Sexuality and Marriage in Islam and Catholicism
I had the privilege of meeting a Saudi Arabian who was traveling throughout Portugal a few weeks ago and it was an eye-opening experience. I spend most of my time lamenting over the cultural differences between Portugal and the US, but after learning about the Middle East I realized that Europe and North America are very, very similar. I also realized that the influence of Christianity on the Western World is real, and if Europe and North America are similar at all it’s because of Christianity.
The main difference I’d like to focus on is the view on sexuality and marriage. From my contact with the Church’s rich interpretation of Scripture for over 2,000 years and especially John Paul II’s more recent contributions on this topic, I can say with confidence and through faith that I’m sure the Church has the fullness of truth. And this includes the fullness of truth about our humanity, our bodies and our insanely strong sexual urges!
From what I know, Islam doesn’t spurn the body, but there is a clear superiority of the spirit to the body. “The body is subservient and the soul is in charge; however both are indispensable.” (source) Covering the body is directly related to morality: “Nudity of varying degrees is found in societies according to their level of sexual morality.” (source) A clear contrast is found in the history of art in both religions, as Catholic churches and museums are full of artwork portraying the dignity, beauty and vocation of the human body. Our condition as dust (Gn 3:19) is at struggle with the work of redemption in us, that transforms our body to become spiritual and full of power (1 Cor 15:42-49). We believe in the resurrection of the body, and that’s something remarkable. If the body and spirit are at war now, it won’t be resolved with the victory of the “superior” spirit over the body, as seems to be the case in Islam, but instead with a “perfect participation of all that is bodily in man and all that is spiritual in him” (Theology of the Body 67:2).
The theology of desire is also quite unique in Catholicism. Our desires are incredibly important and our deepest desire is always for God. As Saint Augustine expressed so beautifully, it’s our desire that guides us to our Creator and Ultimate Lover: “Our hearts have been made for you, O God, and they shall never rest until they rest in you.” The work of ordering our disordered desires is one of purification and tough spiritual work all throughout our lives. From what I know, desire in Islam, even disordered desire, is seen as purely physical in nature and marriage is a natural outlet for it. “Desire for sexual satisfaction is a major reason for marriage” and “Marriage is protection against sexual immorality (KS p. 547, 60:10). If a man sees an attractive woman he should go to his wife immediately because that protects him from potential sin (KS p. 155).” (source) On the contrary, in Catholicism, just looking at a woman as an object for my own sexual gratification is a sin (Mt 5:27-30). Why? Because sin comes from the heart and it’s an interior journey of purification and healing that reorders our faulty desires. We must recover ownership of our heart in order to give it to someone and not fall into the trap of using them. (love v. use)
Finally, the entire concept of marriage is different. While in Islam the chief ends of marriage are pleasure and procreation, in Catholicism marriage is not only a natural institution, but a sign of God’s love, an analogy of the trinity and a precursor of the communion we’re all called to. “Can we not deduce that marriage has remained the platform for the realization of God’s eternal plans, according to which the sacrament of creation had come near to human beings and prepared them for the sacrament of redemption, introducing them into the dimension of the work of salvation?” (Theology of the Body 97:1) In Catholicism, the chief ends of the sexual act (and not marriage) are unity of the spouses and procreation, and it is the most sublime act of love and of total self-gift to one another. Marriage is the platform for the realization of God’s eternal plans. This isn’t just earthly marriage, but the heavenly wedding banquet that is heaven, the eternal communion with God and others, the marriage that priests and celibates skip the earthly marriage for so as to be a sign that points to this higher reality. In Islam, the characteristics of marriage are radically different from those of Catholicism (total, free, fruitful, faithful), even if we judge only by the fact that polygamy is possible. Not only this, but the heavenly marriage doesn’t exist. Monasticism and celibacy are not only non-existent, but forbidden. In Catholicism, celibates model Christ’s perfect self-gift: “We do not forget that the one and only key for understanding the sacramentality of marriage is the spousal love of Christ for the Church (see Eph 5:22-23), of Christ who was son of the Virgin, who himself was a virgin, that is, ‘a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven’ in the most perfect sense of the term” (81:4).
The theology of body, sexuality and marriage in Catholic tradition is very profound and goes beyond a set of rules. I’m sure Islamic tradition is also very rich, and it is interesting to see how deeply the theologies differ and how this impacts culture.
Sources: http://www.themodernreligion.com/misc/sex/sex-shariah.html; www.missionislam.com; John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (http://www.amazon.com/Man-Woman-He-Created-Them/dp/0819874213)