Sunday, 5 June 2011

Traditional Catholic theology on the basis and purpose of marriage

This is the latest post in my series on traditional (pre-Vatican II) Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality.

As usual, I will start by summarising my conclusions.

- Marriage is fundamentally a contract whereby each spouse gives the other the right to have sex with him or her.  Each spouse may therefore be said, in a phrase going back to St Paul, to have power over the other's body.  The contract is formed by mutual consent, and it is not necessary that both parties be present when it is concluded.

- Marriage is a phenomenon of the natural law going back to Adam and Eve, but among Christians it also constitutes a sacrament.  The contractual and sacramental aspects of marriage are inseparable.

- The primary purpose of marriage is the procreation of children and their upbringing.

- The two other purposes of marriage are to engender mutual society and friendship between the spouses and to provide them with a remedy for lust.

- Marriage is monogamous and exclusive.

- Marriage is lifelong and indissoluble, though couples are permitted to separate in some circumstances.



Pope Leo XIII, Arcanum (1880)

The true origin of marriage... is well known to all.... God, on the sixth day of creation, having made man from the slime of the earth, and having breathed into his face the breath of life, gave him a companion, whom He miraculously took from the side of Adam when he was locked in sleep. God thus, in His most far-reaching foresight, decreed that this husband and wife should be the natural beginning of the human race, from whom it might be propagated and preserved by an unfailing fruitfulness throughout all futurity of time. And this union of man and woman, that it might answer more fittingly to the infinite wise counsels of God, even from the beginning manifested chiefly two most excellent properties... namely, unity and perpetuity. From the Gospel we see clearly that this doctrine was declared and openly confirmed by the divine authority of Jesus Christ. He bore witness to the Jews and to His Apostles that marriage, from its institution, should exist between two only, that is, between one man and one woman; that of two they are made, so to say, one flesh; and that the marriage bond is by the will of God so closely and strongly made fast that no man may dissolve it or render it asunder....

[F]rom the teaching of the Apostles we learn that the unity of marriage and its perpetual indissolubility, the indispensable conditions of its very origin, must, according to the command of Christ, be holy and inviolable without exception....

[T]here has been vouchsafed to the marriage union a higher and nobler purpose than was ever previously given to it. By the command of Christ, it not only looks to the propagation of the human race, but to the bringing forth of children for the Church....

Not only, in strict truth, was marriage instituted for the propagation of the human race, but also that the lives of husbands and wives might be made better and happier. This comes about in many ways: by their lightening each other's burdens through mutual help; by constant and faithful love; by having all their possessions in common; and by the heavenly grace which flows from the sacrament.


Pietro Pacati, Tractatus dogmaticus, moralis et canonicus de matrimonio christiano (1906)

The end to which marriage is oriented in itself is twofold....  The first and foremost end is the begetting and raising of human offspring.  The other, secondary end is the mutual help flowing from the strongest bond of friendship which the marital bond in itself engenders....

The procreation and education of children is the primary end of marriage; the mutual dependence and help of the spouses and the remedying of lust are secondary ends....

That marriage is inherently oriented to the procreation of children is shown by the natural difference between the sexes, physical and moral, together with both their strong inclination to come together and the necessity of marriage as a means to achieve that end which no other means can supplant....

The other end which marriage is by its nature directed towards is the union of the man and the woman - that is, their friendship, sharing of work and mutual dependence and help.  This friendship is of a sort that cannot be experienced in a comparable way among other people; rather, it is proper to marriage.  Indeed, it is founded on the couple's mutual power over each other's bodies, which means that it is closer and more enduring.

The third end is to provide a remedy or means of restraining lust within the bounds of honourable behaviour.  This restraint takes the form of allowing lust indeed to be indulged, but only with that person who has power over the body of their partner, to whom their faith is owed in marriage.  The conjugal act is therefore legitimate and even required.  The result is that the ardour of lust is calmed, the mind does not stray to illicit matters and sin is avoided.  That this too is a purpose of marriage is easily deduced from the fact that marriage is naturally suited to attaining it.  The Apostle Paul also teaches that this is a good of marriage (1 Cor. 8.2)....

That children constitute the primary end of marriage is clear not only if marriage is looked at from the point of view of its use (this is obvious), but also in general terms.

Hence: a) The basis of marriage is the spouses' (fundamental) mutual rights in the order of sexual intercourse.  But it naturally follows closely from these rights that there is an antecedent ability to have children.  Indeed, it is inherently the case by the law of nature that the ability to have sex is the same thing as the ability to have children, even if in some cases it is in practice lacking....

b) Marriage can be complete even if it does not provide a remedy for lust, as when mankind was in a state of innocence.  The primary end of marriage therefore does not consist in this.

c) The power of one spouse to have sexual intercourse with the other is more necessary for procreation than for the other goods of marriage....


Slater and Martin, A manual of moral theology for English-speaking countries (1908)

Marriage may be defined as a contract between a man and a woman by which they give each other the right to exercise the acts requisite for the procreation of children, and bind themselves to live indissolubly together....

The primary end of marriage is the procreation of children for the preservation and increase of the race; besides this there are also the secondary ends of mutual society and help, and a lawful outlet for concupiscence....

The marital rights, or the debt as St. Paul calls it, is the matter of the matrimonial contract, and therefore the right to use marriage is of its essence, and without it marriage can not exist....

Although the marriage bond is in general indissoluble according to Catholic teaching, yet for good cause married people may separate either perpetually or at any rate for a time. They may do this by mutual consent if there is no danger of incontinence, in order to lead a more perfect life in religion or sacred Orders; and for a time for less serious reasons, as for the sake of trade or travel. Serious danger to body or soul from brutal violence or infectious disease like syphilis, or from heresy or apostasy committed after marriage, is sufficient to justify separation as long as the danger lasts. Finally, the innocent party may separate from the other on account of adultery, perfect, consummated, and not condoned explicitly or implicitly by rendering marital rights after knowledge of the crime.... If both parties commit adultery, there is mutual compensation and neither has the right to separate from the other....

Antecedent and perpetual impotence annuls marriage by the law of nature, for the matter of the marriage contract is in that case impossible.


A.Devine, The law of Christian marriage according to the teaching and discipline of the Catholic church (1908)

Marriage may be considered as a natural contract, and as a Sacrament of the New Law....

The word matrimony is derived from the Latin word mater, a mother, because a woman ought to get married chiefly in order that she may become a mother, and to her it belongs to conceive, to beget, and to educate children.... Marriage may be defined: The marital union of man and woman in perpetual wedlock binding them to individual and indissoluble companionship....

Marriage is a true contract, because it is an agreement on one and the same thing between two persons, which imposes upon them mutual obligations....

In its origin it is established by the natural and the Divine law....

Marriage is a natural, moral, and religious contract. It is a natural contract because ordained by the law of Nature; moral, because it is regulated by the moral law of God; and religious, because ordained to the service of God in its end and object....

Marriage was instituted by God implicitly in the creation of Adam and Eve; for God, by creating our first parents different in sex and capable of generation, wished the human race to be propagated by generation, and also by the matrimonial union of man and woman, in order to the good of their progeny; for neither nature, nor the Author of nature, intended merely the generation of children, but also their bringing up and their education. A child could not be nourished and educated by its parents unless these parents were certain determined individuals, and this could not be provided for unless a certain obligation were to bind a man and woman in one individual life and society, which is the meaning of the bond of matrimony....

According to the Council of Florence the cause effecting matrimony is the mutual consent of the parties, expressed regularly speaking by words. This consent must be (1) internal or real; (2) freely given; (3) deliberate; and (4) externally expressed by some sensible sign....

The words should be in the present tense, and not in the future that is, I, N., take thee, N.; not, will take, to my wedded wife or husband.

Matrimony can be validly contracted by those who are absent from each other, and this may be done by a procurator or by letter, but the conditions for the celebration of marriage must be observed and the consent expressed in the presence of a priest and witnesses....

The question may possibly arise as to marriage by means of the telephone, and there is no reason to suppose that a marriage contracted in this way, if all other conditions are observed, should not be valid. It would, however, be unlawful to contract in that way, as it would be a departure from the usual manner of celebrating the marriage....

There are three proper and lawful ends of marriage, such as God has intended by its institution, which persons about to get married may have in view namely, (1) to be a mutual help and comfort to each other.... (2) To have children who may be brought up in the service of God.... (3) The third end is as a remedy against incontinency....

I have only to add here that it would be lawful also to contract marriage for other honest motives, such as the honour of a family, for the sake of peace and concord among families and nations, for the good of health, etc....


Decision of the Holy Roman Rota, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1910, p300

Now although matrimony was raised to the dignity of a sacrament by Christ, it did not lose the nature of a contract; hence, like other contracts, it is perfected by consent of both parties. There is no obstacle, consequently, to contracting marriage by letter.


J.Selinger, "Moral and Canonical Aspect of Marriage", Catholic Encyclopedia (1910)

Marriage is that individual union through which man and woman by their reciprocal rights form one principle of generation. It is effected by their mutual consent to give and accept each other for the purpose of propagating the human race, of educating their offspring, of sharing life in common, of supporting each other in undivided conjugal affection by a lasting union....

Marriage is a contract.... It is sacred, being intended primarily by the Author of life to perpetuate His creative act and to beget children of God; its secondary ends are mutual society and help, and a lawful remedy for concupiscence.... Marriage is monogamic and indissoluble; death alone dissolves the union when consummated....

Marriage was intended by the Creator for the propagation of the human race and for the mutual help of husband and wife....

Marriage is, in its essential requirements, ever the same, monogamic and indissoluble. The contract validly made and consummated is dissolved by death alone....

Those who marry do so by signifying their consent to be man and wife. Consent is of the very essence of marriage, and it is in consequence of their free, deliberate consent that a man and a woman become husband and wife. Marriage being a contract forming essentially an indissoluble union, it is important to know whether the consent can be so defective as to make a marriage morally and canonically invalid.

(1) The act of being married is the mutual consenting of the parties, the giving and accepting of each other. "Thus the wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband. And in like manner the husband also hath not power of his own body, but the wife" (1 Corinthians 7:4).... Canon law does not absolutely require the personal presence of both parties to marriage; but, one being present, giving his consent to marry the absent party, the absent party must signify her consent by proxy or by letter.... The consent, however, must be signified in such a manner as to make the consent of both parties clear and unmistakable to the priest and witnesses....

(2) The consent must be free and deliberate....

(3) The party or parties giving consent in the act of marriage might be in error as to the person or quality of person whom they are actually marrying. An error is an impediment based on natural law....

There might be a sinful agreement between those contracting marriage which likewise nullifies their marriage — e.g., not to have more than one or two children, or not to have any children at all, until, in the judgment of the contracting parties, circumstances shall enable them to be provided for; or to divorce and marry someone else whenever they grow tired of each other. Such an agreement or condition denies the perpetual duties of matrimony, limits matrimonial rights, suspends the duty consequent on the use and exercise of those rights; if really made a sine qua non of marriage, it necessarily annuls it....


T.J.Gerrard, Marriage and Parenthood, the Catholic Ideal (1911)

The state of marriage, therefore, as reflected in the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Church is seen to have the high function not only of procreating human beings to replenish the earth, but also of training them in the higher life of grace and thus preparing them for the still higher life of glory....

[T]he chief reason for the institution of matrimony was the welfare of the offspring, not merely the existence of the offspring, but its growth and development, the promotion of all its interests. Therefore it was that God so made man and woman that they should love each other, that they should foster that love and concentrate it on each other by excluding all other love of the same kind, that they should make it so strong and lasting that only death should be able to bring about a breach of the union.

All this points to the fact that the marriage bond is a law of nature. It is a mutual agreement by which a man and a woman give themselves to each other until death, and this chiefly for the sake of the highest interest of the children which shall be born to them....

The Church then... sets aside all false modesty and tells them in grave and plain language what their duties are. The first duty is the bringing of children into the world and the educating of them in the service of God; the second duty is mutual love and service in the companionship of domestic life....

More important, however, is the case where the young man finds the single life a constant temptation to impurity. Then must he seriously turn his attention to marriage as to his salvation. "It is better to marry than to burn." And it is best of all to marry early, before bad habits are formed. The number of unhappy homes, caused through youthful indiscretion before marriage, is appalling. It were better therefore to marry, even with poverty in prospect, than to lead a single life continually tempted and perhaps continually falling....

There are three ends for which marriage was instituted, and consequently three reasons which make the marriage act lawful and holy. The first and chief is the begetting of children. The second is the calming of concupiscence, and consequent avoiding of incontinence. The third is the fostering of conjugal love and affection....


Code of Canon Law, 1917

1012.1.  Christ the Lord raised the marriage contract itself to the rank of a sacrament among the baptised.

1013.1.  The primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of offspring: the second is mutual assistance and the remedying of lust.
2. The essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility....