Marital and Family Commitment: A Personalist View

Author: Msgr. Cormac Burke


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,"[1] 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,[2] 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 needs emphasizing.[3]

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).[4] Marriage, in other words, has two institutional ends, a point that it is easy enough to demonstrate.

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.[5]

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."[6] Vatican II teaches that "as spouses fulfill their conjugal and family obligations . .-. they increasingly advance "[7] 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."[8] Similarly another conciliar decree insists: "Christian spouses are for each other . . . cooperators of grace and witness of the faith."[9]

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 spouses most.

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,"[10] 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 life."[11]

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."[12]

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.[13] 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.[14]

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."[15]

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 way."

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."[16] Something is going strangely wrong with the head or heart that rejects the permanence of the marriage relationship.

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.[17] 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 spouses.

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."[18] 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 for ever.

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.[19] 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.[20]

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.[21] If married love, in normal circumstances, does not want children, it is suffering from a disorder; it is de-natured and de-sexualized.

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 his .

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 that bond.

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."[22] 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."[23] 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.