The Sacrament of Marriage and Its Primary Purpose
A trend that is growing within the Catholic Church is the idea that a majority of Catholic teachings given before the Second Vatican Council are no longer necessary. More alarmingly, many Catholics appear only interested in what the current Pope teaches and declare his teaching as the Catholic position, whether it is in clear contradiction with his predecessors or not. There has been a drastic change in what is taught within the Church today, compared to what the Church taught only a short half century ago. To give an example, we are going to talk about sex and marriage.
For well around the portion of 1950 years, Catholics were taught, and knew, that there were two purposes of the marital act; 1. to bring forth children and 2. to unite the husband and wife together. The order of this matters because the first is the primary purpose and the second is the secondary purpose. The unitive aspect of sex is ordered to the primary purpose; that is to bring forth children.
Does this order of primacy sound strange to you? If so, it’s because you were probably taught that the unitive aspect of marriage is the primary purpose and that being open to children is the secondary purpose. At least this is what many priests, bishops, cardinals, laity, and even the Pope himself teach.
To better understand how this order has switched, it is important that we learn what the Church has said in regards to this teaching, and more importantly, when this teaching suddenly changed. In the Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) we read that there are three motives and ends of marriage:
We have now to explain why man and woman should be joined in marriage. First of all, nature itself by an instinct implanted in both sexes impels them to such companionship, and this is further encouraged by the hope of mutual assistance in bearing more easily the discomforts of life and the infirmities of old age.
A second reason for marriage is the desire of family, not so much, however, with a view to leave after us heirs to inherit our property and fortune, as to bring up children in the true faith and in the service of God. That such was the principal object of the holy Patriarchs when they married is clear from Scripture. Hence the Angel, when informing Tobias of the means of repelling the violent assaults of the evil demon, says: I will show thee who they are over whom the devil can prevail; for they who in such manner receive matrimony as to shut out God from themselves and from their mind, and to give themselves to their lust, as the horse and mule which have not understanding, over them the devil hath power. He then adds: Thou shalt take the virgin with the fear of the Lord, moved rather for love of children than for lust, that in the seed of Abraham thou mayest obtain a blessing in children. It was also for this reason that God instituted marriage from the beginning; and therefore married persons who, to prevent conception or procure abortion, have recourse to medicine, are guilty of a most heinous crime nothing less than wicked conspiracy to commit murder.
A third reason has been added, as a consequence of the fall of our first parents. On account of the loss of original innocence the passions began to rise in rebellion against right reason; and man, conscious of his own frailty and unwilling to fight the battles of the flesh, is supplied by marriage with an antidote by which to avoid sins of lust. For fear of fornication, says the Apostle, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband; and a little after, having recommended to married persons a temporary abstinence from the marriage debt, to give themselves to prayer, he adds: Return together again, lest Satan tempt you for your incontinency.
The Catechism of the Council of Trent declares that the purpose of marriage is ordered and that bearing children is a higher purpose than that of sexual intimacy. What is raised to a higher purpose is that marriage allows for a man and a woman to assist each other in this earthly life to obtain their reward in the next life.
Jumping ahead to the 20th century, in 1930, Pope Pius XI penned his encyclical Casti Connubii on Christian Marriage. He writes:
Thus amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place. And indeed the Creator of the human race Himself, Who in His goodness wishes to use men as His helpers in the propagation of life, taught this when, instituting marriage in Paradise, He said to our first parents, and through them to all future spouses: “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth.” As St. Augustine admirably deduces from the words of the holy Apostle Saint Paul to Timothy when he says: “The Apostle himself is therefore a witness that marriage is for the sake of generation: ‘I wish,’ he says, ‘young girls to marry.’ And, as if someone said to him, ‘Why?,’ he immediately adds: ‘To bear children, to be mothers of families’.” – Paragraph 11
The second blessing of matrimony which We said was mentioned by St. Augustine, is the blessing of conjugal honor which consists in the mutual fidelity of the spouses in fulfilling the marriage contract, so that what belongs to one of the parties by reason of this contract sanctioned by divine law, may not be denied to him or permitted to any third person; nor may there be conceded to one of the parties anything which, being contrary to the rights and laws of God and entirely opposed to matrimonial faith, can never be conceded. – Paragraph 19
Pope Pius XI further reiterates the teachings of the Council of Trent in highlighting the purpose of marriage, in that children are the primary purpose and intimacy is the secondary. If you have never read this encyclical, I encourage you to do so, as it is full of beautiful teachings on how to live a good, holy, Catholic marriage.
Pope Pius XI penned this encyclical as a response to the rising demand of birth control that was beginning to take place in secular society and starting to creep into the mindset of many within the Church. In fact, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, felt that this encyclical was a personal attack against her as she was fighting tooth and nail to make birth control legal within the United States. Unfortunately, this encyclical did not stop many from writing books and articles that tried to provide confusion amongst the faithful.
In a decree declared by the Holy Office on April 1, 1944, we read:
Certain publications concerning the purposes of matrimony, and their interrelationship and order, have come forth within these last years which either assert that the primary purpose of matrimony is not the generation of offspring, or that the secondary purposes are not subordinate to the primary purpose, but are independent of it.
In these works different primary purposes of marriage are designated by other writers, as for example: the complement and personal perfection of the spouses through a complete mutual participation in life and action; mutual love and union of spouses to be nurtured and perfected by the psychic and bodily surrender of one’s own person; and many other such things.
In the same writings a sense is sometimes attributed to words in the current documents of the Church (as for example, primary, secondary purpose), which does not agree with these words according to the common usage by theologians.
This revolutionary way of thinking and speaking aims to foster errors and uncertainties, to avoid which the Most Eminent and Very Reverend Fathers of this supreme Sacred Congregation, charged with the guarding of matters of faith and morals, in a plenary session, on Wednesday, the 28th of March, 1944, when the question was proposed to them “Whether the opinion of certain recent persons can be admitted, who either deny that the primary purpose of matrimony is the generation and raising of offspring, or teach that the secondary purposes are not essentially subordinate to the primary purpose, but are equally first and independent,” have decreed that the answer must be: In the negative.
We see that there is a good track record within the Church as to what marriage is, the primary and secondary purpose of marriage, as well as the holiness of the Sacrament if practiced by loving our spouse as Christ loved His Church. But after the Second Vatican Council, we see this has changed to some extent.
Jump ahead to today. Pope Francis recently released his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia and had this to say in regards to the unitive aspect of marriage:
We need a healthy dose of self-criticism. Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation. Nor have we always provided solid guidance to young married couples, understanding their timetables, their way of thinking and their concrete concerns. At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite. – Paragraph 36
Pope Francis argues at best that the two are equal, or at worse that the unitive aspect is greater than the procreative aspect. One could give the benefit of the doubt, but knowing what we have seen from both the Synod on the Family and Amoris Laetitia it would be hard to assume that Pope Francis doesn’t believe that the purpose of bringing a couple together is for unity.
To further demonstrate that this teaching has changed, we can look no further than the Church’s laws in the Code of Canon Law.
From the 1917 Code of Canon Law #1013:
1) The primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children. It’s secondary end is mutual help and the allaying of concupiscense. 2) The essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility, which acquire a particular fitness in Christian marriage by reason of its sacramental character.
As opposed to the 1983 Code of Canon Law #1055:
The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman establish themselves a partnership of their whole life, and which of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and the procreation and upbringing of children, has, between baptized, been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.
The evidence is clear. We can see something has changed. From the beginning of the Church up until the Second Vatican Council, the Church was clear and concise in her teaching stating that the primary purpose of marriage was the rearing and bringing up of children, with a secondary purpose ordered to the first of the unity of husband and wife. Then, in 1983, it was codified that the primary purpose of marriage was the uniting of husband and wife, and then the secondary purpose of marriage was from this uniting, if it was God’s will, that a child would come forth, but not necessarily.
If the doctrine of marriage and its purpose are allowed to be changed ever so slowly to the point where we see an inversion has occurred, then we must ask the hard question of what other teachings can change over time? Contraception? Abortion? Reception of communion by those in second marriages? And if the doctrine was wrong before, then how do we know it is right now? And if the Church was wrong before, then how can we be confident that the Church can even proclaim the Church if it is fallible?
Spot on. Next up, Jeff discusses the myriad abuses of NFP, questions its necessity at all, and watches the combox explode with angry comments.
In my initial draft, I had written something up about NFP, but decided against it as it didn’t seem appropriate in this article.
Wonderful clarity. Thank you for continuing to publish the beautiful love and logic that is Catholicism here!
Thank you. I do my absolute best to share what is truly Catholic.
If a Catholic couple are not first united or brought closer (ie made one) by the sacrament of matrimony, then sex/procreation is not even licit!
I don’t see a substantial change in the purpose of marriage being put forth here. I see a clarification or deeper understanding of marriage, especially sacramental marriage, being developed more clearly…which is in fact how revelation unfolds over time.
The recent document on marriage and the family by Pope Francis, “Amoris Laetitia” may contain some ambiguity allowing for abuse, but at the time this article was written it had not even been promulgated.
If you want to call A.L proof of your argument that the primary function of marriage has been changed, I would suggest you don’t understand it’s intended purpose, however ambiguously it was worded. I believe the Pope is protected from putting forth any false ex-cathedra teaching. Other than that his opinion can and should be challenged if it contradicts long standing dogmatic declarations.
It seems I was wrong on the date of publication re Amoris Laetitia as you referred to it in the article. I don’t see any way to edit mu post but my point is the same.
ie Marriage must “first” unify the couple before procreation is even licit. The primary/secondary argument can easily become Pharisaical nit-picking.
In the case of sterile couples, what is the “primary” purpose of matrimony?