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The Two Dimensions of Married Love



Homiletic and Pastoral Review

October 2011

One of the important contributions of the late Dietrich von Hildebrand (d. 1977) is in shedding brighter light on the two dimensions of married love, the unitive and the procreative. Whereas the desire for interpersonal communion is essential to every single type of love—whether friends, parents, children—the procreative (biological) dimension is exclusively limited to a marriage between a man and a woman. Moreover, the desire for a loving union should be actualized at all times, while the procreative dimension is limited to certain privileged moments. As procreation is, in a way, "earthbound" (in heaven, "neque nubent, neque nubentur," as in Mt 22:30), the unitive dimension is not only not limited to this earth, but it points to eternity, where in and through God, the perfect union of love is finally and fully realized.

What Dietrich von Hildebrand did was to expose how deeply interwoven both of these dimensions of married love must be: to cut the procreative off from the unitive is to do severe damage to both. Yet, he noticed that in some moral textbooks, there had been a tendency to put so much emphasis on the procreative aspect of married love, that the unitive was relegated to the background. Even though these two dimensions had been very clearly articulated in the official teachings of the Church, he sensed his mission to shed light, once again, on the centrality of the unitive dimension of the married vocation.

Dietrich called the unitive dimension the "meaning" of marriage, and the procreative its "purpose." A man who asks a girl to marry him does so because he loves her and desires union with her as his beloved. He, of course, hopes that such a union brings him happiness, and in asking for her hand, expresses his desire to be united with her (the meaning) in the closest bond human beings can freely undertake, and therein be open to new life (the purpose). It thus follows that such love should be "fruitful" and wishes to beget children, "our" children. It is in this context, this "meaning," that a married couple's love is necessarily opened up to the purpose of begetting their children. Every child is entitled to be begotten into a stable and loving union.

In order to shed more light on Dietrich von Hildebrand's position here, let us now turn our attention to his works on love and marriage, especially his recently released book, Nature of Love (St. Augustine's Press, 2009). At play here are two key factors: One he calls the intentio benevolentiae (beautifully expressed in the Romance languages by the phrase for "I Iove you", ti voglio bene, in Italian, meaning: "I nourish kind feelings toward you," "I wish to benefit you in every possible way," and so forth). The second is what Dietrich calls the intentio unionis, a desire to be with the beloved. These two aspects of love, powerfully expressed in great Catholic literature, are obvious if we reflect on the loves in our own lives. If one does not ardently wish to see his or her beloved, never seeks to carve out time to spend exclusively with that person, we doubt whether there is, in fact, any love or friendship at all. There is a hierarchy between the people playing a role in our lives. There are people whom we are happy to see when they cross our path; there are some people that are crucial in our life story, people whose very existence is a cornerstone of our earthly life. This justifies the words of Gabriel Marcel, "Your death is my death."

But it is only in a marriage, a bond uniting a man and a woman, that the intentio unionis takes a radically new and much deeper dimension. Not only does one wish to be with the beloved, one wishes to share his or her very life, a common name, address, finances, all possessions. Here, one's natural "mine" is replaced by a graced "our." Here, one ultimately wishes to give oneself to the other in a unique fashion, "to become one flesh,"—entering freely into a lifelong union, giving oneself fully to the other in an act of total self-gift and vulnerability. This type of ongoing, life-giving union is possible only between a man and a woman, being most fitting, best actualized, in a lifelong bond, a bond so strong that it excludes the possibility of a change of mind.

This is how the procreative dimension enters the picture: the intentio unionis reaches a depth which cannot be found even in the most beautiful of friendships. While a friendship should and does have this desire for union, it does not and cannot (qua friendship) involve the intimacy required for bringing another human being into the world. This helps us see how the intentio unionis is essential to all love, but clearly precedes, and rightly justifies, the desire to become one flesh in marriage. The procreative dimension is, hence, "born" from the desire to be united with the beloved, having a logical priority over the procreative dimension. Moreover, this desire to be united to the beloved in marriage is in no way limited to the "climax" of the marital union. It should rather pervade every single act and facet of the spouses' lives together.

In other words, lovers' mutual benevolence, as well as their consequent desire for union (the essential characteristics of love under all its forms), are in no way limited to the marital act. These qualities are meant to become the constant song of their lives together. This is why, for those blessed with an ardent faith, to receive Holy Communion together is another fruit of this super-actual (always present) desire for union. This desire for union, then, is the pervasive theme of a married life together. Even though, when one of the married persons dies, and the other is free to marry, a true marital love will resound, finding its fulfillment in eternity, where the union between the spouses will blossom in all its perfection.

This does not clearly apply to the procreative dimension which, by its very nature is "earthbound," as our Lord made explicit: They will neither marry nor be given in marriage. How meaningful this is, how beautiful: all earthly dimensions of love are perfected in heaven, having fulfilled their purpose. For only then, in perfect union with God, and with all his saints, will love be consummated.

It should now be clear that the intentio unionis—the desire to be united to one's beloved—precedes marriage, justifies it, and is a source of deep happiness in this world, and the everlasting mark of love in the life to come. The procreative dimension is born out of this life-commitment, out of this desire to become "one flesh," yet is clearly limited to privileged moments (and oftentimes interrupted by external circumstances, such as sickness, pregnancies, temporary distance, and so on). Here, enters the spirit of sacrifice, the spirit of committed unity, and far from separating the spouses, it should unite them more profoundly.

In conclusion, we can say that, as inextricably related the unitive and procreative dimensions of married love are, the first has a logical priority and organically gives birth to the second, informing it and rendering it beautiful. Moreover, because the procreative is "earthbound," whereas the unitive is not "time bound," should be actualized at all times, and finds its full realization in eternity, in the beatific vision of God, who is Love. Love points to eternity, as Dante wrote: "Love which moves the sun and the other stars" (Paradiso, XXXIII).

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