Serious, prayerful reflection on the Church’s teaching regarding married life illustrates that we have made positive strides in developing our understanding of the purpose and goal of married life. This essay is an attempt to survey that development. St. Augustine, in his treatise On the Good of Marriage, describes the three goods (“bona”) of marriage as permanence, fidelity, and openness to offspring; that is, marriage properly understood consists of the conjugal union of a man and a woman for life, of exclusive and mutual intimate fidelity, for the procreation and education of children.
Unfortunately, over time, his perspective on the ends of marriage often found expression as primarily for the procreation and education of children and secondarily, as a remedy for concupiscence—a somewhat limited understanding of why a man and a woman have chosen to marry! This perspective on the two ends of marriage, stated somewhat more positively as primarily for the procreation and education of children, and secondarily the welfare of husband and wife was articulated in the 1917 Code of Canon Law.
However, the Second Vatican Council evidenced an important shift in perspective. The subcommittee dealing with the section on marriage and the family, under the leadership of our own Archbishop John Dearden, chose not to use the hierarchical language of primary and secondary ends to marriage, but rather to describe the importance of both. In the document, Gaudium et Spes, the constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the bishops stated, “But marriage was not instituted solely for the procreation of children: its nature as an indissoluble covenant between two people and the good of the children demand that the mutual love of the partners be properly expressed, that it should grow and mature” (no. 50).
Later, Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae, expresses quite beautifully this inter-relationship between the two ends of marriage. “Married love particularly reveals its true nature and nobility when we realize that it takes its origin from God, who “is love....” (no. 6). “As a consequence, husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives” (no. 8).
Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, continues to highlight the importance of both through the language of covenant, self-giving love, and participation in the very creativity of God.
In its most profound reality, love is essentially a gift, and conjugal love while leading the spouses to the reciprocal ‘knowledge’ which makes them ‘one flesh,’ does not end with the couple, because it makes them capable of the greatest possible gift, the gift by which they become cooperators with God for giving life to a new person (no. 14).
Most recently, in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis recognizes the efforts made by past popes to present a favorable description of the ends of marriage, yet he maintains that many representatives of the Church still emphasize the procreative dimension of marriage over the unitive.
We need a healthy dose of self-criticism.... 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” (no. 36).
Pope Francis addresses this imbalance particularly in chapters three, four, and five where he describes in an engaging and refreshing manner the joys and challenges of married life. In particular he stresses that marriage is first an “intimate partnership of life and love which is good for the spouses themselves”; that the love of a couple will only be able to truly appreciate the joys and overcome the trials of life if there are three in the marriage: husband, wife, and God. He provides a much needed, healthy approach to “the passions” and the role of sexuality in marriage. Finally, one of the most valuable insights of Pope Francis is his recognition of the influence of the couple’s relationship on the health and well-being of their children.
Catholic teaching has developed an affirming and life-giving theology of married life. In Pope Francis’ recent contribution to that development, we are offered a deeper understanding and appreciation for marriage and family life, one that enriches our teaching, widens our pastoral communication, and challenges our spiritual integration.