Reflections on Humanae Vitae: Love and Offspring

Author: LOR


An Unsigned Editorial in L’Osservatore Romano

The problem of the essence and the ends of marriage has been the subject of lively disputes among theologians and canonists during the last ten years. To correct certain doctrinal deviations tending to elevate conjugal love to the detriment of the procreative end of matrimony, the hierarchy intervened several times (cfr. Pius XII to the Sacred R. Rota, October 3, 1941; to The Obstetricians, October 29, 1951; Decree of the S. Congregation of the Holy Office, April 1, 1944). But the disputes, for from dying down, flared up again with Vatican Council II, above all because of the demands of the moral order and also because of the urgent wish of the vast majority of Bishops to give an answer to the most disquieting questions of the world today.

So the problem of the essence of marriage and its specific end was taken up again and thoroughly studied. To give an answer to the vexed question of the regulation of births some of the Council Fathers took up again the discussion of conjugal love, to see how far its value might be enhanced and its expression in intercourse permitted in circumstances where each act was not open to procreation.

The Council did not oppose this, and it positively enhanced the value of conjugal love to the extent of making it the primary reason and specific requirement of the essential properties of the marriage bond: fidelity and indissolubility. As regards this latter particularly it showed its close relationship with love, stating clearly that marriage, even when it is childless because of natural reasons, is justified. Such a marriage both on the moral and the juridical plane, is a lifelong union, valid and indissoluble (cfr. n. 50 at the end, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes). In fact since marriage is the intimate union and mutual surrender of two persons, it requires the complete fidelity and indissoluble unity, of the married couple (cfr. above, n. 48).

Since "this act is an eminently human one—the Council explains—since it is directed from one person to another through an affection of the will, it involves the good of the whole person. Therefore it can enrich the expressions of body and mind with a unique dignity, ennobling these expressions as special ingredients and signs of friendship distinctive of marriage" (cfr. above n. 49). Its nobility, its sanctity, besides its licitness are such well known characteristics of this love, that Jesus Christ made it a Sacrament, between baptized persons (and for those not baptized he gave it an inherent tendency to become such), a sacramental sign of grace insofar as it represents the union of Christ with his Church. "It follows—the Council states—that the actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy. Expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions signify and promote that mutual self-giving by which husband and wife enrich each other with a joyful and a thankful will" (cfr. above n. 49). This love, being so high and noble, is genuine, and therefore, exclusive and constant. It is, according to the Council, the fundamental reason and first requirement for fidelity and indissolubility as "sealed by mutual faithfulness and hallowed above all by Christ's sacrament, this love remains steadfastly true in body and mind in bright days and dark. It will never be profaned by adultery or divorce" (cfr. above, n. 49).

In this enhancement of married love the Council has not been an innovator. Following the constant teaching of the Magisterium and some theologians, it has deepened some aspects of marriage and of married life, showing especially the intrinsic goodness of all expressions of conjugal love, even if, for objective reasons outside the will of the parties, they are not always open to the transmission of life.

In Holy Scripture (Gen. 2, 24; Prov. 5, 18-20; Matt. 19, 5-6) and in particular, in St. Paul (I Cor. 7, 1-5; Eph. 5, 22-23) and also, among the Fathers in Tertullian (Ad uxorem 2, 9: P.L. 1, 1302-1303), St. John Chrysostom (Quales ducendae sint uxores: P.L. 51, 227; In ep. ad Eph., homily 20, 4: P.G. 62, 104-141), St. Augustine (De bono coniugali, 3, 3: P.L. 40.375) and, among the medieval theologians, in Hugh of St. Victor (De Beat.

Mar. Virg., 1: P.L. 176-863-864) and the Franciscan School (cfr. St. Bonaventure, in IV Sent. D. 26, art. 2, q. 3; D. 31, art. 1, qq. 2-3; D. 27, dub. 1) and then in "The Catechism of the Council of Trent" (or Roman Catechism 8, 13, 15, 17) and in the Encyclical "Christian Marriage" (Denz. 31, n. 2231) the importance of this love has always been emphasized.

The Council therefore continued a tradition already existing at the beginning of the preaching of the Gospel. The new element introduced by the Council was in maintaining the indissolubility of the marriage bond even when there are no children (cfr. n. 50 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World).

The intimate community of life and love in which marriage expresses itself constitutes an independent good which justifies the permanence of the bond even when there are no children. Therefore marriage is not merely for the offspring. It has not a purely instrumental function as if there were no other motive apart from procreation to legitimate and justify it. Offspring, inasmuch as it is the natural and specific end, is always an effect of the "community of life and love" wherein lies the essence and proper nature of marriage. But the enhancement of the value of conjugal love in the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" is not such as to call in question the proper end of marriage. "Matrimony and married love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children" (cfr. n. 50). If, therefore, it is not merely for procreation, neither is it merely for married love. And it is at this point that the discussion, begun at the Council, is taken up today and completed by the Supreme Pastor of the Church. Not that the Council has given an incomplete doctrine or, still less, a doctrine that justifies a practice of married life different from that which follows from the principles of the Encyclical "On the Regulation of Birth".

While reaffirming that both marriage and conjugal love are ordered to offspring, the Council does not admit different solutions. But sometimes the hypothesis was put forward that an individual act might be lawful even though the possibility of procreation was excluded by the will of the couple, provided that the totality of married life was subordinated to procreation. This hypothesis cannot be accepted, for every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life. "That teaching—explains the Holy Father in the Encyclical—often set forth by the Magisterium, is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning. Indeed, by its intimate structure, the conjugal act, while most closely uniting husband and wife, capacitates them for the generation of new lives, according to laws inscribed in the very being of man and of woman. By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fulness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination toward man's most high calling to parenthood. We believe that the men of our day are particularly capable of seizing the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle." (No. 12).

With the Council the Holy Father explains that the acts by which husband and wife are united in chaste intimacy and by means of which human life is transmitted, are good and worthy, and they do not cease to be lawful if, independently of the will of the married couple, they are foreseen to be infecund, because they are ordered to express and consolidate their union. At the same time the Holy Father recalls men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, interpreted by the unchanging doctrine of the Church, and reaffirms that every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life. He states that "to justify conjugal acts made deliberately infecund one cannot invoke as valid reasons the lesser evil, or the fact that such acts would constitute a whole together with the fecund acts already performed or to follow later, and hence would share in one and the same moral goodness. In truth, if it is sometimes licit to tolerate a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater evil or to promote a greater good, it is not licit even for the gravest reasons, to do evil so that good may follow therefrom; that is, to make into the object of a positive act of the will some thing which is intrinsically disordered, and hence unworthy of the human person, even when the intention is to safeguard or promote individual, family or social well-being. Consequently, it is an error to think that a conjugal act which is deliberately made infecund and so is intrinsically dishonest could be made honest and right by the ensemble of a fecund conjugal life" (n. 14).

The Encyclical "on the regulation of birth" completes the doctrinal explanation set forth in the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World", and harmonizes the various and complex experiences of married life with the ends proper to this institution.

The marks and characteristics of married love are emphasized and exalted in relation to the meaning and ends of this love. If marriage is not merely for procreation—the Encyclical insists—it is not and cannot be merely for conjugal love.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 August 1968, page 7

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