MARRIAGE: A COMMON ENDEAVOR *
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
Washington, D.C. 20017
I will proceed by first (1) stating certain assumptions about marriage that are basic for a constructive discussion of the topic. I will then consider marriage (2) as a vocation to holiness and (3) as a communion of persons equal in personal dignity but complementary in their sexuality and in their marital and familial roles, in particular on their complementary roles in the education of their children. Next (4) I will reflect on the key to happiness in marriage and on the inevitable difficulties that married couples encounter and what they should do when their marriage is in trouble. I will then (5) consider the husband as “head of the household,” and conclude (6) by citing the “Marriage Exhortation” widely used in the USA before Vatican Council II because it beautifully summarizes what marriage, as a “common endeavor,” entails.
1. Basic Assumptions About Marriage
Marriage is the intimate partnership of life and love between one man and one woman. It has God as its author (cf. Gn 1 and 2), and comes into being when a particular man and a particular woman, foreswearing all others, by an irrevocable act of consent, freely give themselves to one another as husband and wife, committing themselves to live together in unbreakable unity, for better, for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do they part. Their beautiful marital union, sealed and consummated by their becoming literally “one flesh” in the marital act, finds its crowning glory in the gift of new human life, in the gift of children, whom husband and wife are, as St. Augustine said so beautifully centuries ago, are to welcome lovingly, nourish humanely, and educate religiously, that is, in the love and service of God and neighbor. Christians, moreover, believe that Christ himself has raised the marriages of Christian husbands and wives to the dignity of a sacrament, for their marital union not only symbolizes and points to the love-giving, life-giving, grace-giving union of Christ with his bride, the Church (cf. Eph 5:25-26, 32) but makes this union efficaciously present in the world today so long as the spouses are willing to cooperate with their Redeemer and Lord.
These, briefly, are my convictions, as a believing Catholic, about the beautiful reality of marriage, and I am reasonably sure that these are your convictions too. We can thus presuppose the truths these convictions embody in everything that follows.
2. Marriage, a Vocation to Holiness
This is a fitting starting-point for considering, in a positive way, what marriage is as a “common endeavor,” because husbands and wives are meant to help one another to become saints. All men are called to holiness, for as our Lord tells us, we are “to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48), and as St. Paul instructs us, “This is my will, your sanctification” (1 Thes 4:3). This is God’s will for all men and women. And married men and women, who have been called to marriage, are meant to sanctify themselves precisely in and through their marriage.
A remarkable passage in Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical Casti connubii beautifully expresses this great truth. He wrote:
Blessed Josemaria Escrivá echoed Pius’s thought when he declared:
The same truth was central to the teaching of Vatican Council II and is at the heart of Pope John Paul II’s vision of the family. 
But how is sanctity to be achieved, particularly in marriage?
The path to holiness for all Christians is fidelity to their baptismal commitment. In and through baptism Christians have truly been re-generated and made new creatures. They have, in truth, literally been divinized, made members of the divine family of Father, Son, and Spirit. They have become “children of God,” brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, sharing his divine nature just as he truly shares their human nature and able to call his Father their Father. They are now summoned to live as faithful children of God, willing, as Jesus was, to do only what is pleasing to the Father and to refuse to do whatever is incompatible with their being as living members of Christ. As his brothers and sisters they are called to share in his redemptive work and , as St. Paul exhorts them, to make up in their lives what is lacking to Christ (cf. Col 1:24). Their task, a life-long one and possible only because of God’s grace, is to integrate everything that they do every day into this baptismal commitment. 
For married Christians their specific path to sanctity is to be utterly faithful to their marital commitment which is itself integrated fully and completely into their baptismal commitment. And they are faithful to their marital commitment by seeking strenuously, with God’s never-failing help, to see to it that their everyday choices and actions are fully compatible with both their baptismal and their marital commitment.
None of us, of course, is fully faithful to our baptismal commitment nor is any of us a perfect husband or wife. Each of us knows how we fail, particularly in the “little things” of everyday life, both to be true to our identity as God’s children and our identity as loving, self-giving spouses. Even if we are able, with God’s never-failing grace, to avoid mortal sin, we are all guilty of venial sins—and venial sins against our marriage—every day. Some of us may have our own favorite venial sins—the little lies we tell, the imagined hurts we linger over in self-pity, etc. To sanctify our married lives we must not only repudiate utterly marital infidelity and abuse but we must also struggle, each day, to do the “little things” for our spouse—to anticipate his or her needs and desires, to “bear each other’s burdens,” to be cheerful and not grouchy.
Yes, marriage, as a common endeavor, is a vocation to sanctity. A married person’s path to the holiness God wants of his children has a name—his or her spouse.
3. Marriage: A Communion of Persons Equal in Dignity But Complementary in Their Marital and Family Roles
Two aspects of marriage as a “communion of persons” and a “common endeavor are that (1) it is a communion of persons equal in dignity and rights and (2) requires the collaboration of two bodily persons complementary in their sexuality and in their marital and family roles. I will briefly touch on their equal dignity as persons and consider in more detail their complementarity.
Husband and wife are both persons made in the image and likeness of God: “God created man in his own image, male and female he created them” (Gen 1:26-27). Both husband and wife are fully persons, and as such they are equal in their personal dignity and in the rights proper to them both as persons and as spouses. Precisely because they are equal in their personal dignity they are meant to be friends, for one can be truly a friend only with one’s equal. One cannot be truly a friend of one’s dog or cat, because one cannot share one’s life with a non-personal being, and any true friendship means that the friends share some aspect of their lives. But the friendship meant to exist between husband and wife as a communion of persons is a very special kind of friendship. Unlike other kinds of friendship and of love, marital friendship is exclusive, for one’s spouse is utterly non-substitutable in one’s life and is so precisely because a particular man and a particular woman have freely made each other so in their lives by the irrevocable personal consent each gave to establish the marriage. Marital friendship is exclusive, moreover, because husbands and wives, unlike non-married persons, have capacitated themselves to become literally “one flesh” in the marital or conjugal act, one proper and exclusive to them. Non-married males and females are simply incapable of engaging in the conjugal act because they have not, by their own free choice, capacitated themselves to engage it, whereas husbands and wives have. Marital friendship, thus, is a unique kind of friendship, and husbands and wives, as persons equal in their rights and dignity, are summoned to deepen throughout their lives the uniquely exclusive friendship they established when they gave themselves irrevocably to one another in marriage. 
But husbands and wives, while equal in their dignity as persons, are complementary in their sexuality and in their marital and familial roles.
The nature of their complementarity is far too vast and profound a subject to examine in any depth here.  Both husband and wife are meant to “image” God. But God is both transcendent, the “wholly other,” the superabundant giver of good gifts, and he is also immanent, the One who is within us, sustaining us in our being and longing to welcome us into our heavenly home and give our hearts refreshment and peace. The wondrous mystery of God’s transcendence-immanence, otherness-closeness has, I believe, been beautifully expressed by Henry Van Dyck in the lyrics to the hymn, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” where he addresses God as “the wellspring of the joy of living and the ocean depth of happy rest.” Both men and women are called upon to image God as the “wellspring of the joy of living and the ocean depth of happy rest.” But the man, in his way of imaging God, emphasizes his transcendent, superabundant goodness, his glory as the “wellspring of the joy of living,” whereas the woman, in her way of imaging God, emphasizes his immanence, his “withinness,” his glory as the “ocean depth of happy rest.” The wife/mother, who receives human life in a giving sort of way, welcomes her children and her husband within herself, giving them happy rest, whereas the husband/father is the one who should bring to his wife and children the “good things” of creation; he is called to be, within the family, the “wellspring of the joy of living.”
These complementary differences of men and women are manifested in their social behavior, as numerous studies point out.  As a whole, women tend to respond to situations as entire persons, with their minds, bodies, and emotions integrated, whereas men tend to respond in a more diffuse and differentiated manner. On the whole, women are more oriented toward caring for personal needs, whereas men, on the whole, are more inclined to formulate and pursue long-range goals and to reach objectives that they have set for themselves. These major tendencies seem to correspond to the view that the man emphasizes otherness and differentiation, exteriority and transcendence, superabundance, while the woman emphasizes sameness and withinness, interiority, depth and rest.
For example, I have noticed,, during my 42 years of married life in caring for my seven children and in observing my grandchildren (nine at present), that when the mother changes a diaper, she spends a good deal of time talking to the baby, telling him or her how cute he or she is, etc., whereas the father ordinarily just wants to get the dirty diaper off and the clean one on as quickly as possible and doesn’t spend too much time chatting with the child.
Now let us consider how wives and husbands complement each other as mothers and fathers.
Woman as Mother
As we know, when new human life comes to be in and through the marital act, it comes to be within the wife/mother. This new life, like every human life is, as John Paul II says, entrusted “to each and every other human being, but in a special way the human being is entrusted to woman.”  The mother, the Pope continues,
Note how, in motherhood, the woman’s sexuality as symbolizing the withinness of being and God as the “ocean depth of happy rest” is manifested. Moreover, what the pope has to say here about the woman’s “unique intuition” and “understanding” of what is going on within her fits in well with what we have seen before about the psychic-spiritual life of women. A woman is, precisely because of her sexuality and her way of imaging God, uniquely prepared to receive new human life lovingly and give it the care it needs to take root and grow. Indeed, the biologically determined relationship between mother and child, whom she nurtures in her womb and suckles at her breast seems to “shape those qualities usually associated with mothering: unconditional availability, receptivity, and tenderness.” 
Man as Father
A woman becomes a mother more or less “naturally.” As one contemporary writer puts it, “simply stated, an adult female will be naturally transformed into a social mother when she bears a child.” But the same author goes on to say, “there is no corresponding natural transformation for a male.”  A father, as Pope John Paul II himself notes, has to “learn his own ‘fatherhood’”—and, he says, he learns this from the mother. But the wife-mother has to let her husband be a father by allowing him to become involved with his own children. Their own well-being requires his loving presence. I would add that fathers also learn their fatherhood from their own fathers, and those men are blessed whose own fathers, like my own, truly revealed on earth the fatherhood of God.
Fathers, as John W. Miller says, must “insert themselves into the bond between mother and child as a ‘second other’ by an initiative very much like that of adoption. Where this initiative is energetic and winsome,” Miller continues,
We have already noted that, on the whole, men tend to be more differentiated than women in their responses to persons and situations, to be more goal-oriented; their sexual identity depends to a much greater extent than does a woman’s on what they do. While a woman nurtures, a man, as Benedict Ashley, O.P., puts it, “tends to construct, i.e., to impose an order on things, whether it is the simple physical fact of initiating pregnancy, providing the home as shelter and protection, or the more spiritual tasks of disciplining the children physically and mentally, or undertaking the work of the wider social order. Where the woman allows a child to grow, the father causes the child to grow.” 
Like the mother, the father has an indispensable role to play in the education of his children, a role complementary to hers. Precisely because of the characteristics that define a mother as a woman (interiority, withinness, depth of being, tranquility or peacefulness as the ocean depth of happy rest) she has a predominant role to play in educating her children when they are very young and when their personal needs are of such paramount importance. The father, too, has great responsibility here in caring for them and treating them with tenderness and affection. But his role in their education becomes more and more central as they mature and enter into their teens. He must help introduce them to the external world of work; he must watch over their friends, to help them avoid being corrupted by seductive hedonists. As his sons mature and grow in strength, they will (ordinarily) soon be much stronger than their mother and their sisters—and their father as well. They may be tempted to abuse their strength by seeking to dominate their mother and sisters; hence they must be taught, and taught by their father, that men who are true to their vocation do not tyrannize women or lord it over them because of superior physical strength. They must be disciplined, and the father is the one chiefly responsible for doing this. And a father’s daughters need to have a man—their father—affirm them in their femininity and show them, by his faithful love of their mother, that they must treasure themselves as female persons and not allow males to exploit them for their sexual values.
4. The Key to Happiness in Marriage; Disillusionment in Marriage
In a memorable, and in my opinion extremely wise, passage Pope Pius XII nicely articulated one major key to happiness in marriage. This Pontiff declared that
Mutual respect is central to happiness in marriage and in the common endeavor to deepen and perfect the “communion of persons” that marriage is. It seems to me is so destructive of marital friendship and unity as the “putting down” of one’s spouse—a temptation that is perhaps more frequent for husbands than for wives. The equal dignity of husband and wife as persons requires this mutual respect.
In addition to mutual respect, marital happiness, as Blessed Josemaria reminds us, “lies in everyday things…in finding joy on coming home in the evening, in the affectionate relations with their children, in everyday work in which the whole family cooperates, in good humor in the face of difficulties that should be met with a sporting spirit.” 
To maintain mutual respect in marriage and to have the strength to keep going in the midst of difficulties and disappointments, the virtue of marital fidelity is indispensable.
Fidelity is one of the basic requirements of marriage. Fidelity in marriage is analogous to the virtue of theological faith. That virtue, which is, as Germain Grisez has said, “the foundation of the Christian life,” and entails “openness to God who remains hidden from us even as he reveals and communicates himself to us. It is for the sake of maintaining openness to God that faith must also take the form of a steadfast conviction of the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the divine Truth who promises us intimate knowledge of himself in the unending joy of heavenly intercourse.” Similarly, marital fidelity is a “commitment of one’s whole life to the true self of another. In this commitment one opens oneself to the reality of one’s husband and wife, a reality which can never be known in advance. As God remains a mystery to us, so in a way does our marital partner remain mystery to us, for we remain mystery even to ourselves.” 
Our spouse, like ourselves, is a human person and as such imperfect here and now. His or her defects and limitations, like our own, are obvious. And if our love was not perfect to begin with—and whose love ever is?—the one we once found so charming and attractive will inevitably disappoint us again and again. For, as Grisez also says, “in every love, to the extent that it is an imperfect love, I ask another to treat me as if I were God. No one can satisfy such a demand, and no one should try to satisfy it. And so every imperfect love disappoints” and one is tempted to infidelity and/or to resentment and hostility toward one’s spouse. 
But fidelity endures when romantic love, which tends to idealize the beloved and to blind oneself to his or her human failings, dies. Fidelity in marriage, a key to its happiness in particular when disappointments occur, is the “taking of one another without regard for future contingencies.” It is a will “to accept the true self of one’s beloved, a choice of this one in preference to any other—even in preference to any false self which may have to pass away. Fidelity is the will to become the person one will have to become if communion is to last and become more perfect.” 
If a spouse is ever tempted to think that he or she ought not to have married his or her spouse but rather someone else, such a spouse should regard this temptation as an occasion of sin and immediately repel it by thanking God for the spouse he or she has been given. Deliberately to entertain thoughts of this kind is gravely sinful matter and should be recognized as such. 
5. The Husband as “Head”
In the Epistle to the Ephesians we find the following marvelous passage:
Pope John Paul II has done much to help us understand this passage in its total context within the good news of salvation and in this way to appreciate properly the “submission” involved in marriage. The Pope observes that the exhortation to husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the Church summons not only husbands but all men to be imitators of Christ in their dealings with women. And in Christ’s love, there is “a fundamental affirmation of the woman as person.” Indeed, as he continues,
From this it is clear that the passage from Ephesians in no way countenances male domination, nor impose on wives a one-sided subjection to their husbands. The writer’s intention is to call Christian husbands and wives to live their marital relationship in mutual self-sacrifice, after the model of Christ.
But there is still room for authentic “headship” by the husband, whose is indeed called upon to reveal and relive on earth the very fatherhood of God and to do so by “ensur[ing] the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family.”  It is the husband-father’s responsibility to lead the family. He is authorized by God to do this. His authority is not, however, to be confused with, much less identified with, the exercise of power and domination. Authority is a principle of cooperation and thus a role of service to a community. Marriage and family life involve intimate and continual cooperative action and unified decisions, and to make decisions is the proper task of authority within marriage and family.
In short, authority is not domination but decision-making. Husbands and wives share this authority, which usually requires common deliberation and usually in marriage and family life results in consensus. But at times consensus is not possible or may not emerge, and for the well-being of the marital and family community a decision must be made. It is the responsibility of the husband-father to make decisions in such circumstances, and the attributes characteristic of husband-father as complementary to the wife-mother surely seem appropriate for this responsibility—attributes such as the tendency to formulate specific goals and devise means for achieving them effectively, for being the “secretary of the exterior,” etc. The proper exercise of this authority is not a matter of domination but a gift to marriage and family. For the husband to exercise his leadership and authority properly, he must be willing to be self-sacrificial and to subordinate his own private interests to the well-being and good of the marriage and family. Only in this way will he love his wife as Christ loves the Church. 
6. Marriage Exhortation
I can think of no better way to conclude this paper than by reading to you the beautiful “Marriage Exhortation” which was given to every couple, just before pronouncing wedding vows in the United States until 1969. It reads as follows:
 Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Casti connubii (1930), 23, 24.
 Blessed Josemaria Escriva, Conversations with Monsignor Escriva (Manila: Sinag-Tala Publishers, 1974), no. 91, p. 107.
 The following texts of the Council are representative: (1) In its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium), 11, the Council affirmed: “In virtue of the sacrament of matrimony by which they signify and share (cf. Eph 5:32) the mystery of the unity of faithful love between Christ and his Church, Christian married couples help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in the rearing of their children”; and (2) In its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes), 52, it declared: “Let married couples themselves, who are created in the image of the living God and constituted in an authentic personal dignity, be united together in equal affection, agreement of mind, and mutual holiness. Pope John Paul’s teaching on the holiness to which married couples are called is developed at length in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio,, Part III, Section IV, Sharing in the Life and Mission of the Church, 49-64. See in particular no. 56.
 On this see Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis splendor (1993); Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 1, Christian Moral Principles (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983), chapters 20-24; William E. May, An Introduction to Moral Theology (rev. ed. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1994), chapter 5.
 On this see Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, trans. H. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981), chapter one.
 I have sought to specify this complementarity in Chapter 2, “Marriage and the Complementarity of Men and Women” in my book, Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family Is Built (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995). See also Robert Joyce, Human Sexual Ecology: A Philosophy of Man and Woman (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1976).
 See Steven Clark, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in the Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1980). In chapters sixteen and seventeen (pp. 371-466) Clark summarizes relevant material from the descriptive social sciences and experimental psychology bearing on the differences between males and females. Clark provides an exhaustive search of the literature, providing excellent bibliographical notes. See also Alice Schlegel, Sexual Stratification: A Cross-Cultural View (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).
 Pope John Paul II, Apostolic exhortation Christifideles laici, 51. See also his Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem, 30: “The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. Of course, God entrusts every human being to each and every other human being. But this entrusting concerns women in a special way—precisely because of their femininity—and this in a particular way determines their vocation.”
 Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem, 18.
 John W. Miller, Biblical Faith and Fathering: Why We Call God “Father” (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), p. 57.
 Peter J. Wilson, Man, the Promising Primate: The Conditions of Human Evolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), p. 71.
 John W. Miller, Biblical Faith and Fathering: Why We Call God “Father” (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), p. 57.
 Benedict Ashley, O.P., “Moral Theology and Mariology,” Anthropotes: Rivista di studi sulla persona e la famiglia 7 (1991), 140.
 Pope Pius XII, “Address to Italian Union of Midwives” (October 29, 1951).
 Blessed Josemaria Escriva, in Conversations with Monsignor Escriva, no. 91, p. 108.
 Germain Grisez, “Fidelity Today,” unpublished paper, p. 2 of ms. The seventh chapter of volume 2, Living a Christian Life (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1993), of this author’s The Way of the Lord Jesus offers a splendid theology of marriage.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Ibid., p. 7.
 On this see Grisez, Living a Christian Life, pp. 620-622.
 Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem (1987), 24.
 Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, 25.
 On this see Grisez, Living a Christian Life, pp., 629-633.
Version: 28th February 2001