Marriage and the Family

Author: Frank Sheed


by F. J. SHEED


This book is the central portion of the same author's "Society and Sanity."

Copyright 1953







The typical modern man practically never thinks about sex. He dreams of it, of course, by day and by night; he craves for it; he pictures it, is stimulated or depressed by it, slavers over it. But this frothing, steaming activity is not thinking. Slavering is not thinking, picturing is not thinking, craving is not thinking, dreaming is not thinking. Thinking means bringing the power of the mind to bear: thinking about sex means striving to see sex in its innermost reality and in the function it is meant to serve.

Our typical modern man, when he gives his mind to it at all, thinks of sex as something we are lucky enough to have; and he sees all its problems rolled into the one problem of how to get the most pleasure out of it. To that he gives himself with immoderate enthusiasm and very moderate success. Success, in fact, can never be more than moderate, because his procedure is folly.

Sex is a power of the whole man, one power among many: and man is not an isolated unit, but bound to his fellows in society: and his life on earth is not the whole of life, but only a beginning. To use the power of sex successfully we must use it in balance with the rest of our powers, for the service of the whole personality, within a social order, with eternity to come. And all this is too complex a matter to be left to instinct or chance, to desire or mood or the heat of the blood or the line of least resistance. It calls for hard thinking.

A summons to think about sex will be met with no enthusiasm. Men are not much given to thought about sex; as we have seen, they expect no fun from thought and are not much inclined to it or good at it: whereas they expect a great deal of fun from sex and persist in thinking (in the face of the evidence) that they are good at it. Not only that. They feel that there is something rather repellent, almost improper, in the association of sex and thinking. A man must be cold-blooded, they say, to use his reason on sex. The taunt of cold-bloodedness is one that we can bear with fortitude. To the man with fever, a normal temperature seems cold-blooded--but vitality goes with normal temperature, not with fever. And modern sex life is not, even by its own standards, very vital. Too many men who have reached middle life must admit that for them sex has not lived up to its promise--that on balance their life has been rather more begloomed by sex than delighted by it. They have had plenty of glowing anticipation, a handful of glowing experiences, a mass of half-satisfactions and whole frustrations--with the horizon drawing in, and the worried feeling that the splendor has somehow eluded them. It is not from any brilliantly successful sexual life of his own that the typical man of today can deride the idea of using the mind on sex.

Upon sex, as indeed upon all our other powers, we must use reason. Instinct is excellent for the lower animals, but we are not lower animals, we are rational; and the price we pay for our rationality is that reason is our only safe guide, to ignore it is always disaster. There is something pathetic about the philosophers who decry reason and raise the standard of instinct, as about little boys who play at being Red Indians. The little boys would not survive ten minutes in a Red Indian world, the philosophers would perish rather more quickly than the rest of us-- for this philosophy has a great attraction for pallid men--in a world of instinct. The instincts that guide the non-rational creature to the fulfillment of his life--to choosing the food that will nourish or constructing the habitation that will shelter or providing for the preservation of his own life and the continuance of his species--do not guide man. All of these things we have to learn. What we call our instincts are natural desires strongly felt--like the instinct of hunger to eat, or of cold to be warmed, or of maternal love to protect, or of gluttony to surfeit, or of sloth to idle, or of pride to rule, or of covetousness to snatch, or of envy to vie, or of anger to kill, or of sex to possess. In themselves they are a mixture of necessary and dangerous: reason must sort them out, evaluate and control them--diminish some, strengthen others. The growth of a world in which men can live as men has been the growth of reason's domination over the instincts--all the instincts, even the instinct of sex. There is no special privilege exempting sex alone from the control of reason. That it is more exciting than the others does not make it less in need of control but more. Any one of them, uncontrolled, can make human life unlivable--sex perhaps more so than the others. Over none of them will reason secure perfect control in the majority of us--certainly not over sex. But there is a world of difference between the man who aims at control though he only partially achieves it, and the man who does not. Even partial control, which is all that most of us will achieve, is worth striving for.

Thinking about sex will follow the same lines as thinking about any other thing--what does the law of God tell us, what does the nature of the thing itself tell us? Where the law of God is explicit and clearly known, we have enough for right action without further inquiry. But we should study the nature of the thing even then, as a way of understanding God's law better and of entering into the mind of God who gave the law. In this matter of sex, we shall begin with the nature of man and then go on to the law of God.


If we consider sex in itself and ask what Nature had in mind in giving sex to human beings, there can be only one answer: Sex is meant for the production of children, as lungs for breathing or the digestive organs for nourishment. The physical and psychological mechanism is so complex in the man and in the woman, so delicately ordered for the generating of new life, that it would be monstrous to deny (nor, one imagines, has anyone ever denied) that that is what sex is meant for, that is why we have sexual powers. The fact that man can use sex for other, sterile purposes of his own choosing does not alter the certainty that child-bearing is sex's own purpose. I know that to the modern reader there seems something quaint and old-world in asking what a thing is for; the modern question is always what can I do with it. Yet it remains a first principle of the intelligent use of anything to ask what the thing is for--indeed that is almost a first principle of the intelligent misuse of anything. If you are going to pervert a thing, it is wise to know what you are perverting. And to ask what Nature has in mind can hardly be an unnatural opening for any discussion.

But to say that Nature had children in mind when she gave human beings sex does not mean that when two people decide to marry their motive is to have children. If a man draws a girl's attention to the falling birthrate and asks her to marry him in order to improve it, she would be well advised to refuse him: his wooing is a good deal too sociological. People marry, usually anyhow, because they want each other they may want children too, or they may merely see their advent as probable but regrettable: either way, their purpose in marrying is not to have children but to have each other: and Nature does not mind a bit. She is all for people having their own purposes, provided they do not frustrate hers.

Because custom dulls wonder, dulls advertence even, we hardly realize how extraordinary it is that sex should be for child-bearing. It is extraordinary in two ways. For in the first place it gives a grandeur to sex--a remote and even unwanted grandeur you may feel it, but a grandeur that is incomparable. Against this view of sex stand two very different types. There is the Puritan with his conviction that any activity with such intense pleasure in it must be sinful; and there is the hedonist gathering rosebuds while he may, very fond of rosebuds, indeed, but unable to take them too seriously--there are so many of them and so gatherable: sexual experiences, he will say, are merely thrills in the body, therefore of small consequence. For all their perversions, the pagans who have centered their rituals upon sex's mystery are nobler than either. The hedonist is denying the plain fact that, even as a bodily experience, the sexual act is like no other, it engages the body more profoundly, at once troubles and concentrates the whole personality in its depth: the excitement of rosebuds is paler. Hedonist and Puritan alike ignore the fundamental relation of sex to the generation of new life, the first fact about sex--that by it man cooperates with God in the production of other men, living beings, immortal beings. Creation is the work of omnipotence. But procreation is pro-creation, a kind of deputy creation. So that sex in its essential nature is man's greatest glory in the physical order.

Sex as men have it, of course, sex existential as we may call it, is not always, or perhaps even commonly, glorious. Which brings us to the second way in which it is; extraordinary that sex should be for child-bearing. It is extraordinary because the bearing and rearing of children requires a maximum of order, stability, tranquillity: and sex is the most turbulent of man's powers.

What clouds almost all present discussion of sex is that its demonic energy is not adverted to: the sex reformers write of it as though it were a sort of amiable pet, to be played with and put back in its little basket till we choose to play again. But sex is not like that: in its beauty and grandeur and ferocity it can be more like a tiger, and even in the mildest it is no domestic pet. Man does not play with sex: it is nearer the truth to say that sex plays with him, and it can be a destructive game. For sex begins powerful and can become uncontrollable. Short of that extreme, it can become a vast tyranny, harrying the individual man, poisoning every sort of human relationship. As I say, the sex reformers seem unaware of this, and probably many of them are so. William Morris is an example. In News from Nowhere he chisels this little gem of understatement for us: "For, you know, love is not a very reasonable thing, and perversity and self-will are commoner than some of our moralists think." They are indeed. One gets the feeling that a lot of writing on sex is done by the undersexed--men who honestly cannot imagine what all the fuss is about because in themselves there is no fuss: like the headmaster who wondered why boys could not be taught to discuss their own sexual make-up as calmly as they would discuss the machinery of a motor car. The early Christian writers--St. Jerome, for instance--repel us by the frenzy of their tirades against women, but at least they knew that there was a frenzy in sex. The frenzy is still there, and anyone who is not aware of it should not write about sex at all.

So we return to our anomaly: the continuation of the race, which requires above all things an ordered framework of life, is entrusted to sex, which of itself makes for chaos. It is in marriage that these two irreconcilables are reconciled. The critics of marriage have simply not realized how incredibly difficult, and how totally necessary, is the reconciliation it effects. In marriage sex loses none of its strength, but it serves life.

But if marriage is to serve life fully--bring the child not only to birth but to maturity--it must be permanent. The new-born child has to be shaped into a fully developed member of the human race; and for this he needs both parents. Humanity is not man or woman, but both in union. A child brought up by a father only or a mother only is only half-educated. He needs what the male can give him and what the female can give him. And he needs these two not as two separate influences, each pushing him its own way, so that he moves on some compromise line that is neither, but as one fused influence, wholly human, male and female affecting him as conjoined not as competing influences. For that the parents must be united--and indissolubly united. It is not enough that they should agree to live together only while the children need them-- because then they would already be separated in spirit, and their two influences would bear upon the child as two, not as one. So that if Nature is to solve its problem and reconcile its irreconcilables, to make sex serve life, it needs unbreakable marriage.

Are we, then, to see the love of the man and woman for each other as a trap set by Nature to lure them into prison, with every sentence a life-sentence? Are human beings no more than pawns in Nature's game of preserving the race?

Nothing could be further from the reality. Men, in Nature's plan, are never pawns. They cannot serve Nature's purpose without serving their own. In marriage the power of sex is not weakened. Marriage provides strong banks in which sex can course at the utmost of its power, but for the service of life and not for destruction.

There is a common error here--that the great lover is the multiple lover, that sex is made perfect in promiscuity. But it is in the love of one for one that men have always seen sex supremely manifested. Not in Henry VIII or Casanova is sex glorified, but comic, clownish.

And it calls for no long reflection to see why. There is no vitality or mastery in barely being able to totter from one woman to the next, any more than in barely being able to last from one cigarette to the next. There is no mastery in being unable to say no. About the sex- ridden there is a prowling restlessness that is a far cry from vitality. Casual promiscuity is evidence not of sexual potency but only of weakness of control. There is no strength, where control is not strong. The phrase "sexual impotence" is always taken to mean impotence for the sexual act; but there is an impotence to say no to the demands of sex which is entitled to the same name.

Marriage, as the union of one man and one woman, gives opportunity for a splendor of sex impossible outside it, and this both at the level of technique, which does not concern us here, and at the deeper level of personality, which does. The sexual act, merely as a union of bodies, can give exquisite physical pleasure (though it is surprising how often it does not). But it has a double defect.

First, it cannot continue to satisfy even at its own unambitious level: it follows the law of diminishing returns that governs the merely physical pleasures--the dose must be increased to give the same effect. The body craves for the sensation, but after a time grows used to it, is unstimulated by it and craves for more intense sensation. But the act in its essence does not allow for much increase of the dose: so that a man either settles down grimly to a craving he must be for ever yielding to with less and less fruit of satisfaction, or else exhausts his inventiveness in perversions that will for a while bring back the first excitements. It is the universal human experience that a point comes when the craving for the act is over-mastering and the pleasure from the act all but nil, so that the act can be neither refused nor much enjoyed: that being the way of the body's cravings.

Second, a union of bodies is not the fullness of sexual union. It is valid only as an expression of the union of two personalities. Apart from that, it is a meaningless acrobatic. In other words, the sex act is not the marriage union, but is a marvelous way of expressing the marriage union. When, into the union of bodies, all the shared life and shared love of a man and a woman are poured, then you have the sexual union in its fullness. And in this sense it is no paradox to say that the promiscuous, however many experiences they may have had, remain inexperienced. The giving of the bodies at once symbolizes, expresses, and helps to effect, the giving of the selves. The completer the self-giving, the richer the bodily union. The giving of one's self to another is the decisive act, the act that transforms. While the self is ungiven, one remains isolated, singular, single. Those who have never made the gift of self retain, through any number of bodily unions, a sort of unclean virginalness.

But the giving of a self and the receiving of a self, the union of personalities--all these can only in their completeness be of one to one; they belong in marriage, and precisely in marriage that is indissoluble. They are not always found in marriage--we shall be looking at this later--but they are not easily to be had outside it. Where they are found, there is sexual union in its perfection, so that, in falling in with the plan Nature has for the carrying on of the race, sex is enriched. The bodily union merely as such--and indeed the whole sexual experience of which it is the normal culmination can bring a new value into ordinary life, a heightened awareness, an intensification of all vital processes. The thing called glamour is real and valuable. But in marriage as Nature would have it all this is increased and given a new hope of permanence. The sexual union has more to utter; and there is not the certainty of ultimate boredom which goes with all purely bodily pleasures. For while one soon comes to an end of what the body has to give, there is no end to the exploration of a personality. So that an act which must become stale when repeated for its own sake need never become stale when it is regarded as the expression of a profounder reality that is always growing.

Falling in with Nature's plan is, then, sheer gain for sex. It is sheer gain for the whole personality. A man and a woman represent, each of them, half of human nature; each needs the other for completion. But the completion will not come from mere contact or cohabitation. There is something here faintly like what happens when two parts of hydrogen are brought together with one part of oxygen: you would expect water, since those are water's constituents: but you will not get it until you send an electric spark through. Humanity is composed of man and woman: but putting a man and woman together does not of itself constitute the true human compound: something else must happen, something electric perhaps. There must be that real giving and receiving we have already spoken of, a free-will offering of the self by each to the other. Obviously you can have marriage where this mutual giving is at the barest minimum; but it is not marriage at its best, and it does not bring the enrichment of personality that each needs. In some marriages it comes quickly, in some slowly, in some hardly at all. But the quality of the marriage is measured by it. Especially is the permanence of marriage linked to it. There is no such thing as permanent union of flesh that is only that. One remembers W. S. Gilbert's young man, who defended his infidelity so eloquently:

You cannot eat breakfast all day Nor is it the act of a sinner When breakfast is taken away To turn your attention to dinner. And it's not in the range of belief That you should hold him as a glutton Who when he is tired of the beef Determines to tackle the mutton.

It could not be better put. Modern sex life is a series of quick- change acts, hardly more emotionally significant than tiring of beef and tackling mutton. To ask for life-long fidelity where there is no union of personalities really is to ask for the moon.



The Bible, which has a marriage in the first chapter is shot through with intimations of God's will upon sex and marriage. In its main lines His teaching is to be found in the Old Testament; Christ Our Lord developed and clarified this in His time upon earth, and has continued to teach it through His Church in the twenty centuries since.

Broadly it may be summarized in two statements: that the powers of sex must never be used outside marriage; and that marriage is monogamous and unbreakable save by death.

Consider first the restriction of the use of sex to marriage. This involves two consequences: sex must only be used between a man and a woman: and only within the framework of a legal union. Concubinage was tolerated among the Chosen People for a long enough time, but it had disappeared before the coming of Christ: and concubinage was, in any event, a state recognized and regulated by law: it was not casual intimacy, still less mere promiscuity: for neither of these has Scripture a moment's tolerance. A man and a woman must not unite their bodies merely at their choice but only within the framework of a legal union: no union of bodies, or any use of the sex organs, was in any circumstances thinkable save between a man and a woman--not by either alone, or in union with another person of the same sex, or with an animal. Christ Our Lord simply took over these laws, adding one profound development--for He taught that sex might be misused even in the mind, apart from any outward act--the man that looks after a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. The Church has had nothing to clarify here or make in any way plainer. Nor, if what has been said in the last chapter seems to make sense, is it hard to see the reasonableness of this total restriction: it enables the sexual powers to do what they are there for: and to be most fully themselves. Only within marriage do the powers of sex serve the new life by which the race is continued. For only from the sexual union of a man and a woman can children be born, obviously sex's primary purpose; only in their legal union is the ordered framework of life possible in which the children can be reared to maturity. And in marriage, as we have seen, sex can attain its own maturity as an expression of the total union of two personalities.

So we come to the second great law--the law of marriage as the union of one man with one woman till death (as with concubinage, so with polygamy; Christ tells us that Moses allowed it because of the hardness of men's hearts, but He Himself restored the original law). Here the teaching of the Church holds a very delicate but quite essential balance between fixity and freedom. Marriage is an institution whose nature and laws do not depend upon man's choice. Marriage is what it is: God made it what it is because thus it is best for the human race. Man cannot alter it: he can only take it or leave it. And in that precisely lies his freedom. He can take it or leave it. A man or a woman cannot be forced to marry: either is morally free to marry or not to marry (and of course either is physically free to enter into any sort of living arrangement with the other). We can choose whether or not to marry: but we cannot choose what marriage is. The Church expresses all this in the statement that marriage is a relationship resulting from a contract: the contract is made by the man and the woman, the relationship that results is made by God. The man and the woman agree to take each other as husband and wife for life: God makes them so, taking them at their word.

Thus the laws relating to marriage fall into two divisions--laws about the contract, laws about the relationship.

Consider the contract: a man and a woman agree to marry. There are two key words here--agree and marry. Their agreement must be unforced, otherwise it is not an agreement at all: prove that either of them was compelled, and the contract vanishes. Similarly it must be an agreement to marry, that is to enter into a union for life, to the exclusion of all others, a union that is meant by God to produce, and normally will produce, children. If they enter into an agreement to take each other for a term of years, or till one or other wearies of the arrangement, or to the total exclusion of children--then it is not a contract to marry. Prove any of these things and the contract vanishes. There are other ways in which what looked like a marriage contract turns out not to be one (as for example if either is married already, or is impotent, or if the due form is not observed), but the two we have dwelt on illustrate the principle best. Before God brings the relationship called marriage into existence, the man and woman must have made a contract to marry. Where it can be shown that a given couple have not done so, the competent authority will grant a decree of nullity. Where they have done so, there is a marriage. God has brought the relationship into being. If marriage were only a contract, it would, like all other contracts, be breakable by the agreement of both parties to it. But it is not. Once they have made their contract, the parties are bound, not by it, but by the relationship that follows. Let us look more closely at this relationship.

God has taken a man and a woman at their word. They are now husband and wife, made so by God. They are not simply a man and a woman who have agreed to live together for certain agreed purposes. If that were all, they would have entered into an arrangement; but marriage is not an arrangement, it is a relationship. It is hard to make this clear, though once one has seen it nothing could be more illuminating. A man adopts a son: that is an arrangement. A man begets a son: that is a relationship. In marriage the man and woman have not simply adopted each other as husband and wife, in the way a man adopts a son. They have become husband and wife, God has made them so. They are united, not simply by an agreement to be so, but by some vital reality. The relationship of husband and wife is not brought into being in the same way as the relationship of parent and child, for the latter arises in a union of bodies, the marriage relationship in a union of wills: but it is all the closer and more real for that. A husband and wife are not less vitally and really related to each other than they are to their own children, but more.

Our Lord makes His own the phrase of Genesis which puts this fact with dazzling clearness: "They shall be two in one flesh." In the nineteenth chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel we find Him saying to the Pharisees: "A man, therefore, will leave his father and mother and will cling to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. And so they are no longer two, they are one flesh: what God, then, has joined, let not man put asunder." In the fifth chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul quotes the same phrase of Genesis, leading up to it by a figure of speech which at once reasserts the new oneness that marriage has brought into being, and lays its foundation deeper than the natural eye of man can pierce: for he compares the union of a man and his wife with the union of Christ and His Church. "Wives must obey their husbands as they would obey the Lord, as the man is the head to which the woman's body is united, just as Christ is the head of the Church, the Savior on whom the safety of his body depends. Why then, women must owe obedience at all points to their husbands, as the Church does to Christ. You who are husbands must show love to your wives, as Christ showed love to the Church when he gave himself up on its behalf . . . and that is how husband ought to love wife, as if she were his own body; in loving his wife, a man is but loving himself . . . That is why a man will leave his father and mother and will cling to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. Yes; those words are a high mystery, and I am applying them to Christ and his Church."

There is something in the modern temper, of the Western world at least, that is so jarred by the opening phrase--"Wives must obey their husbands"--that we do not read on to the vastly exhilarating truth that follows and, if we do, are not exhilarated by it. The phrase seems to sum up appallingly all that business of masculine domination from which women feel they have fought free. But it certainly does not mean that. The woman's duty of obedience is balanced by the man's duty of love: she is to be obedient, not to a sultan issuing ukases, but to one who loves her as himself. The model is the obedience of the Church to Christ, and Christ is not tyrannical; Christ commands, but gives love not fear as the reason for obedience--"If you love me, keep my commandments." Further, the Church has clarified the obedience due. In the encyclical Casti Connubi, Pope Pius XI writes: "This subordination, however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman, both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband's every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to a wife. In short, it does not imply that the wife should be put on a level with those who in law are called minors, to whom it is not customary to allow free exercise of their rights on account of their lack of mature judgment or of their ignorance of human affairs. What it does is to forbid the exaggerated liberty which has no care for the good of the family; it forbids that in this body which is the family the heart be separated from the head to the great detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to make her own the chief place in love."

The Family is a society, and someone must have the final word, otherwise nothing is ever decided but all is in permanent debate. An endless tug-of-war is a miserable business. Nor would it be for the good of family life if the question of headship should be settled in each family by a contest of personalities, won in some families by the man, in some by the woman. It is not a question of men being superior to women--the need any society has for an authority to order it aright does not mean that those who wield the authority are in any way at all superior as persons to those who obey it. In secular society Queen Elizabeth, for example, was not greater than her subject, Shakespeare; in the Church, Gregory IX was not a holier man than his subject Francis of Assisi. The wielding of authority is a function, a necessary function, giving no reason to feel proud, any more than obedience to it gives reason to feel humiliated.

That the father is the head of the Family does not mean that the mother cannot exercise authority: both must be honored. And that the mother is the heart of the Family does not mean that the father need not love: he, who must love his wife as Christ loves His Church, does not suddenly shut off all love to the children born of his love for her. Both wield authority and both love, but the emphasis is different. And there is a similar unity with difference in the matter of training the child. The father's part is indispensable; but in all the earlier years the mother has the main contact with the child. Its attitude to life it must learn from her. She is the custodian of the standards--standards of manners, standards of morals--of what is right and wrong, good and evil, permissible and forbidden, tolerable and intolerable. If she does not teach these things, the child will not be taught. In all the Christian centuries, the task has been simple enough. The mother had merely to hand on to her children what had been handed on to her. But in our own century that is changed. The world into which the child is to go from her will deride the moral standards--not merely disobey them as people at all times have, but deny their validity. The mother now who would do her duty as custodian of the standards must tell her children not only what they are but why they are, must arm them with an understanding of the real universe in which the moral laws will be seen for what they are, and the world's assault upon them for what it is.


In entering into this union, each has given to the other (and to the other exclusively) the right to sexual union. Notice that sexual union is a thing due, a right: either is entitled to demand it of the other, and, unless there is a very serious reason, neither can refuse it to the other. For the man to refuse his wife or the wife her husband without good reason would be a grave sin. But notice that it is a right, not to any sexual union but to normal sexual union, the union by which, in the way of nature, children are conceived. Abnormal sexual unions are forbidden to the married as to everyone else; abnormalities in the normal sexual union--all the ingenious trickeries that interfere with it to prevent children being conceived--are likewise forbidden. The sexual act must be wholly itself.

And the right thus given is no merely legalistic right--a mere right to the use of the other's body for a specified purpose. The will must go with it; as far as possible--it is not always possible, the feelings cannot be commanded--the whole personality must go with it. The marriage act is a duty, certainly, but it cannot be done simply as a duty: it must be done generously or it is not being done duly. It can never be repeated too often that the sexual union is not simply a union of bodies; it is a union of personalities, expressing itself in the union of bodies. But precisely because the bodily union has so splendid a function, it should itself be splendidly performed. There is a technical competence to be learned by each, for this is an action not of each individually but of two in unison; each surrendered totally to the rhythm of the other. Where it is rightly done, there is an exquisite physical pleasure for both, for so God has made man and woman. Both are meant to experience this pleasure--each must strive that the other may have it. In its fullness the act not only expresses the union of personalities, the total giving of the body uttering the total giving of the self, but intensifies and enriches it. Where there is any want of generosity in the act by either, the union of personalities is impoverished.

It is interesting to observe how the Church, pictured often enough as the enemy of sex, insists upon all this.

In his widely-read book, Pardon and Peace, the Passionist Father Alfred Wilson lists some questions that husbands and wives might ask themselves to test how far their sexual life together approaches the ideal: the first two are especially for wives: "Have I habitually failed in my duty, by giving to intercourse only a reluctant and condescending acquiescence, and by my grudging attitude largely destroyed the value of such acquiescence?"

"Have I been selfish in the refusal or performance of intercourse? Consulted only my own mood and never attempted to accommodate myself to my partner's mood or done so only with the pose of a martyr to duty?"

For men: "In the preliminaries of intercourse have I nauseated my wife by my complete failure to show a delicate and sensitive consideration for her feelings and desires?"

"Do I realize that whilst the biological purpose of intercourse is procreation, the psychological purpose is the expression and preserving of a unique love?"

"Have I raised my mind to God during intercourse and humbly thanked Him for this pleasure, this sacramental expression of love . . . or have I instead considered myself 'outside the pale' and mentally skulked away from His presence and His love?"

The Church, then, sees that the health of marriage requires a positive attitude to sex. It must be wholeheartedly accepted as God's plan for the continuance of the race; its pleasure must be accepted simply and frankly and with all gratitude to God, by whose will it is there. Which brings us to the other element in the Church's thought upon marriage. Just as there must be a positive attitude to sex, so there must be a positive attitude to God. A negative attitude to either is corrosive. God must not be seen primarily as someone we can offend, or sex primarily as something we may misuse. But God must be seen as the fount of life and of love, sex as a channel of life and of love.

Why single out God and sex in this way? Because it is precisely by the lack of a full and positive acceptance of one or other that marriages otherwise healthy most often fail. Marriage itself is the union of two lives, a man's life and a woman's life. Now most people conceive this relation of a man to a woman positively enough--not as a set of prohibitions to be obeyed or pitfalls to be avoided but as love, joy in each other, a mutual self-giving, a certain completion of each by the other, willingness for sacrifice. All this is right and human, essentially healthy and vitalizing. It needs no particular discussion because, as I have said, most people see marriage like that. But what most people do not see is that it can stay like that only if both God and sex are rightly understood and wholeheartedly accepted.

The trouble is that people feel instinctively that there is some sort of incompatibility between God and sex, so that to the believer it seems irreverent, and to the unbeliever at least incongruous, to mention them together. Thinking that they cannot well choose both, people tend to opt for one or the other. Those who opt for sex, leave God wholly out of their picture of marriage; those who choose God, while they cannot leave sex out, admit it in a shuffling shamefaced way, as though wondering what God can possibly think of them!

Thus one may ignore God for the sake of sex or belittle sex for the sake of God. Either way marriage is less vital than it should be. Consider the greater error first--the concentration upon sex to the ignoring of God. To ignore God means quite simply that no part of life is seen rightly or can be lived rightly. God made all things, His will is the only reason why they exist, what He made them for is their only purpose. Leave God out and you leave out the reason for everything and the purpose of everything. We cannot be right about life if we are wrong about God; but we cannot be right about marriage if we are wrong about life. Marriage is seen out of its context if life is seen wrong; sex is seen out of its context if marriage is seen wrong. Out of its context sex, as a union of bodies, or even as a union of persons, looms larger than it should; and is expected to yield a fruit of happiness and human satisfaction which by itself it was never meant to yield, which it is simply not big enough to yield.

Consider now the lesser error--the belittling of sex for the sake of God. This error is more likely to affect Catholics, if and in so far as they lack a positive attitude to God and to sex. It is the feeling that there is something shady about the sex appetite and its satisfaction--that God allows it but looks the other way. But this is to fail to see the glory of the power in itself. By the use of it man cooperates with the creative power of God. The sexual act is not something invented by man's lust and tolerated by God: it is ordained by God Himself as the means for the continuance of man's race. Nor did God plan it as a strictly mechanical means for the production of new life, to be performed dutifully and without elation, for it was God who attached the physical ecstasy to it, so that it is not only a channel of life but a channel of love too.

But their sexual union will be all that it should be in the life of husband and wife only if each grasps fully the meaning both of the act and of its pleasure, and strives wholeheartedly for that competence in it and joy in it which each is entitled to expect from the other. There is of course danger here as there is in all life. The physical pleasure can become overmastering: there can be excess within marriage as well as outside it. The remedy for this excess-- as indeed also for that distrust of the physical side of marriage which is the opposite error--is to relate sexual life to God, to thank Him for so good a gift (as Chesterton says we should thank Him for wine) by moderation in the use of it, and to offer it to Him for sanctification as naturally as the rest of life is offered. There is, as Wingfield Hope says in Life Together, "an irrational instinct to keep our sex life segregated from God--if sex life sidetracks from God, it may ruin the happiness of any marriage. We must not leave God out of any part of our married life, or of any of our thought on marriage."

That sex is not outside the pale of spirituality God has shown, as we have already seen, in making the marriage union a symbol of the union of Christ with His Church; He has shown it even more startlingly in making marriage a sacrament. For a sacrament is a means of grace, and grace means an energizing of God's life in the soul of man, in its first initiation establishing, and in its increase intensifying, the union of the soul with the Blessed Trinity. Every marriage is a relationship whereby God makes the man and woman one flesh; but to the marriage of the baptized, a greater glory is added. When a baptized man and a baptized woman marry, they receive the sacrament, whether they know it or not; the union with each other, which reaches down to the deepest and most radical urgency of their body, enriches their union with God Himself in the spiritual depths of the soul. Grace is the highest effect of Matrimony as of any sacrament. But in Matrimony the sacrament works outward as well, to vitalize the whole relationship. To quote Casti Connubi: "The sacrament perfects natural love . . ."; again: "the husband and wife are assisted not only in understanding, but in knowing intimately, in adhering firmly to, in willing effectively and in successfully putting into practice, those things which pertain to the married state, its aims and duties."

From all this it should be clear that it is from no undervaluing of sex and marriage that the Church teaches that virginity is higher and holier still--not any virginity, be it noted, not the virginity of the impotent or the timorous or the reluctant or the uninterested or the otherwise occupied, but the virginity which is a dedication to God of vast energies of love, which but for this higher dedication would have found their issue in marriage. Indeed it would seem that the primacy of such dedicated virginity is one great bulwark of marriage. Marriage is most honored where virginity is honored still more. For both are expressions--at two levels, one high, the other higher--of the same truth that sex is a gift of God: men can profane it, but there is no profanation in it save such as men import into it.


In truth the Church is a puzzle to anyone who does not grasp the principles on which she is thinking in this matter. On the one hand she seems so niggardly about sex--no intercourse outside marriage, no contraception, no divorce--and on the other hand she sees so much splendor in it. But there is no contradiction. Alike in her glorification of sex and in her prohibitions there is one guiding principle. Sex must be itself. It is sex being wholly itself and fulfilling its own function that she glorifies. All the things she prohibits are ways of denaturing the sexual act or cutting it off from its evident purpose.

The act is itself when the bodily organs of husband and wife are properly in contact throughout, and the seed is allowed to take its natural course. It is denatured when and if these conditions are lacking. In solitary vice, for instance, there is no contact because the act is of one person alone. In homosexuality, there is no union of a man with a woman. Even when there is a man and a woman and an approximation to the sexual act, the contact may be broken before the act is complete or artificial barriers may be introduced so that the organs are not properly in contact at all--the result being that the seed is prevented from going its natural way, the object being to have the pleasure of sex without the risk of generation. Upon all this the Church is adamant. She insists upon the integrity of the sexual act: the act must be wholly itself, it must be allowed to have its natural consequences. To deform or denature it is to degrade it; and to degrade an act of that vital significance is to damage man far beyond the measure of any suffering it is intended to alleviate.

The Church, then, insists that the sex act be not performed, save in its integrity. Equally she insists that it be not performed outside marriage. By the one insistence she safeguards the act itself, by the other she safeguards its function. Her teaching here is wholly in accord with the line of reasoning sketched in the previous chapter. The power of sex is aimed, obviously, at the generating of children. It can serve other purposes, too--at the lowest level it can give pleasure, at the highest it can at once express and intensify the union of personalities--but these other purposes must not be sought in a total divorce from its direct function, the continuation of the race. The institution in which sex best serves this aim is, we have seen, marriage--and indissoluble marriage, the permanent union of the father and mother. Where there is no union at all between the parents, the child is in a desperate insecurity; where there is a union, but not permanent, a union with divorce and remarriage seen as an ever-present possibility, the child's training towards maturity and full membership of the human race will be profoundly damaged. Marriage is the one condition in which the main purpose of sex is secured. The sexual union belongs in marriage and only there.

This is not to say that husband and wife must intend every act of sexual union to be procreative, but only that when they do have sexual union they shall have it in its integrity. They may know that procreation is impossible--for instance, because there is a child already in the womb, or because the wife has passed the age of child-bearing. They may feel that procreation is undesirable-- because of great danger to the wife's health or a desperate economic situation--and therefore restrict the act to times when conception is improbable. Provided they have the union in its integrity, not deforming or distorting or mutilating it, doing nothing to interfere with the course of nature, then they are within their rights. Such uses of sex still serve sex's primary purpose: they serve the children already born, by making the marriage a firmer, warmer, lovinger thing; if no children are, or can be, born, they still serve sex's primary purpose, for they help to add one more strong and happy marriage to the whole institution of marriage, and it is upon the institution of marriage that the new- born generations depend.

Thus it will be seen that the Church's object is not, as sometimes supposed, that families should have as many children as possible; her concern is that a power so supremely valuable as sex should not be played with. Children, if one may say a thing so obvious once more, have to be not only brought into the world, but brought up in the world; and upon this, as upon all else, men must use their reason. To bring into the world twice as many children as father and mother are financially competent to support, and physically or psychologically competent to handle, is not necessarily to make the right use of the power of sex. A given couple may feel the certainty that it is God's will that they take no thought of such factors and rely upon Him to help them no matter how many children may come. But short of such a special vocation, husband and wife may, as we have seen, decide that there is a deeply serious reason for not having another child--for the moment, perhaps, or even in any foreseeable future.

The reason must be serious. Trifles are not enough. That the birth of other children might mean buying a less expensive car or sending the children to a less fashionable school would not justify the decision to have no more: for that would be making the ornaments of life more valuable than life itself, and not only could no Christian see things so, but only the devitalized could. Indeed for one who has grasped what a human being is--made in God's image, immortal, redeemed by Christ--only the most serious reason would be strong enough to support such a decision. But where such serious reason exists husband and wife may agree to abstain from sexual intercourse, for a time, or permanently. Or they may agree to have it only at times when conception is most unlikely. In all this there is no want of trust in God, but simply an awareness that in the procreation of children human beings have a necessary part to play, and that they must use their judgment, prayerfully, as to how they shall play it.

The denaturing of the marriage act is one of the two modern assaults upon the integrity of marriage: divorce is the other. The arguments for divorce are all too obvious. A marriage is a failure, humanly speaking irredeemable. It is causing great mental suffering, perhaps bodily suffering too, to husband and wife. The Church teaches that in such circumstances the suffering party may withdraw and live apart: but may not re-marry while the other party lives, for the marriage itself cannot be broken. It is a hard teaching, and to the generality of men seems even repulsive. For two people in the prime of life thus to be condemned to celibacy, especially after marriage has fully aroused them sexually, can mean sheer anguish. Anyone with much experience of life has met case after case where his whole soul longed that the law might be different. The suffering caused is so great a thing, the way of relief seems so small a thing.

But the way of relief is not so small a thing. For it is impossible. It was not through any defect of love that Christ said "What God has joined together let not man put asunder"--Christ, who was so totally love that men who know nothing else about Him know at least that He loved all of our race as it has never been loved.

God makes the man and woman to be husband and wife: no one but God. Neither the State, nor the man and woman themselves with all their striving, can unmake the relationship God has made.[1] If there is cruelty in the refusal to permit divorce and remarriage, it is not the Church's cruelty, but God's. And God is love.

Somehow, this law, like every law of God, must serve love. The suffering which the law may cause must be outweighed by a greater good for man and a greater suffering avoided. And, in this matter, however much our hearts may be wrung by the sight of individual anguish, the greater good, the balance of advantage, is not hard to see.

The happiness of society as a whole, of the generality of men and women, and still more of children, is bound up with the health of marriage: it provides the one stable framework, the underlying security, without which men and women, and children still more, feel the wretchedness of their insufficiency. Where a given marriage is unhappy, this wretchedness falls upon the individuals concerned: and there are marriages where one feels that everyone concerned, even the children, might be the gainers from ending them and letting the parents start afresh with new partners. One need not stay here to observe that the second marriage is not necessarily much happier than the first--the innocent party may have contributed to the first failure, and in the same innocence will bring the same defects of character and personality to make their modest contribution to the failure of the second. But this is beside the point. The suffering caused to individuals by a marriage that fails is a trifle compared to the suffering caused throughout society by the breakdown of marriage itself.

And unhappily there is no way of breaking individual marriages without damaging the institution of marriage. For any human power to break a marriage because it is unhappy means that marriage as such is breakable; and if marriage as such is breakable, then anybody's is, everybody's is. No two people are any longer united in a relation permanent in itself, but only in an arrangement dependent upon whim or mood or feeling or the thousand chances of life. The institution of marriage no longer exists and society has taken a first step on the road to chaos.

This is not a rhetorical exaggeration. The Church knows, and seems to be alone in knowing, that wedges have thin ends. The world always points to the thinness of the wedge's point of entry, and accuses the Church of making a fuss about a trifle: what harm, says the world, can possibly come from admitting an exception and granting relief in a case so poignant, and happily so rare? The Church sees the thickness of the wedge that lies behind that thin end, awaiting entry. "To do a great right, do a little wrong" is a plea that the modern man finds irresistible. But there is no such thing as doing a little I wrong: the smallest yielding of principle, for however good a cause, is a hole in the dike and you will not keep out the sea. There is a principle, for instance, that innocent life may never be taken. Of course, says the world: but to save the life of a mother, one may surely destroy the infant within her. The Church is seen to be unyielding and is thought to be heartless-- even her own members might wish her to yield a little to common humanity. The Church does not yield. She has her own principle, that God does not allow it. But she knows also about the end and the wedge. Once conceded that innocent life may be taken for so very good a cause, and there is no limit to the causes which will seem good enough to justify taking it. Millions of Jews exterminated in lethal chambers may serve as a reminder that she is not being fanciful.

So in our present inquiry on marriage and divorce: the thin end of the wedge was adultery. It was argued, from a text in St. Matthew's Gospel, that Christ allowed divorce and remarriage on that one single ground: I do not thus interpret the text, but I can see how one might. So divorce came in, for adultery. A great deal of wedge has entered since that thin breach was made, and we have not seen the whole of it yet. Roughly speaking, anyone who wants a divorce can have it. He still has to ask for it, and may have to do a little legal maneuvering for it. But he can get it. There is something else. The mere possibility of divorce helps marriage to fail. The average modern couple enter upon marriage, assuming it terminable, though they have no intention that theirs shall terminate. But successful marriage is not automatic. It has to be worked for, and there are trying moments, as we shall see in the next chapter, as indeed you can see in the life around you. There are difficulties from within--two imperfect personalities to be somehow adjusted; difficulties from outside--economic circumstance, the superior seductiveness of strangers. Marriage, like all other valuable human things, calls for strong efforts and strong resistances: and people who know that marriage is unbreakable, will make them: people who regard it as breakable, won't.

The principle of the end and the wedge has had a spectacular illustration in the matter of birth control. The thin end of the wedge was the wife who would certainly die if she had another baby: to oppose contraception for her made one feel like a brute. The wedge made its entry: and the widening was dazzling: till now a high-school girl might feel socially inadequate without her contraceptive package. For everybody, married and unmarried, contraceptives seem to have taken the danger out of sex. One can indulge sexual desires irresponsibly, for "nothing can happen." With contraceptives, one feels, sex can be played with. But sex is never to be played with, it is too strong: and something is always happening in the depths of the psyche. The truth is that a healthy use of sex cannot co-exist with any deformation of the sexual act, there is too much possibility of frenzy in it; the institution of marriage cannot co-exist with divorce, for human indolence and waywardness will always take the line of least resistance. Any exception upon either abandons the principle, and nothing is left but the wreckage.

All this may seem fanciful to those who regard sex as a life all its own, not related to the rest of life, or as a private hobby with no effects upon the other elements of the individual's life or the life of society--a hobby like stamp-collecting, only more exciting. Such people tend, too, to the romantic notion that you only have to leave sex uncontrolled to get happiness. One wonders how either notion could survive adolescence. Maturity sees sex yielding less happiness than it ever did, the framework of married life everywhere corroded, the children of broken homes growing into a national problem.

Health for the individual and for society is not simply a question of the best distribution of material goods--pleasant work, pleasant home, economic sufficiency, sexual desire hollowing its own happy channels All that is three-dimensional, and man has a strange fourth dimension--the sacred. Life must be sacred, sex must be sacred, marriage must be sacred. For all three there is no sure middle ground between sacredness and profanation. All three run too deep into the heart of reality for a decent respectability to be sufficient or even possible. What man does not reverence he will profane. He must re-learn reverence for life and for sex and for marriage. They can flourish only as sacrosanct.

In the last section I have talked exclusively of divorce and birth control; and indeed our presentation of marriage to the world concentrates so much on these that an outsider might be pardoned for thinking Christian marriage no more than an heroic refusal to get divorced, accompanied by a tightlipped renunciation of contraceptives. But these two are diseases of marriage, comparable in the moral order to cancer and consumption in the material. Freedom from cancer and consumption does not mean that a body is healthy; freedom from divorce and birth control does not mean that a marriage is healthy. A body may be free from major diseases, yet unhealthy and devitalized: so may a marriage. To understand health, we must study health--the conditions in which a thing is most fully itself and most abounding in vitality. This study must always be primarily positive. The study of disease-- even the recognition that it is disease--comes after.

To summarize all this, the love of husband and wife can be the magnificent thing it is meant to be only if both are living mentally in the real universe, a universe which exists solely because God wills it and in which each thing is healthily itself only by being as God wills it. Men must see what they are and where they are before they can see with real understanding, and not simply by blind obedience, how they should act. And save in relation to God they cannot see what they are and where they are, for save in relation to God they would not be at all. Once a man has this view of reality as a whole, he will scarcely need arguments against divorce and contraception; until he has it, he will not be convinced by them. This bringing in of God is not mere religiosity: it is the plain fact of things. It may seem vastly troublesome to teach men about God before dealing with their concrete problems, but the sooner we realize that the concrete problems cannot be solved without God, the better for everybody.

1. God teaches, through His Church, that there are two instances in which marriage, validly contracted, may be broken. The first is when the marriage has not been consummated: for good reason, the Church can terminate it. And there is the situation envisaged by St. Paul (I Cor. vii. 15): two unbaptized people marry and later one of them is baptized: if the unbaptized one refuses to live with the baptized (or makes life together impossible) the baptized one may marry again.


Marriage as the nature of man needs it, marriage as God ordains it, harmonize admirably with each other, as we have seen, but a good deal less admirably with marriage as men and women actually live it. Reading the last two chapters, the average married couple might smile cynically or even savagely: one can hear them in derisive recitation of the Christian statement of what marriage is--a man and woman made one by God, a sexual life meant both to express the oneness and to bring children into being, he the head, she the heart. Derisively recited, even soberly studied, it sounds unrealistic, hot-house stuff, not for our weather-beaten world. Not many marriages look much like that; many look like a parody of it.

But every marriage, whatever it may look like, is in fact that--just as man, whatever he may look like, is God's image. Husband and wife are one, though they may no longer will oneness but turn their every energy to rending, not union, sexual life has those purposes, though the two may pervert it; the husband is the head and the wife the heart, though neither functions. We are about to look at Marriage Existential, as we have already looked at Man Existential. In neither instance are we turning from ideal to real: man and marriage remain, in their essential reality, what we have shown them to be; whatever misuses there may be are misuses of that reality; the misuses are real, certainly, but so is the nature of the thing misused.

There are marriages that start well enough and are wrecked by circumstance, and marriages that seem doomed from the start. The father may be out of work, there may be no houses to be had, so that over-crowding and under-feeding make mock of God's design; husband or wife may die while the marriage is still young. Or the husband may totally lack will-power, the wife totally lack feeling, one or the other may be an alcoholic, or unnaturally cruel, or sexually perverted. These are tragic possibilities, but they are not in the nature of the case--they arise, when they do arise, from exceptional circumstances or abnormal characters. They are to be laid more to the count of circumstances and characters than of marriage. When they do occur, it will be cruelly difficult for one or both to rescue what can be rescued. Even then, a grasp of the nature of God and man and marriage and a living, tenacious trust in all three--or even a plain human clinging to the preservation of the family--can bring success where every sign said ruin; and this is not simply optimistic assertion, but a truth verified over and over again in human experience. Yet we may feel that such a degree of understanding and trust and courage is heroic and not to be counted upon; more often the marriage goes under.

But marriages of this exceptional sort fall outside our consideration here. That people make a failure of their marriage in abnormal conditions is no count against the institution of marriage. The real problem is that so many people make so poor a thing of it in conditions roughly normal. Our concern is with the general average.


When Mr. Smith marries Miss Jones, it is a common joke that he doesn't know what he is marrying: which usually means that he doesn't know what a temper she has or what she looks like in the early morning. But of almost every man it is true in a profounder sense: he doesn't know what he is marrying, nor does she, because neither knows what a human being is. Two people have taken each other for better or worse, linked their lives in what might easily prove an intolerable intimacy, and neither knows what the being is to whom he has tied himself so tight. A man had better study what a human being is, because he's marrying one--assuming that merely being one has not been a sufficient stimulus to the study.

In a sense it is a doubling of the strange anomaly that each has been handling himself without knowing what he is, but it is actually far worse. There is a sort of rule-of-thumb knowledge of oneself gained from long experience of being oneself which, though it does not supply for total ignorance of what one is, at least takes some of the chill off it: one has managed to live more or less satisfactorily with oneself, and such dissatisfaction as one feels with one's own performance does not, in most people, turn to resentment. But neither has had any such experience of being the other. A new situation has arisen that the old tried routines cannot cope with: and, in this matter, as in all matters when the routines fail, there must be understanding to cope with the breakdown.

In the close union of marriage all that we have seen in the first section of this book, as to the necessity of knowing and the danger of not knowing what man is, stands clearer than in individual life at the one end or the wider union of Society at the other. Not knowing it can produce more sorrow, knowing it more joy. The pair who have really meditated upon man as a union of matter and spirit, by his spirit immortal and made in God's image, a being for whom Christ died, have made a preparation for marriage for which there is no substitute. If any be disposed to mock at this as doctrinaire and unrealistic, at least let one who thinks he has made a success of marriage mock first. To have failed does not of itself qualify a man to speak as an expert, upon marriage or anything else.

In marriage the view of the essential magnificence of man is at once most urgently needed and most sharply tested. It is harder for the married to go on holding it and grimmer to go on not holding it. No man is a hero to his valet, says the proverb: and no valet is bound as tight to his master's unposed self as wife and husband to each other's. Distant hills are greenest: in marriage there is no distance at all to create the illusion of any verdure that is not there, or deepen the greenness of any that is. Every man's private face is different from his public face: but the face that the married see is something more private than private--private is too public a word for it. No one sees the husband as the wife sees him- -not the husband, certainly; and he has his own unshared view of her for compensation. For being thus unique, the view each has of the other is not necessarily accurate or profound. Each will note the elements in the other that he or she personally responds to most--the response being either of attraction or repulsion: but whereas one may get used to the qualities that attract and take them for granted and cease to respond to them, the irritating more often continue to irritate.

The average issue of all this is hard to set down; indeed it is hard to say if there is an average, or if the word average has any meaning, where there is so wide an arc--with something that verges on bliss at one end, and something that skirts the upper edge of the intolerable at the other. But those marriages surely rank high where husband and wife love each other, would feel all lost without each other, are amiably tolerant of each other's faults (and aware of their own): and even in this smaller group the phrase "essential magnificence" applied to either might cause the other to smile. In less happy marriages--which would yet count as successful, which neither party regrets having entered upon--the rejection would be more violent.

Only in the rarest cases will a husband and wife discover each other's magnificence by looking at each other: the way to learn is the way Christian civilization learnt it, by listening to God, who says that it is so. Learn it they must, for it is the truth about themselves, and it is the one sure ground of reverence. It is a main theme of this book that reverence is everywhere essential. In marriage reverence is more important even than love: love will not find its own self without it. Reverence does not mean remoteness or exclude lightheartedness: two who reverence each other can play together. But it does mean a steady awareness in each that the other has a kinship with the eternal.

It is essential that husband and wife reverence each other: it is essential that they reverence the marriage relation. And as the one reverence comes from knowledge of what man is, the other comes from knowledge of what marriage is. In one as in the other, as we have seen, the essential magnificence is as real as any existential degradation there may be. In normal Christian marriage, of course, there is no question of degradation. Yet there may be a failure to realize what marriage essentially is which prevents the marriage reaching its full stature. It may be a failure either to see marriage as a union of personalities, based upon self-giving, or to achieve a bodily union worthy of the total personal relation it is meant to express.

The bodily union may lack perfection either from coldness, where one party goes through the motions mechanically or with positive distaste; or from excess, with one or both concentrated wholly and gluttonously upon the pleasure the body can get out of it and so, with whatever protestation of love, one using the other as a means, a convenience, a thing and not a person. So far as these evils arise from physical or psychological defects they may not be easily curable, or curable at all. But more often they are there because no right view of sex and marriage exists to show any reason for bettering them. Save in the rare instances when everything goes right by a sort of healthy instinct with love blunting all egoisms, understanding is essential. With understanding, most of what is wrong in the physical relation may be made right; with understanding there may be a beginning of the self-giving without which no sexual competence will make a marriage happy, and with which marriage may be a thing of excellence even when the sex relation lacks richness. Where the understanding is by both, the marriage will not be wrecked, from within at least. Where one understands and the other does not, it can be tragic--such an infinity of patience and love and wounds endured and no certain success.


Total self-giving, then, is the key to successful marriage. The self resists, clinging to its autonomy. Love is the key to self-giving. Love can provide a kind of understanding deeper and more dynamic than the intellect at its most powerful will ever know. Love can provide a kind of reverence, too, though this perhaps more before the loved one is possessed--in which case it was reverence for the unknown, a valuable thing but not the real thing: to know and still to revere, that is true reverence. Love can do even that. Love can do every sort of impossibility. The trouble is that love at that intensity is not so very common. Every new pair of lovers feel that they have attained it, like C. S. Calverley's man--

I did not love as others do None ever did, that I've heard tell of.

It has never been as easy as all that, and modern life has made it harder; the waters have been so muddied, love has so much to contend with in the way of psychologies that have half-fouled it for the young before they have grown to feel it. Two or three years of cynicism about sex is no happy preparation for love. Adolescent playing about with sex there has always been: it is a great misfortune, since there is no gift a husband and wife can bring to each other so great as their sexual power in its integrity, not spilled and frittered away in small affairs: it is a great misfortune, but not fatal--not half so deadly as the theorizing about sex that the youngest learn now. C. S. Calverley's pair would be harder to find today, when everyone has been taught that love is either chemistry or libido, either way wholly of the body and not unique or especially to be valued. Even through that soggy mass of adverse theory, people do fall in love. And they had better, if they are going to marry. What if they do not?

Love there must be in marriage. But not necessarily sexual love. Husband and wife must have at least that love with which Christ said we must love our neighbor. Without that no human relation is possible for them at all. But this sort of love is easier while our neighbor remains our neighbor: it grows harder when he moves in to live with us: even warm friendship finds too close and continuous a proximity trying. Sexual love is different. It is rooted in the will, but it floods the emotional life too, and finds its satisfaction in one particular person of the opposite sex--a satisfaction not to be had only in possessing the other, but equally in giving oneself to be possessed. It is the one love that need not suffer attrition from proximity--even the proximity of the marriage bed. Where there is no sexual love, the sexual act will not easily keep its rightness. For the act is at its healthiest and richest when it expresses a total self-giving; without that it would be performed at best dutifully, at worst either mechanically or too animally, anyhow without resonances in the depths of the personality. And two who are not in love will find it difficult to give themselves thus totally.

This special love, then, is of the first importance. But, for all its power, it has no certainty of permanence. It depends enormously, in its earlier stages at least, upon the feelings: and these go up and down with one's own physical and spiritual state, and with the other's well- or ill-doing. That is where reverence comes in, which is based upon reason. Married love exists because he is he and she is she. Reverence exists because he and she are human beings, made in God's image, immortal, redeemed by Christ.

Love is based upon the uniqueness of the person loved, reverence upon the common substance of humanity. Love can know disillusion, he is not as she thought him, she had seemed faultless and is not. In the wind of disillusion, love can flicker or blow out altogether. But reverence can know no disillusion: he and she are in their unchanging essence precisely what they were seen to be. That is the sense in which reverence can be more important than love. It gives permanence to marriage. It can even protect love against its own too great volatility.


A man and a girl may marry, loving each other, and with a clear realization of what man is and what marriage is and what life is and what God is. And their marriage may be a miserably mediocre business all the same. Preparation for marriage is essential. But in another sense you cannot be prepared for it. The newly married have a feeling that what is happening is at once like what they were told and not quite like. A union of personalities is easy enough to theorize about--as swimming is--but the reality can be known only in the experience. Marriage is a sort of sea, with a troubled surface and frightening depths. Swimming lessons on land cannot give you the feel of the sea: after however many lessons, the first plunge shows it strange and vast and un- cooperative. In marriage, the new element, of which no thinking of one's own or advice from others can give the feel, is the closeness of life together. And the difficulty is not so much the continuousness of the closeness, day in and day out, night after night for ever, as the quality of the closeness--two beings not simply linked or bound together, but interpenetrating, a sort of permeation--more like air in lungs. It is difficult to say it without making it sound comic. But it is true and it is not comic. Each is the air the other breathes, and the lungs may not, for a long time or perhaps ever, be comfortable with this new air. The bodily penetration is a symbol of the interpenetration of their personalities, and like all good symbols falls far short. So close a union of personalities has two natural results: by their faults, especially by the thrust of self, the two can bruise each other: by their insufficiency they can leave each other unsatisfied.

The defects first. Not much needs to be said of them: they fill the comedies of the world to bursting: it is a poor playwright who cannot be funny about them: he need not invent, for they are there, and they make good comedy--to watch, of course, not to live with. Defects in husband and wife need not be great to be maddening; faults which even in close friendship would not matter at all, matter horribly in marriage. The way one of them sniffs or clears his throat or laughs, a word always mis-pronounced or a minor grammatical error, can play the devil with the other's nerves, worse indeed than more serious faults. A want of external courtesy can cause more hurt than a really profound want of consideration. A mere disharmony of mood--that one should be gay when the other is depressed--can become a major grievance. And there is the plain human fact of cussedness, being difficult for no reason at all, and sudden gusts of anger and a real desire to hurt and satisfaction in hurting, with love sharpening the satisfaction.

There is no point in listing these things. Most marriages have them and most survive them. A sense of humor helps, though this can be strained to screaming point (and indeed can strain the partner to screaming point, if his own humor be on a different wave- length, or perhaps no wave-length). Common sense helps--only the very immature can tell themselves that somewhere a faultless partner is waiting for them if only they had not stumbled into marriage with one who was imperfect. Most helpful of all, perhaps, is a lively sense of one's own defects, which are not more attractive for being one's own.

But there are graver faults of character--lying still within the area of the average, and not with those abnormal evils mentioned earlier--that show up starkly and press relentlessly on nerves and feelings. It is by these that marriage is really tested. There can be a foul temper, for instance, or suspiciousness or jealousy; one or other may be lazy or spendthrift or "tricky" about money. That these things may not wreck the marriage, there must be unselfishness, sometimes on a heroic scale--which does not mean putting up with anything and everything, but resolutely thrusting one's own feelings aside and doing what is best for the troublesome partner and for the marriage itself. But unselfishness can get a little frayed when it is all on one side, and the faults on the other get no less; indignation--thoroughly justified, be it noted, but all the more corrosive for that--arrives and settles in; and the martyr-complex makes a hell for erring partner and martyr alike, to say nothing of the children.

But one cannot say nothing of the children. A moment can easily arrive when one partner may ask whether the defects of the other call for some more positive action in the children's interests. There is the possibility of self-deception here--a selfish desire to escape, cloaking itself as anxiety for the children's well-being. But the problem is perfectly real. The husband is the head of the family and the woman is the heart. In the human body both organs are marvelously adapted for their functions, and even at that they often function badly. In the family the husband and wife may be extremely, even marvelously ill-adapted for their very much more delicate functions. The wife may have no heart of her own, or too much heart to the point of sloppiness; the husband no will of his own, or too much to the point of tyranny. In the actual run of life, these things work out well enough, provided that one parent is functioning normally--all, perhaps, except the last: tyranny in the father is hard to cope with and in the nature of the case is not uncommon. Shakespeare gives the clue:

Man, proud man Drest in a little brief authority . . . Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As makes the angels weep.

Authority could hardly be littler or briefer than a father's over his family: yet it can go to his head, if he have a weakness that way. All the power he would have gloried in exercising, had life been kind to him--as captain of a warship, say, or ruler of an empire-- comes thundering down upon the heads of his family, and the tricks can be very fantastic indeed. A wife may have to consider when she should intervene, and if so how, and whether anyhow intervention is possible. This is not a book of marriage guidance, and I am not drawing up a set of rules by which husband or wife may decide whether or not to separate. I only say that principles as to the nature of man and of marriage should be in their mind when they are making the decision. But experience does seem to suggest two things--separation is so unsatisfactory that it must be a very bad marriage indeed to be worse; and those who have made the sacrifices necessary to hold an unhappy marriage together do not, in the long run, seem to regret it.

I have glanced thus rapidly at the question of how a husband and wife can hurt each other and weaken their marriage, by their faults of character. Of a totally different quality is what I have called insufficiency in the personality.

There is the fact, already referred to, that no human person can meet all another's needs. There are needs that only God can meet. They lie very deep because the first and profoundest fact about man is that he was made for union with God; is hungry, therefore, for union and tormented in its absence. There is the need to adore, for instance, which when not directed to God finds very strange gods indeed; the sense of guilt, when union with God is broken by sin, and the need for cleansing; the need for re-assurance in the loneliness and lostness of the creature out of touch with his Creator; the need for re-vitalization, when the living contact with the Source of all life is snapped. A man need not know what is troubling him to be profoundly troubled: as a man may die of a microbe he has never heard of. If they do not turn to God, a husband and wife will look to each other for the satisfaction of these needs--more especially they will look to the sexual act; they are asking more than the act can give, more than the whole personality can give. Not receiving it, they feel cheated and resentful. Which is one reason why a Christian should not marry an atheist: it is terribly trying to be only a creature, yet expected to meet the needs that only the Creator can meet.

Yet it is not this insufficiency, inseparable from our finitude, that I have in mind here; but a sort of thinness of personality, a negativeness, an absence of qualities that ought to be there--which in extreme cases may be utter mindlessness, flabbiness in the will, dull passions, dull or maybe shrill emotional responses, lack of richness or generosity or any substance. The union of two such personalities is a union of two nullities, like the embrace of two shadows. There is a special awfulness in the marriage of two so mindless that they cannot converse--or even be fruitfully silent: it may be less trying when both are so busy that they meet only at bed and board, but the busyness only masks the vacuum. There are personalities so thin that, without strong religious motives, their marriage cannot last. They have no will to give themselves and almost no selves to give, nothing to hold each other with: fidelity would be a miracle in such marriages. But even short of that degree of nullness, most of us have little enough to offer our partners in marriage. The problem of marriage for the majority is to make something out of a union, if not of two nullities, at least of two insufficiencies.

Surprisingly often it succeeds. There is a power in marriage that tends both to weld and give substance to the personalities. In some mysterious way--mystical might be a better word--there is a communication of substance from one person to the other, and from one sex to the other: each becomes himself plus something of the other. Even a very thin personality begins to take on body when one has to take account of another person; new elements in one's make-up come alive and either unite with elements already in operation or strive with them and stimulate them by strife: so that one is already more of a person. A selfish man who no longer takes his selfishness as sole and unquestioned law of action but is at least troubled by the feeling of duty undone to another is, by that shade, more human than before.

Marriage seems to work magic. But it is not all magic. Husband and wife must work hard at it. If one is making no effort, the other must work twice as hard. Love helps, though it is precisely love that is in danger of losing its elan with so much to depress it; prayer helps tremendously. But, in the purely psychological order, nothing helps so much as the reverence that flows from a right vision of what man is--that this loutish man, this empty-headed woman, is God's image, an immortal spirit, loved by Christ even to the death of the Cross: whatever the surface looks like, this is in the depth of every human being, this in him is what God joined together with this in her. The realization that there is this welding of two into one in the depths of their being, below the level that the eye of the mind can see, is the most powerful incentive to make that union in depth effective through every layer of personality.

This reverence is a safeguard against one of the great dangers of family life--the tendency of one partner to form, or re-form, the other (or for a parent to form the children) in his own image. There is a sort of imperialism to which the self is liable, the desire to impose its own likeness. As we have already seen, one should not lightly try to re-make another: but, if re-making there must be, assuredly the only image in which any one should be re-made is the image of God in which he was made. Children are even more likely to suffer this sort of tyranny than adults. One knows the widowed mother who rules her children with the rod of iron of a dead father's will--"Your father would not have wished it." Of that will she is the sole interpreter, and there is no appeal.

Any imposing of oneself on another is a sin against reverence. Reverence is due to all men. It was the Roman poet Juvenal who said that the greatest reverence was due to children. It must have sounded like a paradox to his readers, and possibly a little daring to himself. It is the plain truth; but hard for a parent to see for two reasons: the first is the overwhelming tendency to think one has made them oneself, that they are one's own handiwork; the second is their physical weakness, which makes it tempting to enforce one's own will upon them--the weakness, you observe, may be purely physical, a child of three often has more personality than both parents put together. In The Way of All Flesh Samuel Butler has a wonderful phrase about a small boy in nineteenth-century England: "The Catechism was awful . . . it seemed to him that he had duties towards everybody, lying in wait for him upon every side, but that nobody had any duties towards him." Our Lord provides the element Butler found wanting in the Church Catechism: "If one scandalize the least of these my little ones, it were better for him if a millstone were hanged about his neck and he were drowned in the depth of the sea."

So far we have been looking at the difficulties that arise because marriage is the union of two personalities, which have somehow to be harmonized. These difficulties would be tough enough, if there were no sexual element to complicate them. But there is a sexual element. And it complicates them. Sex's head is not always ugly, but it always rears it.

In the making of marriage sexual desire normally plays a part: thus far it has rendered an essential service. But sexual desire is an uneasy servant, not to be relied on simply to serve. It has its own needs, its own urges, its own dreams. And in the marriage it has helped to produce, its dreams may dissolve, its needs be unmet, so that its urges take on a new and sometimes frantic urgency. The physical union may be totally unsatisfying, and if so, bitterly so. This will not necessarily destroy the marriage. Where the union of personalities is richly satisfying, the bodily union gains so much from it that any imperfection at the bodily level is more than compensated.

But the perfect spiritual and psychological union is rare, and, short of it, an unsatisfying sexual life can rend a marriage apart: there may be no actual divorce, but the dream of a perfect sexual union will continue to haunt the imagination, so that the meager reality becomes a torment, and husband or wife or both will go out in pursuit of the dream. This is something quite distinct from mere lust or licentiousness. The "dream" comes from very deep within the personality, and the inspiration is noble in itself and can make for nobility. When two people fall in love, each sees the dream and the aspiration wholly concentrated in the other. It is a woeful thing when marriage shatters them: a woeful thing if the shattering is the fault of either.

I have said that what I have here in mind is not at all the same thing as lust or licentiousness. But there is lust too: and if only the licentious indulge it, no one at all is exempt from its first stirrings, save in the fruition of a great love. Sexual desire is incalculable. As a mere animal appetite for union with a member of the other sex, any member not actively repulsive, it is calculable enough, and most adults have brought it into some sort of control. What is incalculable is the desire, not for any member of the other sex, but for that particular one. It suddenly flames into life on no known law. But, once it is aflame, the laws of its burning are only too well- known. We know that a man, beginning to desire a woman he ought not to have (because he is married, or she is) can tell himself that it is all quite innocent--he is interested in her for her intellectual or artistic life, or her spiritual problems--and so go on fooling himself right up to the moment of the explosion. At least the high- minded thus fool themselves, the earthier sort know better what they are at. At all times man has that conflict between reason and will of which St. Paul speaks so poignantly, whereby he can see one thing and do another: but in this matter he goes beyond that-- sexual desire has a curious power of preventing reason and will from acting at all (as tart apricots, for instance, can prevent the teeth from biting). Ira furor brevis est, said Horace. Anger is madness while it lasts. Sexual desire is a sort of somnambulism while it lasts--something in the back of the mind plucking at the sleeve with a reminder of reality as it is, something in the depth of the conscience plucking at the sleeve with a warning to stand and go no further: but mind and will not gripping, the dream in full possession. Sexual desire, one says again, is incalculable and (save about the precise object of desire) uncalculating. It can fix itself anywhere: can will incompatibles: can will what it does not want--if will be the word for it. Desire for one woman may momentarily eclipse love for another, and the eclipsed love can outlast the desire, so that a moment comes when the love is in full possession again, and the dead desire seems mere emptiness and degradation.

Everyone knows all this, and knowing it does not cure it. But a serious effort to realize it is not waste, for all that. For in the first place it is a reminder that all carry their treasure in earthen vessels, even young lovers newly married, who feel exultantly that they and their love are beyond the reach of mortal accident, even the middle-aged long-married, who feel that these are fires that will never flame again: it can save them all from over-testing their supposed strength: the danger is less for the man who knows it can happen to him. And in the second place it shows where the precautions must be taken and what counter-action is profitable. The temptations of this sort that come to people satisfyingly in love are fewer and more manageable: where a husband and wife meet each other's psychological and physical needs, the odds against the stranger are very high. There is still a magic of the moon but the daylight magic of the sun is greater. Only when the daylight magic has faded, when the sensed daylight has grown less, when the whole life together has become a routine, even if a pleasant routine--then is the dangerous moment.

Yet, when all is said, whether the level of conjugal vitality be high or low, the most powerful safeguard against infidelity, in the bodily act or only in the mind, is that clear view of man and of marriage which at every point we have seen as fundamental. The moral law--known not only as a set of prohibitions, but as the expression of the way of life seen as best for us by a loving Creator--can give a strength and steadiness to mind and will, and even limit the field of temptation. There is an extraordinary psychological force in regarding certain things as out of the question. In all ages, men and women have been born, one presumes, with homosexual tendencies: but in healthier ages homosexuality was felt to be altogether unthinkable, and the tendencies therefore came to nothing: in our own society, which regards homosexuality as unusual but an interesting variant of the normal all the same, the temptation to let the tendencies have their way can prove irresistible. So with adultery. A social attitude that regards it as impossible does at least make it improbable. We can no longer rely on a general consensus of opinion that any sort of sexual deviation is out of the question. But individual men and women can provide the same sort of psychological strengthening for themselves, by so studying and meditating upon the nature of man and the law of God that what these require becomes a vital part of the world they are mentally living in.

To many all that we have been saying will seem Utopian. The sex instinct seems so powerful that to expect the generality of men to control it is like urging tranquillity upon a man with St. Vitus' dance. But this is to underrate the generality of men. There is a vast store of moral health which does not normally show very spectacularly in moral action, perhaps, but shows unmistakably in other ways--especially in two ways--negatively, in a total inability to find happiness in self-indulgence, positively in an astounding readiness for sacrifice for a cause seen as good. Exceptional men will die as martyrs to science: the most ordinary men will die helping the stricken in an epidemic or in war for their country. Men will sacrifice themselves for any ideal that they value. The integrity of marriage does not seem to them such an ideal. Why should it? Who has ever shown them the enormous human interests involved in it? We are not entitled to say men will make no sacrifice for the ideal, until we have done something to show them why it is the ideal.