Personalism and the "bona" of marriage (Studia canonica 27 (1993), 401-412)

An assumption at times found in current canonical writing is that Church thinking has been dominated for centuries - right up to Vatican II - by an "institutional" understanding of marriage, and that this is now gradually but surely giving way to a more personalist understanding. In the institutional understanding the social aspect of marriage is emphasized and, concretely, its role as an institution for propagating the human race. This understanding has roots that stretch far back into the past. A lot of its strength developed from the doctrine of the three-fold matrimonial "bona" and, later, from the elaboration of the contractual concept of matrimony and from the requirement of canonical form.

            "Institutional" marriage, with all these trappings, is considered by some to have become top-heavy, which would explain why it has fallen into disfavor. In its place there is a growing interest in marriage understood in a more personalist way: with greater emphasis placed on the relationship between husband and wife, on the role and aspirations of conjugal love, and on personal fulfillment; with greater freedom, therefore, from institutional restraints. Part of this whole process, it is suggested, involves a shift of emphasis away from the traditional "bona" of matrimony which are particularly regarded as institutional elements unfavorable to the development of personalism. Ecclesiastical judges (and perhaps pastors in general) are no longer surprised to find that the "bona" are often ignored by couples, or are found, after canonical process, to have been excluded by them from their matrimonial consent.

            To my mind, this contrasting of institutional and personalist, with its implied opposition between the institution of matrimony itself and the personal aspirations of those marrying, is not very satisfactory. Marriage, for a Christian, must surely always be seen as an institution - not of positive human law, but of divine law. In other words, it is not a mere historical invention or a temporary arrangement devised by man - suited perhaps to the human or social "mores" of some particular moment, but which people of a later age could well modify or discard - but a God-given reality which corresponds to man's nature and to the divine plan for man's development and destiny.

            "Matrimony was not instituted by man but by God... From God comes the very institution of marriage, the ends for which it was instituted, the laws that govern it, the blessings that flow from it; while man, through the generous surrender of his own person made to another for the whole span of life, becomes, with the help and cooperation of God, the author of each particular marriage, with the duties and blessings annexed thereto from its divine institution" (Casti Connubii (AAS (1930) 541-543); cf. Gaudium et Spes, no. 48; Familiaris Consortio, no. 11).

            It is this institution - i.e. marriage itself - which can be viewed from a variety of standpoints. For instance, in looking at it one can stress "personalist" values (self-fulfilment, conjugal love, etc.), or one can stress legal realities (validity of consent, capacity, etc.); and then one can certainly draw a contrast between the two views. To my mind, in short, it is misleading to draw a contrast between "institutional" and "personalist", although one can quite legitimately draw a contrast between a personalist and a legal (or even, if one wishes, a legalistic) understanding of marriage.

            Now, with this latter contrast in mind, one can ask: how do the matrimonial "bona" fit in? Are they mere legal concepts or constructs, that restrict the development of married personalism? [1] Or can they too be found to have personalistic value? A look back in history can be of help in answering these questions.

            St. Augustine was the first to speak of the three matrimonial "bona": the "bonum fidei" or the exclusiveness of the married relationship; the "bonum sacramenti" or the permanence of the married bond; and the "bonum prolis" or the procreative orientation of conjugal society. The power of the augustinian analysis is shown in the fact it has decisively influenced catholic thinking on marriage over 1500 years. It is true that canonical praxis has tended to impose a legal understanding of the "bona", seeing them fundamentally in terms of their obligatoriness, and from there proceeding to a consideration of the nullifying effect of their exclusion. But this is certainly not the only way of understanding them. Insofar as the "bona" express the essential attributes of marriage, they cannot be separated from any consideration of matrimony, legal or personalist. My purpose in this article is to consider their personalist implications.

The "bona" as values

            I think it is beyond question that the canonical practice of dwelling on the obligatoriness of the "bona" has tended to obscure their actual goodness. Now St. Augustine did not present the "bona" mainly as obligations, but rather as values, as blessings. "Let these nuptial blessings be the objects of our love: offspring, fidelity, the unbreakable bond... Let these nuptial blessings be praised in marriage by him who wishes to extol the nuptial institution" (De nupt. et conc. I, c. 17, n. 19 (PL 44, 424-425). For Augustine, each of the essential properties of the conjugal society - its exclusiveness, its permanence, its procreativity - is a "quid bonum", 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 of marriage, from which it takes its glory: offspring, chaste fidelity, unbreakable bond" (De pecc. orig., c. 37, n. 42 (PL 44, 406).

            It is not hard to see personalist values in the properties of unity and indissolubility: in a relationship, in other words, which is one-to-one and life-long. The positive values involved here could be spelled out in greater detail.

            The good or value of fidelity is expressed in the affirmation, "You are unique to me, and I to you", which is the first truly personalised affirmation of conjugal love. No lover is content to be just one among the loved one's lovers. He or she - "non patiens consortium in amato" (St. Thomas Aquinas: In III Lib. Sent., d. 26, q. 1, art 3) - wants to have unique status: the status implied in being spouse. "My beloved is mine, and I am his" (Song of Songs, 2, 16; cf. ibid. 6, 3; 7, 10). This exclusive status is what is implied in the "bonum fidei", which is thus seen to have a true personalist dimension.

            Lovers equally wish to forge a permanent bond of love between them. "For ever and a day" is the normal aspiration of human love. Lovers wish to belong truly to each other, with a "belongingness" that is for always. The very personalist emphasis in the conjugal covenant, in virtue of which each gives himself or herself wholly to the other, precludes a temporary gift (a temporary "gift" is not a gift, but a loan). Similarly, a "But, mind you, I can take my gift back", is an approach that is inconsistent with conjugal love. The newer personalist emphases stress totality, also in terms of time. "The total physical self-giving would be a lie if it were not the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving, in which the whole person, including the temporal dimension, is present: if the person were to withhold something or reserve the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future, by this very fact he or she would not be giving totally" (Familiaris Consortio, no. 11). This underlines the personalist dimension of the "bonum sacramenti".

            A further point could be added here. Lovers want a love that lasts, and while they may have only a hazy idea that this will require sacrifice, they naturally sense that the sacrifices are worth it, and that they are ready for them. "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, General Audience, April 28, 1982; Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, V, 1 (1982), p. 1344.

            There undoubtedly are many young people today who seem to prefer temporary liaisons. Insofar as they happen to come within the reach of pastoral care, it is important to remind them that there is something profoundly anti-natural in their approach; and that a temporary or trial "marriage", with the hesitant love it implies, can never get off the ground, precisely because it denies from the outset the very pre-conditions of true conjugal love.

            A true marital gift of self means giving all one has to give, and accepting all the other has to give. Insofar as there is a refusal to give or to accept, there is no real marital donation or surrender, there is no full union; and there can be no conjugal fulfilment.

            To give oneself totally, and to want to receive the total self-gift of the other, is therefore the impulse of human love: this truth underlies the new personalist description of matrimonial consent offered by canon 1057: consent is that "act of the will by which a man and a woman, through an irrevocable covenant, mutually give and accept each other in order to establish a marriage".

The "bonum prolis"

            At first sight the third augustinian "bonum" or value of matrimony - the "bonum prolis" or procreativity - may not appear to have personalist significance as do the properties of unity and indissolubility. Certainly, from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas and down to our days, there has been a constant tendency to present procreativity in a non-personalist way, as an essentially social or demographic matter - designed, that is, for populating the world. Procreation, so understood, was regarded as the principal end of marriage; moreover, in relation to married people themselves, the tendency was to speak of it rather as an "officium" or a duty binding in some way on them. There seems to be very little personalism in all of this.

            In a moment we can attempt to ascertain the personalist aspects of the "bonum prolis". But since there is a tendency today, at least in the Western world, to downplay the procreative aspect of matrimony, it seems opportune first to consider why procreativity is essential to marriage.

            The simple answer is of course that the sexual differences and complementariness on which marriage is based, and the sexual union to which it tends, are essentially (even if not exclusively) oriented toward procreation. It is in fact not possible to give any adequate description of marriage that omits its procreative dimension. Marriage is not sufficiently described in terms of the "bonum fidei" and the "bonum sacramenti" alone, i.e. just as an exclusive and permanent relationship between a man and a woman. A platonic relationship between two persons of opposite sex could after all be exclusive and permanent. In order to be marital, the relationship must be sexual: specifically, it must involve the exchange of rights regarding the use of the complementary sexual potential which characterizes masculinity and femininity (See C. Burke: "Procreativity and the Conjugal Self-gift": Studia Canonica, 1990: 1, pp. 47-48).

            This is what was involved in the older formula of the "ius in corpus", the "right over the body, for acts which are of themselves suitable for the generation of children", considered as the essential object of matrimonial consent (cf. can. 1081, # 2 of the 1917 Code). The formula, which certainly was not appealing, could be and was criticised as too "physicalist". And yet, inadequate as it undoubtedly may be held, it expressed a clear truth: that marriage is a society necessarily characterized by openness to procreative sexuality. Having noted this, let us now consider what personalist elements we can discover in the "bonum prolis".

Personalism and Procreativity

            "Gaudium et Spes" marked a significant advance towards a more personalist understanding of the procreative aspect of matrimony when it repeatedly insisted that "marriage and married love are by nature ordained to the procreation and education of children" (Gaudium et Spes, nos. 48 & 50). The order referred to here is not a merely "biological" order; nor is it just an "institutional" order, affecting marriage simply as an institution. The Council speaks of the very natural order of human love, of truly sexual and truly married love. It is this love that tends of its nature towards procreation. We can try to offer a deeper analysis of why this should be so.

            Man "can fully find himself only in the sincere gift of himself" (GS 24) is a conciliar idea often repeated by the present Pope. Now if self-giving is not to remain a mere phrase, or an unfulfilled wish, it is clear that it must be expressed in concrete and other-centered actions. To give one's life for one's friends is the greatest act of self-giving, as the Gospel teaches us; and even without going so far, many acts of understanding and service mark the self-giving of friends.

            When we bear in mind that for most people the call to self-giving is meant to be lived in marriage, we can ask: what marks the peculiarity of conjugal self-giving? While it can of course be expressed in all the other loving ways proper to friendship in general, conjugal self-giving is distinctively expressed in the exclusive, permanent and total sharing of sexuality, i.e. in sexual self-giving. It is from its procreative orientation that sexual intercourse draws a totally unique capacity to express the gift of self. A person gets as close as is humanly possible to a real gift of self when he or she gives the seed of self [2]. "I give you my heart; here, take it", can be mere poetry. "I give you my seed; here, take it" is not mere poetry. It is a singular act of self-donation by which uniqueness is expressed - "Take what I give: to you alone do I give it" - and intimacy is achieved: "In this our union, what you give to me and I give to you are the very seeds of life. From their union a new life may come, which will be uniquely ours, which will be you-and-me fused into one". Nothing can so properly express the self-giving of spouses.

            After all, why is the self-gift of marriage expressed in intercourse in such a distinctive way that, of all the acts that make up marriage, this is called the conjugal act? What makes the act unique is precisely the reciprocal donation and acceptance of the procreative element proper to each spouse. Its uniqueness, in other words, consists in the sharing of conjugal procreativity. It is only if the spouses share their procreative power that the marriage is consummated, and they become "one flesh" (c. 1061). Their becoming one flesh finds its ultimate objective explanation in the fact that the procreative element which each donates to the other is truly "flesh of his or her flesh", given to or united with the other; while it is subjectively or intentionally realized insofar as each remains open to the possible fusion of their reciprocal procreative elements into a new flesh, a new life, that will be fruit and expression of their conjugal love and union.

            It is therefore in their complementary sexuality that the spouses give themselves to each other. While sexuality of course includes more than procreativity, the gift of the procreative element is at the basis of the conjugal covenant to such an extent that, if it is excluded, no true conjugal self-gift is realized.

            Revelation deepens and completes this personalist analysis. Genesis tells us: "God created man in his own image... male and female he created them" (1, 27). Human sexuality therefore images God. This of course should conjure up no physical image of God. God is not body; there is no sex in God. But there is something of God in sex, in the sense that human sexual love - the union of two - like God's love, is creative. "Male and female God created them. And God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply'" (1, 28). So "Gaudium et Spes" says that since God "wished to associate man and woman in a special way with his own creative work", "true married love disposes spouses to cooperate courageously with the love of the Creator and Saviour" in building up their own family and the family of mankind (GS 50). To ignore this creativity of intercourse is to fail to understand its true personalist significance.

            We follow "Gaudium et Spes" when we say that married love which does not want children has lost its natural ordering. A couple that want to love without allowing love to produce its natural fruit, do not want true sexual-conjugal love. They are denying the nature both of love and of sexuality. They are failing to live sexuality. Their married love is suffering from a lack of true sexual experience, from a lack of true marital sex.

            True marital intercourse marks a sexual exchange which signifies and effects a sexual union. One of the most powerful arguments against contraception is that it de-sexualizes marital relations. It prevents husband and wife from truly reaching one another or, in the deeper biblical sense, from truly knowing one another (cf. Gen 4, 1). The result is that, having made no real sexual exchange, they miss the true experience of the man-woman, husband-wife relationship. They frustrate their own sexuality, depriving themselves of the complementarity and human fulfilment that they, together, can and ought to achieve.

            Contraception, which "contradicts the truth of conjugal love" (John Paul II, Address, September 17, 1983) frustrates the marital union - on the spiritual as well as the physical level - which true intercourse is designed to effect. Each of the spouses looks on the other, and the self-gift of the other, with reserve. There is an aspect to the other's proper conjugal self-gift - his or her procreativity - which each does not want to accept, just as there is an aspect to their conjugal union - its potential fruitfulness - that he or she wishes to exclude. In contraceptive intercourse, as a result, there is nothing capable of conjugally uniting the spouses in any true sense. No true spiritual union is signified or achieved; and while there is use of each other's body, there is no true bodily union either, for there has been no full bodily gift. That of course is why contraceptive intercourse from the strictly canonical point of view does not consummate marriage. It simply fails to unite two people sexually: they do not become one flesh.

The "bonum coniugum"

            One can debate about the hierarchy between the ends of matrimony, i.e. whether procreation is still to be regarded as a primary end, or whether (as would appear from can. 1055) the "bonum coniugum" - the good of the spouses - stands on equal footing. One can also transcend this debate (as I would prefer to do) by considering whether, instead of contrasting these ends, one should not rather see them as interrelated and necessarily connected.

            The "bonum coniugum" is a comparatively new term in canonical usage and its precise meaning and content have not yet been satisfactorily determined. Personally I am inclined to think that its essence is to be found in the line of the "mutual interior formation" of the spouses, their "constant concern to help each other toward perfection", which "Casti Connubii" (AAS 22 (1930) 548) described as a main reason for marriage understood in the sense of a life-communion ("totius vitae communio") or partnership. This view (cf. C. Burke: "The 'Bonum Coniugum' and the 'Bonum Prolis': Ends or Properties of Marriage?": The Jurist, 1989: 2, pp. 706-707) would seem to find confirmation in the passages from the Vatican II documents mentioned - in reference to canon 1055 - in the recent official volume (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1989) annotating the "sources" of the new Code. It is important to note that "Gaudium et Spes" specifically relates the unbreakable character of the marriage bond to the "bonum coniugum" [3]; the point of this surely being that all the effort and sacrifice involved in being faithful to the unbreakable and exclusive character of the bond - in good times and in bad, etc. - serves to develop and perfect the personalities of the spouses. A similar reading is no doubt to be made of that passage in "Gaudium et Spes" which states that "children greatly contribute to the good of their parents" (no 50). Children enrich their parents' lives in many human ways, and not least in virtue of the generous dedication they tend to evoke in them.

The conjugal instinct

            So, our personalist analysis fits in with traditional jurisprudential doctrine about the matrimonial "bona". There is a conjugal gift of self only where the gift is (i) exclusive, (ii) permanent and (iii) truly sexual (i.e. open to complementary procreativity). The exclusion of any of these three elements, i.e. of any one of the three traditional "bona", precludes a real conjugal self-gift and therefore nullifies matrimonial consent.

            It is important to remember that it is not just by a sexual instinct, but by a conjugal instinct, that man and woman are drawn together. It is therefore natural for them to want to find a true marriage, characterized precisely by the three "bona", each of which the human mind intuitively sees to be a "bonum": a good thing.

            This point gives balance and strength when one assesses the modern situation concerning marriage. Insofar as the number of objectively null marriages has greatly increased, our ecclesiastical tribunals have a lot of extra work on their hands. But it would be a grave pastoral error to assume that most people are no longer interested in marriage such as it has always been understood. Such an error, with the pessimism it implies, could only be the result of a radical misreading of human nature. If yielded to, it would have highly negative consequences, leading to inadequate counselling both in the stage of preparation for marriage and in the face of subsequent crises in married life itself.

            The counsellor, before marriage, should be aware of the attractiveness to human nature of the idea of a true and permanent conjugal union, despite the sacrifices it will involve; and should therefore confidently direct an important part of his (or her) counselling toward preparing people for such sacrifices. Later on, when difficulties in married life begin to appear, his advice will carry greater effect if based on the conviction that the idea of faithfulness also appeals strongly to the conjugal instinct.

            Case evidence not infrequently suggests that a marriage could have survived if the party in crisis had been advised, "Be faithful", and that it in fact collapsed because he or she was told the opposite: "Stick to your rights"; "Assert yourself". It can be the advice of poor friends (or, worse still, of poor counsellors) which often tilts the balance in favor of pride, softness or selfishness, and definitively turns people away from the fidelity to married commitments that the instinct closer to their heart wanted them to follow.

            I am not of course suggesting that the conjugal instinct is equally present in every case, or that appeal to it alone will pull a marriage through. Human freedom is an unpredictable thing, and in any event is not likely to work the right way without the help of prayer and the sacraments. But I do think that our pastoral approach to marriage, which seems currently threatened by a certain pessimism, needs to reflect more deeply on the personalist content of the matrimonial "bona", and on the positive way in which men and women are drawn to marriage precisely as characterized by the properties of exclusiveness, permanence and procreativity.


[1] The "bona" "do not, of themselves, encourage a consideration of marriage as a "consortium omnis vitae". They impede, in fact, such an understanding by reason of their restrictive character" Fellhauser, David E.: "The consortium omnis vitae as a Juridical Element of Marriage", Studia Canonica 13 (1979) p. 32. (Emphasis added). Or can they too be found to have personalistic value? A look back in history can be of help in answering these questions.

[2] "Seed" is intended to refer here to the procreative element, whether male or female.

[3] "hoc vinculum sacrum intuitu boni, tum coniugum et prolis tum societatis, non ex humano arbitrio pendet"... (GS 48).