I am writing from Creighton University, Omaha, NE, where the 59th meeting of the College Theology Society is being held. We received word that Bernard Cooke died peacefully early this morning. He would have been 91 today. I did not know Cooke but, like many other Catholic theologians and lay people, I found his writing important for my own work and my own understanding of the Catholic tradition.
Cooke’s understanding of marriage as a sacrament of friendship has been particularly significant for me. Cooke worried that pre-Vatican II sacramental theology led Catholics to think that when people receive a sacrament, they are to able make special withdrawals from the bank of grace. This notion was not very convincing, as not all Catholics seemed to have extra help when they needed it most. It also didn’t come close to capturing the richness of the Catholic sacramental tradition.
Instead, Cooke claims, the primary sacrament is God’s love. Not just in the context of sacramental rituals, but everywhere, all the time, God continually extends love to all human beings. We experience this love primarily in human friendship, when we love others and are loved by them.
In marriage, couples are grace to each other, to their children, and to everyone around them. Love is the most profound human experience. We experience love in friendship, and marriage is the ultimate friendship, wherein God communicates God’s self to us through the love of others. This is the sacrament, the grace of God’s love poured out on us through those who love us.
I will always remember a student in my Marriage and Christian Life class who, upon hearing this, said some of the few words he uttered all term. “That is really comforting,” he said slowly, with great sincerity, struck by the idea of a God who was always trying to communicate love.
I was born after the close of the second Vatican council, without the baggage of pre-Vatican II notions of sacrament, but with perhaps a stronger experiential sense of God’s presence than my student. Still, I saw something profound in Cooke’s down-to-earth way of describing sacrament. He gave me a lens through which I see all of love I receive from my husband and three boys, and all of the imperfect love I try to give to them.
I like to say that life doesn’t make sense without theology. Bernard Cooke was one of those theologians who made sense of life for me. I am grateful for his life’s work.
See Bernard Cooke, “Christian Marriage: Basic Sacrament,” in Kieran Scott and Michael Warren, eds., Perspectives on Marriage: A Reader, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).