3. What marriage is for

3. What marriage is for
What do people consent to when they marry?
If you don't know what something is for, it is not likely to work out well in your hands. What is marriage for? Does it have a purpose? What is it meant to achieve? What are its ends?
Getting married is a joint affair. You can't marry someone who won't marry you. To marry, two persons must coincide together in the same project, founded on their mutual consent. Consent to what?
What do a man and a woman who marry consent to? What sort of arrangement do they enter? Just to live together for a time? Just to enjoy a sexual relationship for as long as it suits both or just one of them? If it is no more than that, it doesn't sound like any big deal, nor would it seem to justify the usual ceremonies or celebrations that people tend to associate with getting married.
If marriage means something more, what in fact do two people consent to when they marry? What does marital consent imply? What is really meant by that traditional formula still used in so many marriage ceremonies - "I take you as my husband or wife, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, all the days of my life, till death do us part"? As it stands, it already says a lot. But if we want to grasp all that it implies, a short excursion into canon law can help.
The idea of marriage as lifelong union of a man and a woman in order to have a family has been there from the start of recorded history. To defend this natural institution has always been a main concern of Christianity in its teaching and laws. When church law was codified [28] in 1917, the nature of marital consent was expressed in canon 1081: "Marriage consent is an act of the will by which each party gives and accepts the perpetual and exclusive right over the body with regard to acts apt of themselves for the generation of offspring". This, it must be admitted, may be legal but it is certainly not very romantic, expressing nothing of the aspect of a special love between two persons that most people associate with marriage.
Vatican Council II, the main ecclesial event in the second half of the twentieth century, led to a new Code of Canon Law refashioned precisely so as to reflect the spirit of the Council [29]. The 1983 Code describes marital consent as an "act of will by which a man and a woman by an irrevocable covenant mutually give and accept one another for the purpose of establishing a marriage" (canon 1057).
What is the point of this very differently worded definition? The first thing to note is the use of the word "covenant", a term with deep biblical roots which implies a special alliance or bonding between persons. In the Old Testament the word has application above all to the covenant God himself makes with his people, treating them with a love that is spousal and unbreakable, and calling on them to return that same love [30]. Covenant in that sense can offer a key to the most significant phrase in canon 1057, "give and accept one another". Marriage is not just a contract (though it is also that), it is a covenant. In other words it is a very special form of love-contract or bond by which each spouse offers himself or herself as a gift to the other and accepts the reciprocal self-gift of the other [31].
This new definition of marital consent has been rightly described as "personalist". It reflects christian personalism, a philosophy of man in which "to give oneself" - to something worthwhile - is a key condition of personal growth. This personalism largely inspires the anthropological thinking of Vatican II, and finds its most concise expression in a central statement of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes: "man can only find himself in the sincere gift of himself..." (24). The conciliar affirmation may seem new, but in fact it is as old as the Gospel. In its apparently paradoxical form ("give - if you want to find"), it presents the same challenge Jesus put to all his followers two thousand years ago: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" [32]. It is all-important to realize that this gospel program of life, given to us by Our Lord, is in direct contrast with the prescription for living so commonly offered by contemporary psychology - seek self, find self, identify self, esteem self, assert self, care for self, hold on to self, don't let go of yourself...
Jesus flatly rejects this modern prescription, and attaches a dire warning to his rejection. He clearly tell us: if you hold on to yourself in protective self-centeredness, you will never find your real self; you will lose it. The real happiness and fulfilled identity you are made for come only if you give yourself to something worthwhile, opening yourself generously to love (and all true love leads to Me). Thus and in no other way will you find that fulfilment and that happiness.
Christian personalism expresses this radical gospel principle; and only those who grasp this principle will understand the deepened vision of marriage - as a reciprocal self-gift for life - that flows from the Second Vatican Council, and realise that to consent to marriage is to consent to a giving-losing-finding way of life that has been constituted by God and willed by him for the vast majority of mankind.
Married personalism
Marriage represents the most concrete natural type of self-giving for which man and woman are made. As Gaudium et spes also says: the "partnership of man and woman constitutes the first form of communion between persons" (no. 12). Major texts of the magisterium have continued to expound marriage in a personalist light [34] and, as we have seen, marital consent is now explained in wholly personalist terms: that act of the will by which a man and a woman mutually give and accept each other in order to establish a marriage [35]. The man gives self as man and husband, the woman as woman and wife; and each receives the other as spouse. One wonders if the scope and power - the beauty and the demands - of this new formula have been fully appreciated, especially in the fields of seminary training, marriage counselling, and tribunal work on marriage cases.
What does God want people to achieve through marriage?
What, then, was God's purpose in instituting marriage? Or more precisely still, what are the ends God appointed to it - the ends to which the spouses consent if they really intend a marriage such as God designed it?
It can help to avoid confusion here if one bears in mind the elementary distinction between subjective ends and objective ends. The subjective ends are what a particular person seeks in marrying. The objective ends are what marriage in itself, in its divine design, is meant to achieve. Ideally the objective and the subjective ends should coincide. But they may not. After all, the subjective ends or motives for marrying are seldom quite the same in the case of each spouse; rather they can be multiple and indeed infinitely variable. They may be generous and idealistic; or mean and calculating. One person may marry mainly for money or social status or political ambition, another to escape from a home or working situation they find boring or intolerable. One party may think that the main purpose of marry is to please, while the other thinks it is to have pleasure. Even when both marry out of love, the concept of love each has does not necessarily coincide. One may think of love in terms of 'what makes me happy'; the other in terms of 'making someone else happy'.
There can be opposition between the personal and subjective ends of each of the spouses, and this undoubtedly is a main reason why far too many marriages don't work out. Nevertheless that opposition might have been overcome if the objective and God-given ends of marriage had been better understood by the spouses when they thought of getting married; and if later on, when their marriage began to run into the difficulties every marriage encounters, they had recalled those ends more in their struggle to keep their union together.
How the Church has presented the God-given ends of marriage
A further historical note is called for here. A significant development in the Church's teaching about the ends of marriage took place in the 20th century. Theologians had for long presented these ends in a hierarchical fashion; having children was considered the 'primary' end, while there were two 'secondary' ends - mutual help and the remedy of concupiscence. Early in the last century, the question of the primary end began to be debated. A school of thought emerged which proposed "love" as an end to be ranked equal in importance to the begetting of children [35]. For a time it was suggested that this view represented a "personalist" understanding of marriage, whereas in fact it turned out to be extremely individualistic. In any case it has been overtaken by a truer personalism, expressed both in the Second Vatican Council and in the teaching of Pope John Paul II, which has provided us with renewed understanding of the purposes or ends of marriage as they were in the beginning, and of the harmony between these different ends [36].
The influence of authentic Christian personalism is evident in how the 1983 Code of Canon Law modifies the 1917 Code in expressing the ends or purposes of marriage. The common teaching of 100 years ago was proposed in canon 1013 of the old Code in these words: "The primary end of matrimony is the procreation and education of offspring; the secondary end is mutual aid and the remedy of concupiscence". The corresponding canon in the 1983 Code states, "The marriage covenant... is of its own very nature ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children" [37]. Evidently there are major changes here that call for comment. There are also (as one would expect in church teaching) points of continuity that may not be so evident and hence have to be spelled out.
To begin with, one notes the dropping of the terms "primary" and "secondary" regarding to the ends [38]. The change here, as I understand it, marks an enriching development. As we have seen, the idea of a hierarchy of ends was at times debated as if the ends had little mutual relationship and could often be in opposition. The new way of expressing the ends underlines the essential interdependence and connection between them. This is a major point that runs through much of the thinking of this book.
In terms of development of doctrine, there is something even more important to be noted: the fact that the new formula, putting the two institutional ends side by side, reflects and integrates the two biblical accounts of the divine institution of marriage itself. Two biblical accounts? Yes, for here we would recall a striking fact that has seldom been given the attention it merits. The Book of Genesis contains in fact not one but two separate accounts of the divine creation of man and woman and of the institution of marriage. In chapter one of Genesis we read, "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen 1:27-28). The account given in the following chapter is in a quite different key: "Then the Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him"... [And God made woman]... "and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh...". Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Gen 2:18-24).
The first of these narratives clearly stresses the procreative character of marriage, while the other puts equally clear stress on its complementary and unitive nature. Another point stands out. In narrating the institution of matrimony under two distinct accounts (a fact which is hardly to be attributed to absentmindedness on the part of the Holy Spirit), Genesis reveals a divine intention to emphasize the close connection and interdependence between the two aspects or purposes of marriage. It incidentally shows too how groundless it is to speak (rather disparagingly) of the procreative aspect as corresponding to an "institutional" vision of marriage, while the unitive aspect would fall under a more modern "personalist" understanding. It is clear from the Genesis narratives that both the procreative and the unitive aspects are institutional inasmuch as both are clearly proposed in the original divine institution of marriage. As we will try to show, both ends also are personalist.
The "good of the spouses" as an end of marriage
There is little need to dwell on procreation as an end of marriage since it has been accepted as such since time immemorial. Perhaps the only new thing to say about it is that it seems to be an end which many people today are not too happy with and seek to restrict or even avoid completely. We will come back to this later on. For the moment, let us concentrate on the end termed the "good of the spouses" (the bonum coniugum in Latin) which is indeed a new term in ecclesial usage and hence merits proper consideration and analysis.
In my view a lot of what has been written about the "good of the spouses" over the last twenty five years has missed the mark, identifying it largely with the simple achievement of happiness in married life or, as others would put in, with a growing and satisfying experience of conjugal love. This is to make the objective (institutional) end of marriage coincide with the subjective end of most people who marry - which is hardly an adequate analysis. In any case, when the Church speaks of the ends of marriage, it is referring to its objective ends as an institution, not of the subjective ends the parties may have.
Does this mean that there is no connection whatever between the subjective and the objective ends? Not necessarily. As we have seen, the subjective end of those marrying may vary indefinitely. Yet some degree of happiness is the purpose or at least the hope of most people marrying. This is natural and legitimate. However few marriages live up to the happy hopes that most people put into marrying, for the human hope of happiness is really without limit. Such marriages would not seem to have fulfilled the spouses' hopes or ends; does that mean that the end of marriage itself has equally failed? Or are we saying that marriage, as the Church conceives it, has nothing to do with aspirations of love or with the happiness that genuine love is commonly expected to give? No, and very far from it.
One is always speaking superficially of love if one dwells on its "rights" or expectations and not, at least in equal measure, on its "duties" and demands. This is elementary within the personalist philosophy of "fulfilment through giving oneself". True personalism is concerned with the growth of the person towards maturity. Within this philosophy it is, we repeat, the commitment of marriage - with the demands of a faithful and sacrificed love - that brings spouses to the fullness of personal maturity: the maximum development, that is, of their capacity to love. Therein lies their true and definitive "good".
God could have created the human race in a unisex - sexless - pattern, and provided for its continuation otherwise than by sex. Genesis seems to make it clear that creation would have been less good if he had done so; "it is not good for man - or woman - to be alone". So sexuality appears in the Bible as part of a plan for personal fulfillment, a factor meant to contribute to the perfecting of the human being (as well as for the continuation of the human race). The basic anthropological point is that the human person is not self-sufficient, but needs others, with a special need for an "other", a partner, a spouse.
Each human person, in the awareness of his or her contingency, wishes to be loved: to be in some way unique for someone. Each one, if he or she does not find anyone to love him or her, is haunted by the temptation to feel worthless. Further, it is not enough to be loved; it is necessary to love. A person who is loved can be unhappy, if he or she is unable to love. Everyone is loved (at least by God); not everyone learns to love. To learn to love is as great a human need as to know oneself loved; only so can a person be saved from self-pity or self-isolation, or from both.
To learn to love demands coming out of self: through firm dedication - in good times and bad - to another, to others. What a person has to learn is not passing love, but committed love. We all stand in need of a commitment to love. Such is the priesthood, or a life dedicated directly to God. And such is marriage, the dedication to which God calls the majority. To bind people definitively to the process of learning to love was God's original design for marriage, confirmed by Our Lord (Mt. 19:8ff). The married commitment is by nature something demanding. This is brought out by the words with which the spouses express their mutual acceptance of one another, through "irrevocable personal consent" [39], "for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health... all the days of my life" [40].
While this commitment is indeed demanding, it is also deeply natural and attractive. Real love means it, when it says, "I'll love you for always". Among other things, this could suggest that in the education given to our young people, clearer stress should be placed on the fact that human beings, in distinction to animals, are created not just with a sexual instinct, but with a conjugal instinct [41].
Sexual instinct; conjugal instinct
The sexual instinct is natural, developing by itself and quick to make itself present. More than development, it needs control; it is often more intense toward one person, but not normally limited to one. The conjugal instinct is also natural, though slower to make itself present; it needs to be developed; it scarcely needs to be controlled; it is generally limited to one person.
The conjugal instinct draws man and woman to total commitment to one person, to a permanent association or covenant of love, and to be faithful to that freely assumed commitment. The widespread frustration in the area of sex which people sense today, is a frustration of conjugality rather than of mere sexuality. It follows from what we saw in chapter two. As the conjugal instinct is understood, developed, and matured, it tends strongly to facilitate sexual control, by inducing sexual respect. It is normal for a young couple in love to have an ideal of marriage before them: each sees the other as possible life-companion, and mother or father of one's future children; someone therefore who can be absolutely unique in one's life. While this applies reciprocally in the sexual relationship, it has a particular application in how a man relates to a woman for, as we saw in chapter 1, nothing can help a man respect the woman he loves so much as the prospect that she may in the future come to be the mother of his children.
Marital love and marital defects
It is easy to love good people. The program of Christianity is that we also learn to love "bad" people, that is, people with defects. Within our present context, its particular program is that whoever freely enters the marital covenant of love and life with another - no doubt because he or she sees unique goodness in that person - should be prepared to remain faithful to the covenant, even if later on objective or subjective considerations make the other seem to have lost any exceptional goodness and rather to be characterized by a series of maddening defects.
The discovery of mutual defects in marriage is inevitable, but not incompatible with the fulfillment of the good of the spouses. On the contrary, one can say that the experience of mutual defects is essential if married life itself is to achieve the true divine idea of the bonum coniugum. As effortless romance fades, the stage is set for each of the spouses to get down to the business of learning to love the other, as he or she really is. It is then that they grow as persons. Here lies the seriousness and beauty of the challenge contained in marriage: it remains a critical point to be stressed in education and counselling.
Romance is almost sure to die; love however does not have to die with it. Love is meant to mature, and can do so if that readiness for sacrifice implied in the original self-giving of marital consent is alive or can be activated. The idea that true love is prepared for sacrifice strikes a chord which perhaps our preaching needs to touch on more. As Pope John Paul II has written: "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" [42].
Human nature is a mixture and conflict of good and bad tendencies. Are we appealing sufficiently to the good tendencies? Or do we yield at times to the temptation to think that the bad are more powerful? We need to strengthen our faith not only in God, but also in the goodness of his creation, recalling what St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, bonum est potentius quam malum [43]: "good is more powerful than evil", and its appeal strikes deeper into our nature, for goodness rooted in truth remains the most fundamental need of the human person. In Veritatis splendor, it is from our natural quest or thirst for the good that John Paul II builds up his presentation of the splendor and attraction of the truth [44].
Contrary tendencies can be natural. In the face of danger it is natural to feel tempted to be a coward and run away. But it is also natural to want to be brave and face the danger. A mother or father may have a natural tendency toward selfishness; yet they have a no less natural tendency to care for their children: a maternal or paternal instinct. Similarly, while it is natural for strains to develop between husband and wife, it is also natural for them to want to preserve their love from the threat of these strains. What we have called the conjugal instinct calls them to be faithful, whereas a person senses something soft, mean and selfish, in a refusal to face up to the challenge of fidelity. As against this, there would seem to be little that is natural, and nothing that is inevitable, in the phenomenon of two people, who at one moment thought each other absolutely unique, ending up five or ten years later unable to stand one another.
Let us go back to Scripture, for I think we can find confirmation there of this point of our argument. While the expression bonum coniugum or "good of the spouses" may seem new, its scriptural credentials are arguably at least as valid as those of mutuum adiutorium or "mutual help", both being drawn from the very same passage in Genesis. It was precisely because God thought it is not good ["non est bonum"] for man or woman to be alone, that he wanted each to have a helpmate ["adiutorium"]. The helpmate, therefore, was given for the sake of their good: their "bonum". This is the end of marriage that God is proposing in Genesis 2:18. His purpose is that the woman, as wife, be a help towards the good of the man, her husband; and that the man, as husband, be a help towards the good of the woman, his wife. A help towards what sort of good? Here is the confirmation of our thesis. Everything God has made is designed to prepare us for Heaven, to share in his life, in what he is by nature. "God is love" (1 Jn 4:8) by nature. We are not; but we are made for love and can never become what we are made to be unless we learn to love. That is our true good, and for that we have to overcome selfishness, come out of ourselves, give ourselves to others. That is what learning to love involves. Marriage is the normal school of love, and husband and wife are mutually teachers, helpers, and learners all at the same time.
So (the point can scarcely be emphasized too much), marriage is meant not so much for enjoying love as for training in love, maturing in love. There is nothing better a person can do than to learn to love. It is a first condition for finding the relative happiness that earth can offer (if one doesn't know how to love, one will never be happy), and it prepares us for the limitless happiness of heaven.
That then is what marriage, and the family, is really about. Not to make me happy here and now, but to prepare me for eternal happiness, to "qualify" me for the happiness of God himself. Hence those who think that marriage should provide immediate or automatic happiness, are not on God's wavelength. Further, marriage is never just a "me" affair; it is not meant to be me-after-my-own-good (the one-sided approach of selfishness), it is "us", me and my spouse, the two-of-us-together-after-our-joint-good (the conjugal approach) and after the good of our family.
Is it hard to achieve the "good of the spouses"?
Marriage consent means that the spouses decide to mutually give and accept each other. But note well that it is not a decision only to give oneself (which certainly means a lot); it is equally a decision to accept another - which can perhaps mean even more. The true "good of the spouses" results from making both decisions and carrying them out. True conjugal love places a personalist accent not only on the sincere "giving of oneself", but on the no less sincere "accepting of the other": accepting him or her as he or she really is, defects and all. True married commitment - "for better or for worse"; "till death do us part" - is always the pledge of two defective people trying to love each other as they are, defects and all, and to stick to the task. That contributes powerfully to their maturing, their growth and fulfillment as persons, their genuine personalist good - their "bonum".
So, to identify the bonum coniugum, as a divinely given end of marriage, with "shared happiness" does not seem adequate. If one is to make any sense of the practical working of God's providence, the achievement of the "good of the spouses" also involves sharing many things that, to human eyes at least, cannot be termed "happy": ill-health, loss of job, financial hardships, etc. "Shared hardships" can contribute enormously to the "good", the growth as a person, of each of the spouses. Even what might be considered unilateral hardships (such as the burden of a disabled husband falling totally on the wife; or the case of infidelity of one partner, where the other remains faithful to the bond) can serve the deeper good of at least one of the parties, in a way that perhaps would not have been brought about by some easier lot...
Aunt Betsey, in Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, was a bossy but wise woman. When David began to experience the difficulties that came from having married Dora, a very immature and childish girl (only a "child-wife" as Dora herself pleaded to David), Aunt Betsey declined to intervene in order to correct or train Dora, and she told David: "You have chosen freely for yourself, and you have chosen a very pretty and a very affectionate creature. It will be your duty, and it will be your pleasure too, to estimate her (as you chose her) by the qualities she has, and not by the qualities she may not have. The latter you must develop in her, if you can. And if you cannot, you must just accustom yourself to do without them.... This is marriage" [45].
Institutional, personalist, inseparable ends
To sum up. The purpose of marriage is twofold - the "good of the spouses" and the procreation-education of children. One only consents to marry if one accepts and consents to both these ends. Each of these ends is an institutional end - given by God when He instituted marriage. And each of them is personalist in its nature, that is, designed to draw each of the spouses out of self and to grow, by learning to give that self to their spouse and to their children.
Is it possible to separate the two ends, to treat them as unconnected and even in some way as in mutual opposition? In one's mind, yes. In reality, no; not at least without undermining any true understanding of the vital structure of matrimony.
Marriage was instituted for the maturing of the spouses through learning to love each other, defects and all, and so to bestow on one another the great good of a faithful, generous, patient, and sacrificed spousal love. And it was instituted for having and caring for a family, if God so blessed the spouses: instituted, that is, for the procreation and education of children, to be achieved through the passing physical union of husband and wife and through the abiding and growing existential and organic unity between them.
The institution was one, although it is described in Genesis in two distinct versions. It is God who has put these ends together in one institution, and man should resist the tendency to separate them.
Same-sex marriages
Though much spoken about in our contemporary western world, the topic remains a minor phenomenon. Whatever one wishes to make of same-sex unions, the concept of a same-sex marriage makes no sense within any Christian or even natural view of matrimony. God did not set mankind going with a pair of Adams or a pair of Eves, but with one man and one woman, with a masculine and a feminine nature respectively, made to complement one another psychologically and physically to the extent of becoming "one flesh" (Gen 2:24), also as the united principle (parenthood: paternity-maternity) of the family - the first natural cell from which a love-based society can be built up. A 'same-sex marriage' fails on all counts to fit into this natural and logical scheme [46].