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Avoiding the ‘End’ of Marriage

Marriage_Church_Stock_PhotosAround the world, it’s the end of marriage as we Catholics knew it.

Right? Well, maybe. It depends on how old you are. Do any of us alive today ever really remember a time when Church and State were completely in sync on the meaning and purpose of marriage? Can you remember a time when all divorce was illegal? Nope, neither do I. Civil authorities have been “ending” marriages (in their view) for a long time, which means that the beginning of the “end of marriage” came long before same-sex “marriage.”

The more important question might be: Were we Catholics really ever taught about the ends of marriage?

The Magisterium has been teaching about the ends of marriage almost forever, but in the half-century since the Second Vatican Council, a good many of us never learned the classic formula regarding the “primary and secondary ends” of divinely instituted marriage:

The primary end of Matrimony is the procreation and education of the children; the secondary end is mutual aid and a remedy for concupiscence. [Canon 1013, #I, 1917 Code of Canon Law ]

What happened to this formula? It wasn’t used in the Council documents; it wasn’t used in Humanae Vitae; it’s not in the current Code of Canon Law; and it’s not in the Catechism.  Basically, as I see it, in the last 50 years there has been a well-intentioned attempt to a) defuse arguments in the contraception debate over why procreation is primary and mutual aid is secondary, and b) emphasize the intrinsically inseparable connection between these ends rather than emphasizing which is primary.

Add to this the important and welcome influence of the “personalist” philosophies of some great theologians of the Church such as Dietrich Von Hildebrand and St. John Paul II. It is important to understand the more subjective primary “meaning” of marriage as “mutual aid” or love of the spouses (like von Hildebrand did) alongside the more objective primary “end” of marriage as procreation/education of children.

Thus we have Vatican II’s emphasis on children as the “supreme gift” of marriage, saying so “while not making the other purposes of matrimony of less account” (Gaudium et Spes #50). And Humanae Vitae quotes this phrase while also teaching that the “unitive and procreative” dimensions of marital relations are “inseparable and willed by God.”  The 1983 Code of Canon Law (Canon 1055) merely says that marriage is “a partnership of the whole of life…which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.” And the Catechism paragraph 2366 identifies “fecundity” as “an end of marriage.”

The truth is that the Church does still teach that marriage has a “primary end” and that it is the procreation and education of children.  It can’t not teach this, because of the natural-law principle that natural institutions such as marriage must have such a primary end from which all other possible ends take their meaning, in support of that which is primary.

Indeed, I’m going to suggest that we’ve once again arrived at a point in history in which it seems both reasonable and necessary to return to this clear natural-law language regarding the primary end of marriage.

Now, more than ever, we need to hear that the uniqueness of the marital bond is that it’s primarily ordered toward the procreation of children. Children are not merely “accessories” to adult love. One of the chief reasons men can’t marry men and women can’t marry women is because they can’t procreate children and such a union will never be “ordered toward” procreation.

Now, more than ever, we need to hear that marriage’s primary end is not only procreation but education of children. Children are not merely brought into this world through conception but have a right to be raised by their own mothers and fathers, who are their primary educators. These mothers and fathers have an obligation to do all that is possible to raise their children in the context of marriage, not merely as cohabitors and not merely as joint-custody, divorced parents (even though this is a now-common experience for many, often through no fault of their own).

Now, more than ever, as Catholics we really need to think through the meaning and ends of marriage long before we fall in love and simply try to say a not-fully-informed “yes” to it. How do we end the divorce culture and the onslaught of same-sex “marriage”? By no longer avoiding the central truth about what marriage really is: cooperating with God’s creative work by becoming moms and dads and making sure we mean the “yes” of “till death do us part.”

Said another way: If we really want to put an end to the “end of marriage,” we’re going to need to return to the “end” marriage began with – the perennial teaching of Christ’s Church regarding the procreation and education of children.