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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



Long ago St. Augustine distinguished three cardinal goods of marriage: the bonum prolis, or the good of offspring who are to be begotten lovingly, nurtured humanely, and educated religiously; the bonum fidei, or the good of steadfast fidelity between husband and wife; and the bonum sacramenti, which entails both the sacramentum vinculum or holy bond of indissoluble unity and the sacramentum signum, a good found only in Christian marriages and the good of the sacrament in the strict sense as the good pointing to and inwardly participating in Christ’s bridal union with his spouse, the Church. [1] Subsequent Catholic tradition made these goods its own, constantly affirming them; in fact, Pope Pius XI structured his 1930 encyclical Casti connubii around these three Augustinian goods. [2] These goods are quite familiar, and much theological literature has been devoted to them. [3]

Among these goods we do not find the “good of the spouses” (the bonum coniugum). Nonetheless, the very first canon on marriage in the 1983 Code of Canon Law declares: “the matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership for the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring,” [4] and the Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirms this in its opening number devoted to the sacrament of matrimony. [5] Thus the Church today identifies as the principal ends of marriage both the procreation and education of children and what she calls the “good of the spouses,” the bonum coniugum, and in fact the Church names this end first.

The expression “good of the spouses,” however, is very recent and was first used to designate an end of marriage in the revised Code of Canon Law in 1983. It was not explicitly identified as such either by Vatican Council II [6] or by Pope John Paul II in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio, which he himself has described as a “summa” of Church teaching on marriage and the family. [7] Nor have theologians given much thought to the meaning of this good. [8] Canon lawyers, however, have debated its meaning to considerable extent. In fact, a doctoral study in canon law by Dominic Kimengich offers a helpful summary, analysis, and critique of the positions taken by canon lawyers regarding the nature of the bonum coniugum. [9] Kimengich offers a tentative formulation of the essential content of this good. According to him it consists in

the growth and maturing of the spouses as persons, through the aids, comforts, and consolations, but also through the demands and hardships, of conjugal life, when lived according to God’s plan. The full view of the scope and content of the “good of the spouses” emerges when we recall that the spouses are called to eternal life, which is the one definitive bonum of the spouses. [10]

Kimengich here suggests that the bonum coniugum is, in the last analysis, found in the sanctification of the spouses. I believe that this is true, and thus I will try to show that the "good of the spouses" ultimately consists in the holiness that husbands and wives are meant to attain precisely in and through their married life, and that the teaching of Pope Pius XI in his 1930 encyclical Casti connubii is central in understanding this. I will then consider the means, i.e., the human acts, that spouses must choose in order to achieve this primary and essential end of marriage, considering as well the indispensable conditions needed if spouses are to be capable of choosing these means. The principal conditions, I believe, are the sexual complementarity of husband and wife, their mutual respect for one another, and the virtue of fidelity required to overcome the inevitable difficulties that they encounter and the contribution that overcoming these difficulties makes to the attainment of the "good of the spouses." I will conclude with the beautiful "marriage exhortation" used in the United States prior to Vatican Council II, insofar as I consider this to be an eloquent description of what the “good of the spouses” entails.

The Vocation to Holiness and the “Good of the Spouses”

To show the intimate, indeed essential bond between the “good of the spouses” and the vocation of husband and wife to holiness precisely insofar as they are husband and wife, it is imperative to consult the “sources” for canon 1055, where the “good of the spouses” was first identified as an essential end of marriage. The Pontifical Commission for the Interpretation of the Code in its annotated version of the new Code in 1989 enumerated these sources; in my opinion the most central of these, as noted already, is the teaching of Pius XI in Casti connubii. [11] But before looking at the thought of Pius XI, however, let us look at the other sources the Commission identified. Three are passages from Vatican Council II, and these passages are also very important in showing that the “good of the spouses” ultimately consists in their sanctification. The first is the chapter of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church devoted to the theme, “The Universal Call to Holiness”; [12] the second is from the same Constitution identifying marriage as a specific vocation to holiness; [13] and the third is found in the Council’s presentation of the dignity of marriage and the family in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, where it declared that husbands and wives “increasingly further their own perfection and their mutual sanctification” by fulfilling their conjugal and family roles. [14]

Another source is a passage from Pope Pius XII’s 1951 Address to the Italian Union of Midwives in which he spoke of the “personal perfecting of the spouses” as a “secondary end” of marriage. [15] Finally, the Commission referred to the passage in Pius XI’s Casti connubii, where he declared that married love “demands not only mutual aid but must have as its primary purpose (emphasis added) that man and wife help each other day by day in forming and perfecting themselves in the interior life (emphasis in original), so that through their partnership in life they may advance ever more and more in virtue, and above all that they may grow in true love toward God and their neighbor.” [16] I believe that this statement of Pius XI, together with one immediately following it, is the major source of the teaching that the "good of the spouses" is an essential end of marriage.

Surprisingly, the Pontifical Commission did not call attention to the paragraph in Casti connubii immediately following this citation. This is surprising because this text is of utmost importance in understanding the bonum coniugum as an end of marriage and how this end is intrinsically related to the spouses' vocation to holiness precisely as spouses. In it Pope Pius XI declared:

[t]his inward molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, as the Roman Catechism teaches, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof. [17]

The text of Roman Catechism (popularly known as The Catechism of the Council of Trent) to which Pius refers reads as follows: “the first reason to marry is the instinctive mutual attraction of the two sexes to form a stable companionship of the two persons, as a basis for mutual happiness and help amid the trials of life extending even to sickness and old age.” [18] Comparing this text with Pius's statement, we can see that the pope has in reality provided us with a gloss, and a most important one, on this text. I think that from what has been said thus far we can conclude that Pius XI is here, in effect, speaking of what the 1983 Code will call the ”good of the spouses," and that he identifies it as an  end of marriage. Pius XI clearly shows that this end consists in the endeavor of the spouses, rooted in their unique and exclusive love for one another, to help each other perfect themselves and grow in holiness. In short, a married person's path to the holiness God wants him to have has a name: his or her spouse.

The Means Spouses Must Choose In Order To Achieve the “Good of the Spouses” and The Indispensable Conditions Required for Engaging in These Means

If the spouses are to attain the “good of the spouses,” a primary end toward which their marriage is by its very nature ordered and to which they commit themselves when they marry, they must choose the means necessary for attaining that end. These means are the human acts that spouses are supposed to freely choose, i.e., the acts “proper and exclusive” to spouses. And to be able to do these things indispensable conditions are required. Here I will first consider the human acts that spouses must freely choose as means of attaining the “good of the spouses,” then the indispensable conditions required if they are to choose these means.

The means necessary: the acts “proper and exclusive” to spouses

These acts are the following: (1) freely to choose to “give” themselves to one another and to “receive” on another, i.e., to give and received conjugal or marital love; (2) freely to choose to engage in the conjugal or marital act; and (3) freely to choose to cooperate with God in giving life to new human persons and to “welcome that life lovingly, nurture it humanely, and educate it in the love of service of God and neighbor.”

1. “Giving” and “receiving” one another: conjugal love

An act necessary as a chosen means for attaining the “good of the spouses: is the act whereby husbands and wives “give” themselves to one another and “receive” one another so that they become “one.” In fact, a man and a woman establish their marriage only when, forswearing all others, they freely choose to “consent” to marry one another. Through this act of “irrevocable personal consent,” [19] they “give” themselves to each other and “receive” one another and by doing so make themselves to be husband and wife, spouses. They freely give to themselves a new identity: this man becomes this woman’s husband, and this woman becomes this man’s husband and together they become spouses. In short, by irrevocably “giving” themselves to one another and “receiving” one another in marriage, a man and a woman capacitate themselves to do what married persons are supposed to do, and first of all to give and receive conjugal or marital love, which is unique and proper to spouses. [20] Moreover, through this act they commit themselves to “give and receive” one another throughout their entire married lives.

2. Choosing to engage in the conjugal or marital act as unitive

Non-married men and woman can choose to engage in genital sex, but they cannot choose to engage in the conjugal act. Genital sex between non-married men and women is not an act that unites two irreplaceable and non-substitutable persons, but is rather an act that simply joins two persons who are in principle replaceable, substitutable, and disposable. The conjugal or marital act, on the contrary, unites two persons who are irreplaceable, non-substitutable, and non-disposable. And the reason why these persons, husbands and wives, are such is that they have freely chosen to make each other irreplaceable, non-substitutable, and non-disposable by irrevocably “giving” and “receiving” one another in marriage. This shows that the marital act is not simply a genital act between a man and a woman who happen to be married. It is in truth an act that inwardly participates in their marital union; it is an act of “giving” and “receiving.” It is an act honoring the “unitive” meaning of human sexuality.

3. Choosing to engage in the conjugal act as procreative

Non-married men and women have the natural capacity, by virtue of their sexuality and endowment with sexual organs, to engage in genital sex and through it to generate human life. But they do not have the capacity to generate human life lovingly, nourish it humanely, and educate it in the love and service of God and neighbor, as St. Augustine so well expressed matters centuries ago. [21] They do not have this capacity because they have failed to choose to choose to make themselves fit to give new human life the home to which it has right, the home where it can take root and grow as God wants it to grow. [21] But husbands and wives, precisely because they have irrevocably given themselves to one another in marriage, have made themselves fit for this noble task. Pope Paul VI brought this out beautifully in his Enyclical Humanae vitae when he wrote:  “because of its intrinsic nature the conjugal act, while uniting husband and wife in the most intimate of bonds, also makes them fit [eos idoneos facit] to bring forth new life according to the laws written in their very nature as male and female” (no. 12, par. 2). In other words, husbands and wives, by irrevocably giving and receiving one another in marriage have capacitated themselves to honor the unitive and procreative meanings of human sexuality and the conjugal act; they have made themselves, obviously with God’s help, to use the means necessary for attaining the “good of the spouses.”

The Church (cf. canon 1055, par. 1 and The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no.  1601) recognizes that the procreation and education of children is an end of marriage distinct from the end identified as the “good of the spouses.” Nonetheless, the two ends are inherently interrelated. Openness to the end of procreating and educating children is essential if spouses are to attain the “good of the spouses.” This is true even of couples who are naturally sterile. When such couples unite in the conjugal act, they do nothing to “close” it to the gift of new human life. Their conjugal act is and remains the kind of human act “per se” apt for the generation of human life according to laws inscribed into the very being of man and woman.

I now turn to consider the indispensable condition making it possible for spouses to “give” and “receive” one another.

The indispensable conditions required if husbands and wives are to engage in the means necessary to attain the “good of the spouses.”

These are their sexual complementarity and the virtue of fidelity which includes “respect” for the personhood of the spouses.

1. The Sexual Complementarity of Husband and Wife

Husbands and wives, while equal in their dignity as persons, are complementary in their sexuality, and I will explore the nature of this complementarity—obviously a vast topic [22] -- it is this complementarity that enables them to “give” themselves to one another and to “receive” one another and to carry out responsibilities as spouses and parents. in light of John Paul II’s “theology of the body.” [23]

A. The Nuptial Meaning of the Body and the “Gift” of the Man Person to the Female Person and Vice Versa

John Paul II, reflecting on the first man’s cry of joy on awakening from the “sleep” into which the Lord God had cast him and discovering the woman who had been fashioned from his rib, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh…” (Gn 2.24), declares that these words express “the subjectively beatifying beginning of man’s existence in the world” (14.4). Man now emerges, the Holy Father continues,

in the dimension of the mutual gift, the expression of which—and for that very reason the expression of his existence as a person—is the human body in all the original truth of its masculinity and femininity…. Masculinity-femininity—namely sex—is the original sign of a creative donation and of an awareness on the part of man, male-female, of a gift lived so to speak in an original way. Such is the meaning with which sex enters the theology of the body. That beatifying “beginning” of man’s being and existing, as male and female, is connected with the revelation and discovery of the meaning of the body, which can be called “nuptial” (14.3-4).

In short, the male’s body, precisely because of its sexual character, its masculinity, is a sign of the gift of the male person to the female person and vice versa. This nuptial meaning, moreover, is intimately linked to the “blessing of fertility.” “Genesis 2.24,” John Paul says, “speaks of the finality of man’s masculinity and femininity in the life of the spouses-parents. Uniting with each other so closely as to become ‘one flesh,’ they will subject, in a way, their humanity to the blessing of fertility, namely, ‘procreation, of which the first narrative speaks (Gn 1.28)” (14.6). In addition, the pope continues,

The human body, with its sex, and its masculinity and femininity seen in the very mystery of creation…includes right “from the beginning” the “nuptial” attribute, that is, the capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the man-person becomes a gift and—by means of this gift—fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence….it is indispensable that man may be able to “give himself,” in order that he may become a gift, in order that he will be able to “fully discover his true self” in a “sincere giving of himself” [see Gaudium et spes, 24] (15.1-2).

John Paul II himself develops the meaning of “gift” in later cycles of his addresses, in particular those devoted to the meaning of marriage as a sacrament. I will not here go into detail by presenting John Paul II’s further developments of the meaning of “gift.” It is, however, most important to reflect on (i) a passage exceptionally significant for showing the “complementarity” of male and female precisely as “gifts” to each other in their bodily, sexual union, and (ii) on the way he shows that openness to the gift of fertility and to motherhood and fatherhood deepen the body’s nuptial meaning.

A passage I consider of special importance for understanding how male and female complement each other as “gifts” (i) is the following:

If the woman, in the mystery of creation, is the one who was ‘given’ to the man, the latter, on his part, in receiving her as a gift in the full truth of her person and femininity, thereby enriches her, and at the same time he, too, is enriched. The man is enriched not only through her, who gives him her own person and femininity, but also through the gift of himself. The man’s giving of himself, in response to that of the woman, is an enrichment of himself. In fact, there is in it, as it were, the specific essence of his masculinity, which, through the reality of the body and of sex, reaches the deep recesses of the “possession of self,” thanks to which he is capable both of giving himself and of receiving the other’s gift.  The man, therefore, not only accepts the gift, but at the same time is received as a gift by the woman, in the revelation of the interior spiritual essence of his masculinity, together with the whole truth of his body and sex….Subsequently, this acceptance, in which the man finds himself again through the “sincere gift of himself,” becomes in him the source of a new and deeper enrichment of the woman. The exchange is mutual, and in it the reciprocal effects of the “sincere gift” and of the “finding oneself again,” are revealed and grow (17.6; emphasis added).

I have emphasized the passage in which the pope says that the specific essence of man’s masculinity enables him to give himself and to receive the other’s gift. I do so because I believe that this passage show that John Paul II, while recognizing that both the male person and the woman person are called to “give” and to “receive,” suggests that the man is the one who emphatically gives in a receiving way, whereas the woman is the one who emphatically receives in a giving way. [24]

This can be illustrated if we reflect on the conjugal or spousal act, whereby husband and wife literally become “one flesh,” as a “giving” and a “receiving.”

            In the marital act husband and wife "give" themselves to one another and "receive" one another. Yet they do so in strikingly different and complementary ways, for it is an act made possible precisely by reason of their sexual differences and the nuptial meaning of the body. The wife does not have a penis; therefore, in this act of marital union she cannot enter the body, the person, of her husband, whereas he can and does personally enter into her body-person. He gives himself to her and by doing so he receives her. On the other hand, she is uniquely capable of receiving her husband personally into her body, her self, and in so doing she gives herself to him. The wife's receiving of her husband in a giving sort of way is just as essential to the unique meaning of this act as is her husband's giving of himself to her in a receiving sort of way. The husband cannot, in this act, give himself to his wife unless she gives herself to him by receiving him, nor can she receive him in this self-giving way unless he gives himself to her in this receiving way. [25] As the philosopher Robert Joyce says, "the man does not force himself upon the woman, but gives himself in a receiving manner. The woman does not simply submit herself to the man, but receives him in a giving manner." [26]

Moreover, the God whom male and female image in complementary ways is both transcendent, the “wholly other,” the superabundant giver of good gifts, and 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.”

I will return to this asymmetrical complementarity of male and female later, in considering their distinctive roles as mothers and fathers. But first I want to call attention to some texts in which John Paul II shows how openness to fertility and to motherhood and fatherhood deepen our understanding of the “nuptial meaning” of the body and male-female complementarity.

In Genesis 4.1-2 we read: “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.’ And again, she bore his brother Abel (Gn 4.1-2). Commenting on this text John Paul II affirms that the “knowledge” spoken of by Genesis 4.1 reveals to us both the mystery of both femininity and masculinity. The pope brings this out very clearly:

 According to Genesis 4.1 the one who knows is the man, and the one who is known is the woman-wife, as if the specific determination of the woman, through her own body and sex, hid what constitutes the very depth of her femininity….It should be noted that in the ‘knowledge’ of which Genesis 4.1 speaks, the mystery of femininity is manifested and revealed completely by means of motherhood….The woman stands before the man as a mother, the subject of the new human life that is conceived and develops within her, and from her is born into the world. Likewise, the mystery of man’s masculinity, that is, the generative and ”fatherly” meaning of his body, is also thoroughly revealed (21.2; emphasis added).

To put matters another way, the conjugal act, through which husband and wife become literally one flesh when the husband gives himself to his wife in a receiving way and she receives him in a giving way, opens the spouses up to the gift of fertility and to a new revelation of the mystery of their complementary sexuality, namely, their capacity for motherhood and fatherhood.

B. Spouses as mothers and fathers

Among the means necessary if spouses are to attain the “good of the spouses” is their responsible exercise of motherhood and fatherhood.

The complementary differences of men and women noted already are manifested in their social behavior, as numerous studies point out. [27] 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.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reflecting on the truth that women are oriented toward caring for persons and their needs, offers a helpful insight women’s sexuality and the importance of feminine values for the life of society. In its “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World” it declared:

Among the fundamental values linked to women’s actual lives is what has been called a “capacity for the other.”…This intuition is linked to women’s physical capacity to give life. Whether lived out or remaining potential, this capacity is a reality that structures the female personality in a profound way. It allows her to acquire maturity very quickly, and gives a sense of the seriousness of life and its responsibilities. A sense and a respect for what is concrete develop within her, opposed to abstractions which are so often fatal for the existence of individuals and society. It is women, in the end, who even in very desperate situations, as attested by history past and present, possess a singular capacity to persevere in adversity, to keep life going even in extreme situations, to hold tenaciously to the future, and finally to remember with tears the value of every human life. [28]

These tendencies are reflected in their roles within the family, as we can see by considering the woman as mother and the man as father, following John Paul II’s lead.

I. Woman as mother

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.” [29] The mother, the Pope says elsewhere,

…accepts and loves as a person the child she is carrying in her womb. This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude toward human beings—not only towards her own child but every human being—which profoundly marks the woman’s personality. It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man—even with his sharing in parenthood—always remains “outside” the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own “fatherhood” from the mother… [30]

Note how, in motherhood, the woman’s sexuality as a “receiving in a giving way” and as symbolizing the withinness of being and God as the “ocean depth of happy rest” is manifested. She receives the child in a giving way and her body is, as it were, the ocean depth of happy rest where the child finds his or her first home. 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 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.” [31]

II. 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.” [32] A father, as Pope John Paul II himself notes in a passage cited above (Mulieris dignitatem, 18) has to “learn his own ‘fatherhood’”—and, he says, he learns this from the mother, and, I would add, from his own father.  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.

The husband-father, John Paul II emphasizes, has the glorious mission of “revealing and reliving on earth the very Fatherhood of God” (cf. Eph 3.15), and as such has a leadership role in the family insofar as he is “called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family.” [33] His own masculinity serves to prepare him to do so. He is to give himself in a receiving way both to his wife and to his children, and as the one who must make himself welcome into the communion of mother and child he is the one who should be the wellspring of the joy of life.

Moreover, as we have seen already, 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.” [34]

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 friendships, 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.

Overcoming Marital Difficulties Contributes to the “Good of the Spouses”: The Need for Fidelity and Respect

In a memorable and very wise passage Pope Pius XII nicely articulated one major key to happiness in marriage. This Pontiff declared that

Some would like to maintain that happiness in married life is in direct ratio to the mutual enjoyment of marital relations. This is not so. On the contrary, happiness in married life is in direct ratio to the respect that husband and wife have for each other, even in the intimate act of marriage. Not that they should regard what nature offers them and God has given them as immoral and refuse it, but because the respect and mutual esteem which arise from it are one of the strongest elements of a love which is all the more pure because it is the more tender. [35]

Mutual respect is central to happiness in marriage to achieving the bonum coniugum. Nothing 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 and the "good of the spouses" require this mutual respect.

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. This is one of the basic ingredients of the "good of the spouses." Fidelity in marriage is analogous to the virtue of theological faith. That virtue, as Germain Grisez has said, “is 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.” [36]

 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. [37]

But fidelity endures when romantic love, which tends to idealize the beloved and to blind oneself to his or her human failings and is far different from authentic conjugal love, dies. Fidelity in marriage, a key to its happiness and central to the "good of the spouses," 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.” [38]

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. [39]

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. I think it eloquently speaks to us of the "good" that the Church now identifies as the "good of the spouses."

Dear Friends in Christ:

As you know, you are about to enter into a union which is most sacred and most serious, a union which was established by God himself. By it he gave man a share in the greatest work of creation, the work of the continuation of the human race. And in this way he sanctified human love and enabled man and woman to help each other live as children of God, by sharing a common life under his fatherly care.

Because God himself is thus its author, marriage is of its very nature a holy institution, requiring of those who enter into it a complete and unreserved giving of self. But Christ our Lord added to the holiness of marriage an even deeper meaning and a higher beauty. He referred to the love of marriage to describe his own love for his Church, that is, for the people of God whom he redeemed by his own blood. And so he gave to Christians a new vision of what married life ought to be, a life of self-sacrificing love like his own. It is for this reason that his apostle, St. Paul, clearly states that marriage is now and for all times to be considered a great mystery, intimately bound up with the supernatural union of Christ and the Church, which union is also to be its pattern.

The union is most serious, because it will bind you together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate that it will profoundly influence your whole future. That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life and are to be expected in your own. And so, not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death.

Truly, then, these words are most serious. It is a beautiful tribute to your undoubted faith in each other, that, recognizing their full import, you are nevertheless so willing and ready to pronounce them. And because these words involve such solemn obligations, it is most fitting that you rest the security of your wedded life upon the great principle of self-sacrifice. And so you begin your married life by the voluntary and complete surrender of your individual lives in the interest of that deeper and wider life which you are to have in common. Henceforth, you belong entirely to each other; you will be one in mind, one in heart, and one in affections.

And whatever sacrifices you may hereafter be required to make to preserve this common life, always make them generously. Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And when love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, and the Son so loved us that he gave himself for our salvation. “Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends.”

No greater blessing can come to your married life than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end. May, then, this love with which you join your hands and hearts today never fail, but grow deeper and stronger as the years go on. And if true love and the unselfish spirit of perfect sacrifice guide your every action, you can expect the greatest measure of earthly happiness that may be allotted to man in this vale of tears. The rest is in the hands of God. Nor will God be wanting to your needs; he will pledge you the life-long support of his graces in the holy sacrament which you are now going to receive.


1. St. Augustine developed his teaching on the threefold good of marriage principally in his De bono coniugali, De nuptiis et concupiscentia, De genesi ad literam.

2. On this see Ramón García de Haro, Marriage and the Family in the Documents of the Magisterium: A Course in the Theology of Marriage, trans. William E. May (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), pp. 118-129.

3. A helpful essay on this point is Augustine Reagan, C.Ss.R., “The Perennial Value of St. Augustine’s Theology of the Goods of Marriage,” Studia Moralia (1981) 351-377.

4. Code of Canon Law, canon 1055, par. 1.

5. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1601.

6. Vatican Council II did use the expression “good of the spouses” in Gaudium et spes, no. 48, but not in the sense of an end of marriage. In no. 48 it declared: “for the good of the spouses, of the children, and of society, this sacred bond [sacrum vinculum] no longer depends on human decision alone.”

7. John Paul II, Addess “Ringrazio anzitutto a la Curia Romana,” December 22, 1981, in Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, 4/2 (1981) 1215-1216.

8. In fact, the expression “good of the spouses” (bonum coniugum) is not even mentioned in the following very excellent works on marriage, faithful to the Magisterium,  published after the publication of the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law: Peter Elliott, What God Has Joined: The Sacramentality of Marriage (New York: Alba House, 1989); Agostino Sarmiento, El Matrimonio (Pamplona: EUNSA, 1998), Francisco Gil Hellin, El Matrimonio y la Vida Conyugal (Valencia: Edicep C.B., 1995); Germain Grisez, Chapter 8. “Marriage and Sexual Acts,” in his Living a Christian Life, a book-length treatment of marriage in vol. 2 of his The Way of the Lord Jesus (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1993), pp. 553-751; Ramón García de Haro, Marriage and Family in the Documents of The Magisterium. Some theologians, e.g., Antonio Miralles, identify the “good of the spouses” with the old good of “mutual assistance” and discuss it only very briefly. See his El Matrimonio (Pamplona: EUNSA, 1993), p. 102. This view, however, is hardly correct. Dominic Kimengich and Cormac Burke offer serious criticism of this opinion, also championed by many canonists.

9. Dominic Kimengich, The Bonum Coniugum: A Canonical Appraisal (Romae: Pontificium Athenaeum Sanctae Crucis, 1997).

10. Ibid, p. 204. Kimengich’s thesis was directed by Cormac Burke, a canonist and theologian who has himself written extensively and well on the meaning of the “good of the spouses.” See, for example, the following essays by Burke: “The Bonum Coniugum and the Bonum Prolis: Ends or Properties of Marriage?” The Jurist 49 (1989) 704-713; “Personalism and the Bona of Marriage,” Studia Canonica 27 (1993) 401-412; “Marriage: A Personalist or an Institutional Understanding?” Communio 19 (1992) 278-304.

11. Pontificia Commissio per Interpretationem Codicis Iuris Canonici, Codex Iuris Canonici (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1989).

12. See Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, chapter 5, nos. 39-42.

13. “Christian spouses help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in the accepting and rearing of their children.” Ibid, no. 11; cf. no. 41.

14. Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, no. 48. See also the Council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, no. 11.

15. Pope Pius XII, Address to the Italian Union of Midwives,” October 29, 1951; text in Official Catholic Teachings: Love and Sexuality, ed. Odile Liebard (Wilmington, NC: McGrath Publishing Co., 1978), p.116. AAS 43 (1951) 848-849.

16. Pius XI, Encyclical Casti connubii, no. 23, in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 22 (1930) 548.

17. Ibid, no. 24. In the official English text of Casti connubii no reference to the Roman Catechism is given. The Latin text, however, refers to Catechismus Romanus, Part II, chap. VIII, 13; AAS 22 (1930) 548.

18. The Roman Catechism, trans. Eugene Kevane and Robert Bradley, S.J. (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1993), p. 323; emphasis added.

19. On this see Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, no. 48; Code of Canon Law, canon 1055.

20. On the role of conjugal love in establishing the marriage and in its living out see Ramón García de Haro, Marriage and Family in the Documents of the Magisterium, trans. William E. May (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), pp. 234-255, and Francisco Gil Hellin, “El lugar propio del amor conyugal en la estructura del matrimonio segun Gaudium et spes,Annales Valentinos, 6.11 (1980) 1-35.

21. On this see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, Book III, ch. 122, “Why Simple Fornication Is a Sin and Why Marriage Is Natural.”

22. 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). I owe much to the treatment of this issue by Robert Joyce, Human Sexual Ecology: A Philosophy of Man and Woman (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1976). David L. Schindler offers an analysis of male-female complementarity inspired by Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology in “Catholic Theology, Gender, and the Future of Western Civilization,” Communio 20(1993) 200-239, and Angelo Cardinal Scola provides a much more ample view rooted in Balthasar in The Nuptial Mystery, trans. Michelle Borras (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), Part One, Man and Woman. Forthcoming. Other helpful discussions are those of Mary Timothy Prokes, Toward a Theology of the Body (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), Walter Ong, Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981).

23. John Paul II presented his “theology of the body” in a series of Wednesday audiences from September 5, 1979 through November 28, 1984. These addresses, divided into six cycles, were published in English originally in four separate volumes: 1. Cycle One was published as Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechesis on the Book of Genesis (1981); Cycle Two as Blessed Are the Pure of Heart: Catechesis on the Sermon on the Mount and the Teaching of St. Paul (1983); 3. Cycles Three, Four, and Five as The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy (1986); and 4. Cycle Six as Reflections on Humanae Vitae (1985). All four of these volumes were published by the Daughters of St. Paul in Boston. All six cycles were later published by the Daughters of St. Paul as Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1998), with an introduction by John Grabowski. The one-volume edition, unfortunately, does not include the paragraph numbers found in the original Italian text and in the four-volume English edition. Here I will have need of only the addresses in the First Cycle, found in Original Unity of Man and Woman because it is in this cycle that John Paul II takes up male-female complementarity. I will refer to texts of John Paul II by giving the number of the Audience, followed by a period and then the relevant paragraph number. Thus 2.3 refers to the second Address found in Original Unity of Man and Woman, number 3.

24. On this see Robert Joyce, Human Sexual Ecology: A Philosophy and Ethics  of Man and Woman (Washington, D.C.: University Press of  America, 1980), pp. 67-71; William E. May, "Marriage and the Complementarity of Male and Female," Anthropotes: Rivista di Studi sulla Persona e la Famiglia 8.1 (June 1992) 41-60. A shorter version of this essay was published as chapter two of May’s Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family Is Based (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995), pp. 39-66, at pp. 50-54.

25. When nonmarried males and females engage in sexual coition, they do not "give" themselves to each other or "receive" each other. Their act in no way expresses and symbolizes personal union precisely because they have refused to give and receive each other unconditionally as persons. In genital union, such individuals do not make a "gift" of themselves to each other; rather, they use each other as means to attain subjectivistically determined ends.

26. Robert E. Joyce, Human Sexual Ecology: A Philosophy and Ethics of Man and Woman (Washington: University Press of America, 1980), pp. 70-71.

27. 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).

28. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World,” n. 13.

29. 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.”

30. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem, 18.

31. John W. Miller, Biblical Faith and Fathering: Why We Call God “Father” (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), p. 57.

32. Peter J. Wilson, Man, the Promising Primate: The Conditions of Human Evolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), p. 71.

33. John Paul II, Apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio, 25.

34. Benedict Ashley, O.P.,  “Moral Theology and Mariology,” Anthropotes: Rivista di studi sulla persona e la famiglia 7 (1991), 140.

35. Pope Pius XII, “Address to Italian Union of Midwives” (October 29, 1951).

36. 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.

37. Ibid., p. 5.

38. Ibid., p. 7.

39. On this see Grisez, Living a Christian Life, pp. 620-622.

Copyright ©; William E. May 2004

Version: 3rd October 2004

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