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Procreation as Primary: A Defense of the Traditional Formulation of the Ends of Marriage

In 1917, the Roman Catholic Church decreed in its Code of Canon Law that “the primary end of marriage is the procreation and nurture of children; its secondary end is mutual help and the remedying of concupiscence.”[1] Almost seven decades later, after significant societal change and an ecumenical council, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, speaking on the same matter, said, “The matrimonial covenant…is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.”[2] Notably, the hierarchical formulation of ends is absent from the 1983 Code. While some have argued that this change indicates a positive shift from an institutional view of marriage to a personalist view, I argue that this stance comes from a faulty premise that procreation is external to conjugal love and somehow imposed by the Church. It sees the spouses as the only relevant persons in the marriage and fails to account for the personhood of the children, who are viewed, intentionally or not, as products and interruptions. In order to better conform to the reality of marriage and avoid ambiguity and confusion, the Catholic Church and the wider Christian community should return to a hierarchical formulation of ends, where the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children, and mutual help and remedium concupiscentiae are the secondary ends.[3]

The hierarchy of ends is rooted in the Christian tradition. Texts from the early and medieval Church discussing marriage as a good or as a sacrament support the hierarchical formulation. Around 401 AD, St. Augustine writes in De bono coniugali: “The Apostle [St. Paul] is a witness to the fact that marriage exists for the sake of generation.”[4] Approximately two centuries later, St. Isidore of Seville asserted that the first reason for taking a wife is to have children.[5] And in keeping with the tradition, St. Thomas Aquinas says in the 13th century, “The end of matrimony is the begetting and upbringing of children: the first of which is attained by conjugal intercourse; the second by the other duties of husband and wife, by which they help one another in rearing their offspring.”[6] In 1880, Pope Leo XIII issued Arcanum Divinae, the first papal encyclical on marriage and the modern world. It reads, “By the command of Christ, [marriage] not only looks to the propagation of the human race, but to the bringing forth of children for the Church.”[7] As before, procreation is the central action of marriage. Fifty years later in Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI writes “Amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place.”[8] However, he did not reject the existence of secondary ends, provided they were properly subordinated to procreation:

For in matrimony…there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.[9]

Procreation as the primary end of marriage was the consistent tradition from apostolic times to the fifth century Church fathers through the thirteenth century scholastics and into the beginning of the twentieth century. However, the 1920s saw a rise in a new school of thought called “Christian personalism.”[10] Within this movement, some theologians recommended that the traditional hierarchical formulation should be abandoned in favor of a non-hierarchical formulation.[11] Others, such as Herbert Doms, completely upended the hierarchy and proposed that the union of the spouses was the primary end of marriage.[12]  However, in 1944, with the support of Pope Pius XII, the Holy Office declared that neither a formulation in which all the ends were equal nor a formulation in which unity was primary could be held.[13] For twenty centuries the Christian community had held that contraception could not be permitted to enter into the matrimonial bond. But as personalism rose and the popularity of the traditional formulation fell, contracepted marital acts were increasingly seen as licit.

In Gaudium et spes, one of the four constitutions of Vatican II, there was a significant shift in theological language away from a hierarchical formulation and towards a non-hierarchical formulation:

Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children…Hence, while not making the other purposes of matrimony of less account, the true practice of conjugal love, and the whole meaning of the family life which results from it, have this aim: that the couple be ready with stout hearts to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Savior…Marriage to be sure is not instituted solely for procreation…[it] persists as a whole manner and communion of life.[14]

While Gaudium et spes did not expressly follow the thinking of Doms in reversing the traditional hierarchy, there was a significant lack of hierarchical grammar in the text. Gaudium et spes was the first indication that the teaching authority of the Church was moving away from the importance of procreation, even while maintaining the Church’s teaching against contraception.[15] However, in Pope St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, released after his own synod on the family, there was a partial return to the hierarchical formulation. Procreation is called the “primary and irreplaceable form of expression” of “the social role of the family.”[16] This return was reversed, however, in the Relatio finalis of the most recent synod on the family: “The unitive end of marriage is a constant reminder that this love grows and deepens. Through their union in love, the couple experiences the beauty of fatherhood and motherhood.”[17] The Relatio finalis reflects the concept that the procreative end is born out of the unitive end, a reordering of the traditional hierarchical formulation, and more in line with the thinking of Herbert Doms than the long theological tradition reflected by the 1944 Holy Office decision.

Additionally, key passages in Amoris Laetitia suggest that the unitive end of marriage is prior to the procreative end. Pope Francis writes, “Marriage is firstly an ‘intimate partnership of life and love’ which is a good for the spouses themselves, while sexuality is ‘ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman.’”[18] Furthermore, the document goes on to claim that the Church has at times focused too much on the procreative end of marriage: “Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation.”[19]

The change from the traditional hierarchical formulation to newer formulations is extremely recent: centuries of Christian theological thought developed a robust hierarchical tradition and theology, which supports the position that procreation is the primary end of marriage. It is out of this tradition that the theology of the husband and wife as ministers of the sacrament was born, as well as the necessity of mutual, free consent to a permanent bond. However, the newer formulations are not just a departure from the tradition. They also carry three significant threats to the traditional Christian understanding of marriage as an indissoluble union between one man and one woman ordered towards the procreation of children.

First, it becomes permissible for spouses to intend to exclude children from a marriage. For example, William La Due, a canon lawyer, argued in 1969 that a couple marrying in their forties who felt that they were not psychologically equipped for parenthood, despite a physical capacity to become parents, validly contracted a marriage. La Due writes:

I, for one, feel that this is not only a valid Christian marriage, but that John and Mary made the more Christian decision. Their decision to enter a communio vitae which would never open out into a full family is for them, I think, the more responsible and hence the more Christian decision.”[20]

Here, children are seen as something extrinsic to the marriage, to be responsibly avoided. The desire for a common life is enough for a valid marriage, and the decision to have children could even be considered “irresponsible” and “un-Christian.”

Julie Hanlon Rubio presents a related problem in her discussion of Gregory Popcak’s “One Rule of Infallible Lovers,” which says that a husband and wife are free to engage in whatever sexual acts they mutually desire as long as sexual intercourse concludes in the normal manner.[21] Rubio criticizes this rule for being overly focused on procreation: “The demand to give one’s fertility in every act overrides personal needs and desires that may draw the couple closer together at a deeper level.”[22] The result of considering unity and procreation as two equal ends, rather than procreation as primary, is a denigration of the procreative aspect of marriage, reducing it to something important, but ultimately optional.

Until the infamous Seventh Lambeth Conference in 1930, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox teaching was unified in its condemnation of contraception. Today, it is not. No major Protestant denomination rejects contraception, though some individual Protestant Christians have decided not to use contraception for various reasons. Most Orthodox communities allow its usage under certain circumstances. Only the Catholic Church still condemns contraception. The late Harold O.J. Brown, formerly of Reformed Theological Seminary, wrote regarding the consequences of the sexual revolution:

Protestants, who once looked with a certain superciliousness at the Pope and his commitment to ‘outmoded values,’ are now forced to contemplate the wreckage of a society in which both the Bible and natural law are scorned. Seul Dieu pardonne vraiment, l’homme pardonne parfois, la nature ne pardonne jamais.[23]

However, an argument against contraception based on the “wreckage” of the sexual revolution is primarily a consequentialist argument, and can be dismissed as post hoc ergo propter hoc. Rather, for those who do not accept the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, the best argument for the necessity of openness to procreation in marriage is the nature of God.

“God is love;” in the Holy Trinity, the Father begets the Son from all eternity, and the Son eternally gives everything He has back to the Father. [24] The love between them is so strong that they spirate forth a third Person — the Holy Spirit. The love of the Father and the Son is necessarily fruitful. Just as the Trinity would be incomplete without the Holy Spirit, the love of a married couple is incomplete when the willingness to engage in fruitful love, the willingness to bring forth children, is excluded.

Finally, a non-hierarchical formulation risks over-romanticizing marriage, making the couples’ search for extraordinary unity in sexual intercourse an essential part of marriage. This is particularly apparent in critiques of Christopher West, a Theology of the Body interpreter: “[Christopher] West’s story [about the transcendent experience of unifying sex] narrates in theological terms the romantic bliss of wedding-night sex. But this is not the heart of marriage.”[25] When romantic bliss is the central aspect of marriage, the objective sacramental bond between the couple becomes pinned on something that is contingent on human emotion. The marriage is only healthy if it is blissful, but bliss is a property of heaven, not earth. A marriage exists for better and for worse and presenting it as finding its greatest fulfillment in an extraordinary yet temporary moment does not prepare couples for the reality of married life.

Critics of the hierarchical formulation allege that the emphasis on the procreative end of marriage detracts from the unitive end and has no regard for the bond of love between the spouses. However, secondary does not mean unimportant; since the primary end is not only procreation but also education, the unity of the spouses is integral to providing the best possible environment for the children. Another critique is that the hierarchical formulation is too impersonal and institutional. One canon law student at The Catholic University of America wrote, “The reason for the relegation of the personal dimension of marriage to such a position was comprehensible in the context of the impersonal contractual and juridical atmosphere of the matrimonial legislation of the 1917 code.”[26] This critique accuses the hierarchical formulation of presenting marriage as a contract, where sex is exchanged for babies, rather than a sacramental covenant. However, this critique ignores the natural fruitfulness of the couple that results from their love — in short, the conception of a child is a normal, natural result of sex, not an external, imposed aspect.

In light of the Church’s continuous teaching and the downfalls seen as a result of abandoning the hierarchical formulation, the Christian community is best served by speaking of the ends of marriage according to the traditional hierarchical formulation, wherein procreation is the primary end. In order to support a healthy marriage theology and to provide the best possible theological context for ecumenical dialogue, the shift in language following Vatican II should be clarified to emphasize that procreation is the primary end of marriage and reinstitute the grammar of the hierarchical formulation, perhaps with added discussion about “secondary” not meaning “non-essential.” By refocusing on children rather than following modernity’s lead and speaking of marriage primarily in terms of the couple’s romantic relationship, the Church can present a fuller picture of marriage to the faithful, the wider Christian community, and the world.

[1] Code of Canon Law/1917, c. 1013, in Theodore Mackin, What Is Marriage? (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1982), 209. “Matrimonii finis primarius est procreatio atque educatio prolis; secundarius mutuum adiutorium et remedium concupiscentiae.”
[2] Code of Canon Law, c. 1055, § 1, in James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green, and Donald E. Heintschel, The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1985), 740. Hereafter abbreviated to CIC.
[3] This will also be referred to as the “hierarchical formulation.”
[4] Augustine, “The Good of Marriage,” in Treatises on Marriage and Other Subjects, ed. Roy J. Deferrari, trans. Charles T. Wilcox (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1999), 48, accessed April 21, 2016,
[5] “Tribus autem ob causis ducitur uxor: prima est causa prolis, de qua legitur in Genesi (1,28): ‘Et benedixit eos,’ dicens: ‘Crescite et multiplicamini’”; Isidore of Seville, Etimologiae, IX.7.27, accessed March 20, 2016,
[6] ST III Q. 29, Art. 2 co.
[7] Pope Leo XIII, Arcanum Diviniae, sec. 10, accessed April 21, 2016,
leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_10021880_arcanum.html.; hereafter abbreviated to AD.
[8] Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii [On Christian Marriage], sec. 11, accessed April 21, 2016,
content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_19301231_casti-connubii.html.; hereafter abbreviated to CC.
[9] CC, 59.
[10] Cormac Burke, The Theology of Marriage: Personalism, Doctrine, and Canon Law (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2015), 43, accessed January 28, 2016,
[11] Burke, The Theology of Marriage, 51.
[12] Ibid., 52.
[13] “‘An admitti possit quorundam recentiorum sententia, qui vel negant finem primarium matrimonii esse prolis generationem et educationem, vel docent fines secundarios fini primario non esse essentialiter subordinatos, sed esse aeque principales et independentes’; respondendum decreverunt: Negative.”; Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, “Decretum: De Finibus Matrimonii,” 103.
[14] Second Vatican Council, “Gaudium et Spes [Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World],” sec. 50, in The Vatican Collection: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, vol. 1 (Northport, NY: Costello, 1996).; hereafter abbreviated to GS.
[15] Or at the very least not rejecting it, as Pope Paul VI, not the Council, wrote Humanae Vitae.
[16] Pope John Paul II, Familiaris consortio [The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World], (November 22, 1981), sec. 44 (Boston, MA: St. Paul Books & Media, 1993).; Hereafter abbreviated to FC.
[17] Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, Relatio finalis [The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World], sec. 49-50, accessed April 21, 2016,
relazione-finale-xiv-assemblea_en.html.; emphasis added; hereafter abbreviated to RF.
[18] Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia [The Joy of Love], sec. 80, accessed April 8, 2016,
apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia_en.pdf.; Internal citations omitted. Hereafter abbreviated to AL.
[19] AL, 36.
[20] William J. La Due, “The Ends of Marriage,” The Jurist 29, no. 4 (October 1969): 426, accessed March 20, 2016,
[21] Julie Hanlon Rubio, “The Practice of Sex in Christian Marriage,” in Leaving and Coming Home: New Wineskins for Catholic Sexual Ethics, ed. David Cloutier (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 239n.; A critique of Rubio’s critique should not be taken for approval of Popcak’s rule.
[22] Rubio, “The Practice of Sex in Christian,” in Leaving and Coming Home, 239n.
[23] Harold O.J. Brown et al., “Contraception: A Symposium,” First Things, no. 88 (December 1998): 18, PDF. Translation: “God alone truly pardons, man sometimes pardons, nature never pardons.”
[24] 1 John 4:8
[25] David Cloutier and William C. Mattison, III, “Bodies Poured Out in Christ: Marriage beyond Theology of the Body,” in Leaving and Coming Home: New Wineskins for Catholic Sexual Ethics, ed. David Cloutier (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 218.
[26] Guy Casseus, Ends of Marriage: A Comparison of the 1917 and the 1983 Codes (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 2001), 12.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. 2nd Rev. ed. London, UK: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1920. Accessed April 24, 2016.
Augustine. “The Good of Marriage.” In Treatises on Marriage and Other Subjects, 3-51. Edited by Roy J. Deferrari. Translated by Charles T. Wilcox. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1999. Accessed April 21, 2016.
Brown, Harold O.J., J. Budziszewski, Charles J. Chaput, Eric Chevlen, Sarah E. Hinlicky, Gilbert Meilaender, Philip Turner, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., and Alicia Mosier. “Contraception: A Symposium.” First Things, no. 88 (December 1998): 17-29. PDF.
Burke, Cormac. The Theology of Marriage: Personalism, Doctrine, and Canon Law. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2015. Accessed January 28, 2016.
Casseus, Guy. Ends of Marriage: A Comparison of the 1917 and the 1983 Codes. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 2001.
Cloutier, David, and William C. Mattison, III. “Bodies Poured Out in Christ: Marriage beyond Theology of the Body.” In Leaving and Coming Home: New Wineskins for Catholic Sexual Ethics, edited by David Cloutier, 206-25. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010.
Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. Relatio Finalis [The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World]. Vatican Website. October 24, 2015. Accessed April 21, 2016.
La Due, William J. “The Ends of Marriage.” The Jurist 29, no. 4 (October 1969): 424-27. Accessed March 20, 2016.
Mackin, Theodore. What Is Marriage? New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1982.
McCarthy, David Matzko. Sex and Love in the Home: A Theology of the Household. 2nd ed. London, UK: SCM Press, 2004.
Of Seville, Isidore. Etimologiae. Accessed March 20, 2016.
Pope Francis. Amoris Laetitia [The Joy of Love]. Vatican Website. April 8, 2016. Accessed April 8, 2016.
Pope John Paul II. Familiaris Consortio [The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World]. November 22, 1981. Boston, MA: St. Paul Books & Media, 1993.
Pope Leo XIII. Arcanum Divinae. Vatican Website. February 10, 1880. Accessed April 21, 2016.
Pope Pius XI. Casti Connubii [On Christian Marriage]. Vatican Website. December 31, 1930. Accessed April 21, 2016.
Rubio, Julie Hanlon. “The Practice of Sex in Christian Marriage.” In Leaving and Coming Home: New Wineskins for Catholic Sexual Ethics, edited by David Cloutier, 226-49. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010.
Second Vatican Council. Gaudium et spes [Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World]. December 7, 1965. In Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, edited by Austin Flannery. New rev. ed. Northport, NY: Costello, 1998.