The End(s) of Marriage Since Vatican II

UPDATE: Please click here to read “Pope Francis’s New Meanings for Synod,” Robert Royal’s latest report from the bishops’ meeting in Rome. Bob writes that the Holy Father’s “notion of synod, as a walking together, is new in an important sense: There is no such meaning to that word in ancient Greek and Christian usage.”

In 1963, when I was a graduate student at St. Louis University, I was invited by a girlfriend to spend the Easter vacation with her family in the South. I accepted the invitation, and on our drive there the conversation turned to the Second Vatican Council, then under way, and the growing expectation that the Church’s teaching about contraceptives would change. My girlfriend was from a family of eleven children (almost all male, if I recall), and she mentioned the chagrin of her mother, who spoke about “all the sacrifices she had made” – sacrifices which new Church legislation might portray as unnecessary.

I survived the encounter with her “band of brothers,” and began to think about the possible changes regarding respect for Church authority, as well as the effect on morals, if her mother’s fears materialized.

But it seemed hardly possible that the laws of the Church regarding contraception could be changed, in view of the 1917 Canon Law operative in the 1960s, which stated clearly:

Canon 1013 §1. The primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children; its secondary end is mutual help and the allaying of concupiscence.

Many theologians as well as some periti at Vatican II, however, had been arguing for some time that emphasis on “primary” procreative responsibilities connected with sacramental marriage caused diminishment of the “secondary” (unitive) aspects of marriage, and gave rise to a “hierarchical” view at odds with the anthropological essence of Christian marriage.

Discussion of the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes) was then in its initial stages. The Preparatory Commission included a note that a “hierarchy of ends” should not in any way be suggested in the final document. And indeed, Gaudium et Spes managed to avoid any hierarchical pronouncement by including the following passage:

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. Who through them will enlarge and enrich His own family day by day.

The phrase, “while not making the other purposes of matrimony of less account,” could be understood as removing the primary/secondary distinction, and, in the minds of many, as placing new emphasis on the unitive aspects of marriage. Clarifications would have to be forthcoming.


Many Council progressives supported conciliarism and episcopal collegiality. And Pope Paul, who shared the progressive ideal of overcoming the stereotype of papal autocracy (perceived as an obstacle to ecumenical reunion with other Christians), was interested, if possible, in bringing out a formulation of the issues consonant with input from the Episcopal College.

But his 1968 Encyclical Letter, Humanae vitae, contained a possible ambiguity regarding the procreative nature of the marital act in the following paragraph:

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.

The pope here concentrates on the “significance” (or “meaning,” in some translations), rather than the procreative and unitive “purposes.” The two meanings could be considered of equal importance, with procreation enjoying no special preeminence. And in the atmosphere of the 1960s, languishing under the myth of overpopulation, even this diplomatic reformulation caused consternation.

Widespread dissent ensued. Hundreds of theologians published a full-page protest in The New York Times, and were supported by many bishops and priests. The procreative “purpose” no longer had any primacy. And the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law avoided any type of “hierarchical” language:

1055 §1. The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman establish themselves a partnership of their whole life, and which of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and the procreation and upbringing of children, has, between the baptized, been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.

Recent popes have tried to prevent misunderstandings regarding procreation. In a 1984 General Audience, referring to Humanae vitae, Pope John Paul insisted: “The Church teaches as absolutely required that in any use whatever of marriage there must be no impairment of its natural capacity to procreate human life.” At the recent World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, Pope Francis emphasized “the covenant of man and woman, which generates life and reveals God!”

But as I mentioned in a previous column, the “demotion” of “primary end” and the subsequent emphasis on “unitive” aspects of marriage, has even led some priests to consecrate intentionally childless marriages. More recently, this de-emphasis on procreation in favor of “the unitive significance” has certainly facilitated the slide towards obviously non-procreative “marriage” between homosexuals.

Whether or not the new language in Pope Paul’s encyclical and the 1983 Code of Canon Law amount to an official de-emphasis on the procreative purpose of marriage, the widespread use of contraceptives by Catholics points to a de facto de-emphasis.

This is a specter that overshadows the current Synod on the Family, and its discussion of remarried divorcees. For if it is presumed that Catholics were consistently using contraceptives in their first marriages, there may be reasonable doubt that they had the “openness to procreation” required for validity of marriage in the first place.

At Vatican II, because of the charged atmosphere and media reports, many were expecting a major pastoral change regarding the licitness of contraception. At the current Synod, widespread contraceptive use has impugned the character of “sacramental” marriages.

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

    The first part of the definition in Can 1055 is obviously based on the Roman jurist Modestinus, the last of the Classical Jurists, who died in 246 BC: “Nuptiae sunt coniunctio maris et feminae et consortium omnis vitae, divini et humani iuris communicatio – Marriage is a union of male and female and a partnership of all life, a sharing of divine and human law.” (Dig. 23.2.1 Modestinus 1 reg.) “Divine law” here refers to the family sacra, celebrated by each family and gens or clan.

    No other jurist attempts a formal definition, but they found a functional definition in the dictum of Paulus, “pater vero is est, quem nuptiae demonstrant – Marriage points out the father” (Dig. 2.4.5

    Paulus 4 ad ed) As lawyers, they focused their attention, not so much on procreation, but on filiation; the establishment of the legal bond between father and child. All the other legal incidents peculiar to marriage flowed from this principle. This special nature of marriage was the basis for the existence of rules governing its conditions, its effects and its dissolution.

    The Roman jurists, including Modestinus, would all have agreed with Bertrand Russell, “But for children, there would be no need of any institution concerned with sex. It is through children alone that sexual relations become of importance to society, and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution.”

  • Manfred

    Abp. Blase Cupich of Chicago, a Bergoglio appointee, has just announced that he has devised a methodology whereby homosexuals, in a union or marriage, will be allowed by Cupich to receive Communion if their consciences are clear that they are not living in mortal sin.
    This Synod (2014-2015), with its demonstrable insanity, is clearly a gift.
    I truly believe that if anyone in this generation is granted salvation, it will be despite the Church.

    • Quo Vadis

      This is a complicated question. If a same sex couple, join in a civil union or “marriage” for the purposes of obtaining the civil protections afforded by that relationship but agree to live by the Church teaching on sex, how should that be viewed ? (The teaching being that any sex outside of the sacrament of marriage is a mortal sin).

      While the “marriage” could be viewed as a scandal, the fact that they decide to live as a celibate life conforms to Church teaching.

  • samton909

    The church had better start making its case for NFP. They could wean many couples away from putting cancer causing chemicals in women’s bodies as a matter of course. They need to be able to make their case there, but no one at the synod seems to be discussing the matter.

  • SanSan

    Thank you! Amazing work Mr. Kainz. The Elephant in the room……contraception…….the root of what plagues marriage and the family.

  • Mary C-J

    I apologize for being terribly practical.
    The fruit of NOT concentrating on “procreation” within Marital responsibilities, has led Europe and now America into complete decline. No civilization can survive a birth rate less than 2.2%. Most of Europe has a birth rate between 1 and 2%. It will take them 100’s of years to recover as a society, specifically as a Christian society. I believe the US hovers around 2.1 to 2.2%; by contrast Islamic populations are between 3.5-7%.
    This is both a Catholic and a secular issue. The war on women has been a straw man argument.
    The war is really on Human Responsibility. As a society, and we still are predominately a Christian society, we have denigrated men and intern feminized them, turned young women into playthings while asking them to work “as a man”, and left any resultant offspring in the care of a not so benevolent anymore government.
    Yes the “Family” needs help.

  • Thank you for letting this child of the 1970s know that the procrative aspect was once primary. With the censorship on this topic, I had never heard that before.

  • Michael Dowd

    The best thing the Synod could do for the family and the Church would be to very forcefully restate the prohibition of contraception. Contraception diminishes love by diminishing generosity while increasing selfishness. Diminished love leads to divorce which is the most serious cultural and religious problem of our day. We must follow God’s laws or pay the consequences. Right now the consequences carry a very high price for society as a whole and the involved individuals in particular. Perhaps Bishops and priests fail to preach against because it would alienate their parishioners who would stop contributing.

    I don’t think Christ would be satisfied with that answer. If Bishops were concerned about their own soul and those of their flock they would surely reinforce the prohibition of contraception and make the case that real love and happiness can result by letting nature take its course and letting God have His way. If you do things God’s way He will surely help you. Keep the faith and God will keep you.

  • JGradGus

    Contraception is never going to go away as an issue / problem for Catholics, and the introduction of and approval of NFP is why. In every sinful act “intent” is a key criterion. Whether practicing NFP or using artificial contraception, if the intent is to avoid pregnancy then intent matters. It can also be argued that even the Billings Method of NFP does use technology (pencil, paper, and calendar to record cervical mucus secretion) while the Sympto-Thermal Method uses a thermometer to measure bodily temperature, so NFP is not really 100% natural. Sure this is splitting hairs, but, again, intent is a key criterion.

    • Howard Kainz

      I agree that with a sinful intent, NFP could be used to completely avoid conception. But I can hardly imagine anyone doing this, when easy contraceptive methods are available. As you know NFP is frequently used by couples in order to GET pregnant; and the meticulous daily routine with pen and paper and thermometers, etc. to pinpoint “fertile” periods takes motivation that perpetual contraceptors would probably not have.

      • JGradGus

        NFP is now being widely offered up as an “approved” alternative to contraception in pre-marriage counseling classes in parishes throughout the country.

  • George Sim Johnston

    The truth is that the procreative and unitive ends of sex are deeply related and a couple who conspire to frustrate the procreative end by artificial means, thereby changing the nature of the act, are also frustrating the unitive end. This is perhaps one reason why the divorce rate always goes up when contraceptives are widely and easily available. The couple using NFP (for a good reason) are respecting the procreative mystery of sex and strengthening their marriage. This has been my personal experience.

    • dad29

      Yes. IIRC, JPII tied procreative and unitive ends together as inextricable in his Theo of the Body. Less formally, you can’t have one without the other (given right action and intent.)

  • Unanimous Consent

    I would argue that there are still primary and secondary ends.

    It matters not that other language was used in describing the ends of marriage . unitive and procreative are simply another way of saying mutual help the channeling of concupiscence , and the generation of children.

    All the code of Canon Law no longer makes a distinction tween primary and secondary ends, there has been no formal repudiation of that particular teaching.

  • Alexis Rainer

    As I was reading you, prof. Kainz, I am thanking you for taking the time to write and reflect on this very important subject, marriage. But at this moment another news came to my attention and I am sick to my stomach. This synod was supposed to be about the famiy, but the larger family, the Church. Bergoglio just decentralized the Church. I am afraid the Church will be radically different, no more the universal, Roman, Catholic and Apostolic one. I stop now to say my rosary.

  • John Hinshaw

    Finally, someone is asking the question. Living in this age of divorce and annulment I have often wondered if the adolescent approach to marriage that some take invalidates that marriage. When Pope Francis said a while back that he had questions about whether many marriages were truly sacramental I thought of those wherein contraception was used before the wedding with every intention of continued use after. Those two people then vowed to be “open” to the gift of children. Taking a vow before God, with every intention of disregarding it, if not a sacrilege, certainly seems to invalidate the vow. The Sacrament is therein hollowed out. Might we not hope for discussion of this at the Synod?

    • Marie

      What about the priests who marry people who are openly living together?
      What is their responsibility?

      • Diane

        There are priests who will not marry a couple until they stop living together.

  • Michael Skiendzielewski

    More recently, this de-emphasis on procreation
    in favor of “the unitive significance” has certainly facilitated the
    slide towards obviously non-procreative “marriage” between homosexuals.

    This statement strikes this reader as quite subjective and begging for documentation, research, etc. to support the claim that the “unitive significance” of marriage has “facilitated the slide” towards non-procreative marriage, whether heterosexual or homosexual.

    • Howard Kainz

      Regarding heterosexual non-procreative marriage, see the link above under “previous column.”

    • Aliquantillus

      The support is in the definitions themselves. If the primary end of marriage is procreative, then homosexual marriage is excluded a priori because it can never have this end. However, if there no hierarchy between the primary and secondary ends, homosexual marriage seems to be a possibility since it can fulfil the requirement of being unitive.

      In fact, the abandoning of a hierarchy of ends is a philosophical error that should have been noticed by John Paul II. A thing can only have one primary end. Anything that has more than one end lacks unity of being if these ends are not hierarchically ordered. That’s why the avoidance of hierarchical language in Canon 1055 of the new Codex is flawed.

      • Rosemary58

        The homosexual act is not at all unitive and does not fulfill any aspect of that unity.

        • Aliquantillus

          You’re right that it is not unitive in the sense of making “one flesh” two persons of different sex. But it is unitive in the sense of uniting two persons in one sexual act. Here we see how everything got wrong when in Church documents the unitive and the procreative ends of the sexual act were no longer viewed as hierarchically ordered but as equal. For, when we ask why exactly the homosexual act is not unitive in the sense of making “one flesh”, the answer must undoubtedly be because of the lack of the sexual difference of man and woman. But this sexual difference exists for the reason of the procreative end. Therefore it presupposes the hierarchical subordination of the unitive purpose of the sexual act to the procreative.

          As soon as the unitive end is no longer subordinated to the procreative, this unitive end takes on a new meaning and gets disordered. It can no longer have the exclusive meaning of the making “one flesh” of a man and a woman. For this union is per se ordered to the procreative end. And this order is implicitly denied when the hierarchy between the procreative and unitive ends is no longer upheld.

          • Tarzan

            A homosexual act cannot be unitive because it cannot be a complete gift of self. There is no true joining of the flesh. What occurs is simply varied forms of mutual masturbation (whether by hand, mouth, or anus), a using of each other for sexual pleasure.

  • Manfred

    This column poses an interesting dichotomy.and explains an important fact: I was trained in Catholic grammar, high school and college underr the Canon Law of 1917. Therefore, I think in the traditional mode. Do I possess the same faith as those trained under the Canon Law of 1983? My wife and I broight seven children into the world. Was this a “mistake” on our part? That is why my family has been in an FSSP parish for decades.We are reinforced each week that we have conformed our lives to God’s Will for us.
    The reason the Eleven Cardinals wrote their letter to Bergoglio at the beginning of Synod ’15 was they understand that he, and the homlosexual atheists wearing their red and black costumes, are taking the Church down the path already blazed by liberal Protestantism which has led it to its total colllapse. The rules will be changed to fit each person’s conscience, including the primary purpose of marriage,, whether it is properly formed or not/
    Bergoglio and his Synods are irrelevant to any serious Catholic. He is leadng the Church to fragmentation and destruction..

  • Manfred

    See my comments above.

  • bernie

    Thank you Prof. Kainz for your simply stated and direct refresher. Like so many others, I have tried to make sense out of all the words and books and stay abreast of all the solid literature. A by-product of it all is a kind of over-examination of the patient. We start to lose sight of certain essential elements, it seems to me, and that the first is quite simple but most engaging – Marriage is a vocation to holiness. To make my point, I would compare this simple understanding to not only the parsing of words in Canon Law, Encyclicals and commentaries, but also the ruminations of Canon Lawyers and Theologians who now draw out endless discussions of “Personal” vs “Institutional” bases for marriage, for example. My point is that the larding over of words and distinctions has hidden the wisdom-trail of the Church to a degree that a high wall has been created over which few can see the glorious simplicity of a divinely instituted Way to Heaven. When I was first married, a wise priest told me that God had given me an Avenue or a Way to Heaven and given it my wife’s name. Now, though she has gone to Heaven, just to say her name is to re-focus my thoughts on my final end and all the wonderful children she continues to help on their Way.

  • Howard Kainz

    Mary C-J saying that “men have been denigrated” doesn’t necessarily imply female self-hate.

  • veritasetgratia

    I am so grateful for the important insights in this article particularly the comment “if it is presumed that Catholics were
    consistently using contraceptives in their first marriages, there may be
    reasonable doubt that they had the “openness to procreation” required
    for validity of marriage in the first place.” In fact it is possible the de-emphasising of the primary ends of marriage in Vat II docos. were intentional as it was already apparent that childless marriages were anticipated or apparent by the 1960’s, and the Church sensing that unwillingness to bear children would invalidate marriages, sought to avoid this effect on marriages at that time. I cant wait for your next post prof.Kainz re the re-structuring of the church into a ground-up “synodal church” where again this cleverly avoids any reworking of “doctrine” in an obvious way and avoids those official alarm bells around “primacy of individual conscience” but really achieves the same effect by achieving a Church where everyone’s opinion (aka conscience) is equally valid.

  • Rosemary58

    There is no “either/or”. We cannot have faith without reason nor a sacrament of marriage that is not both unitive and procreative.

    The old Canon Law formulation turned marriage into a type if utilitarian drudgery in which love would be acceptable but perhaps not necessary.

    However, a marriage that sees procreation as its end (utilitiarian) might be seen as grounds for annulment (!).

    Perhaps “significance” is not a good word for the unitive/procreative components of marriage. Unity/procreation are more like “signs”; signs of a love that is ineffable and inexplicable; something both concrete and transcendent. Surely something to be envied and desired.

  • George Brenner

    How is it moral or possible that there might be voting on some issues that can not even be contemplated as held as sacred and true by 20 centuries of unchangeable Church teaching? Who is in charge that anyone could be allowed to vote that a red light might now become a green light????

  • quisutDeusmpc

    I disagree Mr. Kainz. I realize you are in academia and you believe in the importance of precision in conceptual articulation, but where the rubber meets the road, I doubt any particular human couple, consciously or unconsciously, was thinking, as their marriage was disintegrating, that it was so because of an emphasis or deemphasis on the “unitive purpose” or “procreative purpose” of marriage. Practically speaking, the Anglican cave on contraception at Lambeth in 1930 (a la Margaret Sanger and the Eugenics movement of the turn of the century) and the widespread production of it in the 1960’s rendered impotent “fathers”. If a woman didn’t want a child there wasn’t anything “daddy” could do about it. Followed quickly by ‘no-fault divorce’ in the 1940’s and 1950’s, which made it possible to put away “fathers” from families. These single parent families, in spite of their limitations, rendered marginalized same sex relationships, which were conducted in secret previously, emboldened to say, if they can exist without fathers, then we don’t need the opposite sex for our relationship to be legitimized. Now that same sex civil unions have been legalized, the law renders legitimate, in the collective socio-cultural mind, that which was unthinkable only one or two generations prior.

    • Howard Kainz

      An example of a marriage disintegrating because of the “procreative purpose” would be if one spouse decides not to have children and the other spouse cannot accept this. An example of a marriage disintegrating because of the “unitive purpose” is probably unecessary, because this is so common — differences in religion, politics, attitudes towards raising children, spending habits — not to mention philandry, sexual orientation, alcoholism, cruelty, etc.

  • Howard Kainz

    I have received a message from a reader regarding an organization which provides help, information and support groups for Catholics facing problems with possible divorce, or in the aftermath of a divorce. Google “Mary’s Advocates” for the website..

  • jonnybeeski

    “intent is key” Yes and no. The exercise of responsible parenthood, per HV, and CC, may mean that postponing pregnancy is prudent. The couple may accomplish that legitimate goal through either total or periodic continence. Pius XII stated that the period of time that the serious reason to postpone pregnancy may last an indefinite period of time, if memory serves.