures of man and woman: they are made for communion.

“A Great Mystery”: The Love of Husband and Wife

In the fifth chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul reveals that “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Eph 5:23). It is essential to note here that the husband is not presented as a unilaterally superior authority over the wife, but as the head of a body. The accent is not on headship as domination but rather on the unity of the body and reciprocal self-surrender, to which Paul indeed exhorts all his readers in the verse which begins the pericope: “Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph 5:21). The latter part of this verse suggests the “corporate mystical union between the believer and Christ,”30 effected by Christ’s initiatory act of self-surrender on the Cross and by the free correspondence of the believer in reciprocal self-gift; the term “fear” here bespeaks that voluntary response.

The husband is head of his wife in an analogous way to Christ’s headship of the Church; before he is head of his wife, however, husband and wife alike are first members of Christ’s body. Christ’s headship of the Church is thus the model and archetype of the husband’s headship of his wife. Furthermore, it is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:3) who in turn establishes Christ as head over the Church: “He has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body” (Eph 1:22-23). The Father exalted Christ to this headship at the completion of his earthly mission and the consummation of his self-gift on the Cross, “when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:20). Thus we see the hierarchy of headship, which Paul gives explicitly in another letter: “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God [the Father]” (1 Cor 11:3).

It should be clear by now that headship is inseparable from, and indeed defined by, self-sacrificial love, as indeed the almightiness of the Father, “from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 2:15), is defined by his capacity to give without limit and surrender himself to his beloved. The Pauline notion of headship, St. John Paul II argues, primarily expresses “precedence in the giving and receiving of love:the ‘husband is above all the one who loves and the wife, by contrast, is the one who is loved. One might even venture the idea that the wife’s ‘submission’ to the husband, understood in the context of the whole of Eph 5:22-23, means above all ‘the experiencing of love.’”31

The husband is to love his wife with Christ-like agape-love, which includes giving himself up for her: “As Christ demonstrated his limitless, unconditional love by dying for us on the cross, so husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives by seeking their good, regardless of the cost to themselves (cf. 1 Cor 10:24; 13:5; Phil 2:4). Paul could not have set a more demanding standard.”32 Indeed, it is an impossible standard, as Mary Healy admits, “except by experiencing Christ’s paschal mystery as a power at work in one’s own life.”33 This bespeaks the vital necessity for the husband to first receive Christ’s initiatory, self-sacrificial love as a member of his body, the receiving of which “makes room” for him to correspond. His reciprocal self-surrender to Christ in the form of obedience and “fear” is what enables him to “go and do likewise” in his own gift of self to his wife. Likewise, it is the husband’s initiatory self-gift, laying down his own life in love for his beloved, which will make room for and evoke from her a freely given, reciprocal self-gift. Thus St. Paul ends his paraenesis to husbands and wives with the following exhortation: “Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Eph 5:33). In the Greek text, the command to the husband to love is an imperative (ἀγαπάτω ὡς ἑαυτόν), while the command to the wife to respect her husband is a conditional subjunctive (ἡ δὲ γυνὴ ἵνα φοβῆται τὸν ἄνδρα). This is a fitting summary of Paul’s teaching on headship. The responsibility lies first with the husband to love his wife with truly Christ-like, self-sacrificial love, that she might respect him and entrust him with her whole self in turn.

Husband and wife are only able to fulfill these radical demands of mutual submission “because we are members of his body” (Eph 5:30). St. Paul is outside the realm of analogy now:  “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (5:28) because “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (v5:31), as indeed Christ is “one body and one Spirit” (4:4) with His Church (5:32). Here the analogical language of body and head earlier in the pericope is revealed to be more than a rhetorical device: it is “a great mystery” (5:32), a sacrament of union. Being filled with the Holy Spirit (cf. 5:18), the husband is to love his wife and “nourish and cherish [her], as Christ does the Church” (5:29), and indeed with the very same self-sacrificial love with which Christ loves and cares for the Church. 


At the beginning of this paper, I argued that what is needed above all to combat our culture’s crisis of fatherlessness is a recovery of the true vision of the Fatherhood of God as one whose divine omnipotence is defined not over and against human freedom, but as “all-powerful powerlessness,” a loving Father who first surrenders Himself in an act of love to his beloved, even to the point of making himself dependent on the beloved’s free response. This is not a God who coerces or compels, but who leaves room for human freedom, and indeed who, by going before us on the way of self-donation, evokes from us a reciprocal self-gift in love. This Father has shown his love for us in sending us his Son (cf. John 3:16), the true and living icon of God’s Fatherhood, who faithfully mirrored the Father’s love “unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). This absolute and definitive act of self-donation to his bride, the Church, effectively reunited fallen humanity with the Father. 

Furthermore, God created humanity “in the beginning” as an imago Trinitatis, in order to live in communion with one another and with Himself. The law of self-gift is therefore written into the very human body. Man is called to give himself over to his wife in absolute, irrevocable self-donation, making room for her to give herself back to him in trusting obedience and reverential self-surrender; thus do the two become “one flesh” (cf. Gen. 2:24). Following the pattern of the Father’s all-powerful powerlessness and Christ’s perfect and redemptive self-offering, the union of man and woman becomes a sacrament, a “great mystery,” which reveals the hidden drama of loving self-gift in the very heart of God and in His relationship with humanity.

In conclusion, those in our day who reject the fatherhood of God for the sake of the illusory freedom of self-determination are truly selling their birthright as human beings for a mess of pottage. Man was created for a much higher good than independence or mere autonomy; he is created to be a gift, to lay down his life for others (cf. John 15:13) as an “imitator of God” (cf. Eph 5:1). His likeness to God “reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”34 May the eyes of our hearts be healed to see God as he is and so to give ourselves to him and one another in freedom and love.


  1. Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).
  2. John Paul II, TOB 26:4, in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 237.
  3. Augustine, Sermons on the New Testament, 38.5, trans. R.G. MacMullen, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 6, ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, at
  4. G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1933), 7.
  5. Margaret Turek, SD-5211: The Trinity – Course Reader with Commentary & Notes (Menlo Park: St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, 2019), 129.
  6. Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheistic Humanism (London: Sheed & Ward, 1949), 6, qtd. in Turek, Course Reader, 129, fn. 191.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “Father Absence Statistics,” at National Fatherhood Initiative (2016), at Data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2017.
  9. “Marriage and divorce,” at American Psychological Association, Adapted from the Encyclopedia of Psychology.
  10. Cf. International Theological Commission, “Theology, Christology, Anthropology,” in International Theological Commission: Texts and Documents, 1969-1985, ed. Rev. Michael Sharkey (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 211-212.
  11. Turek, Course Reader, 130.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Turek, Course Reader, 131.
  15. Turek, Course Reader, 130.
  16. Turek, Course Reader, 131.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Turek, Course Reader, 132.
  19. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama II: Dramatis Personae: Man in God (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 257, qtd. in Turek, Course Reader, 132.
  20. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama V: The Last Act (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 77-78, qtd. in Turek, Course Reader, 133.
  21. Turek, Course Reader, 133.
  22. Turek, Course Reader, 134.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Turek, Course Reader, 133.
  25. Mary Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review 111, no. 8 (2011): 14.
  26. John Paul II, Gratissimam Sane [Letter to Families] (2 February 1994), §6.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Turek, Course Reader, 133.
  29. John Paul II, TOB 18:4, in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 200.
  30. Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2nd. ed.(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 157.
  31. Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” 13. Inner quote is from St. John Paul II, General Audience of September 1, 1982, in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 485.
  32. Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” 14.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Paul VI, Gaudium et spes [Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World] (7 December 1965), §24.

Divine Justice and Final Impenitence: Christ and Judas in Psalm 109

The prayer of the Church, the mystical body of Christ, is first and foremost the prayer of Christ, her head, to the Father. Abbot Jeremy Driscoll of Mount Angel Abbey writes, “Christian interpretation of the Psalms must begin with the question, ‘What would this psalm have meant prayed in the earthly life of Jesus?’”1 It is fitting, then, to take the New Testament as our point of departure in approaching Psalm 109, a text so challenging for Christians to pray that it was excluded from the revised Liturgy of the Hours!2 In the first chapter of Acts, St. Peter addresses the Twelve about the betrayal of Judas Iscariot and the need to elect another to take his place. He quotes Psalm 109: “Let their habitation become desolate, and let there be none to dwell therein. And his bishopric let another take” (Acts 1:20; cf. Ps 109:8). 

Peter interprets this psalm as a prophecy of Christ; the subject of the litany of curses in vv. 6-20 is Judas, the traitor. The fathers of the Church have largely followed his interpretation. St. Athanasius of Alexandria writes, “Psalms 2 and 108 [109] … signal both the plotting and wickedness of the Jews and the betrayal by Judas Iscariot.”3 Likewise Augustine comments that “what is here written, ‘let his days be few, and let another take his office,’ is prophesied of Judas, the betrayer of Christ … So Judas does represent those Jews who were enemies of Christ.”4 In the person of Judas, then, is summed up the whole faithless people of Israel, who “repaid [Christ] evil for good, and hated for [his] love” (v. 6); indeed, all the wicked and impenitent down to our own day are implicated in him, for Judas, who hanged himself rather than seek forgiveness, is the very archetype of the unrepentant sinner. 

It is Christ, therefore, speaking in this psalm, who in his lifetime was “attacked without cause” (v. 3) and “in return for [his] love … slandered” by the wicked (v. 4a), who now confesses to the Father: “But I prayed” [ego autem orabam] (v. 4b). “He said not indeed what he prayed,” comments Augustine, “but what can we better understand than [that he prayed] for them [sic] themselves? While they in the depth of their malignity were rendering evil for good, He in the height of His goodness was rendering good for evil.”5 Indeed, even unto his last breath on the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Only those who persist in impenitence and hardness of heart to the very end, repaying evil for good and hatred for love (cf. v. 5), will be condemned by these words: “Let the accuser stand at his right hand. When he is judged, let him go forth condemned” (vv. 6-7).

Even these ominous words cannot be understood as the expression of a divine desire for revenge, as if the Lord’s patience has finally worn out! Christ the Divine Judge “when he punishes does not return evil for evil, since he returns justice to the unjust; and what is just, is surely good. He therefore punishes not from delight in another’s misery, which is evil for evil; but from love of justice, which is good for evil.”7 The love of God is immutable, but the one who persists in wickedness will experience it as punishment. As the psalmist says, “He loved cursing; may it come upon him; he took no delight in blessing; may it be far from him” (v. 18). In the end, each one will receive in eternity what he has chosen by his actions in life. Fr. Pius Parsch puts the same point more succinctly: “Whoever puts off the God of mercy will come to know God the just judge.”8

It is one thing for Christ to pray these terrible words as a “solemn sentence of divine justice upon unwillingness to repent,”9 but how can an individual Christian be justified in doing the same? St. Thomas distinguishes three modes of praying these ‘imprecatory psalms’:

First, by way of prediction, not by way of wish, so that the sense is: May the wicked be, that is, The wicked shall be, turned into hell. Second, by way of wish, yet so that the desire of the wisher is not referred to the man’s punishment, but to the justice of the punisher, according to Ps. 57:11: The just shall rejoice when he shall see the revenge, since, according to Wis. 1:13, not even God hath pleasure in the destruction of the wicked when He punishes them, but He rejoices in His justice, according to Ps. 10:8: The Lord is just and hath loved justice. Third, so that this desire is referred to the removal of the sin, and not to the punishment itself, to the effect, namely, that the sin be destroyed, but that the man may live.10

Psalm 109 is prayed in the first sense by Christ and his body, the Church, “with tears in her eyes … just as Jesus once declaimed His eightfold ‘Woe to you…’ against the Pharisees.”11 But it may also be legitimately prayed in the second sense by an individual Christian, as a cry of the heart against the powers of darkness in moments of suffering and persecution.12 It is eminently fitting to pray for God’s justice to be done, which will take the form of punishment in the end on the “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil 3:18). In the third sense, “that the sin be destroyed [and] the man may live,” the imprecations may be leveled against the Devil and all the principalities and powers which oppose us (cf. Eph 6:12): “May this be the recompense from the Lord upon my accusers!” (v. 20).

Finally, it is worth noting that this psalm was traditionally prayed by the Church on Saturdays at None, the very last hour of the weekly cycle, as “a lighthouse to guide us safely into the harbor of eternity. There is a hell, she informs us. All week long, like an anxious mother, she has been admonishing, warning, complaining, weeping over us; and now she sounds the final and most ominous note.”13 The Christian who dares to pray these words in union with Christ the Head must do so not as the Pharisee prayed in the Temple, saying to himself, “Thank God that I am not like other men” (Lk 18:11). He must cast an eye to the state of his own soul and beat his breast, crying out, “Kyrie, eleison!


  1. Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, “The Psalms in Christian Tradition,” Religious Life Review 50, no. 266 (2011), 9. 
  2. “Three psalms (58, 83, and 109) have been omitted from the psalter cycle because of their curses … The reason for the omission is a certain psychological difficulty.” Cf. General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours,§131, translated by the Hierarchies of Australia, England and Wales, and Ireland, 1974, at
  3. Athanasius, Letter to Marcellinus, 26, in Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 123.
  4. Augustine, “Exposition on Psalm 109,” 1, trans. J.E. Tweed, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 8, ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, at
  5. Augustine, “Exposition,” 5, at
  6. St. Augustine understands ‘accuser’ here as Satan: Diabolo subditus sit, qui Christo subditus esse noluit: “Let him be subject to the devil, who refused to be subject to Christ” (“Exposition,” 8).
  7. Augustine, “Exposition,” 7, at
  8. The Hours of the Divine Office in English and Latin (Collegeville, MI: Order of St. Benedict, Inc., 1964), vol. 3, 637.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 25, a. 6, ad. 3, in Summa Theologiae: Secunda Secundae, 1-91, vol. 17 of Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP (Green Bay, WI: Aquinas Institute, 2018), 245.
  11. Divine Office, 637.
  12. The testimony of one bishop from Eastern Europe present at the Second Vatican Council is interesting here. In the discussion on whether to eliminate the imprecatory psalms from the Psalter, he is quoted anonymously as having said, “Our special circumstances require that the entire Psalter be used. Afflicted as we are by a very difficult external situation, we need expressions suitable for use contra diabolum.” Cf. Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, 1948-1975 (Collegeville, MI: Liturgical Press, 1990), trans. Matthew J. O’Connell, 494, fn. 10. 
  13. Divine Office, 636-637. 

Exorcisms in the Roman Rite of Baptism

According to the concise definition of St. Thomas Aquinas, every sacrament is a “sign of a holy thing so far as it makes men holy.”1 This short expression incorporates the two essential realities of the sacraments of the Church, namely, that they are both signs and causes of grace. They are signs insofar as they represent, by visible figures and audible words, the divine effect to which each sacrament is instituted by Christ; they are causes insofar as the rites really “effect what they signify,”2 namely, the sanctification and salvation of men. Indeed, concludes St. Thomas, “the sacraments cause by signifying.”3 There is thus a close correspondence between the visible sacramental signification and the invisible effect. 

This visible signification of each of the sacraments is made up of two distinct elements known as “matter” and “form,” after the two principles of Thomas’ hylomorphic metaphysics which cohere in any material substance. A bronze statue, for example, is a single substance; its matter is bronze, which is formed into the shape desired by the artist to constitute the statue. Until it is so formed, the bronze matter is in potency to becoming a number of different things: a sword, a set of plates, a pile of coins. Only in the interaction of matter and form does the bronze statue emerge as a single substance. Likewise, in the case of the sacraments, “matter” refers to the material, visible element, while “form” refers to the words spoken by the minister which determine the polyvalent matter to a single sacramental signification.

In the sacrament of baptism, for instance, the mere act of washing with water is “in potency” to many possible significations: it can imply cleaning, cooling, playing, and so on. The words of the baptismal rite, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,”4 are therefore needed to determine the matter to the particular signification of baptism. Together, the washing with water and the words come together both to signify and to cause a supernatural effect: spiritual rebirth unto new life in Christ; the death of the old man and the rising of the new; the remission of original sin and the guilt of punishment, and the imprint of an indelible baptismal character on the soul. 

The signification constituted by these two principles of matter and form is essential to the sacrament of baptism. If either principle should be missing or changed, such that the signification is qualitatively different, the sacrament is not conferred. So long as the essential signification is intact, however, the sacrament is validly celebrated; St. Thomas holds that baptism with salt water is valid, for example, because it carries the same “sign value” of water generally, although fresh water remains preferable.5 What is necessary for the efficacy and validity of the sacrament, then, is a clear and unambiguous signification, not deviating in a qualitative way from the signs and words instituted by Christ Jesus and handed on to the apostles.

What, however, of the many other ceremonies surrounding this essential signification, such as exorcisms, blessings of water and salt, lighting of candles and so on, which the Church commands in the solemn celebration of her sacraments, but which were not explicitly commanded by the Lord and do not properly belong to the matter and form of the sacramental signification? Clearly they do not pertain immediately to the signification by which the sacramental effect itself is conferred. Are these ceremonies necessary? What do they add? Is anything lost if they should be omitted? On this point, St. Thomas draws an important distinction between what is essential and what is fitting: 

In the sacrament of Baptism something is done which is essential to the sacrament, and something which belongs to a certain solemnity of the sacrament. Essential indeed, to the sacrament are both the form which designates the principal cause of the sacrament; and the minister who is the instrumental cause; and the use of the matter, namely, washing with water, which designates the principal sacramental effect. But all the other things which the Church observes in the baptismal rite, belong rather to a certain solemnity of the sacrament.6

Although inessential, strictly speaking, to the valid and efficacious celebration of the sacrament, something important is lost if these ceremonies are not celebrated. St. Thomas teaches that they serve three distinct purposes: in the first place, “to arouse the devotion of the faithful, and their reverence for the sacrament,” which would be greatly lessened if the ceremonies were stripped down to the essential rite; secondly, “for the instruction of the faithful,” who are urged by the beauty and mystery of these ancient ceremonies “to seek the signification of such like sensible signs”; third, and finally, “because the power of the devil is restrained by prayers, blessings, and the like, from hindering the sacramental effect.”7 For these reasons, “although those things that belong to the solemnity of a sacrament are not essential to it, yet they are not superfluous, since they pertain to the sacrament’s well-being.”8

The Latin phrase here translated as “well-being” (bene esse sacramenti) is instructive. These other ceremonies are not essential in that they do not pertain to the sacrament’s very being; if they are omitted, as in a case of emergency, the sacrament is still validly conferred. Nevertheless, they pertain to the sacrament’s well-being in that the sacrament is better celebrated if these ceremonies be observed. “Because [the sacraments] are signs they also instruct,” though this is not their primary end, as the Decree on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council notes: “It is, therefore, of the greatest importance that the faithful should easily understand the sacramental signs, and should eagerly frequent those sacraments which were instituted to nourish the Christian life.”9 Therefore, in order that the faithful might better understand the sacraments, the post-Conciliar Church extensively revised these ceremonies. Her pastoral concern was primarily that the first two ends of the ceremonies be better achieved.

The third end of the solemn ceremonies is of particular interest for this paper, however. Besides arousing devotion and providing instruction for the gathered community of the Christian faithful, St. Thomas comments that certain of these additional prayers and blessings are actually efficacious in restraining demonic powers from impeding the effect of baptism (“cohibetur Daemonis ab impedimento sacramentalis effectus”). To be sure, the sacraments confer grace by the very fact of carrying out the rite (“ex opere operato”), as definitively decreed by the Council of Trent.10 If one is baptized according to the rite of the Church, presuming sincere faith on the part of the one receiving the sacrament and right intention on the part of the minister, then “by the performance of the rite itself”11 one receives the gift of new life in Christ, the remission of original sin, and the indelible imprint of baptismal character marking one forever as a child of God by grace.12 It would seem, then, that these effects are not susceptible of impediment by demonic powers. What, then, could possibly be impeded? As between the essential rite and the accidental (though not therefore superfluous) ceremonies, St. Thomas here makes a helpful distinction between the essential and the accidental effects of baptism:

The essential effect of Baptism is that for which Baptism was instituted, namely, the begetting of men unto spiritual life … But the accidental effect of Baptism is that to which Baptism is not ordained, but which the Divine power produces miraculously in Baptism: thus on Rom. 6:6, that we may serve sin no longer, a gloss says: this is not bestowed in Baptism, save by an ineffable miracle of the Creator, so that the law of sin, which is in our members, be absolutely destroyed. And such like effects are not equally received by all the baptized, even if they approach with equal devotion: but they are bestowed according to the ordering of Divine providence.13

The accidental effect of Baptism, then, has to do with diminishing the power of concupiscence in the newly baptized, “the law of sin, that is in [our] members” (Romans 7:23 DRA),14 which is evidently accomplished by God in some more than in others. St. Thomas here attributes this difference in effect to the providence of God, which, one must remember, contains not only that which is positively willed by God, but also that which is permitted by Him. “One who provides universally allows some little defect to remain,” the Doctor comments in his article on divine providence, “lest the good of the whole should be hindered … Since God, then, provides universally for all being, it belongs to His providence to permit certain defects in particular effects, that the perfect good of the universe may not be hindered, for if all evil were prevented, much good would be absent.”15

Even the demons are allowed to work only according to the permissive ordering of divine providence for the good of the whole, as for example in the case of blessed Job, of whom the Lord said that “there is none like him in the earth, a simple and upright man” (Job 1:8), while nonetheless allowing Satan to test his faith: “Behold, he is in thy hand, but yet save his life” (Job 2:6). It would seem, therefore, that the Lord might speak likewise to the demons regarding a newly baptized catechumen, commanding that they “save his life,” namely, the new life of grace which is the essential effect of baptism, yet placing him in their hands as regards the accidental effect, which they might be allowed to diminish or impede.

The role of the exorcisms which the Church has historically commanded to be prayed before the essential rite of baptism now comes into sharper focus. St. Thomas himself answers the question “whether exorcism should precede baptism?” unambiguously in the affirmative. Though these traditional prayers of exorcism belong to the ceremonies which are not strictly essential to the sacrament, he argues,

Whoever purposes to do a work wisely, first removes the obstacles to his work … Now the devil is the enemy of man’s salvation, which man acquires by Baptism; and he has a certain power over man from the very fact that the latter is subject to original, or even actual, sin. Consequently it is fitting that before Baptism the demons should be cast out by exorcisms, lest they impede man’s salvation.16

Notably, he quotes the authority of Pope Celestine, who wrote that catechumens “should not come to the font of life before the unclean spirit has been expelled from them by the exorcisms and breathings of the clerics.”17 Thomas likewise concludes that these exorcisms “are not to be omitted save in a case of necessity. And then, if the danger pass, they should be supplied … Nor are they supplied to no purpose after Baptism: because, just as the effect of Baptism may be hindered before it is received, so can it be hindered after it has been received.”18 

In the last editio typica of the Roman Ritual promulgated before the Second Vatican Council, the rite of baptism is divided into seven stages, the first six of which each include an explicit prayer of exorcism. In the first stage, the candidate for baptism is received by the priest at the door of the church, at which time “the priest thrice blows softly in their face” and prays, “Depart from them, unclean spirit, and give place to the Holy Spirit, the Advocate.”19 Before entering the church, the priest lays his hands on the candidate’s head and recites a prayer which includes the petition, “Sever all snares of Satan which heretofore bound them.”20

In the second stage, which takes place in the vestibule of the church, the priest places a pinch of blessed salt on their tongue, the blessing of which begins with an exorcism of its own: “God’s creature, salt, I cast out the demon from you … I purify you by the living God … to be a preservative for mankind.”21 The third, fourth, and fifth stages are a series of exorcisms of increasing vehemence, culminating in the final and definitive exorcism, which begins with the words, “I cast you out, unclean spirit.”22 Only after these rites had been completed is the candidate taken into the baptistery for the sixth and seventh stages, at the gates of which, indeed, a final prayer of exorcism is recited: “Surely it is no secret to you, Satan, that punishment is your lot, that the day of judgment threatens you, that day of never ending torture, the day that shall be like a flaming furnace … Therefore, accursed one, deservedly doomed, pay homage to the living and true God … Begone and stay far away!”23

The solemn liturgy culminates in the seventh stage, when the essential rite of baptism is celebrated at last and the candidate is clothed in the white garment and given the blessed candle. Notably, all these ceremonies were to be supplied, omitting only the essential rite of baptism itself, in the case of a child baptized in an emergency or an adult convert who had already been baptized, just as St. Thomas argues above.24

These six exorcisms, conspicuously absent from the post-conciliar rite of baptism, seem to have fallen under the Council’s category of “useless repetitions”25 in the liturgy to be eliminated and, furthermore, of “features” which “have crept into the rites of the sacraments and … have rendered their nature and purpose far from clear to the people of today,” which the Concilium ordered to be revised in order “to adapt them to present-day needs.”26 Indeed, the revised rite of baptism says “almost nothing about the devil or original sin. The one reference is narrative and not unambiguously applied to the child at hand.”27 This reference occurs in a single prayer before baptism invoking the Son of God, who was sent “into the world to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil.”28 This prayer, however, does not include an explicit formula of exorcism such as “I cast you out.” Rather, after narrating the historical mission of the Son, it concludes with the words, “We pray for these children: set them free from original sin, make them temples of your glory, and send your Holy Spirit to dwell within them.”29 

Certainly, as St. Thomas reminds us, “the Church is ruled by the Holy Spirit, Who does nothing inordinate.”30 Nevertheless, there is a certain uncomfortable incongruity in the fact that, “for decades now, Catholics have been listening to (and informed by) a baptismal rite that has almost nothing in common with the way baptismal liturgies had been conducted for twenty centuries in East and West — with the exception of the formula of baptism itself, which remains intact.”31 Though the manifest and laudable intention of the Council Fathers in revising the rites was to further the edification and devotion of the faithful—the first two purposes of these inessential ceremonies noted by St. Thomas Aquinas—one wonders whether they may have inadvertently neglected the third, namely, restraining the devil from hindering the sacramental effects.

It would seem also that the Christian instruction of the faithful is not assisted, but handicapped, by the removal of references to the Devil and to original sin from the rite, since the primary and essential end of baptism is to free and deliver the newborn Christian from these hostile powers. Finally, one wonders whether there may be a connection between the excision of exorcisms and the astronomical percentage of “sacramentalized but non-evangelized” Catholics in our day, who, despite having received the essential effects of Baptism, seem not to have reaped the fruit of grace and the infused virtues.

The example of St. Paul, who, upon arriving in a new territory, first cast out the demon of that place before preaching the Gospel to the people, ought to be instructive for us.32 One might surmise that he knew from experience the power of the Devil to hinder the faith from taking root among his subjects. As the Church marks fifty years since the promulgation of her revised rites, and with the exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI that “the two Forms of the usage of the Roman Rite can be mutually enriching”33 still echoing in her ears, may she enrich the well-being of her rite of Baptism by restoring thereto the ancient prayers of exorcism, that the Devil might be restrained by her prayers from impeding her most vulnerable newborn children from receiving the fullness of the effects of the sacrament of faith.


  1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 60, a. 2, in Summa Theologiae: Tertia Pars 60-90, vol. 20 of Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP (Lander, WY: Aquinas Institute, 2012), 3.
  2. ST, III, q. 62, a. 1, ad. 1, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 22.
  3. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate, q. 27, a. 4, ad. 13, trans. Robert W. Schmidt, S.J. (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1954), at Emphasis mine.
  4. Cf. Matthew 28:19.
  5. Cf. ST, III, q. 66, a. 4.
  6. ST, III, q. 66, a. 10, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 87-89.
  7. Ibid, 88.
  8.  Ibid, ad. 4, 89.
  9. Paul VI, Sacrosanctum Concilium [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy] (4 December 1963), §59.
  10. Council of Trent, Session 13, March 3, 1547, Decretum de Sacramentis, can. 8, in Heinrich Denzinger, Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals: Latin/English, ed. Peter Hünermann, Robert Fastiggi, and Anne Englund Nash, 43rd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), DS 1608.
  11. Ibid.
  12. ST, III, q. 66, a. 9, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 85-87.
  13. ST, III, q. 69, a. 8, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 136.
  14. The Holy Bible: Translated from the Latin Vulgate with Annotations, References, and an Historical and Chronological Table (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1950).
  15. ST, I, q. 22, a. 2, ad. 2, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Bros., 1947), at
  16. ST, III, q. 71, a. 2, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 150-151.
  17. Ibid, sed contra, 150.
  18. ST, III, q. 71, a. 3, ad. 3, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 151.
  19. The Roman Ritual, trans. Philip T. Weller, S.T.D. (Milwaukee, WI: Bruce Publishing Co., 1964), 85.
  20. Ibid, 89.
  21. Ibid, 90.
  22. Ibid, 100.
  23. Ibid, 104.
  24. Ibid, 110. However, the instruction of the Sacred Congregation of Rites Inter oecumenici, dated 26 September 1964, ordered that these prayers of exorcism be omitted when supplying the ceremonies of baptism, thereby changing the historical practice of the Roman Church. This instruction preceded the promulgation of the revised rite of baptism in 1969.
  25. Paul VI, Sacrosanctum Concilium, §34.
  26. Ibid, §62.
  27. Peter Kwasniewski, “The Excision of Exorcisms as a Prelude to Devil-Denial,” at One Peter Five (19 June 2017), at
  28. Rite of Baptism for Children, ed. and trans. International Commission on English in the Liturgy (Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1989), 47.
  29. Ibid.
  30. ST, III, q. 66, a. 10, sed contra, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 87.
  31. Peter Kwasniewski, “The Excision of Exorcisms as a Prelude to Devil-Denial,” at One Peter Five.
  32. Cf. Acts 16:11-18. This is the moment of Paul’s arrival in Macedonia, his first foray into Western Europe, having been prevented by the Holy Spirit from going into Asia. Paul and his companions had gone down to “the river side, where it seemed that there was prayer” (v. 13), namely, a place holy to the local peoples where they worshipped their gods. The “pythonical spirit” referenced in v. 16 is the spirit of the Oracle of Delphi, the idol par excellence of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Cf. also Ps 95:5: “omnes dii gentium daemonia.” St. Paul neither needed nor wanted the testimony of demons to support his preaching. Once he had cast out this spirit of divination, he was free to preach the Gospel to those people on its own merits.
  33. Benedict XVI, “Letter of His Holiness to the Bishops on the Occasion of the Publication of the Apostolic Letter ‘Motu Proprio Data’ Summorum Pontificum [On the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970],” 7 July 2007.