Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles to explore the American Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” Read Part I here, Part III here, Part IV here, and Part V here.
Aristotle, the great philosopher of ancient Greece, in his Politics, makes something of a romantic statement (for those who know him, something exceptionally unusual). He says that all human society begins with the love of a man for a woman. From that love comes forth a human family. From families come tribes, from tribes come cities, and from cities come nations. Therefore the human family and marriage is at the very root of society itself.
Hence it behooves society to do everything in its power to encourage marriage and the creation of families. Any policy which does not do this is suicidal, as we shall see in a subsequent analysis, it is just such a social suicide that many Western countries are experiencing right now.
Thus we arrive at the question of the definition of marriage.
After centuries of theological discussion and debate over each of its points, we are the happy recipients of one of the most well thought out positions on marriage in all of human history. Using the tools of Divine Revelation, Scripture and Tradition, along with its corollary, authentic and well-informed human reason, the Catechism of the Catholic Church gives a concise definition (1601):
Marriage is a lifelong partnership of the whole of life, of mutual and exclusive fidelity, established by mutual consent between a man and a woman, and ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation of offspring.
Take away anything, even one bit, of that well-considered definition and you have deformed what marriage is meant to be, both naturally and supernaturally.
Let us begin with the purposes of marriage. The resolution of human complementarity built into us by the Creator Himself is the motivating force for human marriage. This is referred to as the union of the spouses, or the unitive aspect of marriage.
We are created in such a way that this unitive aspect, fully achieved in a Christian marriage, is the fulfillment of God’s plan for creating us as male and female, both fully in possession of human nature, yet ordered one to the other for completion.
This union is both of body and spirit, it is a union of persons. The human person is neither simply body, nor simply soul. We are embodied spirits. This is our nature.
When you marry someone you marry their whole person. The concept of person is one of the most astonishing and important contributions of Christian philosophy to the world today. Unknown to the virtuous ancients, it was Christianity which laboriously and patiently worked out the concept of “person” in her debates about the Trinity and the Incarnation in the 4th and 5th centuries.
The bishops express this very well in the letter when they state, “The human person is a union of body and soul as a single being. Man and woman are two different ways of being a human person.” Note that the difference between man and woman is not merely biological, it extends to their whole being, because their whole being is a unity.
We must not fall into the trap of moderns who claim that there is nothing different but merely the biological parts. This undermines the irreducible completeness of the human person and leads to ideas of the human that are mechanistic and reductionistic.
This love is most beautifully symbolized in the fact that it is potentially creative. Just as the love of God Himself is a creative love, so He permits humans to become co-creators, cooperating with Him in the greatest of all tasks, the production of new humans who can grow to know, love and serve God, fulfill their natural inclinations to happiness, and achieve their spiritual end ordered through Christ. This is possible only through the creative and unitive love of the spouses.
It is this procreative aspect that the unitive aspect finds its perfection and goal. Indeed historically the procreative aspect was seen as the fundamental end of human marriage, and indeed this is the case theologically.
Recent theologians have rightly understood however, that this procreative aspect is indivisible from the unitive aspect. Each is necessary and indispensable in a truly human and Christian marriage. As the bishops further say, because of the unity of the person, gender begins in biology, but does not end there.
Because of the unity of the person, procreation is not merely biological but has ramifications in both the personal and spiritual dimensions. (This is incidentally a fundamental problem with the lie of so-called casual sex, something which is ultimately impossible for human persons, and something we will discuss in a later article.)
From these two great ends or purposes, the unity of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, the great doctor of the Church St. Augustine of Hippo saw three fundamental goods of marriage, fidelity, sacramentality, and the creation of children. Faithfulness to death is one of the greatest of the gifts of Christian marriage, a great challenge made possible by the elevation of marriage to a sacrament.
Another good he discerns is sacramentality, or the sacramental bond which images Christ and the Church.
Finally the offspring are the greatest of the signs and goods of human marriage. Augustine further outlined a third purpose of marriage, subordinate to the other two but no less real. He pointed to marriage as a remedium concupiscenciae or a remedy for concupiscence, the tendency that all humans have to disorder and sin, especially to sins of the flesh.
St. Augustine correctly recognized that marriage, because it is a lawful outlet for the human desire for sex, quiets concupiscence, helping humans to avoid sin and to live more peaceably in society, fulfilling Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians 7:9 “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”
It is then absolutely necessary to assert that the two fundamental purposes of marriage, the unitive aspect which unites two complementary people in a lifelong and unbreakable association of life and love, and the procreative aspect which is ordered towards the birth of children and the creation of families and societies, can never be severed. You cannot have one without the other. For instance we today would never think of a loveless union, simply entered into for the possibility of having children, neither is it logical or correct to think of a marriage of true, deep, and abiding love that excludes the creation of a family.
The family is the root and soul of human society; it is the reason why men and women are ordered one towards the other. Fatherhood and motherhood are built into the human person, so that one can say that if one is not a father or a mother in some way, then one has not fulfilled the potential of one’s person and nature. Note that this does not mean that all must become biological mothers and fathers.
This does mean that motherhood and fatherhood are intrinsic to a complete human being. Take for example the life of virginity and celibacy, objectively superior to the state of marriage (though exceptional holiness is the proper end of both).
Simply because one remains celibate or a virgin does not mean that one vacates the responsibility for parenthood, it just shifts to a higher level, a spiritual level. There is one reason why we call our priests, “Father” and why the superiors of female communities are called “Mother.” They exercise a real, spiritual parenthood.
Likewise, the unmarried can exercise a parenthood of charity, prayer, mentoring, and leadership. But it is in the procreation and education of children, not merely as biological sires, but as spiritual parents as well, guiding ones offspring to holiness and the experience of the life of Christ through the sacraments and through the Christian life, that is the object and perfection of the sacrament of marriage.
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For in the end we should stand in awe of the awesome power of procreation, and not as so many moderns do, as one more technology to manipulate. The power of procreation is the power of co-creation. It is cooperating with God in the origin of new human persons, with individual souls, wills, intellects, and freedom. It is the opportunity to participate in the most intimate way possible with the outworking of providence, the progress of humanity, and of the filling up of the number of the elect. This participation is itself a gift, manifested in the unity of persons so closely that they become “one flesh,” and that marriage becomes an intimate icon of the inner Trinitarian life of God, both loving and life-giving. As St. Francis de Sales says in the Introduction to the Devout Life “[Marriage is] the nursery of Christianity, which supplies the earth with faithful souls to fill up the number of the elect in heaven. Hence the preservation of holy marriage is of the highest importance for the state since it is the origin and source of all that flows from the state.”
In the next part we will discuss some of the challenges to marriage today, from excessive individualism, which destroys the unity of the common good, to materialism, to selfish manipulation of self and others.
Human sin has darkened and corrupted even this most sacred of human attachments, but it has not effaced it. Renewed with the grace of Christ, it is now elevated to a vehicle of supernatural life. All of the challenges that face marriage which we will enumerate in the coming sections are not as powerful as the grace of Christ for “where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more.” (Rom 5:20)