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, 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.