Marriage and the Family in Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae
Prof. Michael F. Hull, New York
The affirmation of marriage and the family has long been a concern of the Church. Having steadfastly defended the indissolubility of the marriage bond through the centuries, whether imperiled from flawed secular or religious beliefs, the Church continued her defense of marriage and the family in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Reading the signs of their times, Pope Pius XI in Casti connubii (December 31, 1930) and Pope Paul VI in Humanae vitae (July 25, 1968) both address the sanctity of marriage and the family, with special emphasis on the principal threat against them in modern times: artificial birth control.
In modern times, society’s gradual acceptance of artificial birth control, which strikes at the heart of marriage and the family, may be illustrated by a look to the Anglican Communion. In 1908, the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops spoke of artificial birth control as "demoralizing to character and hostile to national welfare" (Resolution 41; cf. nos. 42 and 43). In 1930, Lambeth allowed for the use of artificial birth control, with such use guided by "Christian principles" (Resolution 15; cf. nos. 13 and 17), but Lambeth recognized that contraceptives were likely to cause increased fornication, so it recommended that sales thereof be restricted (Resolution 18). And in 1959, Lambeth proclaimed that parents had the right and responsibility to decide on the number of their children, with "a wise stewardship of the resources and abilities of the family as well as a thoughtful consideration of the varying population needs and problems of society and the claims of future generations" (Resolution 115, cf. no. 113). In other words, Lambeth went from forbidding artificial birth control to practically recommending it. Mutatis mutandis, society in general was of the same mind. In their respective historical circumstances, Pius and Paul were quick to reiterate the unchanging truth about marriage and the family.
Marriage is a divine institution. Pius writes that "it is an immutable and inviolable fundamental doctrine that matrimony was not instituted or restored by man but by God; not by man were the laws made to strengthen and confirm and elevate it but by God, the Author of nature, and by Christ Our Lord by Whom nature was redeemed, and hence these laws cannot be subject to any human decrees or to any contrary pact even of the spouses themselves" (CC, no. 5). Of course, the free will and consent of spouses is necessary to bring a marriage into being, "but the nature of matrimony is entirely independent of the free will of man, so that if one has once contracted matrimony he is thereby subject to its divinely made laws and its essential properties" (CC, no. 6). Paul writes that marriage "is in reality the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, whose purpose was to effect in man His loving design. As a consequence, husband and wife, through [the] mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives. The marriage of those who have been baptized is, in addition, invested with the dignity of a sacramental sign of grace, for it represents the union of Christ and His Church" (HV, no. 8).
Citing St. Augustine (De Genesi ad litteram, bk. 9, chap. 7, no. 12), Pius identifies the three blessings of marriage as children, mutual fidelity, and the dignity of a sacrament (CC, no. 10). The first and primary blessing is the procreation of children (CC, nos. 11–18; see Gen 1:28 and 1 Tim 5:14). With the begetting of children, husband and wife become intimate cooperators with God in propagating the human race. They take upon themselves the task of rearing and educating their children. The noble nature of marriage leaves God’s new children in their parents’ hands.
The second blessing of marriage is the mutual fidelity of the spouses (CC, no. 19). In matrimony, husband and wife are joined together so closely as to become "one flesh" (Matt 19:3–6 and Eph 5:32; cf. Gen 1:27 and 2:24). Husband and wife, in marital chastity and total exclusivity, blend the whole of their lives in mutual support, self-giving, and service to God (see 1 Cor 7:3; Eph 5:25; Col 3:19; and CC, nos. 20–30). As Paul says of marriage: "It is a love which is total—that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions and not thinking solely of their own convenience. Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself" (HV, no. 9).
The third blessing of marriage is its sacramental dignity. Christ raised the institution of marriage, when contracted between two baptized persons, to a sacrament—to a means of sanctifying grace and a representation of the union of Christ and the Church (see CC, nos. 31–43; and HV, no. 8). As St. Paul writes, quoting Gen 2:24, "For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:29–32). And as Pius says: "By the very fact, therefore, that the faithful with sincere mind give such consent, they open up for themselves a treasure of sacramental grace from which they draw supernatural power for the fulfilling of their rights and duties faithfully, holily, persevering even unto death" (CC, no. 40; cf. HV, nos. 8 and 9).
These three blessings—the procreation of children, mutual fidelity, and, for the baptized, sacramental grace—are the inseparable and fundamental essentials of marriage. Again, since the issue of the day was neither fidelity nor grace, Pius and Paul highlight the evil of artificial birth control, which destroys the primary blessing of marriage, as the menace it is. Once more, Pius appeals to St. Augustine, who writes: "Intercourse with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Judah, did this and the Lord killed him for it" (De adulterinis conjugiis, bk. 2, no. 12; cf. Gen 38:8–10; CC, no. 55; HV, nos. 11–14).
Fixing his sights on Lambeth 1930 and like-minded opinions, Pius says: "Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin" (CC, no. 56). The result of this grave sin is the thwarting of true marriage and, concomitantly, the end of the family.
The family is also a divine institution, for it is in marriage that a family is born. The family comes about with the spouses’ expression of love in the marital act, an act that is always both unitive (love) and procreative (life). Should either the unitive or the procreative dimension be lacking in the marital act, disintegration of marriage and, perforce, the family follows. Any frustration of man’s life-generating potential in the conjugal act affects not only the procreative dimension of marriage, but also the unitive. "Every sin committed as regards the offspring becomes in some way a sin against conjugal faith, since both these blessings are essentially connected" (CC, no. 72). Lose one of the two, and both are lost.
The family must leave itself totally open to God’s will as regards the number of children given to it. Particularly pernicious is the notion that a family ought to be open to life in general, but that each conjugal act of the spouses need not be. In other words, rather than continence or observation of natural biological rhythms, the spouses obstruct some or all of their marital relations by means of artificial birth control, rendering themselves the arbiters of life rather than God. Unfortunately, a mistaken ordering of priorities—often founded on economic or societal concerns, many of which are ill-conceived pretensions of flawed philosophy and secular humanism—lead spouses to forget that their first priority must be the recognition of their duties to God, who is the arbiter of life. "From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out" (HV, no. 10).
And the teaching of the Church is clear: Each and every conjugal act must be open to the transmission of life. It is only with this openness that that unitive and procreative aspects of marriage are unimpaired; it is only with this openness that husband and wife actually give themselves to each other under God, so as to generate life in the world and intensify love between themselves, wherein children will be reared and educated in holiness and truth.
Ultimately, only a univocal obedience to the natural law ensures the right ordering and prosperity of the human family and society in general. Because individual nuclear families are the building blocks, the cells of human society, their integrity paves the way for and determines the health of human society in general. Likewise, because the family and human society precede the state, the well-being of the state is constructed thereupon. The failure of families, societies, and states to follow the natural law with regard to the generative gift of marriage results in moral decay. In the twenty-first century, the separation of the unitive and procreative aspects of human sexuality is a prime factor in a legion of moral evils: divorce, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, sterilization, genetic manipulation and mutilation (e.g., in vitro fertilization and human cloning), abortion, and infanticide (euphemized as "partial-birth abortion"). Not only that, but flowing from these primary evils is a plethora of secondary psychological and sociological infirmities such as personal disintegration, societal alienation, and an overarching sense of aimlessness and worthlessness in human existence. Indeed, with the unitive and procreative aspects of marriage more and more separated in our contemporary world, the potential for further moral degeneration increases exponentially, surpassing even that of Sodom and Gomorrah.
However, that is not to say that God’s will is easily obeyed. The constant tradition of the Church, articulated by Pius and Paul in their encyclical letters, recognizes that the God-given rights and enormous responsibilities of the family are demanding. The family is entitled to the support of society and the state (CC, nos. 69–77; and HV, nos. 22 and 23). The moral and physical support of society and the state towards the family is not simply a matter of charity, but of justice. The burden carried by individual families in the rearing and education of children is, in the end, the only means by which society and the state have any future in this world. Yet, even with so great an onus upon them, families may take comfort in the words of the Lord, who says: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt 11:29–30).
By reiterating her constant teaching against artificial birth control, the Church performs an invaluable service to humanity. The Church is obliged to articulate plainly and forthrightly the truths entrusted to her, including those truths that may be known to men of good will with the use of right reason. Paul writes that the Church cannot "evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical. Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter—only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of man" (HV, no. 18). Teaching that artificial birth control is "shameful and intrinsically vicious" (CC, no. 54; cf. HV, no. 14), the Church stands, "no less than her divine Founder, [as] a ‘sign of contradiction’" on our world’s ill-fated road to perdition (HV, no. 18; see Luke 2:34).
To be sure, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are standing in the midst of moral ruin. The rampant disobedience of the divine and natural laws vis-à-vis artificial birth control cry out to God for vengeance. The transgressions against marriage and the family terrorize the very structure of our human society. And our delinquency in honoring the procreative gift of God threatens the very survival of our species. Scott Elder in "Europe’s Baby Bust" (National Geographic, September 2003, p. xxx) points out that, according to the United Nations, "Europe’s population will shrink by more than 90 million people in the next 50 years, roughly twice the number killed worldwide during World War II." Elder also notes that Europe—with a fertility rate below 2.1, the number needed to replace the existing population—will likely lead a continuing global decline in population: "a trend unseen since the 14th-century Black Death." Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to proclaim the sanctity of love and life, lest we suffer the fate of Onan, not at God’s hand, but at our own.