Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

The Primary End of Marriage

Anthony Rizzi

Man is the crown of material nature. No physical being exceeds him in worth, dignity or glory. After the gift of the intellect and will, the next most striking thing about man is that he is two. God created him male and female. Man was alone and radically incomplete before his helpmate was made. She is bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh. They are one in species, yet they are different; they are complementary. Man is head she is heart. As with all aspects in man, his sexuality is both in his physical and his spiritual sides. The best place to begin understanding this sexual nature is in the union of marriage. If we can understand here we can begin to understand his nature more completely.

Not too long ago I was involved in a mail conversation with a bishop about the primary end of marriage. I held, with the magesterium of the Church(1), that the primary end of marriage is procreation; his position was quite ambiguous and in fact implied that the unity of husband and wife and procreation were both the primary end of marriage. It is from this and similar experiences that I came to know the state of the culture(2) on this question and to conclude that special emphasis must be put on the question: what is the primary end of marriage? This is fitting also because one must know what something is for and where it tends, before one can really understand it. In fact, following Aristotle, one would like to know what marriage is made from, what it is made into, what causes the transition and what it's for. The final cause will implicitly contain the first three.

Many of us have been blessed with parents who are living demonstrations of the essence of marriage; the real love between a man and woman. Those who do not have such parents also know because of what was/is missing in their life and, most manifestly, by the resulting pain. Members of both groups know, by presence and by absence respectively, how important offspring are to the marriage of their parents, for they are the fruit of their union, the very personification of their love. Yet, which comes first: does the love between the man and the woman, in principle, precede procreation or is it the other way around. More precisely, is marriage constituted(3) such that its primary end is the procreation of children or is its primary aim the unity of the spouses?(4)

Let's dispose of the most obvious solution quickly. One might say, as the bishop mentioned above, that they are both the primary end. To do this one must forget the logical law of the excluded middle. Or the ontological form of it: something cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same manner. Logically either the primary end of marriage is procreation or it is unity; it cannot be both.(5) The only way that both could be the primary end is if they were really the same thing. It may be argued that in the Trinity that is the case.(6) In the case of mankind, however, it is clear that two really distinct things are involved; one involves little people coming into being the other does not. In fact, modern culture is a window shop of examples of how these distinct things can be separated. Indeed, much of modern moral discourse, within and without the Church, shows that these ends are so far from being the same thing that many fall into the error of saying that they are completely separable. Whence, we get the not-so-long-ago academic fad of deriding Humane Vitae.

Two things, however, can be such that one contains the other as soul contains the body or as the mold contains the form of the object that will be cast. As we know, man is not a soul with a body added but a soul whose very nature is to be united with a body. Without the body it's not really a man. In the same way, procreation could imply unity or vice-versa. So, which of these two apparent possibilities is the truth?

Well, one cannot argue that unity is the primary end of marriage and that procreation is thereby required by the unity. Saints and others unite with family and friends in the most intimate ways; no children result. In case you say: but these are not as intimate? Consider that most of us attempt and, in various degrees, are united with God, and that does not procreate babies(7) and never has even with the greatest of saints. Further, we are told that procreation does not exist in heaven; if unity requires procreation in its conception then obviously none will be united in heaven. So, the reasonable person must conclude that unity among men doesn't require openness to procreating children with each other. (8)

Now there is only one option left if one is to be able to say, as common sense does, that unity and procreation are inextricably linked in marriage. One must say that procreation includes the concept of unity between the man and a woman. How is this so?

Let's look at procreation in general. In the lowest of animals procreation does not even demand two individuals of the species. This is because the creature under consideration is so low on the scale of life, so close to inanimate objects, that its reproduction does not demand much more than it would to change one stone into two by simply breaking it in half. The goal in this case, which is preservation of the species, requires no more. As one rises to higher animal, the needs of the species rise and the mode of procreation eventually moves to reproduction involving a female and a male. Here nature's goal is still preservation of the species but the individuals, in particular the offspring (which indeed every individual is), demand more and more. The higher one ascends the higher the demand. The highest non-human primates require not only the biological advantages of male and female parents, but they also require specific training like hunting as well as general training of the sensory intelligence and emotive powers. In other words, the most advanced animals require the analog of a human upbringing, but only an analog not the thing itself.

When one reaches man a threshold is crossed; he has an intellect and will; he is a person. The goal is no longer preservation of the species, but is now the good of the individual. The aforementioned spiritual nature of the man gives man a dignity infinitely far above the purely material world of the animals. He is not made to be used, but to be loved. He can never be a means for an end. He is an end in himself.(9)

In short, procreation has a meaning dependent on what is being procreated. If the procreation(10) under consideration is that of animals, then the union that produces the offspring must be consonant with the needs and goals of the animal species. In fact, it may not even demand a union. However, the procreation of a man is the procreation of something that demands of its nature to be loved. By necessity of his nature, a dignity in body and spirit must attend his coming to being. It would not befit a man to be grown in a garden like a vegetable or to be brought into existence in a human factory. No. The nature of man calls for, indeed demands coming into being from love. In like manner, man is only happy in loving so the progenitors would violate their own specific nature, as well as that of their offspring, if they did not bring the offspring into the world through love. The most profound level of this love is the love between two(11) that is so effective and real that it demands to be incarnate in some way. That is, it "produces" and then naturally overflows toward a third. Again, if a man is not the product of a real commitment, a real love,(12) he is not receiving his need as man. His nature is being suppressed, even undone in some way. In fact, the complementarities of man and woman call in a special way for this unity.

Hence, when one says that the primary end of marriage is procreation, one presupposes that a real living growing love between a man and woman must exist. In no other way could the procreation under question be the one proper to man. Procreative love is the primary end of marriage. Said in another way, human procreation is the predicate that implies its proper subject: marriage. It is perseity in the second sense of St. Thomas.

The Christian can better understand this love, which is fecund; this love that overflows outside of itself. God created marriage for the purpose of procreation and procreation was to be in analogy(13) with His own inner life. That is, God created man in His image(14). He in His desire to share His goodness crafted such a splendid nature for that image of Himself which is us that according to His design it would include an echo of His own nature; man would be given the power to procreate.(15) He would be made two so that a third could come forth. He would be made male and female so that by their profound love a child would be conceived under God's loving Providence. God thereby would create a triangle of triangles resounding echoes of His awesome nature. He being Trinitarian would create man with an analogical trinitarian nature. The Christian knows that God is Trinity, that man, woman and child are an analogous trinity, and he knows that though the world says it takes two to make a child the Christian knows it takes three.

Marriage, then, exists so that man may procreate and in this way have a unique expression of love- a love so deep it "generates'' another thereby multiplying opportunity for love. In this fashion, man shares by analogy in God's inner nature. Like the Father, the human father must watch over, guide and educate his children. But, before, in time, this he must love his wife as his own body, just as before creating us the Father loved the Son.(16) One could go on, but it is clear that procreation properly understood demands unity of love of the husband and wife and more.

So we are now ready to state the full array of facts about marriage. In answering Aristotle's four questions, one may say the following about marriage:

Material cause -- that out of which something is made: a man and a woman.

Formal cause -- that into which something is made: a uniquely ordered (specified by the final cause) unity of life and love.

Efficient cause -- that which causes something to be made: the express consent of the spouses.

Final cause -- the reason for existence: procreation (properly understood) of children (which includes the formal cause as said above).

Several objections may arise to the final cause as stated above. An objection may arise that a man meets and, in the proper order, loves a woman before he marries her and has children. This question springs from confusion between order in principle and order in time. The order that the events related to marriage happen in time is: first, to meet, court and propose to a woman. If the woman accepts, the marriage can be formed. However, even in time order the principle shows itself early on. For the young man, when he asks the woman to marry him is really saying; I love you so much I would like you to bear our children. And the woman in response is saying I love you so much that I would like to bear our children. Procreation, properly understood is at the heart of marriage. Indeed, the sexual act is the clear statement of this procreative love. This then underlines the fact that the primary reason for the existence of marriage is procreation notwithstanding what happens when.

A more difficult objection asks if procreation is the primary end of marriage, what about couples who have not been able to have children? It seems that in this description of marriage, the couple is not married and this contradicts Church teaching. To answer this point, further clarifications and important distinctions must be made.

We begin by restating the definition of marriage including concepts only implicit before in an explicit manner. The essence of marriage is the commitment of a man and a woman to love each other for life; included in that love is commitment to give to each other the gift of being united spiritually and the right(17) of uniting physically. If a child is impossible for reasons that are not deliberate on the part of the man and woman, the act itself remains a valid, good and indeed holy act. Recall procreation in man necessarily implies love.(18) The martial act is the instrument of this procreation and thus must include in its nature an expression of the love between the man and the woman. St. Thomas says, as the Church does, that this is an instrument of grace. In this way, this act of love, which can bring a man into the world, becomes the act of bringing God into the love of the man and the woman. In the case where a child is not possible, the act is deprived of its ultimate power, yet it still has its aspects of expression of love and unity that are built into the act so as to make it the fitting setting when it calls the hand of God to create a child.

It may be helpful to use some analogies. If by some impossibility the sacrament of the sick were to be rendered inactive as a sacrament, it would nonetheless be a good sacramental, a good way to prepare oneself for what graces God might send near death. This analogy is imperfect in that what remains in the case of a couple unable to have children is more profound than what remains in the analogy.(19) In the analogy, the grace of the sacrament is lost, and in the marriage the special fruit of the union is lost. In absolute terms, the loss is an unfathomable loss. The marriage suffers a true evil--the inability to procreate. It does not serve compassion to deny that a man who loses an arm suffers an evil. Saying it is not bad only serves to convince the person undergoing the loss that the speaker has no real understanding of his suffering. However, in the same way that a man would still be a man if he lost an arm or even if he lost everything but some small and tenuous hold on his bodily life, i.e. some small connection keeping body and soul together, a marriage is possible as long as the couple has at least some last vestige of that inextricable connection between procreation and unity. In such a marriage, conjugal love itself is the last vestige of the procreative life.(20) The drama of procreation, sexual intercourse, an act of mutual giving, of expressing love of each other can still occur even though there is no earthly(21) hope of its completion--i.e. a child.

The childless couple can make their marriage fruitful through adoption of children or through becoming special protectors of unborn children or in an infinite number of other ways. But, an especially powerful path of grace in such a marriage must be their love expressed in the conjugal act. All this obtains because the primary end of marriage is procreation.

Man's sexual nature is not completely elucidated by studying marriage alone, but much of that nature is revealed and entry points to the rest are uncovered by understanding it.

1. St. Thomas, St. Augustine and Pius XI (in an encyclical (On Christian Marriage) which makes the matter one of virtual certainty) are among the teachers of the Catholic Church that manifest this position.

2. Both the secular culture and the Catholic subculture share a lack of commitment to the proposition that procreation is the primary end of marriage. Since culture shapes us in hidden ways, it is particularly important to raise the flag of danger at the potholes in current thought and habit that lead to the erroneous positions.

3. Of course, this constitution of marriage entails a respective constitution in the nature of mankind so that this martial relationship is native to the relationship between man and woman.

4. One might of course argue for other aims, but these certainly are the most obvious candidates; indeed, one would have to strain beyond comprehension at any that did not reduce in the end to something essential to one or both of these.

5. Here, as throughout this paper, I use the word end in its full philosophical meaning-- i.e. the reason for existence or final cause.

6. One must, of course, use an analogical meaning for procreation.

7. Recall that we are talking about procreation of children concretely not the spiritual analogous thing but actual physical procreation of children, otherwise we have left our subject and are talking about something else.

8. Because unity does not necessarily include procreation, making unity the primary end of marriage deprives marriage of any truly unique character and makes it indistinguishable say from the relationship of two life long friends.

9. Such dignity was raised to unmentionable higher levels by the adoption into the life of the Godhead at Baptism.

10. Here I am employing an analogical use of the word procreation. Univocally speaking, someone may argue that the word only applies to the joint action of God and man in creating another man. God alone creates the soul of man, but man acts as a necessary agent by God's design.

11. This seems especially true in a limited creature like man.

12. Recall that love demands a second person and a whole love requires reciprocation. Further, one may not say that the child could be the object of the love and thereby obviate the need for two spouses, because, among many other things, the child does not exist before the act of love brings him into being. Such a love for the non-existent child that attempts to separate out one of the parents, is not a true love for it is, at best, love of an abstraction, not the love of a person. It is a love that rejected the opportunity of loving an already existent person as well as the need of the offspring to be the center of an already existing mutual love. In short, to attempt to love outside the boundaries of one's nature and the nature of those to be loved is no love at all.

13. Unity and "procreation" won't be a strict identity as it is in the Trinity.

14. Each individual man is created in the image of God by reason of his intellect. This discourse shows that the image of God imparted to man exists at more than one level.

15. Keep in mind that in man this means procreation of persons. So, for example, the trinitarian image is not present in animals in this profound way, but in a much weaker analogical way.

16. The love of the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit, but we are children by adoption.

17. In fact, marriage only depends on the giving of the right to the goods of marriage--not on the actual fact of exercising the right. Take, for example, a couple who is not impotent (but may be sterile) and who after their marriage ceremony and before their wedding night were killed in a car wreck. Would their marriage be invalid by reason of not being consummated? No, because they were capable of sexual intercourse and they freely gave that right to each other.

18. Not to say the act forces love, but that it must have love to be what it naturally expresses and is meant to be, not a perversion.

19. We have already mentioned the act can be the source of marital graces.

20. Hence, in the case of permanent impotence no marriage is possible, because the primary end would not even be rescued by its link with the secondary end of love and unity between the man and wife.

21. One never knows for St. Elizabeth, thought to be sterile, gave birth to St. John the Baptist.