William E. May
Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology
John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at
The Catholic University of America 
1. Introduction: The Encyclical Deus Caritas Est on the Love (Amor) Between Man and Woman as Uniting Eros and Agape
1.1. In his first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI wished “to speak of the love (amor) which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others” (n. 1). Noting the “vast semantic range of the word ‘love’ (amor),” he then said:
1.2. I inserted the Latin word amor in parentheses in this passage because the Latin text of the Encyclical uses several different words for “love”: the title uses caritas, the word used in the Latin text of Scripture to translate the Greek agape. In citing Scripture the Latin text of the Encyclical uses the verb diligo to translate the Greek agapao, e.g., “Sic enim dilexit Deus mundum, ut Filium suum unigenitum daret…” (Jn 3:16; n. 1) (“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”). But, and it is most important to note this, the Latin text of the Encyclical more frequently uses the Latin noun amor and the Latin verb amo to speak of God’s love for man: e.g. “in his Nostris primis Encyclicis Litteris de amore cupimus loqui quo Deus nos replet quique a nobis cum aliis communicari debet” (DCE, 1); “Dei amor nobis quaestio est de vita principalis” (DCE, 2); “Deus hic hominem amat” (DCE, 9). In fact, Pope Benedict says, “Since God has first loved (dilexit) us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love (amor) is now no longer a mere ‘command’; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us (verum est responsio erga amoris donum, quo Deus nobis occurrit)” (DCE, 1).
1.3. In Latin, consequently, the word amor is the more universal word for “love,” and is so used in the official Latin text of Benedict’s Encyclical. In fact, in the first part of the document Pope Benedict argues that amor integrates into one the different kinds of “love” identified by the Greek words eros and agape. Here I will not attempt to summarize his entire argument but will rather focus on those elements of it concerned with showing how authentic love (amor) between man and woman unites eros and agape.
1.4. After noting that “the love (amor) between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings, was called eros by the ancient Greeks” (DCE, 3), the Pope is subsequently at pains to show that biblical faith in no way rejects eros as such. While declaring “war on a warped and destructive form” of eros (cf. DCE, 4), biblical faith leads us to understand that there is an underlying unity between eros or “ascending” love and agape or “descending” love.
1.5. Thus in his reflections on the Song of Songs, whose poems were “originally love-songs (cantus amoris), perhaps intended for a Jewish wedding feast and meant to exalt conjugal love (coniugalis amor),” Benedict says,
1.6. He emphasizes that “the more the two [eros and agape], in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality (veritate) of love (amoris), the more the true nature of love (vera amoris natura) in general is realized. Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending…in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to ‘be there for’ the other” (DCE, 7).
1.7. In commenting on the Genesis accounts of creation the Pope declares: “[F]rom the standpoint of creation, eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfill its deepest purpose. Corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage. Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love (in amore unico et definito fundatur) becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God's way of loving (ratio qua Deus amat [e.g., as the passionate lover and spouse of Israel (Hosea, Ezekiel; cf. DCE, 9) whose love is at once both eros and agape] becomes the measure of human love (humani amoris)” (DCE, 11).
1.8. From all this we can see that when Pope Benedict declares that the “love (amor) between man and woman” is the “very epitome of love,” the love he is talking about is the love between husband and wife, i.e., marital or conjugal love, amor coniugalis. This love, moreover, has an essentially bodily component: Thus in the text already cited in which he proclaims the “love (amor) between man and woman” to be “the very epitome of love,” Benedict had emphasized that in this love “body and soul are inseparably joined” (DCE, 2), and elsewhere he stressed that “man is a being made up of body and soul…[and] is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved…[and that] Christian faith…has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility” (DCE, 5).
1.9. In what follows I will therefore focus on conjugal or marital love. I will argue that this kind of love is the “life-giving principle” of marriage, enabling spouses “to do” what married persons are supposed to do, and in this way attain the “ends” intrinsically perfecting both marriage and marital love, namely, the “good of the spouses” (bonum coniugum) and the “procreation and education of children.”
2. Vatican II: Conjugal Love as the Life-Giving Principle of Marriage
2.1. A major idea about marriage central to Vatican Council II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) is that conjugal love is the “life-giving principle” of marriage. An important essay by Francisco Gil Hellín, “El lugar propio del amor conyugal en la estructura del matrimonio segun la Gaudium et spes” (1980), summarized by Ramón García de Haro in Marriage and the Family in the Documents of the Magisterium (1993, pp. 234-256) shows that for the Council Fathers marriage is the institution of conjugal love; and this love, which like marriage itself is ordained of its very nature to the bonum prolis, is the life-giving principle of the entire institution of marriage.
2.2. Gaudium et spes consistently teaches that marriage is a personal communion, and uses the terms marriage, the conjugal community, and the conjugal covenant interchangeably to designate this communion (cf. GS. 48, pars. 1, 2, 4; 49, par. 2; 50, pars. 1, 3; 52, pars. 1, 2, 4). Both this community--the institution of marriage itself, the conjugal covenant—and conjugal love are ordained by their very nature to the procreation and education of children (cf. GS, 48, par. 2).
2.3. A passage revealing the difference and, at the same time, the complementarity between the institution of marriage and conjugal love is found in Gaudium et spes, 47, par. 2: “But not everywhere does the dignity of this institution (huius institutionis dignitas) shine forth with the same clarity, for it is obscured by polygamy, the plague of divorce, so-called free love, and other deformations. Moreover, marital love (amor nuptialis) is too often profaned by selfishness, hedonism, and illicit acts against the generation of life.” As García de Haro notes: “the text distinguishes two kinds of errors [concerning marriage]: the first kind—polygamy, divorce, and free love—obscure the dignity of the institution of marriage itself; among the others that are then enumerated—selfishness, hedonism, and illicit practices against conception—none directly attacks the essential properties of marriage and hence can co-exist with the institution; but they are opposed to conjugal love, which is protected by the institution, and they thus destroy it, ending up, as it were, by corrupting the institution of marriage” (1993, p. 239).
2.4. In short, marriage is the institution of conjugal love, and conjugal love is the life-giving or animating principle of this institution, and both institution and conjugal love have the same ends and properties, i.e., the properties of unity and indissolubility.
2.5. Moreover, "what distinguishes and, at the same time, inseparably unites love and the institution, as elements of the marital community, is that love constitutes the personal reality that the institution confirms, protects, and sanctions before God and man" (García de Haro, 1993, p. 240). As the Fathers of Vatican II themselves say: “from the conjugal covenant…that is, from the human act by which the spouses mutually give and receive each other, there arises in society an institution [marriage], confirmed by divine ordination; this holy bond [hoc sacrum vinculum], for the good of the spouses [intuitu boni…coniugum] themselves, for the good of their children, and for the good of society, does not depend on human choice. God himself is the author of marriage, endowed with various goods and ends” (GS, 48, par. 1). Note that in this passage reference is made to the “good of the spouses” (bonum coniugum). However, this expression is not used here to designate an end of marriage, as it will be used later in the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, as will be seen below.
2.6. The institution of marriage arises from an act of love [“the human act by which the spouses mutually give and receive each other”], and the institution protects love, for true conjugal love is not limited or impeded by the institution; rather both these elements, institution and conjugal love, mutually require and complete each other as integrative elements of the one same reality, marriage or the conjugal community, a point emphasized later by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris consortio: “The institution of marriage is not an undue interference by society or authority, nor the extrinsic imposition of a form. Rather it is an interior requirement of the covenant of conjugal love which is publicly affirmed as unique and exclusive” (FC, 11).
2.7. Conjugal love, as noted already, is intrinsically ordained, by its very nature, to the end of procreating and educating children (cf. GS, 48, par. 1, n. 50, par. 1, and 50, par. 2). As Gil Hellín observes, "What distinguishes this text [GS, 50, par. 1], in relationship to the previous Magisterium on the ends of marriage, is that it distinguishes between two formally diverse elements contained in the conjugal community [the institution of marriage and conjugal love]. It thus makes explicit 'the significance of conjugal love even for the procreating and educating of children' [a citation from a relatio to the Schema receptum]. While up to now the Magisterium of the Church affirmed that marriage 'tends toward [the procreation and education of children]', Vatican Council II tells us that both the institutional aspect and conjugal love 'tend toward [the procreation and education of children]'" (1989, 16).
2.8. Conjugal love plays a different role in establishing the marriage (matrimonium in fieri) and in the marital community once established (matrimonium in facto esse). As García de Haro notes, the act of matrimonial consent is itself an act of conjugal love, indeed its first act, and conjugal love is one of the essential goods on which consent bears (1993, p. 247; cf. GS, 48, pars. 1 and 2). Thus, "in the conjugal community love is the life-giving principle, owed by virtue of the very consent that has generated it, but whose actual absence does not destroy it" (García de Haro, 1993 p. 248).
2.9. The text of Gaudium et spes makes it clear that love is essential to marriage once it has been consented to as a requirement of marriage, even if, because of human will, this love is not actually present. But this obviously "does not mean to make marriage dependent upon the contingent presence of this love in fact" (García de Haro, 1993, pp. 249-250).
3. Conjugal Love Enables Spouses To “Do” What Spouses Are Supposed To Do
I. To Give Conjugal Love
3.1. What are spouses supposed to do? First of all, they are supposed to love each other with conjugal love. Men and women engaged to each other aspire to conjugal love, but they are not capable of giving this kind of love to each other. But as we have seen already (cf. 2.8) the first act of conjugal love is the act of matrimonial consent that establishes the marriage and in doing so enables husbands and wives to give each other conjugal love. Pope John Paul II thus declared that the account of creation in Genesis 2 makes it clear that the reality of marriage begins to be when a man and a woman “give” themselves one to the other through the act of irrevocable personal consent. He wrote:
3.2 The act of matrimonial consent is an act of self-giving love. It is a freely chosen act, by means of which a man, forswearing all others, freely chooses this particular woman as the non-substitutable and irreplaceable person with whom he wills to share his life as a married man until death and by means of which a woman on her part freely chooses this particular man as the non-substitutable and irreplaceable person with whom she wills to share her life as a married woman until death. In and through this act a man and a woman give to themselves new capacities and new rights, and they freely take upon themselves new responsibilities. They are now able to do things that non-married men and women simply cannot do precisely because the latter, by failing to marry, have failed to capacitate themselves to do them. In short, men and women who give themselves irrevocably to one another in marriage have the right and capacity to do what husbands and wives are supposed to do. And the first thing that married persons are supposed to do is to give one another a unique kind of love, conjugal or spousal or marital love.
3.3. Conjugal love (amor coniugalis), Gaudium et spes teaches, is no mere sentiment or passion but an "eminently human" affection proceeding from free will, embracing "the good of the whole person and therefore capable of enriching with a peculiar dignity the manifestations of both mind and body and of ennobling them as elements and special signs of conjugal friendship" (GS, 49, par. 1). Conjugal love is a special kind of love of friendship. Moreover, "Our Lord has deigned to heal, perfect, and elevate this love (hunc amorem) with a special gift of grace and of charity," so that this love, "bringing together the human and the divine, leads the spouses to the free and mutual gift of themselves, experienced in tender affection and action, and permeates the whole of their lives; moreover, this love is perfected and grows by its generous exercise" (GS, 49, par. 1).
II. To Engage in the Conjugal Act, One Proper and Exclusive to Spouses
3.4. Moreover “this love (dilectio) is singularly expressed and perfected by the act proper to marriage (proprio matrimonio opere). For the acts by which spouses intimately and chastely become one (inter se uniuntur) are good (honesti) and worthy and, exercised in a truly human way (modo vero humano) signify and foster the mutual gift whereby they enrich one another with a joyful and grateful spirit” (GS, 49, par. 2). This shows us that the conjugal act is not simply a genital act between men and women who happen to be married. Husbands and wives have the capacity to engage in genital acts because they have genitals, and nonmarried men and women have the same capacity. But husbands and wives have the capacity to engage in the conjugal act only because they are married, i.e., husbands and wives, spouses. The conjugal act, therefore, is more than a simple genital act between people who just happen to be married. As conjugal, it is an act that inwardly participates in their marital union, in their one-flesh unity, a unity open to the communication of love and to the gift of children.
3.5. In and through the conjugal act husband and wife literally become “one flesh,” “one body.” In and through this act they come to “know” each other in a unique and unforgettable way, and they come to know each other precisely as male and female, in their masculinity and femininity. Pope John Paul II offered a deepening of the truth that in and through the conjugal act husband and wife attain a unique “knowledge” of one another. In this act, first of all, “together they become almost the one subject of that act and that experience, while remaining, in this unity, two really different subjects.” Second, in and through this act “they reveal themselves to each other, with that specific depth of their own human self. Precisely this self is revealed also by means of their sex, their masculinity and femininity. Then in a unique way the woman ‘is given’ to the man to be known, and he to her….The reality of the conjugal union, in which the man and the woman become one flesh, contains in itself a new and, in a way, definitive discovery of the meaning of the human body in its masculinity and femininity” (1997, p. 79). In the conjugal act they are speaking the “language of the body” and realizing its “nuptial meaning.”
3.6. The conjugal act reveals the complementarity of male and female, of husband and wife. This act is possible only by reason of their sexual differences. The wife does not have the male sexual organ; therefore, in this act of conjugal union, she is not able to enter into the body, the person, of her husband, whereas he can and does personally enter into the body, the person, of his wife. He give his very self to her, and in doing so receives her. On the other hand, his wife is uniquely capable of receiving her husband personally into her own body, her own person, and in so doing gives her very self to him. The wife’s giving of herself to her husband in this receiving sort of way is just as essential to the unique meaning of this act as is her husband’s receiving of his wife in this giving sort of way. The husband cannot, in this act, give himself to his wife in this receiving sort of way unless she gives herself to him by receiving him, and she cannot receive him in this giving sort of way unless he gives himself to her in this receiving sort of way (Joyce, 1980; May, 1992).
III. To “Give Life Lovingly, Nurture It Humanely, and Educate It in the Love and Service of God and Neighbor” and Thereby Attain One of the Ends of Marriage and of Marital Love, i.e., the Procreation and Education of Children
3.7. Because they have genitals, non-married men and women can generate life through genital acts but they do not have the right to do so because it is not good for human life to be generated through acts of fornication and adultery. Doing so, as St. Thomas Aquinas, Karol Wojtyla, W. Bradford Wilcox and others have clearly shown, violates the good of the child begotten insofar as fornicators and adulterers cannot give to the child the home to which it has a right and in which it is meant to take root and grow (Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, 3.122; Wotyla, 1960; Wilcox, 2005). But conjugal love, because it enables spouses to engage in the conjugal act, also enables them to “welcome life lovingly, nourish it humanely, and educate it religiously” (cf. St. Augustine, De genesi ad literam, 1.9), i.e., “in the love and service of God and neighbor.” Conjugal love does this because of the intimate nature of the conjugal act that signifies and expresses it. As Pope Paul VI put the matter so well in Humanae vitae: The intimate nature of this act “which unites husband and wife with the closest of bonds, also makes them fit (eos idoneos facit) to bring forth new human life according to laws inscribed in their very being as men and women” (12).
4. Conjugal Love and the Realization of the “Good of the Spouses” (Bonum Coniugum)
4.1. Conjugal love also “enables” spouses to realize this end of marriage and of marital love. Hence this topic could have been taken up in section 3 above. But because this issue of such significance, I devote a special section to it. I believe that the relationship between conjugal love and the “good of the spouses” shows most fully why conjugal love, the “love (amor) between man and woman” celebrated in Deus est Caritas is indeed the “epitome of love.”
4.2. The very first canon on marriage in the 1983 Code of Canon Law declares: “the matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership for the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses (bonum coniugum) and the procreation and education of offspring” (canon 1055, par. 1) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirms this in its opening number devoted to the sacrament of matrimony (n. 1061). Thus the Church today identifies as the principal ends of marriage both the procreation and education of children and what she calls the “good of the spouses,” the bonum coniugum, and in fact the Church names this end first.
4.3. The expression “good of the spouses” to refer to an end of marriage is very recent and was first used in this sense in the revised Code of Canon Law in 1983. Theologians have not given much attention to it—an exception in the English-language world is Mark Lowery (2005). In fact, the expression “good of the spouses” is not even mentioned in the works on marriage by several noted authors faithful to the Magisterium published after the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law: Peter Elliott (1989), Agostino Sarmiento (1998), Francisco Gil Hellín (1995); Germain Grisez (1993), pp. 553-751; Ramón García de Haro (1993). Some theologians, e.g., Antonio Miralles, identify the “good of the spouses” with the good of “mutual assistance” and discuss it only very briefly (1993, p. 102). Canon lawyers, however, have debated its meaning to considerable extent, and the studies of Cormac Burke (1989, 1992, 1993) and Dominic Kimengich (1997) have proved helpful to me.
4.4. I will try to show that the "good of the spouses" ultimately consists in the holiness that husbands and wives are meant to attain precisely in and through their married life, and that the teaching of Pope Pius XI in his 1930 encyclical Casti connubii is central in understanding this.
4.5. To show the intimate, indeed essential bond between the “good of the spouses” and the vocation of husband and wife to holiness precisely insofar as they are husband and wife, it is helpful to consult the “sources” for canon 1055 identified by the Pontifical Commission for the Interpretation of the Code in its annotated version of the new Code (1989). One of these sources is the teaching of Pius XI in Casti connubii, and in my opinion this is the most important source. In this passage Pius XI declared that married love “demands not only mutual aid but must have as its primary purpose (emphasis added) that man and wife help each other day by day in forming and perfecting themselves in the interior life (emphasis in original), 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 toward God and their neighbor” (CC, 23).
4.6. I believe that this statement of Pius XI, together with one immediately following it, is the major source of the teaching that the "good of the spouses" is an essential end of marriage. Surprisingly, the Pontifical Commission did not call attention to the paragraph in Casti connubii immediately following this citation. This is surprising because this text is of utmost importance in understanding the bonum coniugum as an end of marriage and how this end is intrinsically related to the spouses' vocation to holiness precisely as spouses. In it Pope Pius XI declared:
4.7. Pius XI in my judgment is here speaking of what the 1983 Code will call the ”good of the spouses," and he clearly identifies it as an end of marriage, in fact, in a real sense, its primary end or “chief reason and purpose.” He unequivocally claims that this end consists in the endeavor of the spouses, rooted in their unique and exclusive love for one another, to help each other perfect themselves and grow in holiness. In short, a married person’s path to holiness has a name: his or her spouse, and the way to holiness, the ultimate “good of the spouses,” is conjugal love.
5.1. Conjugal love (amor coniugalis) is the love, uniting eros and agape, or, as Gaudium et spes said, “bringing together the divine with the human”(GS, 49, par. 1), that is identified in Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est as “the epitome of love.” It is the life-giving principle of marriage that enables spouses to do what married persons are supposed to do, i.e., to give one another a unique kind of love, conjugal love, to express it in the act proper and exclusive to spouses, the conjugal act, and to realize the ends toward which this love and the institution of marriage that protects it are ordered, i.e., the procreation and education of children and the “good of the spouses,” which ultimately consists in their mutual sanctification. These ends are not extrinsic ends to which marriage and conjugal love are merely instrumental; rather they are ends inwardly perfecting both marriage and conjugal, the ultimate “gifts” of marriage.
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1. English version of an essay published as "L'amore fra uomo e donna: archetipo di amore per excellenza" published in Ls via dell'amore: Riflessioni sull'enciclica "Deus caritas est: di Benedetto XVI, a cura di Livio Melina e Carl Anderson (Rome: Pontificio Isituto Giovanni Paolo II per Studi su matrimonio e famiglia, 2006, pp. 47-58 and used with permission.
Copyright ©; William E. May 2006