Wednesday, 30 October 2019 10:39

Marriage and the Spousal Meaning of the Body - part 4

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This article is the fourth of a series of five articles. The five articles together make up a thesis writing on marriage and the spousal meaning of the body. This fourth article covers the second half of the third chapter of the thesis, on how the Theology of the Body is in continuity with historical Magisterial teaching.


Gaudium et Spes

            Gaudium et Spes is a pastoral constitution which sought to address concerns which had arisen surrounding “marriage and the family, human progress, life in its economic, social and political dimensions, the bonds between the family of nations, and peace.”[1] Chapter 1 of the second part of the document specifically focuses on marriage and the family; seeking to “preserve the holiness and to foster the natural dignity of the married state” by offering guidance and shedding a clearer light on the doctrine of the Church.[2]

This section of the document begins much like Arcanum and Casti Connubii, affirming the reality that God is the author of marriage. Reflecting on this document, Cormac Burke writes,

Marriage, for a Christian, must surely always be seen as an institution – not of positive human law, but of divine law. In other words, it is not a mere historical invention or a temporary arrangement devised by human beings – suited perhaps to the human or social mores of some particular moment, but which people of a later age could well modify or discard – but a God-given reality which corresponds to the nature of human beings and to the divine plan for their development and destiny.[3]

As has been previously stated, unless one recognizes the Divine origin of marriage, and the need to adhere to the Divine will for marriage, resulting examples of marriage will be inadequate at best. If couples approach marriage intending anything other than what marriage truly is, the result can only be “something essentially different from marriage because of which the contract itself collapses.”[4]

The conjugal covenant of marriage is irrevocable, and intended for the good of the spouses and their children. Marriage has been endowed with benefits and purposes which all “have a very decisive bearing on the continuation of the human race, on the personal development and eternal destiny of the individual members of a family, and on the dignity, stability, peace and prosperity of the family itself and of human society as a whole.”[5] As one of the goods, or benefits, of marriage, the Sacrament helps to bring about the sanctification of the spouses. Gaudium et Spes states that

Authentic married love is caught up into Divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church, so that this love may lead the spouses to God with power effect and may aid and strengthen them in subline office of being a father or a mother.”[6]

For this reason, marriage is a Sacrament for Christians, and by participation in this Sacrament, they are “penetrated with the spirit of Christ”, and advance their own perfection and sanctification.[7] This recognition of marriage as a way of life intended to effect the purification and sanctification of the spouses is an important contribution of Gaudium et Spes. One author describes Gaudium et Spes as providing a “positive framework” for marriage, “moving marriage into its rightful place as a very important expression of the Christian life of holiness and sanctity.”[8] In this way, the children of the family, and all those who gather around this family, will find a readier path to holiness and salvation. The faithful participation of the spouses in their marriage will bring about a transformation in the way that society views and experiences marriage.

Love which involves the good of the whole person, pervading the whole of life by its “busy generosity” is a love uniquely expressed and perfected by matrimony.[9] The constant fulfillment of the duties of marriage demands “notable virtue,” and will require for the couple to “painstakingly cultivate and pray for steadiness of love, large heartedness and the spirit of sacrifice.”[10] Authentic conjugal love in marriage will be more highly praised only if Christian couples can give faithful and outstanding witness to this type of love. This will require the dutiful work of families; for spouses to tirelessly express this love to one another and their children, for chastity and purity to be cultivated in children, and for young people to be instructed in the “dignity, duty, and work of married love.”[11] The concept of the language of the body from the theology of the body can clearly be seen as a development of this thought; the importance of the spouses’ growth in a faithful and busy generosity towards each other and their children, so that every act, word, and gesture might become an expression of a language of self-giving love. Recalling the statement from Gaudium et Spes, that man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself,”[12] as well as John Paul II’s personalistic norm, which states that the “person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love,”[13] it becomes evident that this busy generosity beautifully speaks to the dignity of both the individual committing the acts of generosity, as well as the individuals who become the recipients of such acts.

            Gaudium et Spes continues to explain that “marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children.”[14] The couple must “be ready with stout hearts to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Savior.”[15] The spouses are intended to transmit the very love of the Creator to the family; the conjugal love of the marriage covenant is to extend its loving communion to its children, so that the family as a whole might partake of and flourish in the indissoluble love. Decisions concerning the governing of procreation are an important aspect of the spouses’ cooperation with the loving plan of the Creator for their family, and as such must be viewed and discerned according to the Divine will for their family; not only temporally, but also recognizing objective moral standards which take into account the eternal destiny of man. Whenever the faithfulness of the spouses to intimacy and openness to fruitful procreation is impeded, even if only temporarily, the intimacy of married life as well as its faithfulness and fruitfulness all become endangered.[16] Thus, the governing of oneself with concern to the harmonizing of conjugal love and the responsible transmission of life must always be according to objective standards based on the nature of the human person, their great dignity, and eternal destiny. Such standards are to preserve “the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love.”[17] The Church puts forward such standards as guidance, in keeping with Divine and natural law. John Paul II expounds upon the dignity and responsibility of the spousal union in his theology of the body when explaining that the spousal union “carries within itself a particular awareness of the meaning of the body in the reciprocal self-gift of the persons” and that at the same time “each union of this kind renews in some way the mystery of creation in all its original depth and vital power.”[18] Therefore, not only are spouses invited into a cooperation with the love of the Creator for their family, becoming a sign of His love for one another and their children, but spouses are also invited into the very mystery of creation through a cooperation in the ongoing creative power of God.

            The entirety of family life is called to be a participation in Divine love. Each member of the family is called to growth in holiness as they strive to cooperate with the Divine will in each action and interaction, and the parents are called to be the exemplars of such a life of virtue and self-gift for their children to imitate. Living in this way, each member of the family becomes more who God created them to be. “The family is a kind of school of deeper humanity.”[19] With painstaking faithfulness and cooperation on the part of the spouses, the active presence and participation of the father and mother help bring about the proper education of their children. As they grow, the children will have developed to a maturity so as to begin to follow their own vocations; whether priestly, religious, single, or married life. Should they discern a vocation of marriage, they can receive guidance and example from their parents on how to commit themselves to their vocation. “By the formation of education the human being is instructed so that through free choice he can participate in the further formation of his soul.”[20] John Paul explains that the reason that the school of deeper humanity, that is the family life, can serve to prepare children for vocations other than marriage is because of “the awareness of the freedom of the gift, which is organically connected with the deep and mature consciousness of the spousal meaning of the body in the structure of man’s and woman’s personal subjectivity as a whole.”[21] The freedom to give oneself for the other is not particular to marriage, but a natural part of every vocation. John Paul II continues to explain that “Christ’s words in Matthew 19: 11-12 show accordingly that this ‘for,’ which has been present ‘from the beginning’ at the basis of marriage, can also stand at the basis of continence ‘for’ the kingdom of heaven!”[22]

Humanae Vitae

The encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae, set out to formally address questions being raised regarding marriage and fertility. Questions surrounding whether man ought to be able govern his procreative act by artificial means as opposed to following the rhythms of the body, citing various reasons such as concerns over needing to limit population in the face of hardships of housing conditions, family economics, and even the health of the spouses. Additionally, the question was raised as to whether such rationally planned family fertility could be a licit form of controlling birth, and whether the openness to fruitfulness could be viewed from the basis of the totality of married life rather than in each individual act.[23]

Prior to specifically addressing these questions, the encyclical first defines the purpose of marriage so that the questions might be viewed through the appropriate lens. Following Arcanum, Casti Connubii, and Gaudium et Spes, the encyclical affirms that God is the author of marriage. Humanae Vitae states that “Married love particularly reveals its true nature and nobility when we realize that it takes its origin from God, who ‘is love,’ the Father ‘from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.’"[24] Furthermore, the encyclical states that married love is fully human – physical and spiritual, and as a sign of Divine love, this love is total, free, faithful, and fruitful, with its greatest aim and gift being the precreation and education of children.[25] Thus, the spouses are bound to ensure that their actions correspond to God’s will for marriage. Concerning responsible parenthood, Humanae Vitae states that spouses

Are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out.[26]


The Church urges men to observe the precepts of the natural law, and the guidance provided by the Church in its doctrine.[27] What follows is the recognition that each and every single marital act must be in accordance with the natural law; birth-control and abortion are thus unlawful. Intentionally frustrating the procreative element of the marital act is contrary to the natural law and the Divine plan for marriage. No individual contracepting, or otherwise unlawful act, of intercourse can be considered lawful, and cannot in any way be said to merge with a lawful act carried out prior or after to justify it.[28] One writer describes this teaching of Humanae Vitae stating that the encyclical proposes “that ‘the act of marriage’ is intrinsically oriented to procreation and can never be violated with respect to its natural structure. Simultaneously, it is offered that there is an inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of this act which is inherent in the nature of man and woman and which must be safeguarded in all circumstances.”[29] The encyclical acknowledges that, even in contracepting marital acts, sexual pleasure may contribute to the values of intimacy and unity among the spouses, however, the values of intimacy and unity must never “usurp openness to new life in every act of marital sex.”[30]

Those critical of this position may claim that the same ends are sought by contraception and an observance of natural rhythms to avoid pregnancy, and that the two methods should then somehow be seen as morally equivalent. The reality is that artificial birth control and an observance of the natural rhythms of the body are radically different stances. “In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided to them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process.”[31] In his book, Christian Social Order, Fr. Mullady explains that the

Human sexual potential always involves the generation of the human person and thus as a potency is never merely a biological function. The being which is generated by means of this power and to which human seed is ordered as a final purpose is always a moral being, since man is a composite of body and spiritual soul. This is why any willed disorder regarding the use of sexual potency never admits of parvity (smallness) of matter but is considered always a mortal sin in object.[32]


Concerning the question of whether birth-control can be considered licit when a couple is intending to be responsible in limiting the size of their family, whether for financial reasons, health reasons, or any other reason, Humanae Vitae states,

To this question We must give a clear reply. The Church is the first to praise and commend the application of human intelligence to an activity in which a rational creature such as man is so closely associated with his Creator. But she affirms that this must be done within the limits of the order of reality established by God.[33]


If the married couple deems it necessary and responsible to avoid having children at a particular point, they can do so by observing the natural cycles designed by God so as to not offend or act contrary to what He has established. The reality is that contraception is a rejection of a part of a spouse by the other. Paula Miller writes in an article stating that

To desire the embodied person of others in a healthy and holy way is to desire them body and spirit as they are, in every aspect of who they are, with all the potential of who they are yet to become. It is, above all, never to want them to be less than they are nor to reject any dimension of who they are at this very moment, spiritually or physically. To reject the fertility of one's spouse as "unwanted," or unwanted right now, is to reject his or her capacity, together with oneself, to image the Trinity. To love is to communicate fully one's being to another and to find mutual personal perfection through this communion.[34]


Miller also states that

The divine plan for spouses calls for a generous gift of self, body and spirit, to the other and with the other for yet another, even God ... When a married couple as a true communion of persons makes love, their one flesh intensifies their creation in God's image. When that "one flesh" actually becomes the one flesh of a new, created person, the community of the family gives us a glimpse of the divine community. In their bodily gift to each other, man and woman are a visible expression, a sacred sign of God's inner life of love.[35]


Engaging in contraception is thus as a rejection of natural law and God’s design for marriage, it is a rejection of at least part of the other spouse, and fundamentally a rejection of man’s capacity to be a sign of the love of the Trinity through participation in a communion of persons. This understanding of the communion of persons and complete reception of the gift of the other, is critical for understanding the spousal meaning of the body from the theology of the body. Each spouse is to give of themselves entirely to the other, through their masculinity and femininity, with nothing to be reserved, a complete gift of self. Simultaneously, each spouse is to receive the gift of the other spouse to complete the mutual self-gift of the spouses, and most become a sign of the love of the Trinity.

The encyclical warns of the negative consequences which ensue from engaging in artificial birth control. Those who utilize contraception expose themselves to greater temptations of lusts and infidelity, distorting the marital embrace, turning their spouse from one which they give of themselves to into one whom they use to satisfy or indulge their own passions. Fr. Mullady explains that

Couples have experienced the fact that when they practice contraception, this creates a climate of use and lack of communication. The personal dimension means nothing provided that the parties satisfy their desire for pleasure and so it does not really matter who the partner is in the sexual act. On the other hand, when the couples practice natural family planning, tis increases communication and personal interest because it is based on a moral bond.[36]


Furthermore, as has already been seen in some countries, there becomes a danger of passing power to the civil authorities regarding the artificial control of the fertility of the population they govern.

The Magisterium recognizes that the Church must not only put forward the natural and moral law of God for marriage, but must also provide a means of guidance and support of the faithful in their effort to keep the law. The encyclical proceeds to extol self-discipline and chastity, stating that it is only after one is able to deny oneself, gain mastery over and freedom from ones passions, that the expression of their love can be said to be conformed to right order. The value and virtue of chastity must be promoted and protected.

As the spouses faithfully work and pray for the purification of their passions, and exercise the virtue of chastity, they will more and more put on the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16), and become less attracted towards temptations to lust after and use one another; indeed they will find the thought of such temptations distasteful. The yoke of Christ which they take on by striving to be faithful to God’s plan for marriage will become easy and light (Matthew 11:28-30), and they will no longer be burdened by the yoke of slavery to their passions (Galatians 5:1). Married couples are urged to embrace the law of God in humble obedience, trusting in the graces available to them through the Church, so that the difficulties of marriage may be overcome as they hope in the promise of heaven.[37]


[1] Gaudium et Spes, § 46.

[2] Gaudium et Spes, § 47.

[3] Cormac Burke, “Personalism and the Bona of Marriage,” Studia Canonica 27, no. 2 (1993), 402.

[4] Mauritius Monier, “Exclusion of Bonum Coniugum and Incapacity to Assume the Essential Obligations of Marriage,” Studia Canonica 43, no. 1(2009), 246.

[5] Gaudium et Spes, § 48.

[6] Gaudium et Spes, § 48.

[7] Gaudium et Spes, § 48.

[8] David M. Thomas, “What Makes Marriage a Sacrament,” Family and Community Ministries 22, no. 3 (2008), 7.

[9] Gaudium et Spes, § 49.

[10] Gaudium et Spes, § 49.

[11] Gaudium et Spes, § 49.

[12] Gaudium et Spes, § 24.

[13] Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, trans. H. T. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1981), p. 41.

[14] Gaudium et Spes, § 50.

[15] Gaudium et Spes, § 50.

[16] Gaudium et Spes, § 51.

[17] Gaudium et Spes, § 51.

[18] John Paul II, General Audience (21 November 1979), trans. Waldstein, 10:4, p.169.

[19] Gaudium et Spes, § 52.

[20] Mullady, Christian Social Order, 2732 of 4008.

[21] John Paul II, General Audience (28 April 1982), trans. Waldstein, 80:5, p.438.

[22] John Paul II, General Audience (28 April 1982), trans. Waldstein, 80:6, p.439.

[23] Pope Paul VI, Encyclical on the Regulation of Birth Humanae Vitae (25 July 1968), § 3.

[24] Humanae Vitae, § 8.

[25] Humanae Vitae, § 9.

[26] Humanae Vitae, § 10.

[27] Humanae Vitae, § 11.

[28] Humanae Vitae, § 14.

[29] Joseph A. Selling, “Moral Teaching, Traditional Teaching and Humanae Vitae,” Louvain Studies 7, no 1(1978), 27.

[30] Don S. Browning, “A Natural Law Theory of Marriage,” Zygon 46, no. 3 (2011), 755.

[31] Humanae Vitae, § 16.

[32] Mullady, Christian Social Order, 2599 of 4008.

[33] Humanae Vitae, § 16.

[34] Paula Jean Miller, “The Theology of the Body: A New Look at Humanae Vitae,” Theology Today 57, no. 4 (2001), 507.

[35] Miller, “The Theology of the Body,” 507.

[36] Mullady, Christian Social Order, 2829 of 4008.

[37] Humanae Vitae, § 25.

Chris FernandezChris Fernandez was born and raised in south Florida. Chris studied at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, FL where he obtained a bachelors degree in aerospace engineering. In 2013, Chris received a certification in spiritual direction from Our Lady of Divine Providece, School of Spiritual Direction, in Clearwater, FL. Then in 2019 he received a masters degree in theology, with a concentration in spiritual theology, from Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT. Chris is a lay member of the Home of the Mother, currently living in Jacksonville, FL with his wife and three children.