Marital and Family Commitment: A Personalist View | Monsignor Cormac Burke | Ignatius Insight
Marital and Family Commitment: A Personalist View | Monsignor Cormac Burke | Ignatius Insight
The past several decades have seen an ongoing debate within the Church about the ends of
marriage. A traditional understanding presented these ends in a clear
hierarchy or order of importance: a "primary" end (procreation) and
two "secondary" ends (mutual help and the remedy for concupiscence).
Early on in the century a feeling began to emerge that this understanding was
too exclusively centered on the procreative function of the marital
relationship, while it neglected "personalist" aspects or values also
characterizing this relationship, and of which modern times have become more
aware: love between man and woman as the main motive for marrying, the promise
of personal happiness or fulfillment that marriage seems to offer, the human
values felt to underlie physical sexuality.
The Second Vatican Council incorporated these personalist values into its
presentation of marriage. And, as is well known, married personalism is notable
in the teaching on marriage of John Paul II. Sexuality and marriage,
interpreted in a personalist light, were in fact the theme of a lengthy papal
catechesis covering the first years of the present pontificate; and the same
presentation has frequently recurred since. Thus it now seems beyond question
that a personalist view of marriage has become firmly established in
The effect of personalist ideas is specially noticeable in the Code of Canon
Law promulgated in 1983. In the
section on marriage, the very first canon, on the nature and purpose of
matrimony, says: "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman
establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its
nature ordered toward the good of the spouses ["bonum coniugum"] and
the procreation and education of offspring" (c. 1055).
Here, in what Pope John Paul II described as the "last document of the
Second Vatican Council,"  we are offered a brief formula of the
greatest importance, which marks a development and crystallization of the
married personalism of Vatican II. Particularly to be noted is the progress
from the rather vague conciliar statement about matrimony being endowed with
"various" or "other" ends, besides procreation,  to the
specific enunciation of two ends
to marriage, the good of the spouses and the procreation/education of children.
As we can see, there is no mention here of primary or secondary ends; the
presentation rather suggests two ends on equal footing. In any case, there
seems to me little point in arguing which comes first because, as I see it, it
is the interrelation and inseparability- and not any hierarchy-between the ends
of marriage which matters most today and most needs emphasizing. 
An important point should be clarified here. Some writers refer to the good of
the spouses as the "personalist" end of marriage, and to procreation
as its "institutional" end. Such a contrast however is not accurate. Both ends—procreative and personalist—are
institutional (just as both properly
understood, are personalist).  Marriage, in other words, has two
institutional ends, a point that it is easy enough to demonstrate.
The institutional ends of marriage are evidently those established in its very
institution, i.e., those with which marriage was endowed by its
"Institutor" or Creator-by God himself. Here it is important to note
that Scripture offers two distinct accounts of the creation of man- male and
female-and of the institution of marriage. One account expresses a clearly
procreative finality, while the other can fairly be described as personalist.
The first, in the opening chapter of Genesis, reads: "God created man in
his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created
them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply'
..." (Gen. 1:27-28). The second account, in the next chapter, says:
"The Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will
make him a helper fit for him' . . ." (so God created woman . . . and, the
narration continues) "therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and
cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Gen. 2:18-24).
In the first text, man's relative perfection is underlined. He is made in the image of God, and
is the highest visible expression of the goodness of creation. The distinction
of sexes ("male and female he created him") appears as a key to man's
mission to carry on the work of creation by procreation. The idea of the
goodness of this assigned mission characterizes the passage.
In the second version, it is rather man's incompleteness which is stressed. Man (male or female) is
incomplete, if he remains on his or her own; and this is not a good thing:
"non est bonum." The normal plan of God is that he will find the goodness
he lacks in union with a member of the other sex; and this union should lead to
the good of each and of both: to the "bonum coniugum."
If it is not good for man or woman to be without a conjugal partner, what is
the good which God had in mind in instituting the plan of sexual partnership
and cooperation within the marriage? What sort of help or helpmate did he
intend each spouse to be for the other? Was he concerned simply about man's
temporal good, thinking just of a solace for this life alone? It seems
reasonable to presume that God's perspective went farther than that. After all
nothing in God's plan is created for an exclusively this-worldly purpose;
everything is designed for his glory and, where rational creatures are
involved, for their eternal destiny. 
In the plan of the divine institution of matrimony, we can say that the true
"good of the spouses" can be said to consist in their maturing as
persons throughout their married lives so that they can attain the end for
which they were created. Within the Christian dispensation, the authentic good
of the spouses cannot but consist in their human and supernatural growth in
Christ. Pope Pius XI, in his Encyclical Casti connubii, insisted that the true purpose of marital love is
"that man and wife help each other day by day in forming and perfecting
themselves in the interior life, so that through their partnership in life they
may advance ever more and more in virtue, and above all that they may grow in
true love towards God and their neighbor."  Vatican II teaches that
"as spouses fulfill their conjugal and family obligations . .-. they
increasingly advance towards their own perfection, as well as towards their
mutual sanctification."  The
supernatural aspect of this is particularly drawn out in the Vatican II
Constitution on the Church: "Christian spouses help one another to attain
holiness in their married life and in the accepting and rearing of their
children."  Similarly another conciliar decree insists: "Christian
spouses are for each other . . . cooperators of grace and witness of the
The demands of married personalism
Some commentators reduce the "bonum coniugum" to what they call the
"integration" of the spouses on the psychic, affective, physical or
sexual levels. This seems inadequate from a Christian standpoint, not only
because it fails to look at the spouses' "good" supernaturally, but
also because it tends to resolve it into a question of natural
"compatibility." One can then be easily led into holding that apparent
incompatibility is an enemy of the good of the spouses, whereas pastoral
experience shows that many highly "integrated" marriages are of
couples whose characters are extremely diverse, and who could well have ended
up "incompatible' unless they had resolved (in an evidently maturing
effort) not to do so.
Similarly, to make the "good of the spouses" consist in the achieving
of a comfortable or untroubled life is scarcely in harmony with a Christian
understanding of the real good of the human person. In fact, any idea of the
"bonum coniugum" which identifies it with some form of easy or
gratifying reciprocal relationship between them is fundamentally flawed. Only
passing and superficial personal contacts can be smooth and without any strains.
Difficulties always make their appearance in every close interpersonal relation
that is extended over a period of time. Since marriage involves man and woman
in a unique relationship and commitment to be maintained over the whole of
their lifetime, it is bound to be marked by difficulties between them,
sometimes of a serious nature. Many happy married unions are between two
persons of quite different characters who have clearly had to struggle hard to
get on. One can rightly say that these marriages are the most "successful,"
for they have matured the spouses most.
In fact it does not seem possible to understand the "good of the
spouses" in a Christian way, unless it is seen as resulting from the commitment aspect of the married covenant. Married commitment
is by nature something demanding. The words by which the spouses express
their-mutual acceptance of one another, through "irrevocable personal
consent,"  bring this out. Each pledges to accept the other "for
better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health . . .
all the days of my life." 
It is through dedication, effort and sacrifice, especially when made for the
sake of others, that people grow and mature most; that way each one comes out
of himself or herself and rises above self. Loyalty to the commitment of
married life-to be mutually faithful, to persevere in this fidelity until
death, and to have and rear children- contributes more than anything else to
the true good of the spouses, so powerfully realized in facing up to this freely
accepted commitment and duty. John Paul II described this duty as calling for
"a conscious effort on the part of the spouses to overcome, even at the
cost of sacrifices and renunciations, the obstacles that hinder the fulfillment
of their marriage." 
The conjugal instinct
St. Augustine, in the 5th century, was the first great defender of the dignity
and goodness of marriage. According to his masterly analysis, marriage is good
because of three essential values or properties that characterize it: the
exclusiveness of the conjugal relationship, its procreative orientation, and
the permanence of the marital bond. Each of these qualities he calls a bonum, a value or a "good thing." Elsewhere I
have tried to draw attention to the modern tendency that sees the Augustinian
"bona" as burdensome obligations which the married state imposes, and
not principally as values or benefits which it confers.  This applies particularly to
the "bonum" or value of indissolubility, and to that of offspring. It
is important that we get back to St. Augustine's sense that these properties
are natural values-"bona" or good things—that are in harmony with human nature,
contributing powerfully to its fulfillment.
The good of fidelity or exclusiveness is clear: "You are unique to me." It is the first truly personalized
affirmation of conjugal love; and echoes the words God addresses to each one of
us in Isaiah: "Meus es tu"—"You are mine. 
The good of indissolubility should also be clear: the good of a stable home or
haven: of knowing that this "belongingness"-shared with another-is
for keeps. It is clearly a good thing for a person to know that, in marrying,
he or she is exchanging with someone else the promise of mutual and faithful
love to last for the whole of life. A person who marries out of love generally
expects, wants and intends a
permanent union. As Pope Pius XI wrote: "In this firmness of the marriage
bond, husband and wife find a positive token of that lasting quality which the
generous surrender of their persons and the intimate communion of their souls
so naturally and powerfully call for, since true love knows no end." 
People want that, are made for that, feel that to chose such a relationship-
and so to bind oneself-is the best exercise of human freedom. Chesterton used
to say that the freedom he chiefly cared for was the "freedom to be
bound." In Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Levin, one of the protagonists, is about to get married. His friends
pull his leg at the fact that he is losing his freedom. Not exactly rejecting
the charge, he answers: "But the point is that I am happy to lose my
freedom in this way."
Moreover people realise that it will require sacrifice to be faithful to a
life-long love, and feel that the sacrifices are worth it. Pope John Paul II
writes: "It is natural for the human heart to accept demands, even
difficult ones, in the name of love for an ideal, and above all in the name of
love for a person."  Something is going strangely wrong with the head
or heart that rejects the permanence of the marriage relationship.
The Second Vatican Council teaches that it is "for the good of the
spouses, of the children, and of society" that the marriage bond has been
made unbreakable.  Indissolubility therefore positively favors the
"bonum coniugum." The point is surely that all the effort and
sacrifice involved in fidelity to the unbreakable character of the bond-in good
times and in bad-serve to develop and perfect the personalities of the spouses.
Of course it is not easy for two people to live together for life, in a
faithful and fruitful union. It is "easier" for each to live apart,
or to unite casually or for a short time, or to avoid having children. It is
easier, but not happier; nor does it contribute to their growth as persons. "Non
est bonum homini esse solus," says the Book of Genesis: it is not good for
a man or woman to live alone, or in temporary successive associations that tend
to leave him or her more and more trapped in selfish isolation. Married
commitment is not an easy endeavor; but, apart from normally being a happy one,
it is one that matures. There is
no true married personalism which ignores or fails to stress the goodness-for
the spouses, and not just for the children-of the conjugal commitment.
Pope John Paul II in the Apostolic Exhortation on the Family—Familiaris
indissolubility in terms of something joyful that Christians should announce to the world:
"It is necessary," he says "to reconfirm the good news of the definitive nature of conjugal
love."  If this statement sounds so surprising today, surely we should
read there a sign of how contemporary society has lost its understanding of the
divine plan for man's authentic good. One of the special missions facing
Christians today, in the work of reevangelizing the modern world, is to spread
the news that married love is too sacred and too important—also for human
happiness—to be broken.
Undeniably there are many marital situations where, from a purely human point
of view, it might seem justified to conclude that the good of the spouses has
not been or cannot be achieved: the cases, for instance, where one of the
spouses, reneging on his or her conjugal commitment, walks out on the other.
Does it make any sense to talk of the "bonum coniugum" as applying to
As regards the reneging spouse, certainly the marriage would scarcely seem
capable of working any longer toward his or her "good." Yet it can
still work powerfully for the good of the other, if he or she remains true to the
marriage bond. Moreover, if that fidelity is maintained, it may in God's
providence act as a call to repentance, as a force of salvation, for the
unfaithful spouse, perhaps in his or her very last moment on earth- when one's
definitive "bonum" or good is about to be attained or lost for ever.
That the positive potential of such situations can be grasped only in the light
of the Christian challenge of the Cross, does not in any way weaken the
analysis. On the contrary, as the Catechism says, "Jesus has not weighed down the spouses
with a burden that is impossible to bear, heavier than that of the Law of
Moses. Having come to reestablish the initial order of creation upset by sin,
he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension
of the Kingdom of God. Following Christ, denying themselves, taking upon
themselves their own cross, the spouses can 'understand' the original sense of
matrimony and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian
Matrimony is a fruit of the Cross of Christ, the source of all Christian
life" (no. 1615).
The personalism of the human procreative power and relationship
A deep ailment troubling the modern world is its failure to recognize the
personalist character of conjugal procreativity. To speak disparagingly about
"biologism," whenever stress is laid on the procreative aspect of
marriage, betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of married personalism.
Nothing can so uniquely express the marital relationship and the desire for marital
union, as conjugal intercourse—when it is open to its procreative
potential. True union between free
persons always involves donation. It is the absolutely unique nature of what is
mutually donated in the conjugal act-the gift of complementary procreativity-that
makes marital intercourse so unitive. Hence derives the intrinsic inseparability of the unitive and the procreative aspects of the
act.  The fundamentally anti-personalist nature of contraceptive
intercourse appears here: inasmuch as it deliberately destroys that unique
aspect of the conjugal act which renders it truly unitive, it marks a rejection
of the marital sexuality of the other, a refusal therefore to accept him or her
integrally as husband or wife. 
Vatican II teaches that "marriage and married love are by nature ordered
to the procreation and education of children" (GS 50). The order referred
to here is not merely "biological." It is not just an
"institutional" order, referred to marriage as an institution. It is
the very order of human love, of truly sexual and truly married love, which
naturally tends to procreation.  If married love, in normal circumstances,
does not want children, it is suffering from a disorder; it is de-natured and
A marital relationship, in order to be humanly true and to tend to personal
fulfillment, needs to retain a fundamental openness to offspring. A marriage
which is so "closed on itself" that it does not want children is a
marriage almost certain to fail, for if the spouses are not open to children-to
the fruit of their sexual union-they are not really open to the richness of
their love; they are not open to one another.
It is precisely this awareness of the deep personalist meaning of procreativity
that renders conjugal intercourse so singularly capable of contributing to the
"good" of each spouse, maturing and "realizing" each one
and linking them together. Conjugality and procreativity are thus seen to have
a natural complementarity. Conjugality means that man or woman is destined to become
a spouse: to unite himself or
herself to another, in an act that is unitive precisely because it is oriented
to procreativity. And procreativity means that he or she is destined to become
a parent: the union of the
spouses tends of its nature to fruitfulness. Conjugality and procreativity
taken together draw man out of his original solitude—which limits him as
a person and is an enemy of his "self-realization," of his bonum.
Children strengthen the goodness
of the bond of marriage, so that it does not give way under the strains that
follow on the inevitable wane or disappearance of effortless romantic love. The
bond of marriage—which God wants no man to break—is then
constituted not just by the variables of personal love and sentiment between
husband and wife, but more and more by their children, each child being one
further strand giving strength to that bond.
In a homily in Washington, D.C., on one of his visits to the United States,
Pope John Paul II reminded parents that "it is certainly less serious to
deny their children certain comforts or material advantages than to deprive
them of the presence of brothers and sisters, who could help them to grow in
humanity and to realize the beauty of life at all its ages and in all its
variety."  I would suggest to parents who too easily incline to family
limitation, to read the Pope's reminder in the light of the Vatican II teaching
that "children are the supreme
gift of marriage and contribute to the greatest extent to the good of the parents themselves."  It is therefore not only
their present children, but also themselves, that such parents may be depriving
of a singular "good," of a unique experience of human life, the fruit
It is true that the wholehearted acceptance of these "goods" takes a
sustained effort; but it is also true that this effort has a deep maturing
effect on the persons who face up to it, and becomes moreover an enduring
source of happiness. I have made reference to one of my books on marriage, Covenanted
Happiness. The title is meant to
underline the fact that the pledge of a man and a woman to the bond or covenant
of marriage, with the determination to live up to its demands, means to place
oneself firmly within a life-long commitment which God wishes specially to bless
with a happiness grounded in effort and generosity, that so powerfully leads on
to the effortless and unlimited happiness of heaven.
 AAS 76 (1984) 644.
 Gaudium et Spes, nos. 48; 50.
 Cf. my essay: "Marriage: a personalist or an institutional
understanding?" in Communio
1992-III, pp. 301-303.
 Ibid. pp. 285ss.
 Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 293ss.
 AAS 22 (1930) 547-548.
 GS 48.
 Lumen Gentium, no. 11.
 Apostolicam Actuositatem, no.
 GS 48.
 Ordo Celebrandi Matrimonium,
no. 25; cf. GS 48.
 1987 Address to the Roman Rota: AAS 79, 1456.
 Covenanted Happiness,
Ignatius Press, 1990, pp. 42ss.
 Isa. 43:1.
 Casti connubii, AAS 1930,
 Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, V, I (1982), p. 1344.
 GS 48; cf. Casti connubii,
AAS 22 (1930) 553.
 No. 20; Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1648.
 See Humanae Vitae, no. 12
 Cf. Covenanted Happiness,
pp. 37-38; 41; 51-52.
 Cf. HV, no. 9.
 Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo
II, II, 2 (1979), p. 702.
 GS 50.
This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the June 1994
issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review.
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Monsignor Cormac Burke, a former Irish civil lawyer, was ordained a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature in 1955. In 1986, after thirty years of pastoral work in Africa, the United
States and England, he was appointed a judge of the Roman Rota. He is now retired and lives in Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa.
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