Barron, why so barren? Questions on a priest’s sterile definition of marital love

I just read Father Robert Barron’s column “Saying No to Nietzche” and have a few questions, which I would like to publicly pose to him and to anyone who would like to answer:

Father, when Jesus spoke of the joining together of spouses in marriage, “They are no longer two but one flesh,” was he really trying to say something “inescapably ‘sexy,” as you write? That is, is  “one flesh” in Sacred Scripture always simple shorthand for the conjugal act? Is it good for the faithful to picture something “sexy” every time they see the phrase? Even when they read Ephesians 5:31-32

Is “sexy” a word worth claiming for the New Evangelization, given that it connotes lust? If so, why? Are there other words connoting deadly sins that we should claim for the New Evangelization? If so, which ones?

Could a same-sex couple read your essay’s account of sacramental marital love and find anything that does not apply to them? That is, do you make any mention of the procreative end of marriage, or of the inseparability of unitive and procreative love (Humanae Vitae 12, CCC 2366)? If so, where is it in the essay?

Also, one last question, which I’ll answer myself:

Is it possible to synthesize the Church’s entire teaching on human sexuality and marriage into a single 900-word essay?

Maybe not. But if any readers would like to try, the relevant Catechism passages are here and here. I don’t see anything there about the one-flesh union being “sexy.” There is a lot about making babies, though.

Incidentally, I don’t at all mean to question the entire corpus of a priest who is doing great work for the Church—just his “Saying No to Nietzche” essay. In other writings, Father Barron offers an important and needed critique of the hook-up culture, as evidenced by his response to Hanna Rosin.

Please keep your comments civil and G-rated. Thanks!

  • Fred

    I see no problem with the word ‘sexy’, but I did find it curious that the procreative dimension was left out, especially insofar as having babies in direct opposition to Manichaeism. I also think that ‘love’ needs to be qualified a bit more to embrace the sacrificial dimension in light of the crucifixion. Looking at Mark 10:8, I see that immediately following the discussion of marriage, Jesus blesses the children.

  • Nicholas

    While I also have a negative reaction to the word “sexy” (because of the lust connotation), I think that we should think of “one flesh,” including Ephesians 5:31-32, in an erotic way, that is, as that sort of love called eros. The whole sense of the Song of Songs supports this – God’s love for his Church, and his Church’s love for him, really are kinda like the love of human marriage. In our present time, the last days before the Resurrection, the Church is like a bride on the marriage bed, waiting in perfect faith, anxious hope, and obedient love for her bridegroom to come and fulfill the unbreakable union for which she was made. This at least is how I see it – I recognize that this sort of theology can be twisted, but I think it is very true itself. But if this is not the Church’s teaching then I am wrong.

    • sailor1031

      “…In our present time, the last days before the Resurrection”

      And you find this where in scripture or church teaching?

  • Brian Killian

    Is ‘one flesh’ always shorthand for the conjugal act?

    It seems like ‘one flesh’ is a deep and complex idea in the bible, which can not simply be flattened to mean only the conjugal act, but neither can the conjugal act be excluded from it – it’s an essential part of the metaphor.

    Is ‘sexy’ a word worth claiming for the new evangelization?

    Maybe, maybe not. But I don’t think it necessarily connotes lust. The ‘procreative end’ of sex can also be implied by the word ‘sexy’. But it is a word that carries a lot of risk – the risk of trivializing sex.

    • Dawn Eden

      Brian, you write, “It seems like ‘one flesh’ is a deep and complex idea in the bible, which can not simply be flattened to mean only the conjugal act, but neither can the conjugal act be excluded from it – it’s an essential part of the metaphor.”

      I completely agree.

  • Deacon Tim Weinmann

    Dawn, I can see your point of view but I think you’ve set a goal (“synthesize the Church’s entire teaching on human sexuality and marriage into a single 900-word essay”) that Fr. Barron never stated was his goal with this article. It’s true that he never addressed the issue of same sex attraction which you seem to think is some sort of indictment of Fr. Barron’s views on the topic of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. But he also didn’t address artificial contraception, IVF, abortion, etc. My response is that he wasn’t attempting to cover every aspect of the topic, only responding to how the Church’s understanding of human sexuality is so much richer and deeper than Nietzche’s philosophy which reduces the human sexuality to one of pure self-gratification.

    I have read and heard enough of Fr. Barron’s work to be pretty certain that he would line up 100% with the full teaching of the Church in this regard. But I think his goal in writing this article was much more focused/narrow that the challenge you laid out.

    • Dawn Eden

      Deacon, I understand your point. Father Barron does laudably explain the procreative end of marriage in many places elsewhere. I just think, when giving public witness, we should take every opportunity to give the full gospel with regard to marriage, and I do believe it is possible to do so in such a short space.

  • Deacon Tim Weinmann

    One other comment on your questioning Fr. Barron’s use of the term “sexy.” One goal of the “new evangelization” is to speak the truth of the faith but perhaps in ways that will reach people where they are today. I think Fr. Barron’s use of this term is really trying to re-imagine the word in a new context, as the Church would view it properly understood. So he’s not trying to use it to somehow cheapen or denigrate the Church’s teaching. But he is writing to a culture who may have their attention caught by the word (as they currently understand it) and then draw them into a new understanding of the word as the Church might articulate it. Isn’t this what the Church has done throughout the ages, claiming and in some cases re-claiming ideas, words, etc. and drawing people closer to the faith by giving them a deeper/different meaning.

    • Dawn Eden

      Deacon, you write: ” Isn’t this what the Church has done throughout the ages, claiming and in some cases re-claiming ideas, words, etc. and drawing people closer to the faith by giving them a deeper/different meaning.”

      We have certainly tried to do so, as with John Paul II’s call for a “new feminism” in Mulieris Dignitatem. But I don’t think the redefinition has taken hold, and it seems that even John Paul II discarded the term during the last ten years of his pontificate, replacing it with a call for expressions of the “feminine genius” (as in this address).

      • Kirt Higdon

        Good point, Dawn! The problem with taking popular modern jargon (e.g. “feminism” or “sexy”) and then trying to redefine them is that the popular definitions don’t just go away. Everyone ends up using the same word to mean different, even opposite things and imagine that they understand each other when they are actually talking past each other.

  • Ted Seeber

    I think Kathleen Hahn put it best: Marital love, when done right, as a prayer to God, is a love so great that 9 months later you have to give it a name.

    Anything less resembles rape to me.

    Which reminds me, I need to write a blog posting explaining my novel new definition of rape, in light of somebody pointing out to me paragraph 2356 of the CCC. I consider all use of contraception to be a form of rape, for instance- but I think this is reasonable given the definition of invasion of a person’s sexual integrity (whether they know that integrity or not).

  • H. Gomes

    I was quite surprised by this blog post. Father’s article was not sterile at all. It’s true that he did not explicitly mention procreation but nowhere in the article does he deny it! Father Barron’s article refers to “willing the good of the other” and “mutual love [...] in service of an even higher purpose.” The point of the article? It seems to me that Father was simply refuting the charge of Puritanism and making the point that sexual desire is a good thing “in the context of divine purpose,” namely marriage.

    As for same-sex marriage advocates: will they come away from the article justified? If so, they must not have read the part where Father quotes Mark 10:6-8. Oh yeah, and I wonder what they do with this statement–”Once Jesus clarified that male and female are destined to become one flesh, he further specified that “What God has joined together,” no human being should put asunder.

    God bless.

  • Stephen Sparrow
  • Mark S. Abeln

    Dawn, I think that the medieval notions of romantic love as something distinct from the purpose of marriage is important, and could shed light on the current cultural debate. The medieval literature on the subject (and the classical authors used by the medievals) is remarkably universal, and balances the dour thinking found these days. Of course, we must never forget that even though love was celebrated, the dire consequences of sin were remembered.

    Alas, most scholarly analysis of this tradition is mired in modernism, and even C.S. Lewis’ famed academic work on the subject (The Allegory of Love) is tinged with modernism, something which he later regretted. The more Platonic emphasis used in the middle ages gives romantic love and marriage a lofty basis compared to the typical contemporary ‘scientific’ and ideological approaches to the subject.

    The Reformation’s insistence that marriage is the universal vocation, and the conflation of romantic love with marriage has led to many of our current troubles.

    • Dawn Eden

      Mark, well said! I did not know that Lewis later regretted some of his analysis of romantic love–do you have a source? (Not doubting you–would just like to learn more.)

  • Mark S. Abeln

    Dawn, I did not do my own research, but I got it from a book review:
    I’ll eventually have to read to book myself.

  • Manny

    I can’t answer such a deep question, but I just wanted to say, I really admire you. You are not afraid to challenge Catholic blogger icons. Between this blog and the one where you disagreed with Marc Barnes on Andy Warhol, you are not sheeple. Kudos.

  • desertmaiden

    Thanks for this critique, Dawn. Like many, I’m a frequent reader and listener of Fr. Barron. No one can claim that the corpus of his work is anything but 100% faithful to the Magisterium, not to mention darn good evangelization and catechesis! From personal knowledge of his work, I would also attest that – other than in this article – his articulation of the Church’s teaching re: love, marriage, sexuality, and procreation is coherent, well synthesized, and expressed effectively.

    Having said all this, I was very surprised at the language that was *absent* from this article (above), this article (, and the corresponding YouTube vid on WoF’s site. For me, however, the missing word is MARITAL: “The simple answer is that, for Biblical people, sexuality must be placed in the wider context of love, which is to say willing the good of the other.” Cohabitating couples or those arguing for same-sex unions would easily claim safe harbor in that statement. Not until the end of the articles/vid do we hear that sexuality belongs within a “properly sacramental marriage.” Surprising, yes?! I was also very curious about his choice of vocabulary, i.e. “the Playboy philosophy” and Howard Hughes (in the YT vid), wondering who has entered into his reading list of late… Nevertheless, I remain a huge fan of Barron’s work and will continue to recommend him to my students.

    • Robert King

      My guess is that Fr. Barron is trying to meet people “where they’re at,” which is stuck with the false assumption that the Catholic Church is anti-sex and anti-sexual pleasure. He may be afraid that bringing in the full implications of Catholic sexual teaching – including the teaching on children and contraception – too soon would raise obstacles to those who are just beginning to understand where the Church is coming from. This is probably why he doesn’t use the word “marital” or “sacramental marriage” till the end of these pieces: so that when the reader/viewer encounters them, they have been led to a place where they can recognize the good and beautiful truth in those words.

      I’m not sure this is the most effective means of reaching contemporary culture, but it certainly seems in line with St. Paul’s example in Athens, where he “left out” the teaching that there is only one God in order to introduce the Greeks step by step to the Gospel. Even there, one could argue with how effective the strategy was; but one can’t exactly claim that it’s unorthodox or un-Catholic in itself.

  • Chris

    We do need to be very careful about the language/terms we use, as it can make all the difference in the world. There seems to be an unfortunate, increasing tendency for well-meaning Catholics to take things/terms from the popular culture and think that you can baptize them by simply putting them into a Christian context or to just repeat them without thinking twice about it . This often does not work while some things may be incompatible. There is also a false notion that we should precisely use terms of the popular culture in order to reach people. We see this even more broadly in using the words sex, sexual, etc., words that are really foreign to the Christian tradition. (versus words such as conjugal.) We have become so awash in this that we unfortunately don’t think twice about using this secular vocabulary. Instead, we should offer our distinct vocabulary that emphasizes from the outset that the Faith has something different to offer. This may also help to avoid confusion of meaning/connotation over terms such as sexual, or “sexy”.

    • Dawn Eden

      Thanks, Chris. My thoughts exactly!