Dr. Alice von Hildebrand is a Catholic philosopher and theologian, and also the widow of the outspoken anti-Nazi German philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand. She taught philosophy at Hunter College for thirty-seven years until her retirement in 1984, and has written several books. Born in Belgium, she came to the United States in 1940. In a series of interviews in her apartment in New Rochelle, the 89-year-old Hildebrand speaks at length on topics ranging from womanhood, marriage, morality, the eternal destiny of the human soul, and much more. This is the fifth article based on excerpts from these interviews:
People used to believe that marriage and sex were sacred. For Roman Catholics marriage is a sacrament, a means of grace, a solemn commitment before God that binds you to another person for life. So sacred is marriage that it means fidelity, complete fidelity, and if God gives you children through sexual union, they are to be raised in the bond of mutual love. Such a bond between father and mother and child is unconditional.
Today, however, marriage is little more than a contract. "We'll try it and if it works, good. But if it doesn't work, we can end it." If you leave God out of the equation, what sort of argument for marriage's sanctity can you give? If something or someone better comes along, what can you say? Once you forget God, everything holy gets desecrated; everything falls to pieces.
Sacredness means that there are things that should remain veiled. We veil for two reasons: because something is ugly, or because it's beautiful. This is a paradox. If I were to do something very mean, very very mean, I would double check carefully that no one sees me. If I am caught, there are two possibilities. I blush or I no longer blush. You recall what it says in Jeremiah 8:12: "Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush." They are shameless when shame is called for. This is terrible!
There is shame because of ugliness, and there is a kind of shame that leads us to God. Take the gospel. When you pray, Jesus tells you to close the door. Why? Because prayer is your secret – something between you and God. It's your secret. The intimate, sexual sphere is actually meant to point us to God. This is why marriage is sacred. Only in marriage should the veil of sexual intimacy be lifted.
There is something else that is sacred: man and woman. God created man and woman, male and female. But the big mistake in our society is to reduce man and woman to the biological sphere, and thereby strip off the veil God created. It's a catastrophic mistake, and I'll tell you why. On a religious, spiritual, intellectual, affective, social, and human level, men and women are different. And because we are different, we complement each other. If people would only rediscover this!
Whether inside or outside of marriage, the relatedness of man and woman is sacred. The beautiful relationship between St. Francis and St. Clare, St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, Alphonsus and Celeste – it's always the same thing. Each gender has something to give to the other, and to learn from the other. If you limit gender to the biological sphere you lose something very, very special.
Your life as a man – as a woman – can be so beautiful and enriching. It's so wonderful to have friends of the opposite sex. We look at things from a different point of view, and so complement each other. And in the bond of marriage, such complementarity can come to full expression sexually. But one must remember, the sexual sphere is limited. It is meant to be shared between a man and a woman in holy marriage.
People no longer understand what's sacred. It's all a matter of what feels good. Their souls are such that they are blinded to the mysteries of life. You know, eagles have much better eyesight than we humans do, but they do not perceive beauty. Dogs have a much sharper sense of hearing than we do, but they cannot be moved to tears by the music of great masters such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Eagles perceive motions; dogs perceive sounds. But they cannot perceive what is sacred in life.
Because we have a soul animating us, God has created us to perceive more than what our physical senses can take in. We must see the world as God does, and when we do a new world is opened up to us, pointing us to the real world; the one we are made for.
The beauty of being a man, of being a woman, the mystery and sacredness of true sexual union where new life can be given, the sanctity of marriage itself are all being trampled on because we refuse to see things from God's perspective. Christ said to the Samaritan woman "If only you knew the gift of God. If you knew it, God would have given you living water." Let us pray and pray and pray that all of us might rediscover the sacred mystery of life.