Confusion Over the Meanings of Marriage

Editorial FAITH Magazine March-April 2006

The "Ends" of Marriage: An Unresolved Teaching

The old Code of Canon Law (1917) stated that “the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of offspring; the secondary end is mutual love and support, and the remedying of concupiscence”. The new Code (1983) explains that marriage “of its own nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses, and to the procreation and upbringing of children". Some have interpreted this as a reversal of the order of importance and this has caused problems for theology and catechesis.

Humanae Vitae (1968) talked of the procreative and unitive meanings of the marital act as governed by “two divine laws” which were in harmony, and the relevant teaching of the Church is often presented in terms of these two equal ‘polarities’ and their inseparability. Humanae Vitae implicitly illustrates the difficulties which the Church has had ever since in handling the ‘two poles’ idea. In paragraph 24 it encourages scientists to research Natural Family Planning, not directly because of the need to lessen unwelcome pressures upon couples, but because of the need to disprove the potent idea that there might be a “contradiction” between the two ends. Paragraph 13 could be read as suggesting that some of the unitive meaning might remain even if the procreative is actively (and immorally)removed.

This seems to be the line which the distinguished priest-philosopher Martin Rhonheimer develops (certainly beyond Pope’s Paul's intention) in his recent controversial suggestion that certain uses of the condom within marriage are permissible. Later in this edition of Faith, Professor Luke Gormally articulately highlights the confusion over the concept of ‘procreative intention’ into which Rhonheimer has slipped.

It is essential, then, that the nature of the link between the procreative and the unitive should be properly explored. Without some clear description of the connection between the two, the coherence of our twentieth century doctrinal development and of our twenty-first century catechesis in this vital area will continue to be undermined. We will suggest below that further development should involve a return, in a certain sense, to the traditional precedence of procreation. Only in this way can we give a coherent explanation of the unitive dimension.

New Emphasis on the "Unitive"; Risks of Misunderstanding

Tne increasingly popular way of defending the serious wrongness of contraception is to depict it as an infringement of the unitive meaning of the sexual act. By ‘unitive’, ‘total self-giving’ is usually implied; this being undermined by holding back one’s faculty of fertility. But this approach is problematic. None of us is perfect, we all hold back in our loving. Perfection in loving intention cannot be expected of spouses, yet such imperfection cannot make a good act intrinsically disordered.

Moreover, emphasising the integrity of the ‘unitive’ dimension tends to focus on personal, subjective experience–on yearning to experience a 'high' in loving as two in one flesh–in which case the procreational potency of this act of communion inevitably becomes consequential, and in that sense secondary.  

This approach is not too far from the understanding of so many young people today, who see sex as ‘the highest and fullest expression of loving’. For them the link with procreation is indeed secondary. Procreation may often still be seen as a good thing, even the ideal, but it is the subjective experience of loving that is primary in this approach. Surely it is clear that it is this latter attitude which has been so important in undermining the belief that sex is exclusively for marriage.
The difference in understanding and behaviour between those who went to Catholic schools and those who did not does not seem that large. Any difference between what they were taught at school concerning sex and love usually comes over as quite marginal. And parents, Catholic or not, whilst so often sincerely concerned, can share a similar and genuine confusion.

One thing alone has made a deep impression on so many minds, and it has nothing to do with plain lust. If you love deeply and nobly, then you have a right to sex. Whilst there may be greed, humbug or arrogance in the increasingly frequent experiments of teenagers, there is more often just confusion and ‘a sweet love blasted in the bud.’

The Exaltation of The Subjective

The emphasis in this line of thought is on sexual union simply as a subjective, interpersonal relationship of ‘loving’; what might be called its ‘unitive aspect.’ The ‘total self-giving’ in this way of thinking lies in the meaning of the psychological experience, whether or not it is fertile.

Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body has provided a much needed boost to recognizing meanings built into the human body. This approach tends to emphasize the symbolism of radical mutual self-giving, in the image of Christ and His Church. The challenge then becomes to explain what specifically is the symbolic activity that is necessary for this; how does the symbolism work, and, for orthodoxy, why must it involve openness to procreation? Without answering these questions, this thinking can stray into comparisons (which one has heard made) between the subjective experience of this sexual self-giving and the mutual Self giving in the inner life of the Holy Trinity. One must remember that our Lord’s definition of the greatest love had nothing inherently to do with sex, namely giving upone’s life for one’s friends, as he himself did.

Putting Procreation Back At the Centre of Sex

In the end one is forced to fall back on the distinction we used to make between the primary and the accompanying ends of marriage and of the act of sexual communion. In so doing, the modern assumption of the unitive aspect of sexual intercourse as a personal, joy- giving bonding — primarily subjective and emotional, not objective and procreational in its meaning—is at least challenged. We need to argue that this newly introduced polarity of the ‘unitive’ and the ‘procreative’ can only mean that the unitive is defined through the procreative, which involves a primacy of the procreational office of the act. There is no other way of making intelligible sense of the solemn doctrine of the Church.

Few of us would die in the breach for the formulation of the ends of marriage as set out so tersely in the 1917 Code. Actually this specific formulation was never formally part of the tradition. We do need many of the developments of the modern age. We also need to get beyond that crude distinction of 'ends', in which they almost seem to compete with each other, such that any link between them seems extrinsic to what they are in themselves.

We offer numerous attempts to do this in this issue. They will all suggest that a certain primacy for the procreative meaning of the marital act should not be dropped. We think such an approach is necessary for an orthodox answer to dissent. An approach, moreover, that is in line with the unbroken witness of the Church and the obligations she has imposed on consciences in the name of Christ over two thousand years,

If we do not teach ‘new life’ as the primary end of sexual communion and of marriage as a sacrament, then in fact, though not in intention, we will tend to centre the whole meaning of sexual union around the sexual act itself and its bodily pleasure. This is what is happening—the whole experience of sexual love and its definition, in and out of marriage, is slipping into orbit around the sexual act.

The Second Re-emphasis: Original Sin

If we are to develop some of the orthodox ‘new insights’ about marriage, there is one more traditional insight that needs to be re-emphasised. This concerns the very experience of love, attraction and erotic desire; that experience which is sadly more and more becoming the main criterion by which the act of sex is evaluated. We cannot leave out of our interpretation of the experience of loving union the fact that it, along with all our experience, is not necessarily perfectly good. We are wounded. We suffer from what used to be called concupiscence or ‘disordered desire’, an imbalance in all our desires, not least the experience of the erotic.

Recently, in his first Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict has beautifully set the goodness and delight of the love of man and women—and indeed wider loves— in the context of the sacrificial love of agape and the ecclesial service of caritas. As William Oddie brings out very well later in this issue, this is indeed the primary message of Christianity with regard to morality, and it is not at all inconsistent with recognition of sin, weakness and the need for purification of which the Pope speaks. When evaluating the meaning of marriage, we need to acknowledge that our normal reactions and desires are not infallibly good. The entire theology of sexuality in the Church, from the Fathers of the East to Augustine and Aquinas in the West and down to our own time, has taken account ofthe consequences of concupiscence in the psyche of human beings.

The familiar complaint about negativity in the Church’s teaching in this area has been repeated in the Tablet's post Deus Caritas Est editorials. Christianity talks of sin, guilt, suffering, evil, disorder not because it is primary—which it is not—and not because it is fun —which it is not— but just because it is real. Sometimes this 'negativity' is blamed on St Augustine. Actually one has to go back before the Fall and its ‘punishments’ to be completely clear of negativity in our assessment of human experience.

Two Principles of Confusion

In the editorial of Faith Sept/Oct 1986, Holiness in the Twenty-first Century Edward Holloway wrote:
“Two principles of error in particular mark present derogation from the Church’s traditional and apostolic doctrine of chastity in the human person. The denial of Original Sin as a true fall from harmonious order between body and soul in response to God’s will and God’s truth, and the denial of any distinction of principle in human nature between body and soul, matter and spirit. If these two errors are linked, there is found the basis for a convenient, and utterly destructive hedonism. If matter and spirit are only the one order of being and of nature, then you can insist that the ‘affection’ of loving is just one linked and commingling experience of joy and pleasure. If the joy of spirit in the love of a deep and good partner, boy or girl, brings with it the delight of tenderness incaress and touch, you may accept it all as one.

If the same twin joys prompt and bring in erotic arousal as well—you may accept all three together as just the ‘one affect’, one ‘loving’, one total experience. This last is the modern lie. Body and soul make one person, a spiritual love may lead to and be expressed in the delight of tenderness, yes. The genital pleasure however is not of one kind, species, and natural arousal as ‘all human loving’. Once this error is accepted, then you can no more forbid the personal solitary perversion of sexual pleasure, homosexuality, or premarital sex, than you can forbid fornication and adultery. Loving, in body and in soul, in all aspects of the flesh, has become one undivided pleasurable experience, of which the genital, in adulthood is the final ‘top up”.

Original Human Nature

The reality of Original Sin and of the Body-Soul distinction can be explained and explored by reference to the natural physical world. Nature below man is not a haphazard coupling of blind desire. There is a natural harmony of times and seasons, governed by natural law; that is to say, by a successive harmony which turns on, and turns off periods of desire in terms of proper times and seasons. In their natural state, un-confused by human domestication, it is the environment which controls this ordered response in all life below mankind.

Creation by evolution would only emphasize this truth, not undermine it. It would mean that the soul was created into a brain-centred animal body which now, as a result of its physical mutation, required this higher principle of being and of determination to intelligent life and purpose.
It would mean that the spiritual soul, which is not a material energy and which cannot evolve, would inherit a body already made to obey its natural seasons of purpose and right use. This natural obedience is now made subject to the soul. It would be taken up in the order of grace and would be governed by the wisdom of the soul, not by the material environment, in terms of right and wrong, good and bad.

The Real Impact of Original Sin

It is this which would give what theology has called ‘immunity from concupiscence’ in the state of original holiness and justice. In the beginning, by the coming together of a flesh which looked naturally for control and direction, and a spirit which lived in communion with the wisdom of God, there was the perfect and harmonious Adam, ‘naked and not ashamed’. In man and woman as God made them there was one harmony of natural law and peace in the spiritual wisdom of God through grace.

Thus Original Sin (and its consequences) is not just the fact of a fall from grace and destination in God, it is also a fact of human biology, a fall from proper union and harmony in the flesh and in the psyche of Man. It is therefore a real and an intrinsic wounding of our nature. At the same time, man’s body of flesh can never be 'totally corrupt'. A law of 'seeking for its proper good' belongs to everything God has made, including the order of animal life before there was Man. God’s lawful rule can never be wholly eradicated from the flesh. But the flesh is also made to be controlled and ruled by the soul, and the fallen intellect has now imposed its own conflicting 'law' of self-adoration and lust within the body. We are redeemable, but we will remain damaged until the resurrection ofthe flesh in the likeness of the Risen Christ. Nobody has ever put it as poignantly or as clearly as St. Paul in the epistle to the Romans chapters 5 to 8, especially 7:21-23.  

Traditional Distinctions Concerning Joy

Out of this synthesis and vision of Man will—indeed must—arise the doctrine and philosophy of love traditional to the Catholic Christian Church. Because we are unities of spirit and matter, there must be a joy common to all our loving, a joy in soul and body. This joy is naturally expressed in the flesh as tenderness and caress. But some pleasures specific to bodily function are not there to be enjoyed as aspects of enjoyment or ‘loving’ at all times, either in the animal world or even less in man’s higher spiritual order. They belong to their natural function and finality, they are not concomitant with all joy and loving.

Such are eating and drinking and the erotic pleasure; these are specified by the ends they serve. Men destroy themselves by addictions of their own making—alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, and the various addictive, ‘kick’ drugs. These are taken for sensual pleasure of one kind or another as sheer ends in themselves. Sensual addiction of any sort attacks the spiritual life and the experienced joy of communion in God.

Sexual desire is overdeveloped in fallen man, even as a yearning on the biological level. Even in the noblest spirits perfect control is absent. The Catholic Church values the virtue of chastity (along with most serious religions) not as a demeaning of that function which populates heaven, nor of its good and natural pleasure. Rather it serves the re-integration of man’s psyche towards the wise control of the fallen, stormy passions of a damaged nature.

The Original Meaning of Sex and Love

Sex is not simply for loving. It is for family in a consecrated state of loving, and makes that loving an office and a ministry in the Church, in time and for eternity. It fosters and forms a couple in that unity which is ordered to the ministry of parenthood.

In the state of original holiness, God placed a law between the functions and pleasures of the flesh and the wisdom of the soul, which was to interpret that law in terms of truth, goodness and our personal growth to fulfilment. Sin has confused that ‘natural law’, which is God’s truth in nature, but cannot replace it. Sin has made it so very, very hard for us, but no other law of truth can be given to our nature simply because it is fallen. Christ has restored the dignity and sacrament of the “two in one flesh”. Christ’s grace can heal and does so, but it cannot undo what is a form of biological damage in the relationship between body, soul and the original order established by God.

God’s intention was, God’s best intention still is, that every baby be a wanted baby. In an unfallen human order, where this outcome were in doubt, sexual union would not be engaged in. In sexual communion, the spiritual happiness in each other and in God, as well as the total joy of flesh and spirit of the spouses, is meant to be taken up in a common joy unto God. The act of sexual union is truly unitive only to the extent that it is one with the meaning of God’s will, within the covenant of body and soul which is Christian marriage. This is the sincere ‘self-giving’ which is a great sacrament in the Person of Christ and His creative relationship through marriage to His People, the Church (Eph. 5:23-33). If the openness to life is deliberately and completely excluded or blocked later,then the physical aspect of the union does not have its specific finality at all, and neither is the communion spiritually unitive as a human relationship. For it is through specific finality that physical things gain holistic unity.

The ‘two in one flesh’ that is achieved through the marriage act integrally ordered to progeny, will itself be ordered to the ministry of their education and formation (cf. Luke Gormally’s article in Faith, Nov/Dec 2004, Marriage: The True Environment of Sexual Love). Formation for parenthood is inherent to authentically unitive sex.

Conclusion: Loving in God’s Truth, the Only ‘Free' Love

Such an approach can reinvigorate our vision of the unitive in married loving which comes from the spirit and transcends sex whilst being built upon it. It will also affect our interpretation of the joys and desires of human loving. For Original Sin is not simply an abstract academic doctrine, as it often tends to be treated.

In Faith Movement we find this integrally Catholic approach has helped us in teaching personal discernment between the good and beautiful and the bad and the ugly, whether for the young under so many temptations or for spouses under various pressures. Later in this issue we have attempted to do this for the person-in-the-pew in our introduction to the new, pastorally focused column: ‘The Truth Will Set You Free’.

In teaching all this, in making the distinction of order and element, of true and untrue concerning love as a psychological experience, we have to talk clearly and objectively. We have to be able to state that the primary purpose of marriage as a sacrament, and of its bodily union as an act, is the blessing of offspring within a ministry of consecrated love. This covenant and ministry images the communion of Christ with Mankind, through his Church. This human covenant, in its fidelity and indissoluble bonding, fulfils every natural and complementary quality between the sexual natures of the spouses, as John Paul II has brought out for us. Therefore what God has re-united in One Adam—“as it was in the beginning”, reflecting the communion between our flesh and Christ’s—let us not putasunder.


Faith Magazine

March - April 2006