Challenges to Marriage: What is Marriage?: Part IV

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth 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 II here, Part III here, and Part V here.

Continuing with the concept of “hard sayings,” few popes in modern history have been met with such open opposition as when Paul VI issued Humanae vitae regarding artificial contraception.  Though it received near universal vilification, even from inside the Church (something especially painful for the pontiff), Paul VI’s encyclical was one of the most prophetic documents of the 20th century. A prophet is not only someone who tells the future (even though the diagnoses in Humanae vitae were spot-on), but he is someone who calls people back to tradition.

Contraception was nothing new, and neither was the Church’s condemnation of it. All the way back to the Didache, a compilation of Church teaching from the first 100 years of her existence, the Church had been universal in her condemnation of artificial contraception. The fundamental problem with it is that it separates the unitive from the procreative aspects, a union which God intended to be inseparably joined from the moment of creation.

The marriage act is to be one of complete self-donation. When artificial contraception is used, the gift of self, which is the whole person of the spouse, is withheld. Many do not realize that this does not in some way elevate the unifying love of the spouses, but in a very real way risks treating the spouse merely as a device for sexual pleasure.

Pope Paul VI

In the final analysis, artificial contraception is profoundly selfish, it elevates the perceived individual’s need over the common good, and especially over the good of the spouse and in a very real way can degenerate into the mere use of that spouse. As the bishops say, “Conjugal love is diminished whenever the union of a husband and wife is diminished to a means of self-gratification.” As Paul VI so rightly said, we are not the masters of the sources of life; we are merely its ministers. We are called to live our lives in accord with the natures given to us by God, not to seek to twist those natures to serve our own selfish ends.

One of the greatest contributions of the Catholic tradition to the world is the idea of natural law.  There is a law for human nature that we learn from the operations of minds and bodies and from the world around us. This law is planted in creation by the creator Himself, and points us the way to happiness.

By observing the world around us we see that all life tends towards self-preservation, therefore suicide and murder are against the natural law, we see that all life nourishes itself and therefore we are called by natural law to a legitimate use of food, we also see that all life is called to reproduce itself in accord with its nature.

Our nature is to be rational animals, that is, we share much with the material world, but transcend it utterly because of our rational, spiritual, and immortal natures. We are called to reproduce like the rest of the living world, but we are to reproduce according to reason. We can see a things nature by looking at its purpose.

The purpose of sexual organs is reproduction, only secondarily and inferiorly are they instruments of legitimate pleasure. It is contrary to nature to pervert our natural and rational powers (pervert has the Latin root of “to turn away”). It is contrary to the purpose of the sexual act both on a natural and a supernatural level to remove from it the purpose for which it was intended, as the instrument for the continuation of the human race.

To give a parallel example, we are called by nature to a good use of food; it is equally irrational to starve ourselves to death as it is to gorge ourselves by gluttony and drunkenness. Both of these are sinful because we are frustrating the purpose of the creator in providing us with food. It is similar with the conjugal act. It is not there solely for us, but is there to help create communities, between spouses and between parents and children. Thus all artificial contraception perverts the nature of the marriage act, rendering such acts immoral, no matter what type of contraception is used.

This leads us to another distinction, this time between artificial contraception and having recourse to the infertile periods of a woman’s natural cycle, known as Natural Family Planning, or NFP. The Church teaches that recourse to these infertile periods are permissible to a married couple because they do not frustrate the natural openness of the marriage act to procreation. In this way couples cooperate with natural cycles that were designed by the creator, instead of frustrating them artificially.

The Church teaches that even for NFP there must be serious medical, socioeconomic, or personal reasons for having recourse to this method. That said, NFP is essentially different from artificial contraception. Artificial contraception intends to frustrate the purpose of human conjugal acts and is always immoral, but NFP, even when used to limit or space births, is still open to the transmission of life – an essential part of the sexual act. In addition there is always the possibility of recourse to periods of continence, an act of sacrifice that is congenial to true love and which is recommended by many Fathers and great saints of the Church.

One can see the excessive individualism that results in easy divorce and recourse to contraception. Both of these undermine what marriage should be in the full Christian sense intended by our Lord. Both of them serve to weaken marriage and, in part, this has led to our present situation where it is unclear to many people what exactly marriage is.

It seems for many people in our culture that marriage is a way for individuals to fulfill themselves. In contraception they selfishly seek their own pleasure regardless of what nature and God teach. In divorce they seek an illusory happiness based on the idea that if they are not being “fulfilled”; they are no longer required to live according to the solemn vows they swore. This has led to a crisis.

If indeed marriage is nothing other than a path to individual personal fulfillment then, they assert, and since — for them — it bears no real relation to procreation, then one can redefine marriage as merely a voluntary association for the achievement of limited personal happiness.

Consequently, marriage can be redefined to include any free association of individuals who wish to wed. Perhaps even homosexual persons can marry. Once marriage becomes individualistic, dissociated from the common good, and once it forgets that a primary purpose of marriage is procreation, then marriage becomes something essentially different. As the bishops well say this result “harms both the intrinsic dignity of every human person and the common good of society.”

It is not uncharitable to forbid homosexual persons to marry, because it is impossible that two persons of the same sex can enjoy a truly human conjugal union, which is inextricably tied to the unitive and procreative aspects. Homosexual acts violate the nature of sex, for they are completely closed to procreation, they are a violation of nature.

Homosexual acts are not only immoral, they are inherently irrational. Homosexual marriage becomes a contradiction in terms. If marriage is ordered to the unity of the spouses and the procreation of children, and if homosexual acts are intrinsically incapable of producing children, then there cannot be such a thing as homosexual marriage.

Homosexual marriage strikes at the very heart of society. Society requires, for peace, justice, and even material success, stable family unions which represent the complementary relation between men and women ordered towards the procreation of children. Homosexual marriage is then irreducibly dangerous to society. Society cannot permit a debasement of marriage in this way (just as a good society will discourage both contraception and divorce).

As the Catechism teaches, “The denial of the social and legal status of marriage to forms of cohabitation that are not and cannot be marital is not opposed to justice; on the contrary, justice requires it” (CCC 2358). It is not unkind to homosexuals to deny them marriage — in fact it is the height of charity. It is a defense of family and a defense of society itself.

We must never cede the foundations of all human civilization to the whims of the moment. Truth and justice are never opposed to charity, they are rather its fulfillment. This is a teaching moment in our civilization, where all men of good will must take a stand against those whose self-destructive behavior would, even unintentionally, seek to destroy the roots of culture itself.

This is not to say that the Church is targeting homosexuals alone. The Church has always followed the teachings of her Lord, both those He taught while and earth, and those which He implanted in human nature itself, even those “hard” teachings which are difficult for the world to bear.

The Church condemns not just homosexual activity, but all sexual activity outside of marriage. The fact that homosexual activity can never be rightly ordered makes it a special case of immorality, but it remains that no activity which is not ordered to the unity of spouses or the procreation of children can ever be made moral. This includes fornication, masturbation, artificial contraception, and adultery. None of these contributes to building up a truly human civilization because none of them are truly human acts.

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A special problem today is the issue of cohabitation between men and women, either before marriage or as a replacement for marriage. This is problematic because it denies the permanence that is required for truly stable and conjugal relationships, and is especially damaging to children who are born as a result of such unions. One of the unmentioned consequences of such unions is that they most often leave the burden on the woman, for men understand — in their weakness — how easy it is to leave an uncomfortable situation, leaving all the burden on the women. Once again, in condemning cohabitation, the Church is standing up for the dignity of women, in demanding that she deserves a stable and truly human relationship, which is fitted to the proper education and formation of children and which conforms to the humanity of both partners.

In passing I wish to mention that this is related to the present culture of “hooking up” in high school and college. Presented as an achievement for the equality of women in the sexual relationship, in reality it panders to the weakness of men, and opens women especially to any amount of emotional and even physical abuse. Such a culture of cohabitation or “casual sex” is really a culture of human immaturity, and society’s tolerance of it destroys the innocence of youth and damages human persons for all future relationships, thus harming society in the long term.

In the end what is needed is witness. Children need the witness of stable and loving families, in which the parents are eager to lead, under the guidance of the Church, knowing that Her guidance is drawn from the best of all possible sources: nature, reason, experience, and the revelation of the Living God. With such guidance there can be a return to chaste courtship, and a renewal of the concept of dating with a view to an end, the creation of permanent and stable marriages, which is the only legitimate outlet for the achievement of human sexual activity fully realized in its indivisible unitive and procreative aspects.

Donald S. Prudlo is Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He is also Associate Professor of Theology and Church History at Christendom. His specialty is Saints and Sainthood in the Christian Tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (+1252) (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).
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