The ends of marriage

I’ve just finished reading Christian Marriage:  A Historical Study, a collection of essays edited by Glenn Olsen.  There’s lots of good material in this collection; I may write a book review of it if I can set aside the time and work up the energy.  I would like to draw attention to the last contribution, “The Contemporary World” by John Haas.  This paper is primarily about the debates over sexual morality in the twentieth century Catholic Church, written from an orthodox perspective.

One of the main points of contention during these years (and into the present) concerns talk about the “ends” of marriage.  Traditionally, this had been central to the Catholic approach to sexual and family morality.  Marriage was said to have three ends/goods/purposes:  procreation (including raising children), faithfulness between spouses, and the grace of the marital sacrament.  Acting against any of these was considered sinful.  Among the three, children were said to be the primary end.

Throughout the twentieth century, many theologians attacked the formulation of marital ends as being “legalistic”.  They claimed that the Chuch should take a more “personalist” approach, whatever that was supposed to mean.  A few theologians meant well, including Dietrich von Hildebrand who defended the doctrine that children are the end of marriage but claimed that love is the meaning of marriage.  For Paul VI, procreation and spousal unity are marriage’s two meanings, the talk of “ends” being entirely replaced.  Most of the theologians, though, did not mean well.  Their goal, which since Vatican II they have ceased even to hide, was to promote sexual depravity:  contraception, divorce, fornication, the solitary vice, and sodomy.  The Council Fathers at Vatican II handed the heretic-perverts a great victory by removing explicit mention of marriage’s ends from the council documents, allowing the heretics to claim that the Church has rejected its entire past tradition.

After relating this sad story in detail, Dr. Haas makes an important point.  Talk about the ends of marriage is not legalistic.  The end (telos) is not a legal category at all; it’s an ontological category.  The scholastics who finalized the Church’s marriage doctrine were Aristotelians, and for them a thing’s end reveals the thing’s essence.  It’s by knowing what marriage does that we know what marriage is.  Procreation is the primary end because it alone gets at what is unique about marriage.  There are other loves, and there are other sacraments.  Haas thus rejects the Hildebrandian distinction between end and meaning–the primary end of marriage is its meaning.

Haas ends on a hopeful note.  Pope John Paul II, he believes, has produced a powerful restatement of the Church’s teaching on marriage which integrates the best features of the scholastic and personalistic/phenomenological views.  Haas hopes (rather unrealistically in my view) that the theology of the body will help reinvigorate appreciation for marriage and chastity in the Catholic world.

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