The Goods of marriage (in Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine, Our Sunday Visitor, 1997. Ed: Russell Shaw)

The expression "goods" (or "bona") of marriage originated with St. Augustine, one of the leading figures in the history of Western thought. Augustine used the expression "bona" (plural of the Latin "bonum") in the rich and significant sense of "values" or "blessings". It is important not to overlook this, since subsequent use down the centuries, especially in the field of church law, has tended to narrow its meaning and make it appear to be a term of purely technical interest just for canonists. In order to understand its scope, it is important to recall the context in which St. Augustine utilized it.

            St. Augustine (354-430) lived in the declining years of the Roman Empire. After a youth in which he experienced all the unhappiness of uncontrolled sexuality, he was converted, became a great saint, and remains one of the outstanding doctors or teachers of the Church. His writings on marriage make of him a major exponent both of its goodness, as well as of the danger to which the sexual instinct, also within marriage, is subject.

            In his early Catholic years, he defended the greatness and dignity of marriage against the pessimism of the Manicheans, who held material creation, including the human body (and therefore also sexuality and marriage), to be evil. Later on he combatted an error at the other extreme: the pseudo-optimism of the Pelagians who denied the presence of any disordered and selfish element in sexuality, and therefore ignored the importance of married chastity and the need for the grace of God in order to live it (chastity in marriage inspires husband and wife to seek to purify marital intercourse of any element of self-seeking so that it becomes wholly an act of mutual and loving self-donation).

            In St. Augustine's writings, we find constant insistence that marriage is good because of three fundamental values or "goods". He says: "Let these nuptial goods be the objects of our love: offspring, fidelity, the unbreakable bond... Let these nuptial goods be praised in marriage by him who wishes to extol the nuptial institution" (De nupt. et conc. I, c. 17, n. 19). For him, each of the essential properties of the conjugal society - its exclusiveness, its permanence, its procreativity - is a good thing, that gives dignity to matrimony and shows its deep correspondence to the innate aspirations of human nature, which can therefore take glory in this goodness: "This is the goodness ["bonum"] of marriage, from which it takes its glory: offspring, chaste fidelity, unbreakable bond" (De pecc. orig., c. 37, n. 42). So he saw these values as main features of a true marital bond that underline the natural goodness of marriage and make it something admirable and attractive to human consideration.

            The three "bona" are essential properties which distinguish the marital covenant from any other type of relationship between two persons. In brief summary we can say that the three goods or "bona" are: 1) the exclusive fidelity of the marital relationship (one man with one woman: the "bonum fidei"); the permanence of the relationship (the unbreakable character or indissolubility of the marital bond: the "bonum sacramenti"); the (potential) fruitfulness of the union (procreativity or the openness to having children: the "bonum prolis", or the "good" of offspring).

            In passing it should be noted that "sacramentum" (in the expression "bonum sacramenti") does not refer to the sacrament of matrimony in its theological sense. Augustine used the word "sacramentum" in its original Latin sense of something with a "hidden" or "deeper" meaning. The Church has always held that the unbreakable character of the marriage bond is a sign (sacramentum) of God's unalterable love for each human being. The "bonum sacramenti" therefore does not refer to the supernatural means of grace peculiar to christian marriage, but to the indissolubility of the marital bond which is an essential character of each and every marriage also on the natural level.

            We can try to illustrate briefly why each of these essential properties of marriage is truly a value, in close correspondence with the nature of genuine conjugal love between man and woman. To appreciate this is all the more important today when people's natural desire for a true married relationship is threatened by a false idea of self-sufficiency and a growing suspicion of any form of binding commitment.

            To be afraid of committing oneself to what is worthwhile is in fact the surest way of self-frustration. Our Lord told us that it is only by "losing" (i.e. giving) ourselves that we can "find" ourselves (Mt 10:39; cf. Jn 12:25). This remains a main truth of the christian approach to life; and is expressed in a phrase of Vatican II which is the key to "christian personalism": "man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself" (GS 24). One can only "realize" oneself by giving and committing oneself to love: to the love of God, and also to human love (as in marriage), as leading to God's love. Human nature is therefore made for a self-gift in love, and longs to be able to find the love to give oneself to.

            If we consider the self-gift of marriage (and the acceptance of the self-gift of the other; cf. c. 1057, § 2), we find that it is essentialy characterized by the three values in which St. Augustine saw the greatness and glory of the marital commitment.

            Yes; many people today are suspicious of an exclusive relationship. And yet everyone wants to be someone very special in someone else's eyes. Hence arises the good or value of the "bonum fidei", the commitment to a faithful and exclusive love in marriage. "You are unique to me" is the first truly personalised affirmation of conjugal love; and echoes the words God addresses to each one of us in the book of Isaiah: "You are mine" (Is 43:1). The person who does not wish to "belong" to someone else (in a mutual "belonging") consigns himself or herself to perpetual isolation and loneliness.

            Yes; many people today are suspicious of binding themselves for ever. And nevertheless that is what love aspires after: "I'll love you for always". "Love seeks to be definitive; it cannot be an arrangement 'until further notice'..." (CCC 1646). When there is acceptance of a permanent bond of love, one enjoys the goodness of knowing one is entering a stable home or haven, that one's "belonging" to another - and that other's belonging to one - is for keeps. People want this, and while they know that it will require sacrifices, it should be natural for them to sense that the sacrifices are worth it. "It is natural for the human heart to accept demands, even difficult ones, in the name of love for an ideal, and above all in the name of love for a person" (John Paul II: Address of April 21, 1982[Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, V, 1 (1982), p. 1344]).

            Yes again; many people today are suspicious of the burdens of having children. And yet nothing can so express not only the natural desire for individual self-perpetuation, but the even more vital desire of love between husband and wife to incarnate itself in a new flesh. The fruitfulness of the conjugal union fulfils man's and woman's normal longing for self-perpetuation and for the perpetuation, in offspring, of the conjugal love between them. "A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment" (CCC 2366).

            No normal person want to be just one of the wives or the husbands of another. No normal person wants to be accepted as spouse on trial or just for a time. No normal person marries positively excluding children.

            To this we must of course add that, however attractive the marital commitment, it is also something demanding. The moments are bound to come in each marriage where one or both of the spouses undergo the strain of the permanent and exclusive commitment they have made to each other, or feel weighed down by the burden of caring for their children, or experience the difficulty of observing the intimate connection God has established between love, sexuality and procreation. It is important that they should have prepared for such difficult moments, by having frequently called to mind the beauty of generous conjugal love, the fact that marriage is a way of holiness, and the great rewards God has in store for those who are faithful to commitments freely assumed: "Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Rev 2:10). If they pray, they will receive grace from God to be faithful.

            From the viewpoint of anthropology, which studies the natural character of marriage, the "bona" can be said to express the main aspects of the marital commitment which two people in love naturally seek. It falls to legal science to study the juridic aspects of marriage, where the interplay of rights and obligations can give rise to questions of justice. It is logical therefore that the law of the Church has considered the "bona" from the viewpoint of the fundamental rights and obligations they involve, and the canonical consequences if they are not accepted or respected.

            While the Church must faithfully uphold Our Lord's teaching that the marriage bond (once properly constituted) is indissoluble (Mt 19:8), she is also aware that not every apparent marital bond was in fact validly contracted. Then justice demands that this invalid "marriage" be declared never to have existed. Precisely one of the main ways in which this can happen is by the exclusion on the part of one or both parties of an essential property of marriage. If, while pronouncing the proper words of consent, a person internally excludes one of the "bona", this is termed "simulation" (pretending to give proper consent in contradiction to one's real interior intention). If the exclusion can be proved, the Church's tribunals will declare such a "marriage" null; i.e. that in fact there never was any real marriage at all.

            As should be clear, a person who genuinely accepts another as spouse, but later discovers that the other only accepted him or her "on trial", or with the resolution to always exclude any possibility of children, has been seriously wronged; and in justice should not be held to such a false "marriage" bond.

            At the same time, while "exclusion" of one of the "bona" can and does occur, it is important to bear in mind how deeply unnatural it is, at least for a person in love. It directly contradicts the "conjugal instinct" which human love naturally inspires. It means "instrumentalizing" the other person, treating him or her simply as an object of a self-centered experiment in satisfaction, as a means to a temporary advantage. That is why people truly in love do not think of excluding any of these essential values of marriage, but rather look to confirming their love in a singular and permanent choice of one another as husband and wife, with the hope of seeing their love become incarnate in its natural fruit, their own children.

            We should add that not only have church tribunals studied the "bona" mainly as obligations, but a lot of moral and pastoral reflection has dwelt on them in the same light. An unwanted and unfortunate result of this may have been to obscure the natural attractiveness of these "bona" or goods of marriage. A true revival in understanding of marriage as a normal commitment, as a way of fulfillment, and as a supernatural vocation, calls for a renewed understanding of the positive nature of the "bona", of how they correspond to the innate aspirations of true conjugal love between man and woman.