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Michael G. LawlerMarch 19, 2001

Marriage is in the news these days, but for mostly negative reasons. The first type of union for the majority of couples is now not marriage but cohabitation; young people are delaying both marriage and, when married, parenthood; the divorce rate hovers around its all-time high; and the birth of children to unmarried parents has skyrocketed. Some college textbooks describe marriage as a trap, especially for women. It puts women at risk for violence, they say, and it is bad for their mental health. One could be forgiven for concluding that marriage is going out of style and is being replaced by more attractive alternatives, but that would be a serious mistake. Every reputable study of the attitudes of young Americans demonstrates that they are still the marrying kind and still have high hopes for a happy marriage. Unfortunately, given all they see around them, they also have a debilitating fear of their ability to achieve a stable marriage.

Many things have changed in the contemporary world with respect to marriage. The cultural climate has changed; the feminist movement has led women to reject a patriarchal model of marriage in which they are made legally dependent on a man. The economic climate has changed; women’s entry into the career market has led to their economic independence and changed attitudes toward marriage. The legal climate has changed; no-fault divorce law has made it possible for the unsubstantiated whim of one partner to bring a marriage to an end. The religious and theological climate has changed, so that today Catholics are as confused as anyone else about the nature of marriage and what it might mean that marriage is a sacrament.

In a recent study of the impact of marriage preparation, young Catholics complained that marriage preparation programs educated them well in the psychological dimensions of marriage but less well in the religious and theological dimensions. To make a real contribution to the resolution of the crisis in marriage, the churches must better fulfill their specific task.

The Procreative Model

There was a time in the Catholic tradition, a centuries-long period that extended from the beginning of the second century to the middle of the 20th, when marriage was modeled as a procreative institutiona social, religious and stable institution in which a man and a woman became husband and wife to procreate children. Their procreative activity, which defined marriage, extended not only to the production of a child but also to nurturing motherhood and fatherhood and the production of a functioning adult. Since they did not live long beyond the early adulthood of their children, marriage was therefore easily defined as lifelong.

This procreative institution is the result of a contract in which, according to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, each party gives and accepts a perpetual and exclusive right over the body for acts which are of themselves suitable for the generation of children (Canon 1081, 2). Notice that the marriage contract was about bodies and acts; the procreative institution was not about persons and their mutual love. Couples who hated one another could enter into the procreative institution as long as they exchanged legal rights to one another’s bodies for the procreation of children.

In December 1930, Pope Pius XI published an important encyclical letter on marriage, Casti Connubii, which transformed the procreative model into a more personal model of conjugal love and intimacy. The procreative institution, in which procreation was everything, began to give way to procreative union, in which procreation was almost, but not entirely, everything. Predictably, Pius insisted on the procreative institution; procreation was still the primary end of marriage. Unpredictably, he insisted also on the importance of the mutual love and marital life of the spouses. So important is this mutual love and life, Pius argued, that it can, in a very real sense, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of marriage, if marriage be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and educating of the child but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof (A.A.S., 1930, 548-49). If we do not focus exclusively on procreation, the pope taught, but focus also on the marital love and life of the spouses, then that love and life is the primary reason for marriage.

In these wise words, Pius suggested that there is more to marriage, much more, than the Stoic, biologically rooted, physical-act-focused procreative institution can explain. His suggested procreative-union model provided a transitional model of marriage and set Catholic marriage theory on the way to an entirely new and unheard of model of marriage, a model of interpersonal union. After 35 years of growing pains, most of it occasioned by condemnations from Pope Pius XII and the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), that model came to fruition at the Second Vatican Council.

The Interpersonal Model

The council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World describes marriage as a communion of love (No. 47), an intimate partnership of life and love (No. 48). In spite of loud and insistent demands to repeat the centuries-old received tradition of marriage as procreative institution (thus consigning spousal love to its traditional secondary place), the council declared love between the spouses to be of the very essence of marriage. The council underscored its preference for an interpersonal union model by making another important change in the received tradition. Marriage is founded in a conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent (No. 48). The legal word contract gives way to the biblical word covenant, a word saturated with overtones of mutual personal and steadfast love, characteristics that are now applied to marriage. The description of the object of the marital covenant places the interpersonal character of marriage beyond doubt. The spouses, the council teaches, mutually gift and accept one another (No. 48). The focus on animal bodies and acts is replaced by a focus on persons. In their marital covenant, spouses create, not a procreative institution, but a loving interpersonal union which, since genuine love is steadfast, is to last as long as life lasts.

Marriage and the marital love of the spouses are still said to be ordained for the procreation of children (No. 48), but that does not make the other ends of marriage of less account, and [marriage] is not instituted solely for procreation (No. 50). The intense and well-documented debate that took place at the council makes it impossible to claim that the refusal to sustain the received marital tradition was the result of some oversight. It was the result of deliberate and hotly deliberated choice, a choice replicated and given canonical formulation 20 years later in the revised Code of Canon Law of 1983.

Karl Barth, the Protestant theologian, once complained that the traditional Christian doctrine of marriage, both Catholic and Protestant, situated marriage in juridical rather than religious or theological categories. The Catholic Church corrected that situation in 1965. Marriage, as modeled in the Catholic tradition, has been transformed from procreative institution, in which procreation was everything, through procreative union, in which procreation was not quite everything, to interpersonal union, in which the mutual love of the spouses and their marital life together is as important as procreation. Compared to the centuries-old model of procreative institution, the model of interpersonal union is still in its infancy and struggling to establish itself in repressive official circles.

The Difference It Makes

A good question arises at this point: does it make any difference that a new model of marriage emerged in the Catholic tradition in the middle of the 20th century? The answer is yes, it makes a great difference. Models are imaginative constructs that selectively represent and enable us to understand specific aspects of the world. They are of two kinds, explanatory and exploratory. Explanatory models, like the model R.A.F. Spitfire that hangs in my study, synthesize what we already know or believe. Exploratory models, like scientific models of the atom or religious models of God, church or marriage, lead us heuristically to new insights into what we do not yet fully know. Models are always to be taken seriously as heuristic, educational tools, but they are never to be taken literally. I could never have a literal R.A.F. Spitfire hanging in my study, nor could I ever have a definitive-for-all-time insight into God, church or the interpersonal union called marriage.

Another major characteristic of models is important: they evoke attitudes and actions consonant with the model. It is, perhaps, in its call to new attitudes and new action that a new theological model makes its greatest difference.

The action required by the procreative model is obvious and abundantly evidenced throughout Catholic history: the procreation of children. The primary sign of a good Catholic family in the not too distant past, therefore, was how many children a married couple had. The relationship of the spouses/parents was secondary. The action required by the interpersonal union model is different: the procreation of love. Make the relationship between the spouses in all its psychological, intellectual and sexual manifestations loving, faithful, symmetrically self-sacrificing, just, compassionate, forgiving, peaceful and nonviolent. In a marriage, the time to make babies is when the spousal relationship is sound and the climate, therefore, right for the procreation of children. The difference the interpersonal union model of marriage makes is that it places the relationship of the spouses, their mutual marital life and love, on an equal footing with procreation. In the language of the received tradition, the mutual marital life and love of the spouses is an equal end of marriage with procreation, a theological and canonical fact acknowledged by the Second Vatican Council and the new Code of Canon Law.

The procreation of a child is an awesome event in a marriage and also an awesome responsibility. Genuine procreation requires not only biological maternity, paternity and the generation of a child but also long-term, nurturing motherhood, fatherhood and the generation of a functioning adult. The overwhelming evidence provided by social-scientific research today is that two parentsa loving mother and a loving father whose own relationship is loving and stableare far better for the development of a child than either two parents whose own relationship is unloving and unstable or one parent who, despite heroic efforts, simply cannot by herself or himself provide the benefits two parents can provide.

Though there is no evidence that the theological shift to an interpersonal-union model of marriage was influenced by the social sciences, it is congruent with both the contemporary social-scientific evidence and the practical implications of that evidence. Theology, however, brings its own insight to the question of marriage and offers its own solution to the contemporary crisis of marriage. That solution highlights the fact that the happiness and stability of a marriage and family, with all the benefits that a happy and stable household brings to the genuine procreation of children, is a function of the happiness and stability of the relationship between the spouses. There is no doubt that the birth of children may contribute greatly to the happiness and the stability of the relationship between their parents, but the evidence shows that it does not necessarily do so. Besides, those parents who do successfully progress beyond maternity and paternity to motherhood and fatherhood can look forward to about 30 years together after their children have left them to establish their own families. That empty-nest period will be happy and stable only if the relationship between the spouses has been and continues to be a loving and a faithful one.

Marriage as Sacrament

In a recent study by the Center for Marriage and Family at Creighton University on the first five years of marriage, the most difficult challenge reported by the newly married in general was finding time to balance marriage and job, and the most difficult challenge listed specifically by parents was finding time to balance the spousal and the parental relationship. The model of marriage as interpersonal union acknowledges the reality of these problems in a marital life and asserts that it is good that spouses spend time focusing on their mutual relationship. The happiness and stability of that relationship determines the happiness and stability of their marriage and, therefore, ultimately, the happiness and stability of their family. The model asserts that the interpersonal union of the spouses, with its mutual and symmetrical love, fidelity, self-sacrifice, justice, compassion, forgiveness and nonviolence, is far and away the best climate for the procreation of functioning adults. It asserts, finally, that a marriage lived as a steadfastly loving interpersonal union is not a trap for the unwary, male or female, but a grace-filled way to God, an opportunity to provide a needed symbol in the contemporary world, a veritable sacrament, of the steadfastly loving union between God and God’s people and between Christ and Christ’s church.

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17 years 5 months ago
Articles like Michael Lawler’s “Changing Catholic Models of Marriage” (3/19) are my reason for subscribing to America. It is succinct, lucid and gives me words (finally) to say what I have been thinking for a long time, but never had the time to articulate the idea. It is a definite service for pastors who are on the firing line and feel like they’re low on ammo.

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