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The Meaning and Purpose of Marriage


Homiletic and Pastoral Review

August/September 2008

Prior to his conversion to the Catholic Church, Dietrich von Hildebrand already had a high idea of marriage; he deeply sensed its beauty and sacredness. But the moment he entered the Holy Ark, this appreciation deepened considerably. Realizing that, religiously speaking, he had been "deprived" (although born and raised in Italy, he knew nothing about the Catholic Church, nothing about grace, nothing about the sacraments, nothing about sainthood), he made a point of catching up. For seven years, he spent every free moment at the Munich public library. He read the Fathers of the Church, the Doctors of the Church, the lives of the founders of religious orders, the lives of saints. His hunger was insatiable. His enthusiasm and love for the Church increased by leaps and bounds. He actually "fell in love with the Catholic Church"—a love that not only never abated in the course of his life, but kept deepening. At the end of his life, when he solemnly confided his literary bequest to me, he added: "If you ever find a single sentence in my works that is not in perfect harmony with the teaching of Holy Church, do not hesitate, burn it."

For seven years after his conversion, he remained silent, but one day, he felt that he had to give expression to his gratitude for the overwhelming beauty that he had discovered through the Church. He wrote an article entitled "The New World of Christianity"—that is, the world of the supernatural. To his joy, he realized that all the natural values he had received so abundantly in his youth—thanks to the high degree of culture of his parents (in literature, music, and the arts)—far from losing their meaning and beauty, received a new splendor because "heaven and earth sing God's glory." His noble conception of marriage was going to benefit from it.

In the early twenties, Dietrich von Hildebrand was asked to give a lecture on marriage. Reflecting upon the reading that he had done for years, it struck him that in Catholic teaching (in textbooks, for example)—as opposed to Catholic doctrine—when speaking of marriage, the whole emphasis was put on procreation. The love between the spouses was tacitly presupposed, but not satisfactorily highlighted. Before his conversion, love between man and woman had been prominent; to his mind, this was the meaning and justification of marriage. He had no sympathy for "mariages de raison," marriages entered into for social, financial or other such reasons. One truth, however, had escaped him: the immorality of artificial birth control. When he and his wife were given instructions to enter the Church, this question came up.

The young philosopher told the priest that he could not see why preventing a life from coming into existence (as opposed to killing one in the bud) was viewed by the Church as immoral. The answer of the Franciscan who instructed him was categorical: "If you wish to enter into the Holy Ark, you must accept the teaching of the Church in its entirety. To pick and choose is unacceptable. Otherwise, I cannot let you enter into the Holy Church." The response of the young man was immediate: "Credo ut intelligam"—"I believe in order to understand." This gesture of intellectual humility was to bear rich fruits. He was soon granted such deep insights into the immorality of artificial birth control that he was the first Catholic thinker to strongly challenge the conclusions reached by the Lambeth Conference in 1930. He was the first to defend Humanae Vitae in 1968 when, unfortunately, very many so-called Catholic theologians and philosophers opposed the Church's teaching (see The Encyclical Humanae Vitae: A Sign of Contradiction). When asked to give a talk on marriage, Hildebrand's task was double: on the one hand, he wanted to highlight the role of love in spousal unity; on the other hand, he wanted to show the profound link existing between love and procreation. To achieve this purpose he introduced a distinction that had been dormant in Catholic teaching: the one between the meaning of the conjugal embrace and its purpose. He wished to show that the marital embrace had a meaning independent of procreation, although essentially related to it.

One of the great contributions that Aristotle made to philosophy was to highlight the crucial importance of the means-end relationship in both his metaphysics and in his ethics. A means has a serving role: to achieve the end. Aristotle was fascinated by biology (no great concern for Plato), and the biological sphere is ruled by means-ends relationships. This all-important philosophical discovery was to play a key role in Aristotle's ethics. This is powerfully expressed at the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics: "Since then of all things which may be done there is some one End which we desire for its own sake, and with a view to which we desire everything else" (I, 1094). Taken "à la lettre," this means that everything we do is done for the sake of attaining the one end that deserves to be sought for itself: happiness—a view that certainly deserves to be challenged.

The distinction between means and end is a crucial insight; final causes are of capital importance in philosophy and in life. But it can be questioned whether it is legitimate to claim that everything we do is done for the sake of happiness (inevitably Aristotle was not always consistent in applying this principle). 

Conscious of the key role that Aristotelians grant to the means-end relationship, and also of the inherent danger in applying this distinction indiscriminately to all situations, Dietrich von Hildebrand realized how important it was not to reduce the marital embrace to a mere means for procreation. In Catholic textbooks (as opposed to Catholic doctrine) the role of love in marriage was left very much in the shade. The whole emphasis was put on procreation. This might become clearer if we consider the following: Let us just mention the abominable possibility that both meaning and procreation are shamefully trampled upon. This is so in the case of rape, which—although it can result in pregnancy—is only the brutal craving for a violent pleasure. It is needless to say more.

There are cases in which to have a child is prominent in the motivation of the married couple. It is well known that when Medieval peasants look for a spouse, they definitely look for wives who are strong, healthy, can help in farm work, and are likely to give a husband many children. Children are seen as a blessing: farmhands are not only welcome, but necessary. Small children are taught to pitch in, and by the time they are teenagers, their help is indispensable. If a wife is childless or conceives with great difficulty, the farmer will be obliged to hire outside help, something he does not welcome.

These marriages need not be unhappy; they have the character of a contract that benefits both partners. To the horror of Margaret Sanger and her ilk, this explains why "poor" people often have a large progeny. Today, one of the main aims of Malthus' heirs is to give condoms and the pill to these (in their view) poor, ignorant people who overpopulate the earth and are condemned to live in poverty.

Sociologists will also tell you that innumerable marriages have been "arranged" by parents to enhance their social and financial status. Many young girls have been given in marriage to men they hardly knew, and probably did not love at all. Several plays of Moliere depict the ploys used by young lovers to foil these plans. The reader cannot help but wish they would succeed.

There are cases in which a man wants to have children and gets married exclusively for this purpose. The wife is a pure means to his end. The motivation of the husband can be varied; in many cases, it is to insure that a noble family's name will not be extinguished.

There are also cases in which a woman, motivated by a powerful maternal instinct, "needs" a husband in order to satisfy this craving. I know the case of a girl who had a relationship with a man exclusively for the purpose of having a child. The moment she was pregnant, he was discarded; the "end" had been achieved. It was a sad case of using another person exclusively as a means. His dignity as a human being was totally circumvented. He was needed to fill a purpose. Once this function had been achieved, he was discarded as a useless tool. The famous words of Kant in his Metaphysics of Morals come to mind: "So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only." Human persons are not animals: the function of drones is to fecundate the queen. Once this has taken place, they are excluded from the beehive; they have become useless.

It has been said that Wilhelmina, the queen of Holland during the Second World War, was, to Winston Churchill, "the only 'man' in the world that he truly feared," and for good reasons! She viewed the role of a husband as exclusively reproductive. Once she was with child, the marital embrace became meaningless. She was raised by her mother, Queen Emma, who viewed men as the archenemies of women (although unfortunately necessary for procreation), and she fully endorsed her mother's view of marriage. The position of her husband, Prince Henry, was certainly not enviable. Once "the end" had been achieved, he could be relegated to the dump pile of unnecessary tools. He was truly a drone. It is also related that when she went back to Holland immediately after her country was liberated in 1945, she invited one of her closest friends—a lady whose son lost his life to the Germans just a few days before the end of the war—to pay her a visit. Everybody expected the queen to express her deep grief about this tragic death. But to everyone's amazement, she only exclaimed, "Now you and I are on equal terms; we have each lost our beloved child." She was referring to the fact that she had "lost" her daughter Juliana when the latter married Prince Bernhard!

Every woman who is a man-hater must welcome the inhuman invention of artificial insemination; it represents the total dehumanization and domination of the intimate sphere by "technology." The coming into being of a human person is reduced to the level of a "factum"; it no longer has the dignity of a "genitum." Indeed, it is now possible for a woman to conceive without having any contact with the hated male sex. Radical feminists can now look forward to the great day when the "strong" sex will prove to be unnecessary! Semen banks will provide the necessary "stuff' that is essential to a new life.

Every priest who hears innumerable confessions will tell you that more than one wife laments the fact that her contact with her husband is limited to the bedroom; he either uses her as means to appease a powerful urge or wants a progeny. That wives feel "used" and are resentful is more than understandable. 

It used to be the sad fate of princes and princesses that their marriages were arranged on the political chessboard; they were mere pawns. It often happened that a peace treaty between two antagonistic countries included a marriage between a prince and a princess. One has to pay a heavy price for the glamour of being a queen or a princess; one may be given in marriage to someone whom she neither truly knows nor loves. Many such marriages were deeply unhappy, even though they had the required progeny. Louis XIII was long estranged from his wife, Anne of Austria. Louis XIV owes his existence to the influence of a lovely, pure young girl that Louis XIII loved deeply and who entered the Order of the Visitation. The king visited her from time to time, and she persuaded His Majesty that he should live with his queen. The latter conceived a boy who became "Le Roi Soleil." Franz Ferdinand of Austria, who married someone he deeply loved even though she was "only" a countess, knew that his children would be barred from inheriting the Austrian empire because their mother's blood was not "blue" enough. Kings must have a progeny—in many cases a male progeny. The dynasty must be preserved at all cost. Today, these rules no longer apply, but it is certain that many kings were conceived as a duty. Love played no role. Accidentally, such marriages might "work," but many of them were inevitably exposed to marital unfaithfulness.

Dietrich von Hildebrand was convinced that he had the mission of highlighting the role that love should play in marriage. A more "catholic" presentation of marriage was called for. He defended the thesis that the meaning of the marital embrace is the fulfillment of the intentio unionis, for love by its very nature desires union with the loved one. This is true of all types of love, even though in each one of them the form of union will vary. For example, in love of neighbor (and let us think of the Christian love for enemies of the Church, for those who hate and persecute us), the desire for union is to be with these "enemies" in eternity. This finds its sublime expression in St. Maria Goretti who, fatally wounded by the man who tried to rape her, said that she hoped to be in heaven with him. She was heard; he converted while in jail.

On the other hand, enriched by his faith, Dietrich von Hildebrand perceived and stressed the profound bond existing between the marital embrace and the possible coming into being of another human person. The very word "procreation" calls for a response of awe. Clearly, God alone can create, that is, make something out of nothing. He only need say, "Be," and a new being comes into existence. Man can procreate only in collaboration with God; for neither the father-to-be nor the mother-to-be can create a new soul. God alone can do that. But they have been given the dignity of collaborating with God in giving semen and egg a chance to unite. As soon as this takes place, God creates a brand new soul and places it in the mother's body. This collaboration between two human beings and God gives creatures an awesome dignity. Animals do not procreate; they copulate. The spouses who willfully decide to exclude God from their embrace and prevent the creation of a new life choose to copulate like animals. Their dignity as human persons is severely affected, and as a result the very seed of their love is bound to dry up and die. To sin is to offend God, and one of its punishments is to separate the sinners. St. Augustine wrote that every sin brings about its own punishment; this definitely applies to those who, motivated by selfishness, prevent conception. Dietrich von Hildebrand claims further that if the husband and wife decide to prevent this fruitfulness, they thereby inevitably create a "leak" in their love relationship. The refusal to collaborate with God and be fruitful will necessarily impact their love negatively, for the inner generosity of love will be jeopardized. In other words, the marital embrace should be open to procreation. It is a fruit of the intentio unionis and to frustrate it is to undermine the generosity of this mutual self-donation.

The point that Hildebrand highlights, however, is that the relationship between the marital embrace and procreation should not be viewed as an instrumental one. An instrument, in the strict sense of the term, is a being the existence of which is justified by its role in reaching an end. A tool is a typical instrument: a knife came into existence to enable us to cut. Combs and brushes exist to serve a definite purpose; if all human beings were as bald as billiard balls, combs would become meaningless. To give a comb as a gift to a bald man is the peak of uncharitable irony. Nevertheless the role and importance of means cannot be denied. Woe to the philosophers (like Spinoza) who claim that the belief in final causes is simply a fruit of ignorance! This metaphysical relationship plays a crucial role in human existence. But—and this is a contribution of Dietrich von Hildebrand that deserves highlighting—there are also things that have their own worth and dignity in and by themselves; this value, because of its inner richness and fecundity, inevitably “flows over” and brings about new goods. Hildebrand calls this a relationship of “superabundance” (a key concept in his thought), an inner richness that, because of its inner nobility, flows over and brings about a fruit that, in the case of the marital embrace, is a new human being made to God’s image and likeness. A great and noble friendship—so highly praised by St. Augustine—makes us better persons, and in a Christian context brings us closer to God. However, it would be wrong to view a friend as “a purely instrumental cause,” the purpose of which is to improve us morally. St. Augustine writes that he loved his friends “for their own sake.” This “fecundity” calls for a different concept than mere instrumentality. In other words, the spouses desire their union because they love each other. On the other hand, love is fecund by its very nature (Bonum diffusivum sibi), and God has so admirably arranged that this union should bring about a fruit: the child. 

Conscious of the fact that his formulation was “new,” and anxious to remain totally faithful to the teachings of the Church, Hildebrand decided to submit his text to Cardinal Pacelli (who was residing in Munich at the time). Pacelli enthusiastically endorsed the young Hildebrand’s views, and encouraged him to publish them. 

Hildebrand’s analysis of love had led him to the conclusion that an intentio unionis is an essential mark of love, for love is not only a response to the beauty of the loved one, but also includes an ardent intentio benevolentiae and an intentio unionis. This latter finds its deepest expression in the consummation of marriage: in becoming one flesh. 

One danger, prevalent today, is to isolate the intentio unionis from procreation. It cannot be emphasized enough that this violation is bound to harm the love between the spouses. The openness to the possible conception of a child, made to God’s image and likeness, necessarily belongs to the inner fecundity of love; it flows from its inner goodness and generosity. 

Another tendency is to view procreation as being included in the meaning of marriage. The consequence of this view is that when the marital embrace is not biologically fruitful, the meaning of this embrace would in some way be frustrated and jeopardized. This is bound to happen in the majority of cases. A woman is fruitful only very few days each month; she cannot conceive when she has reached a certain age; she cannot conceive when she is already pregnant; she cannot conceive when she has had a hysterectomy; she cannot conceive if she happens to be sterile.

But love, every love, is essentially fecund. The mark of every true love is that it makes us better persons: kinder, more generous, more forgiving. In other words, the very inner goodness of love flows over, benefiting and enriching others. What is unique about the love between spouses is that this goodness and generosity can lead to the mystery of procreation. The child born of this union is the fruit of love. The number of genes that he receives comes in equal number from father and mother.

It should be clear that if the spouses choose to prevent this generosity, which I shall term superabundance (following the terminology of Hildebrand), it will severely impact the quality of their love. Instead of a generous giving, it becomes a self-centered keeping. This is why the Church, the Holy Bride of Christ, has from the beginning prohibited artificial birth control. It destroys this noble superabundance. A husband and wife who choose to prevent a new life from coming into existence find their punishment in the very crippling of their union.

The marital embrace should make the spouses more loving and more generous not only toward each other, but superabundantly toward their neighbor, whoever he is. Granted that not being able to conceive is a legitimate source of profound grief, this should in no way eliminate the fruitfulness and fecundity of their loving embrace. It can and should superabundantly bear fruits, be it in adopting unwanted babies, in taking care of orphans, in having the great blessing of having spiritual children, or simply by radiating goodness and generosity. The beauty of the marital embrace is meant to benefit not only the spouses themselves but all those related to them. This spiritual superabundance definitely belongs to the meaning of marriage. We dare say that a marital embrace between two saintly spouses that, for reasons out of  their control, cannot possibly lead to procreation justifies our claim that God is glorified more by the embrace of these two than by the embrace between two practicing Catholics whose love is less deep, in whom tenderness has not yet totally eliminated concupiscence, and who are less conscious of God's presence as a witness of their union. 

Every expression of authentic love will, by its very nature, bear fruit; this fruitfulness need not be biological (desirable as that is), but it is constitutive of the very nature of love. Any love, but especially spousal love, should have this superabundant character. If a love relationship, a friendship, or a love between parents and their children, or between siblings resulted in selfishness, self-centeredness or an interest in those close to us to the complete exclusion of the needs of others, this love would not deserve the name of love; it would be what the French call so aptly "égoïsme à deux" ("double selfishness").

This is why the notion of superabundance is so crucial to grasping the inner beauty and richness of the marital embrace, as well as its inner generosity, which clearly differs from instrumentality. All values—love, beauty, friendship—have worth of their own, but their very richness is bound to benefit others. Elisabeth Leseur, a French woman who left us a beautiful diary, must have had this in mind when she wrote, "Une ame qui s'eleve, eleve le monde" ("A soul which is lifted up, lifts up the world").

That this is in full harmony with the doctrine of the Church is obvious as soon as we realize that the Church blesses the union of persons who love each other and who, because of age or some other impediment, cannot procreate. Their marriage is just as much a sacrament, is just as indissoluble as the marriage of those blessed with a progeny. Why is it that the Church allows the practice of natural family planning (for legitimate motives) if procreation essentially belonged to the meaning of marriage? Let us repeat again: the overwhelming majority of marital embraces cannot possibly lead to the creation of a new life. Spouses married for fifty years who have ten children certainly have "failed" to procreate in the majority of cases. But fruitfulness cannot and should not be jeopardized by biological obstacles.

The conclusion we can draw is the following: meaning and purpose are so closely related that to artificially eliminate the possibility of a conception has the inevitable consequence of draining, weakening and ultimately killing the love between the spouses. On the other hand, meaning and purpose are clearly distinct, and to include purpose in meaning inevitably leads to the danger of leaving the concrete sphere and flying into abstractionism. Thomas à Kempis was right: "Magna res est amor" (“The greatest thing is love”).


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