MARITAL AND FAMILY COMMITMENT: A PERSONALIST VIEW
by Cormac Burke
This century has seen an ongoing debate within the Church about the ends
of marriage. A traditional understanding presented these ends in a clear
hierarchy or order of importance: a "primary" end (procreation) and two
"secondary" ends (mutual help and the remedy for concupiscence). Early on
in the century a feeling began to emerge that this understanding was too
exclusively centered on the procreative function of the marital
relationship, while it neglected "personalist" aspects or values also
characterizing this relationship, and of which modern times have become
more aware: love between man and woman as the main motive for marrying,
the promise of personal happiness or fulfillment that marriage seems to
offer, the human values felt to underlie physical sexuality.
The Second Vatican Council incorporated these personalist values into its
presentation of marriage. And, as is well known, married personalism is
notable in the teaching on marriage of John Paul II. Sexuality and
marriage, interpreted in a personalist light, were in fact the theme of a
lengthy papal catechesis covering the first years of the present
pontificate; and the same presentation has frequently recurred since. Thus
it now seems beyond question that a personalist view of marriage has
become firmly established in magisterial teaching.
The effect of personalist ideas is specially noticeable in the new Code of
Canon Law promulgated in 1983. In the section on marriage, the very first
canon, on the nature and purpose of matrimony, says: "The matrimonial
covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a
partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good
of the spouses ["bonum coniugum"] and the procreation and education of
offspring" (c. 1055).
Here, in what Pope John Paul II has described as the "last document of the
Second Vatican Council," we are offered a brief formula of the greatest
importance, which marks a development and crystallization of the married
personalism of Vatican II. Particularly to be noted is the progress from
the rather vague conciliar statement about matrimony being endowed with
"various" or "other" ends, besides procreation, to the specific
enunciation of < ends to marriage, the good of the spouses and the
procreation/education of children.
As we can see, there is no mention here of primary or secondary ends; the
presentation rather suggests two ends on equal footing. In any case, there
seems to me little point in arguing which comes first because, as I see
it, it is the interrelation and inseparability- and not any
hierarchy-between the ends of marriage which matters most today and most
An important point should be clarified here. Some writers refer to the
good of the spouses as the "personalist" end of marriage, and to
procreation as its "institutional" end. Such a contrast however is not
accurate. ends-procreative and personalist-
(just as both properly understood, are personalist). Marriage, in other
words, has two institutional ends, a point that it is easy enough to
The institutional ends of marriage are evidently those established in its
very institution, i.e., those with which marriage was endowed by its
"Institutor" or Creator-by God himself. Here it is important to note that
Scripture offers two distinct accounts of the creation of man- male and
female-and of the institution of marriage. One account expresses a clearly
procreative finality, while the other can fairly be described as
personalist. The first, in the opening chapter of Genesis, reads: "God
created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and
female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be
fruitful and multiply' ..." (Gen. 1:27-28). The second account, in the
next chapter, says: "The Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man
should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him' . . ." (so God
created woman . . . and, the narration continues) "therefore a man leaves
his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one
flesh" (Gen. 2:18-24).
In the first text, man's relative is underlined. He is made
in the image of God, and is the highest visible expression of the goodness
of creation. The distinction of sexes ("male and female he created him")
appears as a key to man's mission to carry on the work of creation by
procreation. The idea of the goodness of this assigned mission
characterizes the passage.
In the second version, it is rather man's which is
stressed. Man (male or female) is incomplete, if he remains on his or her
own; and this is not a good thing: "non est bonum." The normal plan of God
is that he will find the goodness he lacks in union with a member of the
other sex; and this union should lead to the good of each and of both: to
the "bonum coniugum."
If it is not good for man or woman to be without a conjugal partner, what
is the good which God had in mind in instituting the plan of sexual
partnership and cooperation within the marriage? What sort of help or
helpmate did he intend each spouse to be for the other? Was he concerned
simply about man's temporal good, thinking just of a solace for this life
alone? It seems reasonable to presume that God's perspective went farther
than that. After all nothing in God's plan is created for an exclusively
this- worldly purpose; everything is designed for his glory and, where
rational creatures are involved, for their eternal destiny.
In the plan of the divine institution of matrimony, we can say that the
true "good of the spouses" can be said to consist in their maturing as
persons throughout their married lives so that they can attain the end for
which they were created. Within the Christian dispensation, the authentic
good of the spouses cannot but consist in their human and supernatural
growth in Christ. Pope Pius XI, in his Encyclical ,
insisted that the true purpose of marital love is "that man and wife help
each other day by day in forming and perfecting themselves in the interior
life, so that through their partnership in life they may advance ever more
and more in virtue, and above all that they may grow in true love towards
God and their neighbor." Vatican II teaches that "as spouses fulfill
their conjugal and family obligations . .-. they increasingly advance
" The supernatural aspect of this is particularly drawn
out in the Vatican II Constitution on the Church: "Christian spouses help
one another to attain holiness in their married life and in the accepting
and rearing of their children." Similarly another conciliar decree
insists: "Christian spouses are for each other . . . cooperators of grace
and witness of the faith."
The demands of married personalism
Some commentators reduce the "bonum coniugum" to what they call the
"integration" of the spouses on the psychic, affective, physical or sexual
levels. This seems inadequate from a Christian standpoint, not only
because it fails to look at the spouses' "good" supernaturally, but also
because it tends to resolve it into a question of natural "compatibility."
One can then be easily led into holding that apparent incompatibility is
an enemy of the good of the spouses, whereas pastoral experience shows
that many highly "integrated" marriages are of couples whose characters
are extremely diverse, and who could well have ended up "incompatible'
unless they had resolved (in an evidently maturing effort) not to do so.
Similarly, to make the "good of the spouses" consist in the achieving of a
comfortable or untroubled life is scarcely in harmony with a Christian
understanding of the real good of the human person. In fact, any idea of
the "bonum coniugum" which identifies it with some form of easy or
gratifying reciprocal relationship between them is fundamentally flawed.
Only passing and superficial personal contacts can be smooth and without
any strains. Difficulties always make their appearance in every close
interpersonal relation that is extended over a period of time. Since
marriage involves man and woman in a unique relationship and commitment to
be maintained over the whole of their lifetime, it is bound to be marked
by difficulties between them, sometimes of a serious nature. Many happy
married unions are between two persons of quite different characters who
have clearly had to struggle hard to get on. One can rightly say that
these marriages are the most "successful," for they have matured the
In fact it does not seem possible to understand the "good of the spouses"
in a Christian way, unless it is seen as resulting from the
aspect of the married covenant. Married commitment is by nature something
demanding. The words by which the spouses express their-mutual acceptance
of one another, through "irrevocable personal consent," bring this
out. Each pledges to accept the other "for better or for worse, for richer
or for poorer, in sickness and in health . . . all the days of my
It is through dedication, effort and sacrifice, especially when made for
the sake of others, that people grow and mature most; that way each one
comes out of himself or herself and rises above self. Loyalty to the
commitment of married life-to be mutually faithful, to persevere in this
fidelity until death, and to have and rear children- contributes more than
anything else to the true good of the spouses, so powerfully realized in
facing up to this freely accepted commitment and duty. John Paul II
describes this duty as calling for "a conscious effort on the part of the
spouses to overcome, even at the cost of sacrifices and renunciations, the
obstacles that hinder the fulfillment of their marriage."
The conjugal instinct
St. Augustine, in the 5th century, was the first great defender of the
dignity and goodness of marriage. According to his masterly analysis,
marriage is good because of three essential values or properties that
characterize it: the exclusiveness of the conjugal relationship, its
procreative orientation, and the permanence of the marital bond. Each of
these qualities he calls a , a value or a "good thing." Elsewhere I
have tried to draw attention to the modern tendency that sees the
Augustinian "bona" as burdensome obligations which the married state
imposes, and not principally as or which it
confers. This applies particularly to the "bonum" or value of
indissolubility, and to that of offspring. It is important that we get
back to St. Augustine's sense that these properties are natural
values-"bona" or -that are in harmony with human nature,
contributing powerfully to its fulfillment.
The good of fidelity or exclusiveness is clear: "You are to me."
It is the first truly personalized affirmation of conjugal love; and
echoes the words God addresses to each one of us in Isaiah: "Meus es
tu"-"You are mine.
The good of indissolubility should also be clear: the good of a stable
home or haven: of knowing that this "belongingness"-shared with another-is
for keeps. It is clearly a good thing for a person to know that, in
marrying, he or she is exchanging with someone else the promise of mutual
and faithful love to last for the whole of life. A person who marries out
of love generally expects, wants and a permanent union. As Pope
Pius XI wrote: "In this firmness of the marriage bond, husband and wife
find a positive token of that lasting quality which the generous surrender
of their persons and the intimate communion of their souls so naturally
and powerfully call for, since true love knows no end."
People want that, are made for that, feel that to chose such a
relationship- and so to bind oneself-is the best exercise of human
freedom. Chesterton used to say that the freedom he chiefly cared for was
the "freedom to be bound." In Tolstoy's , Levin, one of the
protagonists, is about to get married. His friends pull his leg at the
fact that he is losing his freedom. Not exactly rejecting the charge, he
answers: "But the point is that I am happy to lose my freedom in this
Moreover people realise that it will require sacrifice to be faithful to a
life-long love, and feel that the sacrifices are worth it. Pope John Paul
II writes: "It is natural for the human heart to accept demands, even
difficult ones, in the name of love for an ideal, and above all in the
name of love for a person." Something is going strangely wrong with
the head or heart that rejects the permanence of the marriage
The Second Vatican Council teaches that it is "for the good of the
spouses, of the children, and of society" that the marriage bond has been
made unbreakable. Indissolubility therefore positively favors the
"bonum coniugum." The point is surely that all the effort and sacrifice
involved in fidelity to the unbreakable character of the bond-in good
times and in bad-serve to develop and perfect the personalities of the
Of course it is not easy for two people to live together for life, in a
faithful and fruitful union. It is "easier" for each to live apart, or to
unite casually or for a short time, or to avoid having children. It is
easier, but not happier; nor does it contribute to their growth as
persons. "Non est bonum homini esse solus," says the Book of Genesis: it
is not good for a man or woman to live alone, or in temporary successive
associations that tend to leave him or her more and more trapped in
selfish isolation. Married commitment is not an easy endeavor; but, apart
from normally being a happy one, it is one that . There is no
true married personalism which ignores or fails to stress the goodness-for
the spouses, and not just for the children-of the conjugal commitment.
Pope John Paul II in the Apostolic Exhortation on the Family-- speaks of indissolubility in terms of something that
Christians should announce to the world: "It is necessary," he says "to
reconfirm the news of the definitive nature of conjugal love."
If this statement sounds so surprising today, surely we should read there
a sign of how contemporary society has lost its understanding of the
divine plan for man's authentic good. One of the special missions facing
Christians today, in the work of reevangelizing the modern world, is to
spread the news that married love is too sacred and too important- also
for human happiness- to be broken.
Undeniably there are many marital situations where, from a purely human
point of view, it might seem justified to conclude that the good of the
spouses has not been or cannot be achieved: the cases, for instance, where
one of the spouses, reneging on his or her conjugal commitment, walks out
on the other. Does it make any sense to talk of the "bonum coniugum" as
applying to such situations?
As regards the reneging spouse, certainly the marriage would scarcely seem
capable of working any longer toward his or her "good." Yet it can still
work powerfully for the good of the other, if he or she remains true to
the marriage bond. Moreover, if that fidelity is maintained, it may in
God's providence act as a call to repentance, as a force of salvation, for
the unfaithful spouse, perhaps in his or her very last moment on earth-
when one's definitive "bonum" or is about to be attained or lost
That the positive potential of such situations can be grasped only in the
light of the Christian challenge of the Cross, does not in any way weaken
the analysis. On the contrary, as the new Catechism says, "Jesus has not
weighed down the spouses with a burden that is impossible to bear, heavier
than that of the Law of Moses. Having come to reestablish the initial
order of creation upset by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to
live marriage in the new dimension of the Kingdom of God. Following
Christ, denying themselves, taking upon themselves their own cross, the
spouses can 'understand' the original sense of matrimony and live it with
the help of Christ. This grace of Christian Matrimony is a fruit of the
Cross of Christ, the source of all Christian life" (no. 1615).
The personalism of the human procreative power and relationship
A deep ailment troubling the modern world is its failure to recognize the
personalist character of conjugal procreativity. To speak disparagingly
about "biologism," whenever stress is laid on the procreative aspect of
marriage, betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of married
personalism. Nothing can so uniquely express the marital relationship and
the desire for marital union, as conjugal intercourse-. True union between free persons always
involves donation. It is the absolutely unique nature of what is mutually
donated in the conjugal act-the gift of complementary procreativity-that
makes marital intercourse so unitive. Hence derives the intrinsic
of the unitive and the procreative aspects of the
act. The fundamentally anti-personalist nature of contraceptive
intercourse appears here: inasmuch as it deliberately destroys that unique
aspect of the conjugal act which renders it truly unitive, it marks a
rejection of the marital sexuality of the other, a refusal therefore to
accept him or her integrally as husband or wife.
Vatican II teaches that "marriage and married love are by nature ordered
to the procreation and education of children" (GS 50). The order referred
to here is not merely "biological." It is not just an "institutional"
order, referred to marriage as an institution. It is the very order of
human love, of truly sexual and truly married love, which naturally tends
to procreation. If married love, in normal circumstances, does not
want children, it is suffering from a disorder; it is de-natured and
A marital relationship, in order to be humanly true and to tend to
personal fulfillment, needs to retain a fundamental openness to offspring.
A marriage which is so "closed on itself" that it does not want children
is a marriage almost certain to fail, for if the spouses are not open to
children-to the fruit of their sexual union-they are not really open to
the richness of their love; they are not open to one another.
It is precisely this awareness of the deep personalist meaning of
procreativity that renders conjugal intercourse so singularly capable of
contributing to the "good" of each spouse, maturing and "realizing" each
one and linking them together. Conjugality and procreativity are thus seen
to have a natural complementarity. Conjugality means that man or woman is
destined to become a : to unite himself or herself to another, in
an act that is unitive precisely because it is oriented to procreativity.
And procreativity means that he or she is destined to become a :
the union of the spouses tends of its nature to fruitfulness. Conjugality
and procreativity taken together draw man out of his original solitude-
which limits him as a person and is an enemy of his "self-realization," of
Children strengthen the of the bond of marriage, so that it
does not give way under the strains that follow on the inevitable wane or
disappearance of effortless romantic love. The bond of marriage-which God
wants no man to break-is then constituted not just by the variables of
personal love and sentiment between husband and wife, but more and more by
their children, each child being one further strand giving strength to
In a homily in Washington, D.C., on one of his visits to the U.S.A., Pope
John Paul II reminded parents that "it is certainly less serious to deny
their children certain comforts or material advantages than to deprive
them of the presence of brothers and sisters, who could help them to grow
in humanity and to realize the beauty of life at all its ages and in all
its variety." I would suggest to parents who too easily incline to
family limitation, to read the Pope's reminder in the light of the Vatican
II teaching that "children are the gift of marriage and
contribute to the extent to the
themselves." It is therefore not only their present children, but also
themselves, that such parents may be depriving of a singular "good," of a
unique experience of human life, the fruit of love.
It is true that the wholehearted acceptance of these "goods" takes a
sustained effort; but it is also true that this effort has a deep maturing
effect on the persons who face up to it, and becomes moreover an enduring
source of happiness. I have made reference to one of my books on marriage,
. The title is meant to underline the fact that the
pledge of a man and a woman to the bond or covenant of marriage, with the
determination to live up to its demands, means to place oneself firmly
within a life- long commitment which God wishes specially to bless with a
happiness grounded in effort and generosity, that so powerfully leads on
to the effortless and unlimited happiness of heaven.
1 AAS 76 (1984) 644.
2 , nos. 48; 50.
3 Cf. my essay: "Marriage: a personalist or an institutional
understanding?" in 1992-III, pp. 301-303.
4 . pp. 285ss.
5 Cf. , nos. 293ss.
6 AAS 22 (1930) 547-548.
7 GS 48.
8 , no. 11.
9 , no. 11.
10 GS 48.
11 , no. 25; cf. GS 48.
12 1987 Address to the Roman Rota: AAS 79, 1456.
13 , Ignatius Press, 1990, pp. 42ss.
14 Isa. 43:1.
15 AAS 1930, 553.
16 , V, I (1982), p. 1344.
7 GS 48; cf. AAS 22 (1930) 553.
18 No. 20; Cf. , no. 1648.
19 See , no. 12
20 Cf. , pp. 37-38; 41; 51-52.
21 Cf. HV, no. 9.
22 , II, 2 (1979), p. 702.
23 GS 50.
This article appeared in the June 1994 issue of "The Homiletic &
Pastoral Review," 86 Riverside Dr., New York, N.Y. 10024,
212-799-2600, $24.00 per year.