EWTN Catholic Q&A
Primary purpose of marriage?
Question from John Galvin on 06-25-2001:

Dear Fr. Levis:

I tried to send you the email below, but you said you didn’t receive it. I didn’t want to bother you at EWTN since it’s not really a question, but I’m sending it along since you said you prefer to receive everything through the Q&A forum.

Dear Fr. Levis:

Listening on the radio to a broadcast of your program “Web of Faith” with Fr. Trigilio, I was surprised to hear your comments regarding the primary purpose of marriage. I apologize for the length of this message (although nearly all of it consists of quotes from Church documents), but I hope I can always count on you to promote the authentic and historically accurate teaching of the Magisterium.

You said, “It all started in 1930’s Germany when some theologians proposed that the unity of the couple was an equally important purpose of the marriage act along with the procreation and education of children. They were shot down at the time, but later their ideas were incorporated into Vatican II. So Vatican II does not specify a primary purpose of marriage, but lists the purposes equally.” Fr. Trigilio agreed with you that Vatican II overturned the Church’s teaching on the primary purpose of marriage.

Are you sure this is historically accurate? Regarding the theologians who were reprimanded at the time, yes indeed you are correct that Popes Pius XI and Pius XII spoke with the greatest possible magisterial authority to correct these wrong opinions which they called “uncertainties, deviations and errors.”

Pius XI (Casti Connubii): “Thus amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place. And indeed the Creator of the human race Himself, Who in His goodness wishes to use men as His helpers in the propagation of life, taught this when, instituting marriage in Paradise, He said to our first parents, and through them to all future spouses: "Increase and multiply, and fill the earth." As St. Augustine admirably deduces from the words of the holy Apostle Saint Paul to Timothy when he says: "The Apostle himself is therefore a witness that marriage is for the sake of generation: 'I wish,' he says, 'young girls to marry.' And, as if someone said to him, 'Why?,' he immediately adds: 'To bear children, to be mothers of families'." … Let Us sum it all up by quoting once more the words of St. Augustine: "As regards the offspring it is provided that they should be begotten lovingly and educated religiously," —and this is also expressed succinctly in the Code of Canon Law—"The primary end of marriage is the procreation and the education of children." … Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.”

Pius XII (Allocution to the Italian Midwives): “Now, the truth is that matrimony, as an institution of nature, in virtue of the Creator's will, has not as a primary and intimate end the personal perfection of the married couple but the procreation and upbringing of a new life. The other ends, inasmuch as they are intended by nature, are not equally primary, much less superior to the primary end, but are essentially subordinated to it. This is true of every marriage, even if no offspring result, just as of every eye it can be said that it is destined and formed to see, even if, in abnormal cases arising from special internal or external conditions, it will never be possible to achieve visual perception.

“It was precisely to end the uncertainties and deviations which threatened to diffuse errors regarding the scale of values of the purposes of matrimony and of their reciprocal relations, that a few years ago (March 10, 1944), We Ourselves drew up a declaration on the order of those ends, pointing out what the very internal structure of the natural disposition reveals. We showed what has been handed down by Christian tradition, what the Supreme Pontiffs have repeatedly taught, and what was then in due measure promulgated by the Code of Canon Law. Not long afterwards, to correct opposing opinions, the Holy See, by a public decree, proclaimed that it could not admit the opinion of some recent authors who denied that the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of the offspring, or teach that the secondary ends are not essentially subordinated to the primary end, but are on an equal footing and independent of it.”

Could anything be more definitive or more magisterial than these statements? Perhaps only the words of Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical “Rerum Novarum” which is considered so definitive that every 10 years the reigning pontiff addresses an encyclical on the anniversary of its publication: “No human law can abolish the natural and original right of marriage, nor in any way limit the chief and principal purpose of marriage ordained by God's authority from the beginning: "Increase and multiply."

So then did Vatican II in fact change this teaching on the primary purpose of marriage? Most definitely not!

The history of Vatican II records that the discussion of this topic was a unique instance during the multi-year proceedings when Pope Paul VI intervened directly to correct deficient language in one of the documents. He refused to approve “Gaudium et Spes” until 4 changes were inserted which more clearly specified the moral illegitimacy of contraception and which reinforced the traditional teaching of the primary purpose of marriage. He left it to the authors to draft the actual language who reaffirmed the teaching by adding the following:

“Gaudium et Spes: Part II Ch 1: “By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown. … Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents. The God Himself Who said, "it is not good for man to be alone" (Gen. 2:18) and "Who made man from the beginning male and female" (Matt. 19:4), wishing to share with man a certain special participation in His own creative work, blessed male and female, saying: "Increase and multiply" (Gen. 1:28). Hence, 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.”

A principal participant and Vatican spokesman, Pericle Cardinal Felici, emphasized the continuity between “Gaudium et Spes” and the documents quoted previously when he clarified, “When some Fathers seemed puzzled that the text could be interpreted in a way that differed from the teaching of the previous Magisterium, a note was added to avoid any further doubt. This repeated the principal acts of the Magisterium referred to in the text. These are the Encyclical of Pius XI “Casti connubii,” the Allocution of Pius XII to Midwives on October 29, 1951, and the Discourse of Paul VI to the Cardinals on June 23, 1964.” (Note: I wonder if it’s possible to get this “Discourse” added to the EWTN library; I’ve never been able to find it anywhere.)

Some have claimed that the phrase “while not making the other purposes of matrimony of less account” removes the primary/secondary distinction. What the phrase actually intends to say is, “The subordination of the other ends of marriage to the primary end of marriage does not lower the status of the other ends. Rather it raises these other ends to their true worth by orienting them in their proper direction.”

Pope Pius XII said virtually the same thing in the next paragraph following the excerpt quoted above from “Allocution to the Italian Midwives”: “Would this lead, perhaps, to Our denying or diminishing what is good and just in personal values resulting from matrimony and its realization? Certainly not, because the Creator has designed that for the procreation of a new life human beings made of flesh and blood, gifted with soul and heart, shall be called upon as men and not as animals deprived of reason to be the authors of their posterity. It is for this end that the Lord desires the union of husband and wife. Indeed, the Holy Scripture says of God that He created man to His image and He created him male and female, and willed—as is repeatedly affirmed in Holy Writ—that "a man shall leave mother and father, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh".”

To avoid any possible confusion or ambiguity, he went on to add: “Not only the common work of external life, but even all personal enrichment—spiritual and intellectual—all that in married love as such is most spiritual and profound, has been placed by the will of the Creator and of nature at the service of posterity.”

Father, I suppose I’m a monomaniac on this subject. But for some reason, the proper teleological orientation of marriage has been under severe attack for several decades now, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone who cares to defend the traditional teaching of the Church. Yet teleology is the essence of Christian philosophy, and it likewise is the essence of a proper understanding of so many issues dealing with sex, marriage and the family. You are more influential than you probably realize, and it’s a great blessing to have an opportunity to clarify this with you.

Thanks for all you do. You’re a wonderful asset to the Church.

Answer by Fr. Robert J. Levis on 06-26-2001:

Dear John, Many thanks. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on this subject and so feel confident on the subject. I defended all these papal teachings affirming the primary end of marriage as the procreation and education of children instead of the secondary end, the mutual fulfillment of the spouses. And I historically cited the writings of the Rev. Doms and Krempel who inverted these two ends. This I did in 1961 and 1962. Now, John, of course I still h0ld on to this teaching as being solid and traditi0nal. But no document in the writings of Vatican 11 expresses the superiority of the classic primary end over the secondary end. The statement used is "the essential ends of marriage". So that is the position of the Council. Notice all those papal teachings you cited are prior to that of the Vatican 11. In the Web of Faith we try to reflect what the Church itself holds, as expressly as possible. So what say you? Fr. Bob Levis