03. Married personalism and procreativity

            This century has been marked by a widespread tendency to oppose the procreative and the personalist aspects of marriage. Many people in fact have come to think in terms of two quite distinct views of marriage, with little or nothing in common: an older procreative understanding, which would be considered outdated; and a new or renewed personalist understanding. There has been an intense debate about this going on for the past sixty years or more, and it is important to have a clear idea of what is involved.

            On the one hand, marriage is regarded as an institution primarily and essentially directed to procreation. This is commonly termed the "traditional" (or also "institutional") view. On the other hand, it is contemplated as the covenant of love between man and woman, at least equally directed towards love or to the personal "fulfillment" of the spouses.

            It is easy (although it is not very correct) to present the debate - the parties and issues - more or less as follows:

            - procreative or institutional concept of marriage; procreation as the primary end;

            - personalist concept of marriage; spousal self-fulfilment as an equally important, or even more important end

            Let us study these two apparently opposed ways of understanding marriage, not so much to see which is more correct as to see whether we can harmonize them and achieve a synthesis between them.

The question of the hierarchy of ends

            It is undoubtedly true that, before the Council, it was accepted church teaching that marriage has a primary end, which is the procreation and education of children, and that its other ends are essentially subordinated to this primary end. This teaching was reflected in church law, in the disposition of canon 1013, § 1 of the 1917 Code: "The primary end of matrimony is the procreation and education of offspring; the secondary end is mutual aid and the remedy of concupiscence" ("Matrimonii finis primarius est procreatio atque educatio prolis; secundarius mutuum adiutorium et remedium concupiscentiae".). It should be noted that the pio-benedictine Code is the first official document of the Church in which, through the use of the terms "primary" and "secondary", a hierarchy between the ends is established (cfr. U. Navarrete, Periodica 56 (1967) 368.). It was precisely this doctrine about the hierarchy of the ends that was sharply criticized in the 1920s and 1930s by the proponents of the new personalism, who wished to place conjugal love on an equal footing with procreation, or to give it priority.

            In Pius XI's Encyclical Casti connubii of 1931, the idea of primary-secondary ends is set forth, although with a definite enrichment that we will note later on. The pontificate of Pius XII was marked by a strong defence of this position. In a 1941 Address to the Rota, the Pope spoke of the subordination of the secondary to the principal end (AAS 33 (1941), 423.). And there was a noteworthy 1951 Address to the Italian Obstetrical Association where Pius analyzed and criticized certain aspects of some emerging personalist theses:

            "'Personal values' and the need to respect them is a subject that for the past twenty years has kept writers busily employed... [According to some] The peculiar and deeper meaning of the exercise of the marital right should consist in this: that the bodily union is the expression and actuation of the personal and affective union". [Also according to these theories] "If a new life results from this complete reciprocal gift of the husband and wife, it is a consequence that remains outside or, at the most, at the circumference, so to say, of the 'personal values'; a consequence that is not excluded, but is not to be considered as a focal point of marital relations"... "If this relative appreciation merely emphasized the value of the persons of the married couple rather than that of the offspring, such a problem could, strictly speaking, be disregarded. But here there is a question of a serious inversion of the order of values and of purposes which the Creator himself has established... The truth is that marriage, as a natural institution, is not ordered by the will of the Creator towards the personal perfection of the husband and wife as its primary end, but to the procreation and education of a new life. The other ends of marriage, although part of nature's plan, are not of the same importance as the first. Still less are they superior. On the contrary, they are esentially subordinate to it" (AAS 43 (1951) 848-849.).

            One could also recall a 1944 Decree of the Holy Office which rejected the opinions of certain authors who denied that the primary end of matrimony is the procreation/education of children, or who taught that the secondary ends are not essentially subordinate to the primary end, but rather of equal rank with and independent from it (AAS 36 (1944) 103.).

            The hierarchy of ends, nevertheless, is nowhere set forth in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The Council on the one hand chose to emphasize the personalist aspect of marriage, describing marriage as an "intima communitas vitae et amoris coniugalis". On the other hand, while stating that marriage is endowed with "various ends" (no. 48.), it chose (and the choice was evidently deliberate) not to distinguish between primary and secondary ends, limiting itself simply to saying: "By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of children" (no. 48); an idea that it repeats later: "Marriage and married love are by nature ordered to the procreation and education of children" (no. 50).

            It seems unquestonable therefore that Vatican II and subsequent magisterium have avoided emphasizing the hierarchy between the ends (No hierarchy appears in the new Code, nor in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Nor is there any mention in Familiaris Consortio. The only exception is a passing reference in one of the weekly papal allocutions of Oct. 10, 1984.). However, rather than suggesting that this doctrine is outdated and to be abandoned, I would prefer to see a development: in the sense that the Church now wishes its teaching on the ends of marriage to be integrated into a new synthesis. More than a hierarchy or subordination between the ends, the insistence is now on their essential interconnection and inseparability. In other words, the two aspects of marriage - personalist and procreational - are not in opposition, are not independent and therefore not separable; are in fact intimately and essentially interlinked and interdependent. This is a topic that I have sought to consider elsewhere at greater length (cfr. C. Burke: "Marriage: a personalist or an institutional understanding?" in Communio, 19 (1992), pp. 278-304.).

            Let us take a step back and recall the magisterial statements during the pontificate of Pius XII, criticising aspects of married personalism. Taken in isolation, these declarations might well seem to confirm the widespread impression that the personalist understanding of marriage met with nothing but opposition from the Magisterium until, after much pressure, it finally came to be accepted in Vatican II.

            This however would not be an accurate picture. On the contrary, it was papal magisterium itself in Pius XI's great Encyclical "Casti connubii" of 1930, which granted a charter for the development of this personalist understanding. The description of the conjugal union as involving the "generous surrender of one's own person" is first to be found in Casti Connubii, and antedates Vatican II by more than 30 years (AAS 22 (1930), 553. In fact, in stressing that matrimonial consent denotes a self-gift, Pius XI and Vatican II after him are expressing an idea that is deep-rooted not only in the popular consciousness, but also in ecclesial thought. One could recall Hugo of St. Victor's classical definition of marriage as the "legitimate society between a man and a woman in which by equal consent each gives himself or herself to the other"("legitima societas inter virum et feminam, in qua videlict societate ex pari consensu uterque seipsum debet alteri") De B. Mariae Virginitate, cap. I (PL 176, 859); and Thomas Aquinas' comment on this: "As Hugo of St. Victor says, those who are joined should so consent that they reciprocally receive one another"("sicut dicit Hugo de Sancto Victore, eos qui coniunguntur sic oportet consentire ut invicem se spontanee recipiant"): Suppl., q. 45, art. 2 ad 3). In a momentous passage in the Encyclical (ib. 548), Pius XI rejects any minimal or merely human understanding of the "mutuum adiutorium" (the "mutual help" between the spouses which catholic doctrine has traditionally regarded as one of the ends of marriage), insisting that married love must go further and aim at the personal and christian perfectioning of the spouses: "[conjugal love] demands not only mutual help but must go further; [it] must have as its primary purpose that man and wife help each other day by day in forming and perfecting themselves in the interior life, so that through their partnership in life they may advance ever more and more in virtue, and above all that they may grow in true love towards God and their neighbor... This mutual interior formation of husband and wife, this persevering endeavor to bring each other to the state of perfection, may in a true sense be called... the primary cause and reason of matrimony, so long as marriage is considered not in its stricter sense as the institution destined for the procreation and education of children, but in the wider sense as a complete and intimate life-partnership and association".

            The Encyclical gave new encouragement to personalist theories, but had no intention of lending support to such of these theories which suggested opposition between personalism and procreation. Theories suggesting precisely this continued however to develop, giving in effect the impression of undercutting the procreative finality of marriage (Official church statements of the time of Pius XII might well seem to confirm the widespread impression that the personalist understanding of marriage met with nothing but opposition from the Magisterium until, after much pressure, it finally came to be accepted in Vatican II), and they did meet with strong opposition, as we have seen, in the pontificate of Pius XII, especially in his 1951 discourse to the Italian Obstetricians.

            Now, to my mind, the importance of what Pius XII taught in that discourse was the insistence not so much on the subordination of one end of marriage to another, as on the essential and unbreakable interconnection between the ends. What the magisterial teaching of this pontificate fundamentally rejected - the theories that proposed the independence, that is, the non-connection, or the non-ordination, between the ends - is expressed in a positive way by the Council when it affirms the essential ordination of procreation to love and marriage. Therefore it can be said that the Council marks a clear development with regard to the former teaching, but not a break with it.

Personalist understanding of procreativity

            Here we could recall a point made earlier, that it is not correct to oppose a personalist view of marriage, on the one hand, and a procreative-institutional view, on the other. There are two reasons: a) matrimony, institutionally considered, is directed to personalist as well as to procreative ends; b) procreativity, properly understood, corresponds to highly personalist values.

            The first point is of great interest in itself, as I have sought to illustrate elsewhere (Communio, 19 (1992), pp. 287ss.). It is of particular importance for something which we will consider later: the proper understanding of the obviously personalist concept which we find introduced into canon 1055 of the 1983 Code: the "bonum coniugum" or good of the spouses. It is the second point however that should occupy us for the moment; i.e. the relationship between procreativity and personalist values.

            The "ius in corpus" formula no doubt lent itself to personalist criticism; and its omission from the new Code was widely taken as a confirmation that the Church (also in its law) wished more attention to be drawn to the personal side of marriage. In any case, the hostility provoked by the "ius in corpus" could be put down as a reaction against a technical and relatively modern formula, understandable enough in itself and of little further significance. The matter takes on a different dimension however when one sees that the "bonum prolis" - one of the conjugal values which the Church has taught and defended for 1500 years - has also run into criticism and hostility in the name of a certain type of married personalism.

            I say a "certain" type of personalism because I think that what is operative here is not true xtn married personalism at all, but rather that pseudo-personalism which is more properly a form of individualism, of which we have already spoken. It follows the line that Pius XII was seeking to foreclose, and claims that marriage can be fully human and personalist even if procreation is excluded from it.

            The past decades have in fact seen the emergence of a whole "contraceptive philosophy" of marriage. We need to pause here so as to make a thorough examination of this philosophy, a task that calls basically for a personalist analysis of the meaning and value of the "bonum prolis" and particularly of the conjugal act itself

            [Despite some inaccurate suggestions, the personal value of the conjugal act has never been ignored by the magisterium of the Church. It is interesting to recall these words from the already quoted allocution of Pius XII to the Italian obstetricians: "The conjugal act, in its natural structure, is a personal action, a simultaneous and immediate cooperation of husband and wife, which by the very nature of the agents and the property of the act, is the expression of the reciprocal gift which, according to Scripture, effects the union 'in one flesh'": AAS 43 (1951) 850]

            Our conclusion will be that, without a procreative orientation, i.e. without "openness-to-life: a) there is no conjugal act or true conjugal intercourse capable of signifying and expressing the self-giving - the "se tradere" - of marriage; and b) marriage itself is deprived of the "goodness" of the "bonum prolis" (and, as doctrine and jurisprudence have constantly taught, if this closedness-to-life is consequence of a positive act of the will, matrimonial consent is null).

The conjugal act

            Let us consider the apparently personalist basis from which the contraceptive philosophy seeks to work. Taking the conjugal act as a unique expression of married union, it holds that marital intercourse has in itself a fully personalist and unitive significance and value even if it is contraceptive. It says in effect: marriage is primarily about love, and the most unique expression of marital union is the conjugal act itself. It expresses love; it unites. In this lies its personalist function. It has indeed a possible procreational "side-effect" which can result in children. But since this side-effect depends on biological factors - which science today permits us to control - the procreative function of marital intercourse can be nullified, while leaving its unitive or personalist function intact. While contraception frustrates the biological or procreative aspect of the act, it fully respects the spiritual and unitive aspect.

            Now, this contraceptive argument is evidently built on an essential thesis: that the procreative and the unitive aspects of the marital act are separable, i.e. that the procreative aspect can be nullified without this in any way vitiating the conjugal act or making it less a unique expression of true marital love and union. This thesis is of course explicitly rejected by the Church. The main reason why contraception is unacceptable to a christian conscience is, as Paul VI puts it in Humanae Vitae, the "inseparable connection, established by God... between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act" (HV 12).

            Paul VI affirmed this inseparable connection. He did not however go on to explain why these two aspects of the marital act are in fact so inseparably connected, or why this connection is such that it is the very ground of the moral evaluation of the act. Yet, I think that serene reflection easily enough discovers the reasons why this is so: why the connection between the two aspects of the conjugal act is in fact such that the destruction of its procreative reference necessarily destroys its unitive and personalist significance.

            Gaudium et Spes, saying that "the acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable", adds that "the truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify" (no. 49) [1]. Why is the act of intercourse regarded as the act of self-giving, the most distinctive expression of marital love? Why is this act - which is but a passing and fleeting thing - particularly regarded as an act of union (cfr. c. Burke, March 1, 1990: R.R.Dec., vol. 82, pp. 177ss.)? After all, people in love express their love and desire to be united in many ways: sending letters, exchanging looks or presents, holding hands... What makes the sexual act unique? Why does this act unite the spouses in a way that no other act does? What is it that makes it not just a physical experience but a love experience?

            The special pleasure attaching to it? Is the unitive meaning of the conjugal act contained just in the sensation, however intense, that it can produce? If intercourse unites two people simply because it gives special pleasure, then it would seem that one or other of the spouses could on occasions find a more meaningful union outside marriage than within it. It would follow too that sex without pleasure becomes meaningless, and that sex with pleasure, even homosexual sex, becomes meaningful.

            No. The conjugal act may or may not be accompanied by pleasure; but the meaning of the act does not consist in its pleasure. The pleasure provided by marital intercourse may be intense, but it is transient. The significance of marital intercourse is also intense, and it is not transient; it lasts.

            Why should the marital act be more significant than any other expression of affection between the spouses? Why should it be a more intense expression of love and union? Surely because of what happens in that marital encounter, which is not just a touch, not a mere sensation, however intense, but a communication, an offer and acceptance, an exchange of something that uniquely represents the gift of oneself and the union of two selves.

            It cannot be forgotten that while two persons in love want to give themselves to one another, to be united to one another, this desire of theirs remains on a purely volitional level. They can bind themselves to one another, but they cannot actually give themselves. This is why one must always see an element of metaphor in the "traditio suiipsius". The most concrete expression of a person's desire to give himself is to give the seed of himself...

            It is important to note here (and it will hopefully clarify our discourse for the reader who may think that with these anthropological considerations we are straying too far from our main topic)that by "seed" we intend to refer equally to the male or to the female generative element: i.e. to the "elementum procreativum" of either spouse (cfr. c. Stankiewicz, Oct. 29, 1987, R.R.Dec., vol. 79, p. 598.). We are therefore using the term not only in a broadened biological sense, but particularly with a juridic connotation (cfr. c. Burke, April 11, 1988, n. 2ss: Monitor Ecclesiasticus CXIV (1989) IV, pp. 468-477); and also: "Procreativity and the Conjugal Self-Gift": Studia Canonica 24 (1990), pp. 43-49.).

            Giving and accepting human seed is an unparallelled manifestation of personal communion and human love, of love embodied in a unique and privileged physical action whereby intimacy is expressed - "I give you what I give no one" - and union is achieved: "Take what I have to give. This will be a new me. United to you, to what you have to give - to your seed - this will be a new "you-and-me", fruit of our mutual knowledge and love". In human terms, this is the closest one can get to giving one's self and to accepting the self-gift of another, and so being united.

            There is not a mere exchange of gifts between husband and wife, as for instance in an exchange of rings. What one gives to the other is not simply received by the other to become the other's possession. It is a unique exchange where the gifts meet and unite; and where the categories of mine and yours are lost, or are rather overcome and transformed. My gift does not simply become yours, nor yours mine. They unite to become a new being that is not just yours or mine, but ours: our child.

            What therefore makes marital intercourse express a unique relationship and union is not the sharing of a sensation but the sharing of a power: of an extraordinary life-related, creative physical sexual power. In a true conjugal relationship, each spouse says to the other: "I accept you as somebody like no one else in my life. You will be unique to me and I to you. You and you alone will be my husband; you alone will be my wife. And the proof of your uniqueness to me is the fact that with you - and with you alone - am I prepared to share this God-given life-oriented power" [2]. In other words, the gift of self is represented and so to speak materialized, in a singularly expressive way, in the gift of complementary participation in one's personal procreativity.

            These considerations surely lead us to an evident conclusion. If one deliberately nullifies the life-orientation of the conjugal act, one destroys its essential power to signify union. Contraception in fact turns the marital act into self-deception or into a lie: "I love you so much that with you, and with you alone, I am ready to share this most unique power..." But - what unique power? In contraceptive sex, no unique power is being shared, except a power to produce pleasure. But then the uniqueness of the marital act is reduced to pleasure. Its significance is gone.

            Contraception is in fact not just an action that lacks meaning; it contradicts the essential meaning which true conjugal intercourse should have as signifying total and unconditional self-donation ("Contraception contradicts the truth of conjugal love", Pope John Paul II: Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, VI, 2 (1983), p. 563.). Instead of accepting each other totally, contraceptive spouses reject part of each other, because fertility is part of each one of them. They reject part of their mutual love: its power to be fruitful. The love each professes for the other is an incomplete love (cfr. Janet E. Smith: Humanae Vitae: a Generation Later, Catholic University of America Press, 1991, pp. 250-256.).

            In seeking to analyze the concept of marital self-gift, neither anthropology nor legal science can forget that masculinity and femininity include potential fatherhood and motherhood, as a constitutive element of the sexual person. Love between the sexes which excludes that element may be true love, but it is not conjugal love; for in excluding that particular aspect of the other's or one's own identity, it neither accepts him or her totally, nor gives self totally. No "traditio suiipsius" is realized; the other is loved only in part. Conjugality truly understood harmonizes marital love and procreation ("Procreation signifies the complete acceptance of the other": Evangelium Vitae, no. 23.); separation between the two, or worse still opposition, derives from or leads to a false understanding of the whole conjugal relation.

            Marital consent is directed to the other person, in his or her conjugal attributes of masculinity and femininity. Consent to the marital covenant turns the natural attraction of sex into a debt of justice, with reference to the ends of marriage (from which potential paternity or maternity cannot be excluded).

            Later on we will turn our attention to the subject of the juridic relevance of conjugal love. We can already remark here that the mutual donation of the "procreative element" proper to husband and wife confers absolute uniqueness on conjugal love, and distinguishes it from all other types of love: friendship, platonic love, merely sentimental love...

            In true marital intercourse each spouse renounces protective self-possession, so as to fully possess and be fully possessed by the other. This fullness of true sexual gift and possession is only achieved in marital intercourse open to life. Only in procreative intercourse do the spouses exchange true "knowledge" of one another, do they truly speak humanly and intelligibly to one another; do they truly reveal themselves to one another in their full human actuality and potential. Each offers, and each accepts, full spousal knowledge of the other.

            Normal conjugal intercourse fully asserts masculinity and femininity. The man asserts himself as man and husband, and the woman equally asserts herself as woman and wife. In contraceptive intercourse, only a maimed sexuality is asserted. In the truest sense sexuality is not asserted at all. Contraception represents such a refusal to let oneself be known that it simply is not real carnal knowledge (There is a failure to "accept" the full gift - the full self' - of the other: the fullness of his or her conjugal self.).

            Contraceptive intercourse, then, is not real sexual intercourse at all. In contraception there is an "intercourse" of sensation, but no real sexual knowledge or sexual love, no true sexual revelation of self or sexual communication of self or sexual gift of self. The choice of contraception is in fact the rejection of sexuality (for a fuller expression of these ideas, see C. Burke: "Marriage and Contraception", in L'Osservatore Romano (English Edition), October 10, 1988, p. 7ff). Therefore in contraceptive intercourse, the conjugal "traditio suiipsius" is simply not realized, since one or both spouses in fact refuses the effective granting of conjugal sexuality. This is why a contraceptive copula, not being a conjugal act, is not capable of consummating matrimony.

            This anthropological analysis justifies a first conclusion regarding the juridic content of the conjugal self-donation which constitutes the object of matrimonial consent. One of the essential expressions of this gift consists in the handing over to one's spouse a right to share in one's procreativity. In more traditional terms conjugal self-donation is essentially characterized by the property of the "bonum prolis".

            It is urgent to recover a sense of the personalist value of the "bonum prolis": not to see it only or mainly in terms of the obligations it imposes (marital consent being invalid if the obligation is excluded with a positive act of the will), but to understand that since it is a value - a good thing - it is something desirable, and it is natural to want it, and unnatural to exclude it.

            Moreover, conjugal love normally needs the support represented by children. Children strengthen the goodness of the bond of marriage, so that it does not give way under the strains that follow on the inevitable wane or disappearance of effortless romantic love. The bond of marriage - which God wants no man to break - is then constituted not just by the variables of personal love and sentiment between husband and wife, but more and more by their children, each child being one further strand giving strength to that bond.

            Married couples who overponder the burdens involved in offspring and are too easily tempted to limit the size of their families, should recall the Vatican II teaching that "children are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute to the greatest extent to the good of the parents themselves" (Gaudium et Spes, no. 50.). They may be justified in depriving themselves of further children; but even so, they should not lose awareness that this is exactly what is happening: they themselves, as well perhaps as their present children, are being deprived of a singular "good", an enriching gift, a unique experience of human life - the natural fruit of married love.


[1] cfr. "the conjugal act open to the generation of offspring [is] an effective sign of the self-gift of each spouse" ("actus coniugalis ad prolis generationem pervius uti signum efficax donationis suipsius seu utriusque coniugis"): c. Colagiovanni, June 13, 1989: R.R.Dec., vol. 81, p. 415.

[2] The restriction of the idea of the essential conjugal right/obligation to a (perpetual and exclusive) "ius in corpus" can undoubtedly have made it more difficult for jurists also to grasp how a certain contraceptive intent (e.g. the determination to abort), even while leaving the physical copula intact, utterly vitiates its conjugal value and meaning.