Two Become One Flesh

Previous Months' Topics

Adam and Rita Stanislawski

Adam and Rita Stanislawski offer a deeply personal account of their relationship, from living together during their college days, to living apart in preparation for their marriage last year. Tune in to this exclusive Fathers for Good podcast.


The Meaning of 'One Flesh'

Father Cannon

The nature of marriage as a relationship in which two become “one flesh” is confronted every day with the reality of separation and divorce. To get a sense of how a priest conveys the Church’s message on marriage, Fathers for Good spoke with Father Robert Cannon, who was ordained in 1978, has a degree in canon (Church) law and has served as a military chaplain for 22 years, working with couples on bases and in parishes.

Fathers for Good: From your perspective as a canon lawyer and chaplain, what is the meaning of the biblical phrase “the two become one flesh”?

Father Cannon: In our “sex” fixated world, interpersonal intimacy has been reduced to the level of physicality. As one spiritual writer said, there was a time when people said, ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think therefore I am’). The modern slogan is ‘Copulo ergo sum’ (‘I have sex therefore I am’).

Real intimacy occurs at the level of the heart. The “one flesh union” in the Book of Genesis is descriptive of a unity not only of the body, but of the whole person -- emotions, feelings, shared dreams, faults and failings.

When couples exchange their vows, each one says, “I take you.” The vows express the totality of self-giving of one spouse to the other. Sadly, most marriages that end in divorce are the result of one or both spouses feeling disconnected from the other, feeling lonely.

Sacred Scripture is filled with the same plight in our relationship with God. In the Book of Genesis, God is in the Garden with Adam and Eve, who experienced “nuptial innocence” with each other and with God. Their “intercourse” (in the wider sense of interpersonal relationships) was pure and innocent. When Adam and Eve disobeyed and sin entered the world, this nuptial innocence was destroyed. Adam and Eve suddenly realized that they were both naked.

God wandered in the Garden and called out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” But if couples love each other well, they will not hide from God because they will not be ashamed of their actions. In fact, they will experience the freedom of the sons and daughters of God, periods of the original nuptial innocence of Adam and Eve. When this happens, the one flesh union makes complete sense to the couple because they are not hiding from each other. They are free to “be” before each other as beloved.

FFG: Pastorally speaking, what are some of the impediments or obstacles couples may find in living out the “one flesh” union?

Father Cannon: People are taught today to seek pleasure, be happy, and have it your way. The one flesh union is all about the other person.

The Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber had it right when he described all genuine union/relationship in terms of “I/Thou,” which aptly expresses marital consent in a nutshell. In practical terms it means that I am willing to die to myself for my spouse. This transcendent thrust of devotion toward the other is freeing, not constraining. It reveals itself in a thousand different ways, like in unexpected flowers for no reason, or in some freshly baked cookies.

FFG: What do you say to someone who thinks that the Catholic Church is “negative on sex” and wants to regulate the bedroom? How do you present the Church’s teaching in a positive light?

Father Cannon: I think that the Church has a noble and beautiful understanding of human sexuality and marriage.

Unfortunately, most Catholics do not know the Church teaching on human sexuality and marriage, other than a few “don’t do this or that because it’s a sin.” Of course the media portrays Church teaching as extremist because of its opposition to contraception and abortion.

John Paul II was masterful at elevating the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, because Christianity is a bodily religion. It is a religion that must be lived in the flesh.

We are all called to embody God’s love. Spouses are called to embody God’s love to each other as spouses. The Church has always understood this truth and has taught that marriage is a sacred gift from God, not lost through original sin.

The Church has always taught that the sexual union of husband and wife is holy, the marital union is a sacred act. In fact, it could be said that in the self-giving of the spouses to each other, their one union is their “body prayer”. Given the power of human sexuality, it is easy for this gift to be coerced and corrupted by human weakness. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the Church to teach clearly about the dignity of marriage and conjugal love in every age.

FFG: In counseling a couple or doing marriage preparation, how do you present the teaching on procreation and contraception?

Father Cannon: I approach couples from the perspective of Christian anthropology, an understanding of human nature; basically, marriage as a vocation, and treasuring fertility as a gift to be reverenced and understood, rather than as a threat to a couple’s plans.

Couples have been brainwashed by our technological culture that says people must control all aspects of their life. But where is the room for love?

For instance, control over fertility through contraceptive use is seen not only as a right but as a necessity. There is the constant push to have sex at any time. Contraceptive and erectile dysfunction drugs commercials are non-stop, streaming into our living rooms day and night.

In fact, not to contracept is seen by many couples as being irresponsible. It is hard for couples to hear, much less grasp, the beauty of Church teaching when they are bombarded by the images in our hedonistic culture 24/7. We have got to do a better job using all forms of media to teach our people.

FFG: What do you see as the benefits of natural family planning (NFP) as a way of living marriage to the fullest and achieving marital harmony?

Father Cannon: Rather than sex-on-demand, NFP teaches couples to embrace their shared fertility as a gift from God within their marriage. In doing so, NFP can help couples realize the deeper dimensions of spousal love. It naturally encourages genuine marital intimacy.

Also, couples learn the balance of celebration and restraint, mutual respect and reverence for each other. I have found that couples who incorporate NFP into their marriage communicate on a deeper level because of the nature of NFP, which requires husbands and wives to be in constant dialogue with each other on a deeply personal level.

NFP requires a selfless approach to marital intimacy with a willingness to respect God’s plan for marriage and human life. As the 2008 National NFP Awareness Week slogan says, NFP is “A way of living and a way of love.”

Father Cannon, a U.S. Air Force colonel, is presently assigned to the Office of the Chief of Chaplains at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington D.C.