HomePage  Prof May Home Page



William E. May

Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology

John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family



            Families, and particularly children, are gravely at risk today. This was frankly acknowledged in the Report, entitled Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families, issued in the summer of 1991 by a National Commission on Children established in 1987 by the Congress and President of the United States. The Commission's Report is grim. The following heartrending findings of the Commission will help us appreciate the magnitude of the difficulties confronting us:

            1. Today, one in four children in the United States is raised by just one parent, usually a divorced or unmarried mother. Many grow up without the consistent presence of a father in their lives....

            2. Illicit drugs and the wanton violence they spawn have ravaged U.S. communities, large and small...with devastating consequences for children of all ages....Many are abandoned at birth by parents who are too impaired to want them or care for them....

            3. [A] child need not be economically poor to be impoverished in America today. A poverty of spirit touches every child, at whatever income level, who does not receive the time, attention, and guidance he or she needs and wants from parents and other caring adults. [1]

            The Commission likewise noted the social problems caused by the alarming decline in the proportion of children to the general population. This decline is attributable to a dramatic fall in the birthrate, caused by the widespread practice in the United States of contraception [2] and, a matter on which the Commission's Report is silent, of abortion. For the past decade, in fact, more than a million and half unborn children have been aborted each year in the United States; and in some American cities, including the nation's capital, more babies are aborted annually than are born.

            These sobering statistics give us a glimpse of the difficulties facing families in the United States today. Although the portrait drawn may not be replicated precisely in other countries, there is no doubt that contraception, abortion, and divorce, with their impact on children and families, characterize the affluent nations of the West and are being vigorously promoted elsewhere. There is an urgent need for what Pope John Paul II calls "the civilization of love" [3] to take root in the hearts of contemporary men and women and for families to be what they are: communities of loving service to life and society.

            Here I will show that marriage, the rock upon which the family is built, is a person-affirming, love-enabling, life-giving, and sanctifying reality. In doing so I will develop some moral criteria for the family today.

Marriage: The Rock Upon Which the Family Is Built

            The first and most basic moral criterion (1) for the family of today--and of every day and age--is this: the family must be rooted in the marriage of one man and one woman. This is clearly affirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which affirms that "a man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, form a family. This institution is prior to any recognition by public authority, which has an obligation to recognize it. It should be considered the normal reference point by which the different forms of family relationship are to be evaluated" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2202; emphasis added; cf. Pope John Paul II, Letter to Families, n. 17)). Although the reasons for this should be obvious, this basic truth, unfortunately, seems difficult for many of our contemporaries to understand. Thus I will now try to show why this is such a basic normative truth by reflecting on the relationship between marriage and the generation of human life and by articulating other basic moral criteria for the family of today.

Marriage and the Generation of Human Life

            If the human race is to continue, new human beings--new persons--must come into existence. Although it is possible today to "make" human babies in the laboratory, [4] we all know that human babies come into existence through the genital union of a man and a woman and that this is surely the usual way that new human beings come to be.

            A human being, no matter how he or she comes to be, is something precious and good, a person, a being of incalculable value, worthy of respect, a bearer of inviolable rights, a being who ought to be loved. [5] But it is not good for new human life to come into existence through the random copulation of nonmarried males and females. This is not good, precisely because nonmarried males and females have failed to capacitate themselves, through their own free choices, to receive this life lovingly, to nourish it humanely, and to educate it in the love and service of God and man. [6]

            Practically all civilized societies, until very recently, rightly regarded it irresponsible for unattached men and women to generate human life through their acts of fornication, and it is a sign of a new barbarism, completely opposed to the "civilization of love," that many today now assert the "right" of "live-in lovers" and of single men and women to have children, whether the fruit of their coupling or the "product" of new "reproductive" technologies. [7]

            Nonmarried individuals do not have the right to generate human life precisely because they are not married. They refuse to give themselves unconditionally to one another and to respect the "goods" or "blessings" of marriage, among which are children and faithful conjugal love. But married men and women, precisely because they have given themselves to one another in marriage, have made themselves fit to generate human life. [8] By freely choosing to give themselves unreservedly to one another they have given themselves the identity of husbands and wives who can, together, welcome a child lovingly and give it the home it needs if it is to take root and grow. Because they have committed themselves to one another and to the "goods" or "blessings" of marriage, they have capacitated themselves to nourish the child to whom they can give life humanely and to educate it in the love and service of God and man.

            Here an analogy may be helpful. I do not have the right to diagnose sick people and prescribe medicines for them. I do not have this right because I have not freely chosen to study medicine and discipline myself so that I can acquire the knowledge and skills needed to do these tasks. But doctors, who have freely chosen to submit themselves to the discipline of studying medicine and of developing the skills necessary to practice it, do have this right. They have freely chosen to make themselves fit to do what doctors are supposed to do. Similarly, married men and women have, by freely choosing to marry, made themselves fit to do what husbands and wives are supposed to do; and among the things that husbands and wives are supposed to do is to give life to new human beings and to provide them with the home they need. Thus a second (2) moral criterion for the family today is this: children, who are persons equal in dignity to their mothers and fathers, are to be begotten in the loving embrace of husband and wife, and not through acts of fornication and adultery, nor are they to be "made" in the laboratory and treated as products inferior to their producers.

Marriage: A Person-Affirming, Love-Enabling, Life-Giving, and Sanctifying Reality

1. Marriage: A Person-Affirming Reality

            Marriage comes into existence when a man and a woman, foreswearing all others, through an "act of irrevocable personal consent" [9] freely give themselves to one another. At the heart of the act establishing marriage is a free, self-determining choice on the part of the man and the woman, through which they give themselves a new and lasting identity. This man becomes this woman's husband, and she becomes his wife, and together they become spouses. Prior to this act of irrevocable personal consent the man and the woman are separate individuals, replaceable and substitutable in each other's lives. But in and through this act they make each other unique and irreplaceable. [10] The man and the woman are not, for each other, replaceable and substitutable individuals but are rather irreplaceable and non-substitutable persons. Thus marriage, far from being a legalistic or extrinsic limitation on the freedom of men and women or an empty formality is indeed, as Pope John Paul II reminds us, "an interior requirement of the covenant of conjugal love which is publicly affirmed as unique and exclusive." [11]

            The Catechism of the Catholic Church, reflecting on this crucially important matter, declares that the consent to marriage "consists in a 'human act by which the partners mutually give themselves to each other': 'I take you to be my wife'- 'I take you to be my husband' [Gaudium et spes, n. 48; cf. Codex Iuris Canonici, can. 1057]. This consent that binds the spouses to each other finds its fullfillment in the two 'becoming one flesh' [Gen 2:24; cf. Mk 10:8; Eph 5:31]. The consent must be an act of the will of each of the contracting parties, free of coercion or grave external fear. No human power can substitute for this consent." [12]

            Before a man and a woman marry, they are free to go their own separate ways. While each is indeed a human person and, as a person, unique and irreplaceable, they have not made each other unique, irreplaceable, and nonsubstitutable in their own lives. Before they get married they may say that they love one another--and they undoubtedly do. Before they marry, they have a special kind of human friendship love, one that aspires to full union, one that aspires to marriage and to conjugal love, but they are still at liberty to change their minds and live their own lives independently of one another. They have not yet established their uniqueness, their irreplaceability, their nonsubstitutability. But once they have given their irrevocable, personal consent to marriage, they have done something that they cannot undo. For they have, through their own free and self-determining choices, given to themselves and to one another a new kind of identity, and nothing they subsequently can do can change this identity. They simply cannot unspouse themselves. They cannot make themselves to be ex-husbands and ex-wives any more than I can make myself to be an ex-father to the children whom I have begotten. I may be a bad father, a terrible father, but I am still my children's father. I may be a bad husband, a terrible husband, but I am still my wife's husband and she is my wife. I have made her irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable in my life, and she has made me irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable in hers. We have freely chosen to unite our lives, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.

            From this we can see that the indissolubility of marriage is ontologically grounded, for it is rooted in the very being of the man and the woman, in their freely chosen identity as husbands and wives, as persons made irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable in each other's life. The truth that marriage, as a person-affirming reality, is established in and through the free, self-determining choice of the man and the woman is clearly indicated in Scripture. In the second account of the creation of man and of woman, and of marriage, which we find in the second chapter of Genesis, we read that the first man, on awakening from the deep sleep into which God had put him when he fashioned the first woman from his ribs, exclaimed, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh....For this reason a man shall leave father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh" (Gen 2:23-24). In a magnificent commentary on this passage, Pope John Paul II makes the following pertinent observation: "The very formulation of Gen 2:24 indicates not only that human beings, created as man and woman, were created for unity, but also that precisely this unity, through which they become 'one flesh,' has right from the beginning the character of a union derived from choice. We read, in fact, 'a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife.' If the man belongs 'by nature' to his father and mother by virtue of procreation, he, on the other hand, 'cleaves' by choice to his wife (and she to her husband)." [13]

            Indeed, it is precisely because marriage, as a person-affirming reality, is rooted in the irrevocable choice of the man and the woman to be spouses, that our Lord not only expressly condemned divorce ("let no man separate what God has joined," Mk 10:9), but also said that any divorce which might possible take place had no effect whatever on the bond of marriage itself ("whoever divorces his wife and marries another commit adultery against her; and the woman who divorces her husband and marries another commits adultery," Mk 10:11-12).

            Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "the marriage bond has been established by God himself....This bond, which results from the free human act of the spouses and their consummation of the marriage, is a reality, henceforth irrevocable, and gives rise to a covenant guaranteed by

God's fidelity." [14]

2. Marriage: A Love-Enabling Reality

            Marriage is not only a person-affirming reality, but it is also a love-enabling reality, for it enables husbands and wives to give to one another the unique and special kind of love which we call spousal or conjugal love, one quite different from other kinds of human love. Other kinds of human love--love of neighbor, love of one's children, love of one's enemies--are inclusive, not exclusive. We are to love all our neighbors, all our children, all our enemies. But the love of husband and wife is absolutely unique and different. It is first of all absolutely exclusive. A husband can love no other woman as he loves his wife, and a wife can love no other man as she loves her husband. Yet conjugal love, while exclusive, by no means locks husband and wife into an egoisme a deux. To the contrary, it enables them, precisely because of their unique and exclusive love for one another, to love other persons more fully and deeply.

            Vatican Council II, in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et spes (nn. 49-50) and Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae vitae (n. 9) describe conjugal love as a love that is human, total, faithful and exclusive until death, and fecund or fertile. It is, in other words, a love that differs from other kinds of human love because it includes the whole of the other person as a human, sexual, procreative being, sexually complementary in nature. Pope John Paul II, in a magnificent passage in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes its own, beautifully describes the nature of this love:

                        Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter--appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of the will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility.[15]

            As Vatican Council II teaches us, marriage is "the intimate community of life and of conjugal love." [16]The institution of marriage protects and defends conjugal love, which is the life-giving or animating principle of marriage. Conjugal love, we can rightly say, constitutes the personal reality that the institution of marriage confirms, protects, and sanctions before God and man. [17] The first act of conjugal love is the act of irrevocable personal consent whereby a man and woman, by freely giving themselves to one another as husband and wife, establish their marriage, a person-affirming reality. This person-affirming reality enables husbands and wives to give to each other the love that is unique and proper to them, conjugal love, because only spouses can give love of this kind and what makes a man and a woman to be spouses is their marriage. Even if this love should, tragically, be actually withdraw as the spouses' life together unfolds, it remains as the life-giving principle and intrinsic requirement of marriage. Husbands and wives are under an obligation to give this love to each other because they have freely committed themselves to give it; moreover, they can give this love because their marriage enables them to do so. Thus a third (3) basic moral criterion for families, which are rooted in the reality of marriage, is this: husbands and wives must give to each other the gift of conjugal love and deepen it throughout their lives. By freely consenting to give themselves to one another in marriage, they have established each other as non-substitutable and irreplaceable persons and have, by doing so, capacitated themselves to give one another conjugal love. This love, "ratified by mutual faith," must be "indissolubly faithful amidst the prosperities and adversities of both body and soul." [18] Only if they subsequently do what they are now capable of doing will a "civilization of love" be possible.

3. Marriage: A Life-Giving Reality

            This point has already, to some extent, been considered in reflecting on marriage and the generation of human life. Here I will consider this matter from a somewhat different perspective by relating it to conjugal love. Any love between two persons is impossible unless there is some common good that binds them together, and man's capacity for love depends on his willingness to seek a good together with others and to subordinate himself to that good for the sake of others or to others for the sake of that good.

            This principle is true of every form of human love and is central to a "civilization of love." But in marriage this principle is revealed in a special and unique way. For in marriage, and in marriage alone, two people, a man and a woman, are united in such a way that they become in a sense "one flesh," i.e., the common subject, as it were, of a sexual life. To ensure that one of them does not become for the other nothing more than an object of use, a means to the attainment of some selfish end, they must share the same end or common good. "Such an end, where marriage is concerned"--so Pope John Paul II, writing as the philosopher Karol Wojtyla, has said--"is the procreation and education of children, the future generation, a family, and, at the same time, the continual ripening of the relationship between two people, in all the areas of activity which conjugal life includes. These objective purposes of marriage create in principle the possibility of love and exclude the possibility of treating a person as a means to an end and as an object for use."[19]

            In other words, in getting married a man and a woman not only give to themselves the irrevocable identity of husband and wife but also pledge to one another that they will honor and foster the "goods" or "blessings" of marriage, namely, the procreation and education of children and steadfast faithful love.

            The reality of these "goods" is beautifully revealed in the marital or conjugal act, for which marriage also capacitates the spouses. The conjugal act is indeed a very specific and special kind of act.

            It is, first of all, an act that manifests uniquely and fittingly the sexual complementarity of husband and wife as male and female. I believe that we can rightly regard human sexuality as a giving and a receiving. It is a giving and a receiving for both males and females. However, males and females express their sexuality--their giving and receiving--in complementary ways: the male gives in a receiving sort of way, while the female receives in a giving sort of way. It is not that the male is active and the female passive. There is activity on the part of both, but the man, precisely because of the kind of sexual being that he is, gives in a receiving sort of way while the female, precisely because she is the kind of sexual being she is, receives in a giving sort of way. Their sexuality is, as we shall see more fully in Chapter Two, complementary in this way: male sexuality is an emphasis on giving in a receiving sort of way, whereas female sexuality is an emphasis on receiving in a giving sort of way.

            This is illustrated in a striking way in the marital or conjugal act. In this act the husband gives himself to his wife by entering into her body, her person, and in doing so he receives her into himself, while she, in receiving him bodily into herself, gives to him the gift of herself.

            To understand the significance of the conjugal or marital act it is, secondly, most important to recognize that the marital act is not simply a genital act between a man and a woman who "happen" to be married. It is, rather, an act participating in the marriage itself and one made possible only because of the marriage: marriage, in short, enables husband and wife to engage in the marital act. I hope now to show why this is true.

            Nonmarried men and women are capable of engaging in genital acts because they are endowed with genitals. But when nonmarried men and women have sex, they do not, and cannot, give themselves to each other and receive each other. The man cannot give himself to the woman in a receiving sort of way, nor can she receive him in a giving sort of way. They cannot do so precisely because they are not married. They have refused to make each other irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable persons; they have refused to make each other spouses. Their sexual act, therefore, does not unite two irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable persons; it merely joins two individuals who remain in principle replaceable, substitutable, disposable. There can be, between them, no true giving in a receiving sort of way or receiving in a giving sort of way. Their sexual act is, in fact, a lie. [20]

             But husbands and wives, who have freely chosen to give themselves the identity of irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable spouses, are capable of the conjugal or spousal act--of giving in a receiving sort of way and receiving in a giving sort of way. And they are capable of doing so precisely because of their marriage. Thus the conjugal act, precisely as conjugal, is an act that participates in their marriage, which, as we have seen, comes into existence when the man gives himself unreservedly to the woman in a receiving sort of way and when she in turn unreservedly receives him in a giving sort of way. The marital act is, therefore, one that respects the "goods" or "blessings" of marriage, i.e., the goods of children and of faithful conjugal love. As marital, therefore, it is an act (1) open to the communication of conjugal love and (2) open to the gift of new human life.

            If the husband, in choosing to have sex with his wife, refuses to give himself in a receiving sort of way but rather seeks simply to use his wife to satisfy his sexual desires, he is not, in truth, engaging in the conjugal act, nor would his wife be doing so were she to refuse to receive him in a giving sort of way.

            A remarkable passage in Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae vitae brings out this important truth. In it he said that everyone will recognize that a conjugal act (and here he was using the expression in a purely descriptive sense as a sexual act between a man and woman who merely happen to be married and not in its moral sense as an act participating in marriage itself) imposed upon one of the spouses with no consideration of his or her condition or legitimate desires, "is not a true act of love," inasmuch as it "opposes what the moral order rightly requires from spouses." [21] It is, in reality, not a true conjugal act, for it violates one of the essential goods of marriage, namely, conjugal love, and precisely because it does so it does not inwardly participate in the marriage itself. It is rather an act of spousal abuse.

            Indeed, as Pope John Paul II has rightly reminded us, a husband can in a true sense commit adultery with his own wife if he simply uses her as a means to gratify his lust without any concern for her well being. [22] In saying this, the Holy Father simply reaffirmed the Catholic tradition. After all, a husband can look lustfully at his wife and commit adultery with her in his heart, and if this is what he intends in having sex with her, he is committing adultery in the flesh as well. This was the common teaching of the Fathers of the Church and of St. Thomas Aquinas, who said that if a man has intercourse with his wife, not caring that she is his wife but simply a woman whom he can use to satisfy lust, he sins mortally. [23] Marriage does not enable men and women to engage in lustful sexual acts--their sinful hearts do this--but it does enable them to engage in the conjugal or marital act.

            Because it participates in the blessings or goods of marriage, the conjugal act is also one that is open to the gift of new life. Conjugal love, as we have seen, is a love that is not only human, total, faithful and exclusive until death, but fertile. Conjugal love is procreative in nature. Indeed, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "a child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment." [24] The conjugal act, which uniquely expresses conjugal love, is thus the sort of act meant to welcome new human life, a wondrous and surpassing good. As Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them" (Lk 18:16).            

            Hence, just as husbands and wives violate their marriage and render their sexual union nonmarital if, in choosing to unite sexually, they deliberately repudiate conjugal love or the unitive meaning of the conjugal act, so too they violate their marriage and render their sexual union nonmarital if, in freely choosing to unite sexually, they deliberately repudiate its life-giving or procreative meaning. [25] This brings us to a fourth (4) moral criterion for families: spouses ought not, either in anticipation of their marital union, while engaging in it, or during the development of its natural consequences, propose, either as end or means, to impede procreation. [26] If they choose to do this, they are setting their hearts, their wills, against the good of human life in its transmission. Their choice is anti-life. Moreover, if they do choose to do this, their sexual union is no longer truly a conjugal act, for it is not only anti-life but anti-love--they do not truly "give" themselves unreservedly to one another. [27]

            Since the life of a human person must be respected from its beginning, a fifth (5) moral criterion for families immediately ensues, namely, that it is always gravely wrong freely to choose to abort unborn babies.

            Husbands and wives are to be responsible parents, and there can be no true contradiction between their obligation to respect the procreative good of marriage and the fostering of conjugal love. [28] There may be serious reasons for a married couple to limit the number of their children and perhaps to refrain from having any. But in exercising their responsibilities in this matter they ought not freely choose to set their hearts against the good of human life in its transmission; rather, they should freely choose to respect the fertile cycles of the wife. [29] Thus a sixth moral criterion (6) for the family today is this: husbands and wives must learn to foster conjugal love by respecting the wife's fertility and by abstaining from the marital act when there is good reason to do so. Loving husbands and wives are connaturally disposed to honor these criteria and find their violation repugnant. They do so because these criteria naturally flow from the meaning of marriage as a life-giving reality rooted in conjugal love, a love open to good of human life.

Marriage and Family as Serving Life and the Human Community

1. Parents' Obligations Toward Their Children

            Husbands and wives are called not only to receive life lovingly, but to nourish it humanely and to educate it in the love and service of God, and their marriage capacitates them for these tasks too. This is a seventh (7) moral criterion of the family: parents have the duty, and the right, to educate their own children. This duty and the right corresponding to it flow from the very nature of fatherly and motherly love, a love that is fulfilled "in the task of education as it completes and perfects its service to life." [30]

            The duty of parents to educate their children encompasses the following elements. First of all, parents (a) need to help their children acquire a sense of values, in particular a correct attitude toward material goods, which are intended to serve persons, who must always be considered as more precious for what they are than for what they have. Second (b) they must help their children learn that they must cultivate virtues if they are to be truly the persons they are meant to be, and particularly today, in a world that is hostile to the "civilization of love," the virtues of justice and love. Finally (c), they need to educate their children in the area of human sexuality, leading them to appreciate the beauty of their sexuality and the human significance of and need for the virtue of chastity, a virtue that enables them to come into possession of their sexual desires and urges and not to be possessed by them, a virtue that capacitates them to give themselves away in love to others.[31]

            The work of parents in educating their own children is indispensable. "It is not an exaggeration," Pope John Paul II has said, "to reaffirm that the life of nations, of states, and of international organizations 'passes' through the family....[Indeed] through the family passes the primary current of the civilization of love, which finds therein its 'social foundations'."[32]

Parents share their educational mission with other individuals or institutions, such as the Church and the State. But it is imperative that the mission of education respect the principle of subsidiarity. This implies the legitimacy and indeed the need of giving help to parents, but it is limited by their right as the primary educators of their children. Indeed "all other participants in the process of education are only able to carry out their responsibilities in the name of the parents, with their consent and, to a certain degree, with their authorization."[33]Thus an eighth (8) criterion for the family today is this: Church and State must both honor the primary right of parents as educators of their children and cooperate with them in this educative task.

            Children learn from the example given to them perhaps even more than from what is said to them. Thus, in connection with the right and duty of parents to educate their children, it seems to me that the following is sound advice: one of the best gifts that a husband can give his wife is to love her children and, vice versa, one of the best gifts a wife can give her husband is to love his children. And one of the best gifts a father can give his children is to love their mother, and vice versa.

2. The Family's Service to Society [34]

            The "first and fundamental contribution" of the family to society is "the very experien ce of communion and sharing that should characterize the family's daily life." [35] By becoming what it is meant to be, the family is the first and most efficacious school of sociality, through the spontaneous gratuity of the relationships among its members, which takes place through their cordial welcoming of each other, their disinterested availability, their generous service, their deep solidarity.

            The family contributes to the good of society by works of social service, especially by means of hospitality, by opening "the door of one's home and still more of one's heart to the pleas of one's brothers and sisters."[36]

            A ninth (9) criterion of the family today, therefore, is the following: the family must serve society by works of social service, in particular, by hospitality to others.

            Precisely because the family is the first school in the "civilization of love" and contributes so efficaciously to the well-being of society, there is a corresponding obligation on the part of society and the state to recognize and respect the role of the family in the development of society. Thus a tenth (10) criterion of the family of today is this: society and the state must serve the family: they must make it possible for it to obtain the helps of which it has need and recognize the rights of the family in a formal way.[37]

            Since, unfortunately, the rights of the family are today threatened and ignored by many states and societies, families themselves "must be the first to take steps to see that laws and institutions of the state not only do not offend but support and positively defend the rights and duties of families." [38] Families must become protagonists of "family politics" and assume "responsibility for transforming society." This gives us an eleventh (11) criterion for the family of today: families must defend their rights and duties.

            In connection with this matter, there is great need today to respect the rights of women and, in particular, of mothers. There is, of course, "no doubt that the equal dignity and responsibility of men and women fully justifies women's access to public functions." Nonetheless,

                        while it must be recognized that women have the same right as men to perform various public functions, society must be structured in such a way that wives and mothers are not in practice compelled to work outside the home, and that their families can live and prosper in a dignified way even when they themselves devote their full time to their own family....the mentality which honors women more for their work outside the home than for their work within the family must be overcome. This requires that men should truly esteem and love women with total respect for their personal dignity, and that society should create and develop conditions favoring work in the home.[39]

A twelfth (12) criterion for the family today, therefore, can be put as follows: Society must respect the contribution made by mothers who choose to remain at home and care for their children and secure its just compensation.

4. Marriage, a Sanctifying Reality

            The Church has always taught that God is the author of marriage. The creation accounts in the first chapters of Genesis are narratives not only of the creation of the universe, not only the creation of Man, male and female, but also of the creation of marriage. God is the author, the creator, both of human nature and the nature of marriage. But God is also the one who has willed to enter into a covenant of love with human persons; he is the source of sanctifying grace, which enables us to share his divine nature, just as his only begotten Son, in becoming man, shares our human nature. Nature is for grace; creation is for covenant.

            God has willed our human nature to be the kind of nature that it is--the nature of persons endowed with intelligence and free choice--precisely so that we would be free to accept his offer of grace and to enter into an everlasting covenant with him. He cannot give his own life to nonrational creatures likes dogs or cats or chimpanzees simply because these creatures of his are not inwardly open to receive this surpassing gift. Nor could he become incarnate in creatures of this kind. But he can give us his very own life because he has made us to be the kind of beings capable of receiving it. And he can--and has--become incarnate in human flesh in the person of his only begotten Son, precisely in order to redeem us from sin and enable us to become fully the beings he wills us to be: his own children, his sons and daughters, members of his own divine family.

            Similarly, God has given the human reality of marriage the nature it has because he wills to integrate it into his divine plan and to make it a means of holiness, of sanctification. And he has so integrated it into his loving and wise plan of human redemption in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, who raised the marriages of Christians to the dignity of a sacrament of the new and everlasting covenant.

            Recall that the prophets of the Old Testament (Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel) fittingly used the human reality of marriage as a symbol of the loving union or covenant between God and his chosen people. His Son Jesus is the supreme prophet, the One who fully reveals to us the mystery of God's love for humankind, the One who brings into being the new and eternal covenant of God's love for us. And in the New Testament Jesus is portrayed as the Bridegroom par excellence, the One who gives his life for his spotless bride the Church. Moreover, in the New Testament we read that the human reality of marriage symbolizes the bridal union of Christ and his Church: this is the "great mystery" to which marriage points (cf. Eph. 5:23 ff).

            In addition, the marriage of Christians, of those who "marry in the Lord," not only points to or symbolizes the life-giving, love-giving, grace-giving and sanctifying union of Christ and the Church, but it also inwardly participates in this bridal union and makes it efficaciously present in the world. Christians have already, by baptism, become "new" creatures in Christ: they have become, through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, members of the divine family, children of his Father, led by his Spirit. As a result, when Christians unite sexually with others they do so not as isolated individuals but as members of Christ's living body the Church. Should they do so outside of marriage, they not only act immorally but desecrate the body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 6:15-17). But when they give themselves to each other in marriage, which is to be honored in every way (cf. Heb 13:4), they marry "in the Lord." Precisely because Christian husbands and wives are already, through baptism, "new" creatures, members of the household of God, their marital union inwardly participates in the grace-giving, sanctifying, redemptive union of Christ and his Church. Their marriage is a sacrament of sanctifying grace.

            Thus the marriage of Christians is a sanctifying reality. It enables Christian husbands and wives to love one another with a redemptive, sanctifying love, for their human conjugal love has been graced by Christ himself and merges the divine with the human. In forming a communion of persons, Christian husbands and wives indeed bring into existence the "domestic church," the "church in miniature."[40]The Christian family, therefore, has a specific and original role to play within the larger Church. Its mission is to participate in a unique way in the redemptive work of Christ. Its task, as Pope John Paul II has so well expressed it, is to be fully what it is, i.e., a believing and evangelizing community, a community in dialogue with God, a community serving others by transforming the world through Christ's redemptive love. It is a community that participates in the prophetic, priestly, and kingly mission of Christ.[41]

            Marriage, by the will of God, has been made a sacrament of sanctifying grace, capable of helping Christian husbands and wives answer God's call to be holy, enabling them to participate in a unique and indispensable way in the redemptive work of Christ. Thus a thirteenth (13) criterion for the Christian family today is this: The Christian family must carry out its mission as the domestic Church and participate in Christ's redemptive work. This is a subject that will be explored in greater depth in Chapter Six.

Conclusion: The Family and Society

            My fundamental argument has been that the human race survives only in its children; and its children can flourish fully only in the family rooted in the marriage of one man and woman. Only if this truth is recognized can a "civilization of love" be developed.

            But today this understanding of the family is under attack. According to the champions of "free sex," of utilitarianism and individualism, of militant feminism and the "gay" revolution, a family is essentially a matter of choice. According to those advocating these ideas the "family" should be redefined so as to emphasize bonds formed, not so much by marriage and kinship as by personal choices and declared commitment.[42] In other words, "family" ought to be defined primarily in terms of the free choices made by the individuals who form them--and who are free to leave them whenever they are so disposed.

            This is folly. As we have seen, the future of the human race passes through the family rooted in the marriage of one man and one woman. Children need both a mother and a father. Mothering does not present the difficulties that fathering does. As one writer notes, "simply stated, an adult female will be naturally transformed into a social mother when she bears a child, but there is no corresponding natural transformation for a male."[43]The father-involved family, as another author points out, "is a fragile cultural achievement that cannot be taken for granted."[44]

            The essence of the matter can be put this way: In order for a male to be induced to undertake the responsibility of fathering, he needs, first of all, to give himself unreservedly to a particular woman, who in turn must receive him and, in receiving him, give herself to him. Both the man and the woman, if the father's role is to be properly fulfilled, must give themselves to each other unreservedly. They must, in other words, take upon themselves the responsibility of marriage, of fidelity to each other, of selfless service to their children, of building a "civilization of love." Consequently, as John W. Miller has so eloquently put it, when

                        a culture ceases to support, through its mores, symbols, models, laws, and rituals, the sanctity of the sexual bond between a man and his wife and a father's involvement with his own children, powerful natural forces will inevitably take over in favor of the mother-alone family; the fragility of the sexual bond (and the investment of fathers with children) will give way to the strength of the primary bond between mother and child.[45]

This enables us to formulate a fourteenth (14) criterion for families today: society must support the sanctity of the marriage bond if men are to be fathers to their children.

            I can end this paper as follows. A slogan voiced by champions of "free love," utilitarianism and individualism is that "no unwanted child ought ever to be born." This is banal. Opposed to it is a truth rooted in the reality of human existence, namely, that "no person, including children, ought to be unwanted." The only way to develop a society in which all human persons, including unborn children, are indeed loved and wanted is to respect the beauty of a family rooted in the marriage of one man and one woman. Only by doing so can the "civilization of love" become a reality.


*This essay is Chapter One of my book Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family Is Built, published by Ignatius Press and posted here with permission. The book is available from www.Ignatius.com.

[1] . Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families (Final Report of the National Commission on Children) (Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Children, 1991), pp. 4-5. On this also see Penelope Leach, Children First (New York: Knopf, 1994).

[2] . Beyond Rhetoric, p. 16.

[3] . See his Letter to Families, February 2, 1994, Part I, nos. 6-17.

[4] . This subject is explored in depth in Chapter Four of Marriage: TheRock on Which the Family Is Built.

[5] . This truth, of course, is a matter of Catholic faith, which holds that human beings, alone of all material things, have been made in the image and likeness of God and are called to life eternal with him. But this is also a truth that can be known and defended philosophically. I cannot, of course, do so here, but I call attention to a remarkable work by the philosopher Mortimer Adler, The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes (New York and Cleveland: Meridian, 1968). Adler rightly argues that "the dignity of man is the dignity of the human being as a person--a dignity not possessed by things....the dignity of man as a person underlies the moral imperative that enjoins us never to use other human beings merely as a means, but always to respect them as ends to be served" (p. 17).

See also Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), Love and Responsibility, trans. H. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1981; reprinted, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), p. 41. "The person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end....the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate response is love."

[6] . Centuries ago St. Augustine rightly observed that one of the chief goods of marriage is children, who are "to be received lovingly, nourished humanely, and educated religiously," i.e., in the love and service of God and man. See his De genesi ad literam, 9.7 (PL 34.397).

[7] . I recognize that unmarried individuals can at times care properly for their children, and parents who become single because of widowhood or abandonment or other causes seek heroically in many instances to provide for their children, and they both need and deserve the support of the larger human community and the Church to exercise their responsibilities. But this is not the way things ought to be, and nothing can substitute for the home that loving spouses are able to give their children.

[8] . Here it is instructive to observe that Pope Paul VI, in his 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae, emphasized that "because of its intrinsic nature the conjugal act, while uniting husband and wife in the most intimate of bonds, also makes them [the spouses] fit to bring forth new life according to laws written into their very natures as males and females" (the Latin text reads: "Etenim propter intimam suam rationem, coniugii actus dum maritum et uxorem arctissimo sociat vinculo, eos idoneos etiam facit ad novam vitam gignendam, secundum leges in ipsa viri et mulieris natura inscriptas") (n. 12).

[9] . On this see Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et spes, 48.

[10] . Here the words of the late German Protestant theologian, Helmut Thielicke, are pertinent. He wrote: "Not uniqueness establishes the marriage, but the marriage establishes the uniqueness." The Ethics of Sex (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 108.

[11] . Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, 11. John Paul II completes this sentence by writing: "in order to live in complete fidelity to the plan of God."

[12] . Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994), nn. 1627-1628, p. 406.

[13] . Pope John Paul II, Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechesis on Genesis (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1981), pp. 81-82 (emphasis added).

[14] . Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1639, p. 409.

[15] . Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, n. 13; cited in Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1643, p. 410.

[16] . Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et spes, n. 48.

[17] . This is the truth beautifully developed at Vatican Council II in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et spes, 48-49. Excellent commentaries on these important texts are given by Francisco Gil Hellin and Ramon Garcia de Haro. See Francisco Gil Hellin, "El Matrimonio: Amor e Institucion," in Cuestiones Fundamentales sobre Matrimonio y Familia, ed. A. Sarmiento et al. (Pamplona: Eunsa, 1980), pp. 231-245, and "El lugar proprio del amor conyugal en la estructura del matrimonio segun la 'Gaudium et spes,'" in Annales Valentinos 6.11 (1980). See Ramon Garcia de Haro, Marriage and Family in the Documents of the Magisterium, trans. from the Italian by William E. May (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), pp. 234-256.

[18] . Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et spes, n. 49.

[19] . Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, p. 30.

[20] . On this see Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, n. 11.

[21] . Pope Paul VI, Humanae vitae, 13: "People rightly understand that a conjugal act imposed on a spouse, with no consideration given to the condition of the spouse or to the legitimate desires of the spouse, is not a true act of love. They understand that such an act opposes what the right moral order rightly requires from spouses."

[22] . On this see Pope John Paul II, Blessed Are the Pure of Heart: Catechesis on the Sermon of the Mount and Writings of St. Paul (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1983), pp. 135-141, esp. pp. 138-141.

[23] . On this see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Supplement to Part III, q. 49, a. 6.

[24] . Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2366, p. 569.

[25] . Pope Paul VI, Encyclical Humanae vitae, n. 13. In this remarkable passage Pope Paul first notes, as we have seen, that people easily understand why it is contrary to the moral order for one spouse to "impose" a conjugal act on the other with no consideration being given to the condition or legitimate desires of the other. He continues by saying: "To be consistent, then, if they reflect further, they should acknowledge that it is necessarily true that an act of mutual love that impairs the capacity of bringing forth life contradicts both the divine plan that established the nature of the conjugal bond and also the will of the first Author of human life."

[26] . This is precisely the definition of contraception found in Humanae vitae, n. 14. Contraception includes "every action, which either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes [intendat is the Latin term employed], either as end or as means, to impede procreation [the Latin text reads: ut procreatio impediatur]." This matter will be taken up at greater depth in Chapter Three.

[27] . For a detailed development of this, see Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, and William E. May, "'Every Marital Act Ought to Be Open to New Life': Toward a Clarification," in The Thomist 52 (1988) 365-426; reprinted in the same authors' The Teaching of "Humanae Vitae": A Defense (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988). See also Chapters Three and Four below.

[28] . Cf. Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et spes, 52.

[29] . It is not possible to enter into a discussion of the vast differences between respect for human fertility (natural family planning) and contraception (the free choice to impede procreation) here. However, as Pope John Paul II has rightly noted, there is a "radical difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythms of the cycle" as ways of regulating conception, a difference ultimately rooted in "irreconcilable concepts of human sexuality and of the human person." Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, 32. On this matter see the article by Grisez et al. referred to in note 27 above.

[30] . Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, 36. See also Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1653, p. 412, where we read: "The fruitfulness of conjugal love extends to the fruits of the moral, spiritual, and supernatural life that parents hand on to their children by education. Parents are the principal and first educators of their children. In this sense the fundamental task of marriage and family is to be at the service of life."

[31] . On this see Familiaris consortio, 37. An excellent treatment of chastity is provided by Karol Wojtyla in Love and Responsibility, trans. H. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1981; reprinted, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993). See also my Synthesis Series booklet, The Nature and Meaning of Chastity (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1977).

[32] . Pope John Paul II, Letter to Families, 15.

[33] . Ibid., 16.

[34] . Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, 42. See also Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2207.

[35] . Ibid.

[36] . Ibid., 44.

[37] . On this cf. ibid., 44. See also the Charter of the Rights of the Family presented by the Holy See to All Persons, Institutions and Authorities Concerned With the Mission of the Family in Today's World, October 23, 1983. See also Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 2210-2211, pp. 533-534.

[38] . Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, 44.

[39] . Ibid., 23. In his Letter to Families Pope John Paul II had the following to say on this topic: "The 'toil' of a woman who, having given birth to a child, nourishes and cares for that child and devotes herself to its upbringing, particularly in the early years, is so great as to be comparable to any professional work. This ought to be clearly stated and upheld, no less than any other labor right. Motherhood, because of all the hard work it entails, should be recognized as giving the right to financial benefits at least equal to those of other kinds of work undertaken in order to support the family during such a delicate phase of its life" (17).

[40] . On this see Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium, n. 11; Decree on the Lay Apostolate Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 11; Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, n. 49; Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 1655-1658, pp. 413-414. This matter will be taken up in depth in Chapter Five.

[41] . On this see Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, nn. 49-64; see also his Letter to Families. See below, Chapter Five.

[42] . See, for instance, Carol Levine, "AIDS and Changing Concepts of the Family," Milbank Quarterly 68. Supplement 1 (1990) 36-37.

[43] . Peter Wilson, Man: the Promising Primate: The Conditions of Human Evolution (2nd ed.: New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 71.

[44] . John W. Miller, Biblical Faith and Fathering: Why We Call God "Father" (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), p. 5.

[45] . Ibid., p. 19. The text is italicized in the original. See also George Gilder, Men and Marriage (Gretna, LA: Pelican, 1986).

Copyright ©; William E. May 2002

Version: 28th February 2001

 HomePage   Prof May Home Page