This is the text of a brief talk I gave recently at the fiftieth anniversary symposium on the document Humanae Vitae, where I had been asked to present a Thomistic view.  I hope to post the video within a few weeks.  When I say the talk is ”brief,” I mean it; the paper on which these few words are based is almost six times longer, and will be posted at this website after it is edited for publication in the conference volume.


Thomas Aquinas on Marriage, Fruitfulness, and Faithful Love

This is what we face.  According to the prevailing view, the love of a man and a woman is not an enduring commitment of the will to the true good of another person, but a feeling or an emotion.  Essentially, then, what the culture calls matrimony is cohabitation with formalities.  Like cohabiting couples -- or cohabiting threesomes or what have you -- a married couple may speak of having a committed relationship, but commitment in the traditional sense is just what they do not have.  Sexual intercourse is not viewed as suggestive of the possibility of new life; neither is having children viewed as requiring intercourse, because these days there are labs for that.  Though even in this day of plummeting birth rates, children may still be desired, adults tend to view them as a lifestyle enhancement, something like a home entertainment center, but more expensive.  Though having a few children may still be regarded favorably, having more than a few is frowned upon, because children consume resources, use up disposable income, and require a great deal of care.  A puzzled writer who is not quite so extreme as to condemn all childbearing says nevertheless, “I don’t have the answer to the origin of the longing for children that many experience.  It’s almost certainly due to a complex mixture of biological and social factors.  It might even be an evolutionary trick.”

Against this, we want to argue that the love between the husband and wife is an act of free will by which the spouses give themselves to each other mutually, totally, indissolubly, and exclusively, for the sake of God.  Opening themselves to the possibility of bearing fruit is the most beautiful way that they do give themselves to each other, and the very basis of their love.  By acknowledging that the sexual powers have a procreative purpose, we are not denying that we are ends in ourselves.  Rather we are acknowledging what kinds of ends in ourselves we are.  We are beings whose biological functions are not shackles, but constitutive properties of our embodied personhood.  We do not diminish ourselves by honoring them.  We would alienate ourselves by not honoring them.

All of this has roots in the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas.  Now in one sense, matrimony is complicated, because it has a number of origins.  He argues that natural law itself originates matrimony in matters concerned with having and raising children.  Natural law after the Fall further shapes matrimony so that its natural purposes are not unraveled by the wound of sin, which tempts us to employ our sexual powers in ways that forestall the formation of families or undermine their good order.  The civil law shapes matrimony with respect to such things as spousal support.  The Gospel shapes matrimony by directing it to an additional purpose, for the union of husband and wife represents and makes present the mystery of Christ’s union with the Church.

We can say, then, that natural law institutes marriage in one way, the law of the Gospel institutes it in another, and civil law institutes it in still another.  St. Thomas says that these various “institutions” or origins “are not of the same thing in the same respect.”   However, they are all linked.  Thus, for the civil law to treat marriage as something contrary to what it is by nature would be profoundly wrong; any such so-called civil marriage would not be marriage at all.

As I said, that is rather complicated.  But in another sense, the basics of matrimony are simple, because as St. Thomas says, all of this involves only three matrimonial goods.  The first good of matrimony, he says, is “the birth of children and the educating of them to the worship of God.”   If I ask my students to identify the purpose of the sexual powers, they usually reply “pleasure.”  If, on the other hand, I focus their attention on our natural teleology by asking them to identify the purpose of the eye, the purpose of the ear, the purpose of the capacity for anger, and so on, and then ask them to identify the purpose of the sexual powers, they say instead “reproduction,” which is not bad.  However, procreation means much more.  Reproduction merely means turning out new humans by one means or another.  If this were the only purpose of the sexual powers, it wouldn’t matter whether the partners were united.  In fact, it wouldn’t matter if there were any partners.  We could dispense with parents altogether, gestating children in flasks and raising them in state-run institutions, as they do in Huxley’s Brave New World.  Procreation, by contrast, is the loving act by which posterity is generated.  It means conceiving children in the embrace of their father and mother; it means not only having them together, but nurturing them together, so that they can become virtuous adults; and it means forming families, thereby forging new links between dimmest antiquity and remotest futurity.  Any guppy can reproduce.  We have the privilege of procreating.

The second good of matrimony is the mutual faithfulness of the husband and wife.  Here St. Thomas is using the figure of speech called metonymy, in which a part represents a whole, as when I say “the crown” to represent everything about the institution of monarchy.  St. Thomas does not express his thought by saying that the second matrimonial good is the spouses’ union; rather he uses the most important aspect of their union to represent everything about their union.  “After an injury inflicted upon a man in his own person,” St. Thomas says, “none is so grave as that which is inflicted upon a person with whom one is joined.”  This, he says, is why the Decalogue prohibits adultery immediately after it prohibits murder.

If we view procreation and unity as entirely distinct goods of matrimony, we are making a profound mistake.  Today one hears often hears couples say, “we are putting off children so that we can enjoy each other first.”  But according to the inherited wisdom of the human race, if we seek to enhance matrimonial unity by refusing the gift of children, we are merely turning a pair of selfish MEs into a single selfish US.

The third good of matrimony is sacramental.  As the man and woman are espoused, so Christ and the Church are espoused.  Just because of the indivisible union of the husband and wife, it can represent and make present the indivisible union of Christ and His Church.  And just as the union of their bodies makes the spouses biologically fruitful, so the sacrament makes their union spiritually fruitful, as they pass on their faith to their children and display it to the world.

We mentioned just now that matrimony is indissoluble, but why is it indissoluble?  According to St. Thomas, there are two reasons.  To understand the first one, consider our difference from the other animals.  Among some of the beasts, the female is capable not only of giving birth to the offspring, but also of training them without help from the male.  In such species, intercourse is “random and indiscriminate.”  Among other beasts, the female needs assistance, so the male cooperates with the female in caring for them.  This requires that he recognize the offspring, that he possess a natural inclination to care for them, and that a definite male be joined to a definite female.  In such species, the male and female cooperate until the children are grown.   Now since we are rational beings, not just beasts, this applies even more to us, because our children need nourishment not just for their bodies, but even more for their souls, and their attainment of maturity and virtue takes a long time.

The second reason is stronger.  Even after the children have reached maturity and virtue, they still need the help of their parents to establish their own new families.  “Hence it is of natural law,” says St. Thomas, “that parents should lay up for their children, and that children should be their parents’ heirs.  Therefore, since the offspring is the common good of husband and wife, the dictate of the natural law requires the latter to live together for ever inseparably.”

According to a certain caricature, St. Thomas is quite interested in the procreative good but hardly interested at all in the unitive good.  This is utterly false.  True, the matrimonial friendship differs from other friendships because of its procreative purpose.  On the other hand, everything that applies to loving union in general applies to the loving matrimonial union too.  Taking this into account, St. Thomas actually says more about union than about procreation.  For example, he says, the lovers experience confidence that what has begun well will get better; they experience glory because each one glories in the good of the other; they are consoled because through delight in the good they share, each one possesses a remedy against sadness, and they experience exuberant joy because not only is sadness absorbed, but their exuberance “overcomes every tribulation.”

It is quite amazing how far St. Thomas is willing to go in describing the quality of loving union.  He says, for example, that the lover and the beloved mutually indwell each other.  “The beloved is contained in the lover, by being impressed on his heart” and becoming the object of his affections; the lover, in turn, “is contained in the beloved, inasmuch as the lover penetrates, so to speak, into the beloved.”  Or take the idea that the lover “loves to love.”  In our day we associate such language with soupy sentimentalism and the lavish use of emojis, but St. Thomas gives diamond-hard meaning to it.  The power of will, he explains, is directed to the good.  Love is a spontaneous act of the will, directed to the good of the beloved.  But since to will is itself a good, man can will himself to will.  For this reason, love, by its own nature, “is capable of reflecting on itself.”  “Wherefore,” says the Angelic Doctor, “from the moment a man loves, he loves himself to love.”   This does not mean that he is infatuated with his feelings.  It means that with all his heart, he concurs with the direction of his will.  His attitude toward the beloved might be expressed, “I exult that you exist in this world, I seek all good for you, and I know it is good that I do.”

Another caricature is that St. Thomas frowns on sexual pleasure.  On the contrary, he argues that had it not been for the Fall, the pleasure of sexual intercourse would have been even greater than it is now.  What happened when we fell is not that our pleasure became stronger, but that our reason became weaker.  If we had not fallen, then, our pleasures would have been even stronger, but they would not have disordered our thinking, as they do now.  Our minds would obey God, and our passions and desires would obey our minds.

Still another caricature is that St. Thomas thinks the spouses should have intercourse only because they are trying to have children.  Wrong again.  He does say that sexual intercourse must always be rightly related to its procreative purpose, which means that the spouses must never do anything to make intercourse incapable of bringing about new life.  However, they may also have intercourse simply to celebrate their procreative union.

To see this more clearly, we might think of eating.  We eat because food is necessary, but as St. Thomas points out, necessity has several different meanings.  In one sense we must eat because otherwise we cannot live.  But in another sense we must eat because otherwise we cannot live becomingly.  This is why we eat and drink more on festive occasions:  Not to keep from starving, but to celebrate.  Obviously God endorses this motive; after all, at the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus turned water into wine.  Now even at feasts, eating and drinking must still be rightly ordered to life and health.  It would be prejudicial to life and health if we ate as much as we could and then purged so that we could eat still more.  But right order does not require that we eat and drink only for life and health.  It is not prejudicial to life and health to toast the married couple with wine.

Now apply these distinctions to the enjoyment of sexual intercourse.  In the first sense of necessity, sexual intercourse is necessary simply to be fruitful.  But in the second sense, it is necessary so that the husband and wife may enjoy their partnership in the possibility of fruitfulness becomingly – so that they may celebrate it.  Even celebratory intercourse must still be rightly ordered to procreation, but right order does not require that the spouses enjoy intercourse just for making babies.  Rather it allows them to enjoy intercourse so long as they do nothing to thwart the procreative possibility of their action.

Here is another way to think of the matter.  The husband and wife should cherish their procreative union as good in itself, not just as a tool for pleasure.  But because their union is good in itself, it is also pleasurable, for pleasure, says St. Thomas, is the repose of the soul in what is good.  And so desiring the pleasure of their union is exactly right.  Notice here that pleasure is not the main thing; it is the enjoyment of the main thing.  Pleasure it is not the good itself; it is the delight of experiencing the good. 

Hedonists get this backward.  Rather than viewing pleasure as repose in whatever is good, they view pleasure itself as the good – in fact, as the only good.  From this point of view, one does not really cherish one’s wife for her own sake; he cherishes only the resulting pleasure.  It follows from this theory that if there were a way to have the pleasure of one’s wife without one’s wife, then that would be just as good, or even better.  Never mind marriage – let us just arrange to have electrodes implanted to stimulate the pleasure centers of our brains.  Why experience pleasure indirectly, when we can experience it directly?

St. Thomas is pointing out that I should not treat my wife as that electrode.  She herself is what I should cherish, experiencing the pleasure of that cherishing.  What she and I enjoy, in both the procreative and unitive aspects of our marital friendship, is delightful.  It is delightful to rest in the hope of new life; it is also delightful to rest in our mutual love, as partners in this hope.  But if I say “never mind our hope of children, never mind our mutual love, I just want pleasure,” then I am missing the point.  I understand neither children, nor love, nor delight.

Book:  On the Meaning of Sex