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Marriage and the Family in Casti Connubii and
Humanae Vitae | By Reverend Michael Hull, S.T.D.
Only a univocal obedience to the natural law ensures the right ordering
and prosperity of the human family and society in general
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, societys 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, a Divine Institution
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 Gods new children in their parents
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 totalthat 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 partners 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 sacramentto 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 blessingsthe procreation of children, mutual fidelity,
and, for the baptized, sacramental graceare 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 ones 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.
In Marriage the Family Is Born
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 mans 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 Gods 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 prioritiesoften
founded on economic or societal concerns, many of which are ill-conceived
pretensions of flawed philosophy and secular human-ismlead 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, homo-sexuality,
sterilization, genetic manipulation and mutilation (e.g., in vitro fertilization
and human cloning), abortion, and infanticide (euphemized as "partial-birth
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 Gods 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"
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
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 worlds 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-a-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
"Europes Baby Bust" (National Geographic, September
2003, p. xxx) points out that, according to the United Nations, "Europes
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 M 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 Gods
hand, but at our own.
Reverend Michael Hull, S.T.D., is a priest of the Archdiocese of New
York and a professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Josephs Seminary (Dunwoodie)
in Yonkers, N.Y. This article originally appeared in the November 2004 issues
of Homiletic & Pastoral
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