Vatican II and the Two Ends of Marriage

A Catholic couple that I know went to a pastor to arrange for marriage. They had mentioned to friends and relatives that for various reasons they had no intention of having children, and they made this known to the pastor when he asked. He had no problem with that decision, and they were married in the Church several months later.

I was surprised. Obviously, the pastor’s stance indirectly approved using contraceptives indefinitely for a fertile couple that had no interest in Natural Family Planning. And if contraceptives failed and the woman became pregnant, the presumed right of the woman to avoid nine months of pregnancy could be interpreted as implying a right to abortion.

I asked a Jesuit theologian what he thought about the situation. He answered in terms of the traditional Catholic doctrine concerning the two ends of marriage – the procreative and the unitive; but he insisted that the two ends could not be arbitrarily separated. In fact, he thought that if a marriage were conducted with agreement that it would be childless, it would be invalid canonically.

Recently I came across the pastor in question and decided to ask him about what I had heard. He defended his decision on the basis that with Vatican II there was renewed thinking regarding the ends of marriage, downplaying the procreative purpose, and emphasizing the unitive purpose. I told him the view of the theologian that the two purposes could not be separated, but he insisted that for pastoral purposes, the unitive end, which is most important, would satisfy Church requirements.

The main document from Vatican II regarding marriage is Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”), which does not exactly prioritize the unitive aspect of marriage, but states that it is not less important than the procreative aspect, and proceeds to restate this latter aspect: 

While not making the other purposes of matrimony of less account, the true practice of conjugal love, and the whole meaning of the family life which results from it, have this aim: that the couple be ready with stout hearts to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Savior. . . .Married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate.

The message that the unitive aspect is just as important as the procreative may be understood as an attempt to correct certain earlier theological positions which did not recognize this truth; and the reemphasis of the unitive aspect is of course particularly important in cases where married couples are infertile, past the age of childbearing, in sickness or hard times, etc.

But the same document also warns that “Sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.”

With a view to possible misinterpretations of Gaudium et spes, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 Encyclical Humanae Vitae brought out the procreative dimension more explicitly: 

Each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. . . .This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.

This view notoriously triggered dissent among many clerics and theologians. A widespread silence in many areas has amounted to non-enforcement, which, as I mentioned in a previous column, was one of a number of things that, for some strange reason, were considered by many to be connected with “The Spirit of Vatican II.”

The expectation among dissenters now seems to be that eventually the magisterium of the Church will catch up with the modern world, rescinding restrictions that Christians from Apostolic times have taken for granted. Dampening such hopes, Pope John Paul II in his 1984 “Reflections on Humanae vitae,” reiterated the “inseparable connection between the unitive significance and the procreative significance of the marriage act”; and in his 1993 Encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, emphasized that the “concern for the transmission and preservation of life” was one of the three “precepts” of the natural law, according to St. Thomas Aquinas.

American bishops, at the 2009 USCCB meeting, issued a Pastoral Letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” further sidelining the liberals’ plans for “reforming” a Church which is “behind the times.”

For seculars, and for many Catholics, the command of Yahweh in Genesis to “increase and multiply” has now been superseded by unwritten commands to protect the environment, free women from childbearing, and – most importantly – to combat the “overpopulation crisis” which is one of the most potent myths influencing ethical policies and decisions in the modern world.

The inseparability of the two ends of marriage is of absolute importance. Does anyone marry just to have children? History tells us that royalty looking for male heirs occasionally did this – Henry VIII being an extreme example. And I have encountered young women who said they wanted to have children but not marry. Let’s hope, this attitude is on the wane.

Certainly an indispensable pastoral objective is to make sure that the union of the two “ends” is present in the aspirations of couples contemplating marriage. In any case, the procreative end of marriage has not become less important because of some perceived “Spirit of Vatican II.”


Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Am I alone in finding an eerie similarity between the “Truce of 1968,” as George Weigal calls it, when the Congregation for the Clergy decreed that Cardinal O’Boyle should lift canonical penalties against those priests whom he had disciplined for their public dissent from Humanae Vitae ” and the “Peace of Clement IX” during the Jansenist controversy?

    In both cases, after the Church had been riven by a decade-long dispute, a papal document was issued that was intended to be definitive.

    In both cases, the original quarrel was immediately forgotten and argument raged over the scope of papal authority to decide the question. In The Jansenist case, peace, of a sort, was achieved, when Pope Clement IX brokered an agreement that neither side would argue the question, at least, from the pulpit.

    The “Peace of Clement IX” lasted for about 35 years and ended in 1705 when Clement XI declared the clergy could no longer hide behind “respectful silence.” Eventually, in 1713, he issued Unigenitus and demanded the subscription of the clergy to it. There was enormous resistance, with bishops and priests appealing to a future Council (and being excommunicated for their pains, in 1718). As late as 1756, dissenters were still being denied the Last Rites.

    Will the “Truce of 1968” end in a similar fashion?

  • Janice Belbey

    I have a question related to the validity of marriage. As we are all aware, many couples seeking to be married in the Church are already living together….approximately 90% by some accounts from those in marriage prep ministries. If a couple stands at the altar in mortal sin, do they receive sacramental grace? This seems an obvious answer to me….no. Is the marriage canonically valid? Is it licit? Are the priests that are silent on this matter complicit in mortal sin? If so, why are they not explaining the beauty and gift of grace in a marriage to these naive and unchurched couples? Perhaps that’s more than one question! I would very much appreciate a greater understanding of this issue.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Janice Belbey: My understanding is that a couple living together before marriage could be married, but not in a nuptial Mass, with consecration of the Eucharist, unless they receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation first. Sometimes pastors will ask them to live separately before the wedding. It’s a common but difficult situation. I’m glad I’m not a pastor.

  • Ed Mechmann

    The Canon Law is very clear here, even to an untrained reader.

    It states (Canon 1101.2) “If… either or both of the parties by a positive act of the will exclude… some essential element of marriage, or some essential property of marriage, the party contracts invalidly.” Canon 1096 defines the essential properties of marriage as “a permanent partnership between a man and a woman ordered to the procreation of offspring by means of some sexual cooperation.”

    By definitively excluding having children, this couple failed to give the necessary consent to enter into a valid marriage. The same would have been the case if they had agreed to have an “open” (i.e., unfaithful) marriage.

    What is most shocking about this situation is that as part of the Rite of Marriage, the couple is asked “Will you accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?” For the Rite to continue, this couple must have publicly answered “yes” to that question. This public false oath, given the seriousness of the situation, would have been a very grave sin. Even worse, if the priest knew it to be false, he would have been a party to the sin. If other people knew of the couple’s intent, the sin of scandal would be added to it all.

    That pastor did this couple a very grave disservice by not properly instructing them about the authentic meaning of marriage. He is doing his congregation a disservice by not properly instructing himself as to the authentic teaching of the Church, and conveying that faithfully to them.

  • Warren

    The pastor in question is a sham, a false priest. By what authority does he substantiate his claim to go against the Church’s teaching? He proposes false teaching or the false interpretation of teaching to justify his actions. Any priest who would willfully disregard the received teaching of the Church is not worthy to call himself a priest of God. Yes, we all fall short in some way. That, however, is not an excuse to deliberately misuse one’s freewill and intellect to abet a crime against heaven and earth. It is one thing to, in a moment of weakness, give in to sin then repent. It is quite another to willfully and obstinately disobey and provoke others to do the same. The hierarchs must to tow the line and expect priests and laity to tow the line. People’s souls are on that very same line.

    The options are as follows: be strict and refuse to marry dissidents while calling everyone to embrace the life giving teaching of Christ and His Church; or water down the teaching out of some misguided sense of compassion and bless what the Lord Himself curses – lust, licentiousness and sterility.

  • Terry Carroll

    I don’t think there’s any question that the importance of the “unitive dimension” of marriage has, today, been exaggerated to the point that it is now the primary end in practice. The default position for Catholics entering marriage now is that “you will practice some form of birth control, and that’s okay, just so long as you aren’t TOTALLY closed to procreation and, of course, only use approved methods.” It’s almost impossible to marry in the Church today without completing a course in “authorized birth control methods” (NFP), conceding from the very beginning that “birth control” is now a Catholic value.

    This is so spectacularly contrary to 19 centuries of Catholic teaching that I think it is inevitable that the pendulum will swing back to orthodoxy and both Theology of the Body and NFP will be consigned to the same fate as Jansenism, the opposing extreme. Can you even IMAGINE Our Blessed Mother even THINKING in TOB or NFP terms much less TEACHING such to young Jewish maidens?!

    Catholics want to be just as hypersexual as the rest of our culture, and the only way to do that is to “celebrate our sexuality” (TOB) and pretend that birth control is both necessary and even good (NFP). We are saturated with immodesty and unchastity and, for now, embrace moral compromise as virtue. When theological sanity returns, it will laugh at the hubris of today’s “theologies of sex.”

    Just name me one married Saint who wouldn’t blush reading TOB and NFP literature. How can anyone look at the “biological apparatus” of male and female and conclude that “union” is even EQUAL to the procreative purpose of marriage? “Union” is the CONSEQUENCE, “procreation” is the PURPOSE, even for the infertile. Sex as ANY kind of end in itself is just nonsense and to think otherwise is self-deception.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Terry Carroll, please think about what you’re saying. If “‘Union’ is the CONSEQUENCE, ‘procreation’ is the PURPOSE”, then you’re essentially stating that all marital intimacies outside of the very narrow period of a woman’s fertile time are forbidden. Which makes life extremely difficult for married couples, most especially for the infertile.

    I have yet to read anywhere, in the Scriptures or in any Church document, that says this is the case. Why? Because the two ends of the marital act are united and cannot be divided. And they are equal.

    By your standards, imagine a newly married couple who happen to have married just after the bride’s fertile period is ended. By law, they must consummate their marriage in order for it to be valid. Without that act, the marriage is “ratum non consummatum” and, if the couple separate without having had sexual relations, they could have their marriage declared null. So by your standards, this couple must wait, somewhere around a month or so, before they can consummate their marriage. Imagine a sudden military assignment or the unexpected death of one those newly-spoused before the consummation. Ah, but they didn’t have “Sex as ANY kind of end in itself.” Cold comfort for the surviving spouse.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Terry Carroll: It’s important to keep in mind that one of the most important uses of NFP is to have children. Many infertile couples have become pregnant with these methods. Unlike contraception, it does not involve blocking procreation. You may be right that the unitive dimension of marriage has been exaggerated over the procreative, but the Church’s position is that they are equally important. We have to distinguish between the biological purpose of sex and the purpose of marriage.

  • Terry Carroll

    @Howard Kainz:”You may be right that the unitive dimension of marriage has been exaggerated over the procreative, but the Church’s position is that they are equally important.”

    No, that is NOT the teaching of the Church. They are NOT “equally important.” One is clearly subordinate to the other. If they WERE “equally important,” one could never be at fault emphasizing one over the other. THAT they ARE considered “equally important” is the theological foundation of both TOB and NFP, and that foundation is clearly contradicted by CENTURIES of Church teaching.

    To recognize the clear purpose of marriage as 1)procreation and 2)spousal union does not mean that married couples MAY or OUGHT TO engage in sexual relations ONLY when fertile or consciously intending procreation. It means that the primary end of marriage defines the boundaries of sexual expression, i.e., within marriage and without intentions or actions that contradict the end of marriage.

    Church teaching on these matters hasn’t changed. We have, for this historical period, suffered a loss of clarity on these issues, probably because our culture has become so hypersexualized and we act as if we are considering questions never asked before. They have been. They have been answered. And right now we’re “off the mark.”

  • Arturo Mondello

    ^ I’m guessing this…person doesn’t realize (or refuses to realize) that the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, i.e., that the unitive and procreative functions do not supersede each other but are, in fact, on equal footing – are just as authoritative as those 19 centuries he keeps harping back to.

    Just goes to show you: Traditionalist Catholics are not so much guardians of a pure and distilled faith as they are the washed-out heretics of the erroneous “Church of the ages” that never existed (in the same way that liberal Catholics are the washed-out traditionalists of the erroneous “Church of tomorrow” that will never come to be).