A century of Church teaching on marriage (condensed)

Has Catholic teaching on marriage changed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? Some traditionalist Catholics regard modern Church teaching on marriage with suspicion, because they believe it emphasizes marriage’s romantic or subjective elements at the expense of the institutional aspects. But when we read the relevant papal encyclicals through a hermeneutic of continuity, I think we can see how the essential doctrine remains untouched.

According to St. Augustine, there are three purposes or ends of marriage: conjugal fidelity, procreation, and the sacrament. Which of these is the chief end? The 1917 Code of Canon Law stated that “the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children.” Some Catholics believe that this definition was altered by Pope Pius XI in his 1930 encyclical Casti connubii. In the encyclical, he quoted the canonical definition, but then went on to say,

matrimonial faith demands that husband and wife be joined in an especially holy and pure love . . . this mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof. (24)

And the, just to muddy the waters even more, Pius XI goes on to say that the sacrament “far surpasses the other two” blessings of marriage (79).

So Pius XI apparently holds that conjugal fidelity, procreation, and the sacrament are *all* the most important purpose of marriage. How is this even possible, and is it consistent with prior Church teaching, which identified procreation as the chief end?

There’s a clue in the text of the document. Pius XI notes, in his comments on contraception, that “every sin committed as regards the offspring becomes in some way a sin against conjugal faith, since both these blessings are essentially connected” (72).

So conjugal fidelity, procreation, and the sacrament are all related–but we’re not precisely told how.

Over thirty years later, in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae, we see a shift in language. No longer do we hear of conjugal fidelity; rather, we hear of the “unitive” and “procreative” dimensions of marriage.

Here is the relevant passage explaining the two:

This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.

The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. (12)

Again, we see the notion that the different aspects of marriage are inextricably intertwined–but with a different terminology, which, according to some critics, signified changing ideas. The term “unitive” has been critcized for apparently referring to romantic love rather than to the more fundamental aspects of fidelity or sacramental grace.

It’s hard to argue against this criticism using only the text of Humanae vitae, since the term “unitive” occurs only twice in the whole document and is never clearly defined. However, I believe Pope John Paul II clarified Church teaching on marriage, particularly in Letter to families.

Once again, John Paul II changed the terminology. He neither reverted to the traditional threefold enumeration of ends, nor consistently used the new terms “unitive” and “procreative.” Instead, he described marriage as a “total gift of self.”

In the conjugal act, husband and wife are called to confirm in a responsible way the mutual gift of self which they have made to each other in the marriage covenant. The logic of the total gift of self to the other involves a potential openness to procreation: in this way the marriage is called to even greater fulfilment as a family. Certainly the mutual gift of husband and wife does not have the begetting of children as its only end, but is in itself a mutual communion of love and of life. (12)

The concept of the “gift of self” demonstrates the underlying unity of the different dimensions of marriage–conjugal fidelity, procreation, and the sacrament. In conjugal fidelity, we vow faithfulness to the other. We give ourselves completely, and for life–after marriage, we don’t reserve the right to share our most intimate being with others. In the conjugal act, when it is ordered towards procreation, we also give and receive completely. We tell our husband or wife: “I want all of you–not just the pleasure you give me, but your body and even your children. I want your body, with all its life-giving potential, with no barriers between us. I want your children–your crooked nose, your dark eyes, reflected in a new generation. I want all the mutual cooperation and sacrifice that raising them will entail.” Finally, in the sacrament, the marital gift of self finds its highest meaning through recalling Christ’s gift to His church on the cross.

To say that “the unitive and procreative ends of marriage can’t be separated” is to say that you cannot give yourself only partially. You cannot become one flesh while holding parts of yourself back. The marriage vows demand total, radical openness to the other–a mutual gift of everything that we are, body and soul.

Therefore the three traditional ends of marriage–conjugal fidelity, procreation, sacrament–are all bound up in a self-giving, other-directed love. Through marriage, you fulfill the mission of a Christian, which is to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1).

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