A View of Marriage

Monday, 04-23-2018


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


Cohabitation Is Not Marriage Prep

Monday, 04-16-2018


The idea that cohabitation is good preparation for marriage is amazingly persistent, considering that it isn’t even close to being true.

Research consistently shows that couples who do cohabit have poorer relationships before marriage, poorer marriages if they do marry, and much higher rates of divorce.

When the findings are presented to them, people respond in various ways.  Some cohabiting couples I have known make the decision to stop cohabiting, just because they do care about the relationship.  This seems to me the most sensible response.

Other cohabiting couples tell me that correlation doesn’t prove causation.  No, but it is very unwise to ignore it.

Still others say the statistics are phony.  Nice try.

Perhaps the most common response is to think “We’re the exceptions.”  If there were as many exceptions as people who think they are exceptions, the statistics would be vastly different.

The evidence is so strong that among family sociologists, the debate is not about whether couples who cohabit before marrying have weaker marriages, but why.

The explanation I have always found most intuitive is that in every way, the two relationships are fundamentally different.  The whole point of being married is having a commitment, but the whole point of not being married is not having one.  How can not having one be practice for having one?  It would make better sense to call cohabitation practice for divorce.

Besides, marriage comes with institutionalized norms.  Cohabitation doesn’t; you make it up as you go along.

Just because the future is more uncertain in cohabitation, couples have less incentive to invest in the relationship.  This makes the future more uncertain still.

And because of the uncertainty, persons who are cohabiting tend to keep score.  Keeping score is something you do with your shopkeeper – did I get enough value for what I gave?  Did he come out ahead?  It shouldn’t be necessary with your beloved.  But once the habit is formed, it persists right into marriage.

Friends of mine who study these matters have suggested several additional explanations for both the instability of cohabitation itself and of marriages preceded by cohabitation.

One explanation is that couples who don’t cohabit must make a clear and sharp decision to enter into the commitment of marriage, but cohabiting couples slide from one stage to another with very little conscious decision.  First they sleep together.  Then they do so more frequently.  After a while he spends the night so often that he starts keeping a toothbrush and change of clothes at her house.  Then he moves more of his things over there.  Eventually he might as well move in, and he does.  Marriage is just one more thing the couples slide into.

Here is another explanation.  But you won’t like it.

Across human cultures, men tend to prefer the best-looking women.  Women, by contrast, care less about men’s looks, but prefer men with higher status and greater financial security.

Now as men grow older, their status and financial security improve.  But as women grow older, their looks decline.  Do you see where this is going?  For each year that a cohabiting relationship continues, the woman becomes less attractive to the man, but the man becomes more attractive to other women.

The facts are especially cruel to the woman, who is probably hoping that if only she lives with the man long enough, he will marry her.  Actually, the longer the two of them cohabit, the more she is placed at disadvantage -- and the more he is likely to want out.

“But don’t older married men sometimes dump their wives too?”  Sure, but marriage is much more stable than cohabitation.  Why?  Because it really is a commitment.  Even today our mores reflect this.  Men who walk out on cohabitation are rarely looked down upon.  Cads who ditch their wives for younger ones may sometimes be envied, but they are never admired.

Besides, marriage civilizes men.  The longer they are married, the more they grow to understand Browning’s line, “Grow old along with me!  The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.”

Now tell me:  How is a relationship which is based on having no commitment, contains multiple incentives for failure, and contains a built-in disadvantage for women good preparation for marriage?

Book:  On the Meaning of Sex


Optimism, Pessimism, Neither of the Above?

Monday, 04-09-2018


During a beautiful conference last week about marriage, sexuality, love, faithfulness, and fruitfulness, there was a great deal of discussion, both between and during sessions, about whether we should be optimistic, pessimistic, or hopeful about the state of things today.  An optimist, I suppose, thinks the culture can be redeemed in 60 years, but a pessimist thinks it will take 600. 

All of us think about such things, and I confess that I too alternate between pessimism and optimism.  In my view, though, we should ignore and disregard both of these moods.  We don’t know what will happen.  God knows.  All that matters is hope.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither powers, nor principalities, nor technological paradigms, nor renegade theologians, nor disorders in the Church.

We are not generals, but soldiers.  God is the general.  We think we have to see the battlefield as He sees it.  We don’t.  Nor do we need to devise Benedict options.  In that difficult age in which the Rule for monastic life was developed, Benedict himself didn’t think he was devising a Benedict option.  God did, and that was enough.

Nor do we need to be afraid.  How did the Christian knight react when he came upon the dragon?  Did he estimate whether the dragon could be overcome in his lifetime?  No.  He lifted his sword and fought the dragon, and he sang with the joy of the battle.

Some day, when Christians look back on our age, they will look back on it not as a golden age -- certainly not that -- but as a heroic age.  Under our circumstances, even the exercise of the ordinary, everyday elements of moral character, such as temperance and chastity, is coming to resemble heroic virtue.  And think how much more deeply those future Christians will understand sexuality than we do, having read the histories of our battles, our defeats, and our triumphs.

The Christian knight was neither a pessimist or an optimist, and he was right to despise his moods.  Let us try, by God’s grace, to be knights.


Gregory of Nazianzus on Easter

Sunday, 04-01-2018


The following reflection on the Resurrection, its meaning, and its celebration is from the fourteenth oration of Gregory of Nazianzus, fourth century Byzantine Theologian, a defender of the doctrine of the Trinity and a Father of the Church.

Today we have absolutely escaped Egypt, and Pharoah, our cruel lord, and our stern taskmasters, and have been set free from the mud and the brick-making, and there is no one to hinder us from keeping a feast to the Lord our God ....

Yesterday I was crucified with Christ; today I am glorified with Him.   Yesterday I was dead with Him; today I am made alive with Him.  Yesterday I was buried with him; today I am raised up with him.  Well, then, unto Him, who suffered and rose again for us, let us offer our own selves, that possession which is both most precious to God, and most befitting to Him; let us render to the Image that which belongs to the Image; let us recognize our own dignity, and do honor to the archetype, and understand the force of the mystery, and who it was for whom Christ died.


Divine Pedagogy

Monday, 03-26-2018


Why does the Old Testament include all those ritual purity rules?  Are they just arbitrary taboos?  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with consuming the blood of an animal, or wearing a garment woven of two different kinds of fiber, is there?

The assumption behind these questions is that nothing should be forbidden unless it is intrinsically wrong.  A moment’s thought shows that this assumption is incorrect.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with driving on the left; in some countries they do drive on the left.  But it would be harmful for vehicles to drive both on the right and on the left, so in each country the law chooses designates one side of the road for vehicles and prohibits driving on the other.   The fact that the law could have chosen a different possibility doesn’t make its decision arbitrary.

In the language of the natural law tradition, there is a term for this sort of thing.  The requirement of driving only on the right is said to be a determination of the more general requirement to drive safely.  We could say that it pins down the particular way in which safe driving is to be achieved among a particular people.

In much the same way, the Old Testament ritual purity rules are determinations of the more general rules which direct man to God.  They pin down the particular way in which that was to be achieved among the chosen nation.

One could think of these rules as a divine educational program.  For example, the prohibition of consuming blood separated the Hebrew people from the surrounding pagan nations who drank the blood of their victims, and taught them to abhor the shedding of human blood.  In turn, the pouring out of blood in animal sacrifice dramatized the fact that they owed God their very life, and foreshadowed the sacrifice of Messiah.

A more puzzling case is the trio of prohibitions in Leviticus 19:19, which prohibits allowing different kinds of animal to mate (for example a horse with an ass), sowing a field with more than two kinds of seed (for example wheat and barley), or wearing cloth made from two kinds of fiber (for example linen and wool).  What purpose do these three determinations serve?  Many have been suggested.  But considering what the trio have in common, couldn’t one of the purposes of the divine pedagogy in their case have been to nurture respect for the order of creation, and to militate against contempt or disregard for natural boundaries?

No doubt such wholesome attitudes could have been inculcated in other ways – but it would be dreadful to neglect them.  Or is such a fear unnecessary and overwrought?

Not in the least.  Consider what is already happening in our repaganized world.  The attempt to develop so-called chimaeras -- creatures brought about by crossing humans with other creatures -- is already well underway.  Several biotech companies have transplanted the nuclei of fertilized human eggs into the eggs of sows that have had their nuclei removed, and then let them begin to divide.  Other scientists have proposed blending the genetic material of humans and chimpanzees to make “humanzees” which could be used as slaves.  Such obscenities are treated as though they were all but inevitable.  Law journals carry articles about the chimaera law of the future.

I don’t propose reinstating Old Testament ritual purity rules, but the fact that Christians are released from them does not imply that the lessons the rules meant to teach are no longer true.  In fact, through the grace of the sacraments, the divine pedagogy continues.

The Jews were not free to live like pagans, disreverence life, spurn God, trespass natural boundaries, or befoul the sweet order of creation -- and neither are we.

Natural Law Trailer


Lost Time

Monday, 03-19-2018


Since I’ve lost time recovering from surgery this week, I’m not composing a “proper” blog post.  But since I do hate to let readers down, I’m offering a few words about lost time itself -- and about blogging.

About lost time.  When I grouch about time being “lost” or “wasted,” what I usually mean is that I had to use the time differently than I might have chosen.  But if God is the master of our days, as I claim to believe, then isn’t this attitude of mine graceless?  Why should I assume that how I would have chosen to use my time would have been better than what He has in mind for it?  If He sees fit to slow me down this week and interrupt what I fondly call my projects, presumably there is a reason.  Perhaps there is something else that I need to be doing more than what I think I should be doing -- something that I wouldn’t have taken time to do unless He had thrown a little sand in my gears.  Such as learning to be more patient.  Or more still.

About blogging.  If my website statistics are to be believed, I’ve gained a bunch of new readers lately.  (And lost some old ones!  Must be a story here.)  If you’re new, and you’ve tuned in just for the blog, I invite you to look around the rest of the website to see what else you may find interesting.  Maybe nothing, but maybe something.  If you do find something you like, I hope you’ll tell other folks about it.  Link, tweet, chirp, or whatever folks do.  Much obliged to you.

Now excuse me, please.  I’m going to take a nap.


St. Thomas and the Happiness Gurus

Monday, 03-12-2018


For the past two years I have been writing a book on Thomas Aquinas’s theory of happiness and ultimate purpose.  One of the topics he considers is whether we can attain happiness just through our own natural powers.  Wondering how others might answer, while writing the chapter about it I did a quick web search using the question, “What can we do to be happy?”

The first time I ran the search, the query yielded 627 million hits.  Ironically, the first one after the advertisements was a suicide hotline.  After that bleak note, the results became buoyantly optimistic:  “10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happy,” “45 Things You Can Do to Get Happy No Matter Where You Are,” and the cockiest, “10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Happy.”

The happiness gurus who write these items almost never suggest becoming a virtuous person.  From a Thomistic point of view, this is worse than an oversight, since what might be called the happiness of this life lies chiefly in the exercise of the virtues.  How else can we even enjoy the other good things?  For example, how else can we properly practice friendship, delight in our families, and contemplate the objects of knowledge?

A good deal of the advice the gurus do give is either wrong (some of them attribute magical powers to money) or fatuous (my favorite was “Happiness is maximized at 13.9° C”).  Some of their advice is not really about the attainment of happiness, but about the banishing of sorrow – a topic St. Thomas treats separately, making practical suggestions like enjoying innocent pleasures (go read a novel of P.G. Wodehouse), sleep, baths, weeping, the sympathy of friends, and fixing the gaze of one’s mind upon Divine truth.

Not all of the “simple things” the gurus suggest are bad ideas.  And St. Thomas certainly agrees that to attain what passes for happiness in this life, human powers -- plus a certain amount of good fortune -- suffice.

Of course one might not have good fortune.  Besides, even if one does, what is called happiness in this life inevitably leaves us asking “Is this all there is?”

His answer is that the happiness of this life is not all there is.  But for supreme and perfect happiness – not just more of the same old happiness, but a higher kind of happiness -- we need Divine help.

Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics