Catholic Truth Society Postal Course #19: Married Life, by Father Herbert C Fincham

When explaining the Commandments, the point was made that these laws are not mere arbitrary rules made up by God but are the Maker’s instructions for the best running of His creation. Hence it follows that when God has clearly attached pleasure to certain human appetites, such as eating and drinking, as an incentive to induce men to fulfill the essential purpose of these appetites, which we might otherwise be tempted to neglect, it is outrageous for a man to seek that pleasure when he deliberately takes steps to make the fulfillment of the natural purpose of an appetite impossible. This is the essential evil of the old Roman orgy that is described later and of all sins which give the sexual pleasure while rendering procreation impossible. The evil is not due to the impossibility of the procreation, for this may happen from natural causes in married people, who are not thereby forbidden to have marriage intercourse, but the sin is in using means to get sexual pleasure which make this natural end of it impossible. This is quite simply making a fool of God, for it makes foolish God’s very purpose in giving mankind that particular kind of pleasure. “Be not deceived, God is not mocked.” (Galatians 6:7)

Sex Desire Ordained To Draw People To Wedlock

Without this strong inducement of desire men would undoubtedly have neglected the grave duty of propagating the human race. God, therefore, ordained that this sex desire should draw together a man and woman in wedlock, who should commit to each other, and to no one else, the rights over each other’s body. “Let the husband render the debt to his wife…” (1st Corinthians 7:3-5), though in this matter mutual respect and consideration must be shown and the necessary chaste self-control exercised. The prevalent idea that the primary end of marriage intercourse is the satisfaction of carnal pleasure, or what is more romantically called passionate love, is the root of much misery and breakdown in marriages.

The Sin Of Preventing The Primary Purpose

It is not wrong to enjoy the pleasure of wedlock; just as it is not wrong to enjoy our food and drink, but it becomes sinful if that pleasure is sought without due regard to the primary end of eating and drinking, the good of the body. Such use of food and drink is gluttony and intemperance. Clearly this becomes an outrageous sin if some action is taken to prevent and make impossible the primary reason for eating and drinking, as, for example, when the ancient Romans at their orgies deliberately vomited what they ate so as to make room for more! The mere mention of such action is disgusting and revolting, and yet what is that makes it so obviously sinful and foul? It is the fact that they sought the legitimate pleasure of food and drink while deliberately impeding the primary end for which God provides food and drink. And this is the essential evil of so-called artificial birth-control. It is something of its very nature evil because against nature, or better, against the very reason why God gave human beings pleasure in the act of procreation. It is not merely a matter of the discipline of the Catholic Church, that Catholics may not practise artificial birth-control, but is something universally and always gravely evil. Catholics may and should space and regulate the births of their children by proper self-control, which is not impossible with the help of God and high ideals of modesty. However, a reasonable sized family is much to be desired and is respect^ among Catholic people.

The Family Trinity-Father-Mother-Offspring

The primary end of marriage is the procreation of children, and for that reason Christ has ordained that Christian marriage must be constituted in the manner best suited for this purpose. It does not require very much thought to realize that the union of one man with one woman for life is the best for the family. The “trinity” of father, mother and children has a perfection which is shattered by the entry of a fourth term, so that in actual fact when a man has taken more than one wife he has never shown that regard and care for his duties as a husband and father as is enjoined upon him by God and nature. It has inevitably led to the neglect of family life and the dishonouring of women and children. The latter have been left entirely to the women-folk and have been orphaned, even before they were born, of their father’s love and care. The duties of bringing up the children fall equally in their different ways on both parents.

This Family Union Must Be Stable

It is equally essential for the good of the children that the family should be permanent, and any loosening of the marriage bond leads to the break up of family life, which is the very foundation of civilized Christian society. Though God can and did in pre-Christian times permit some relaxation of this strict prohibition of divorce, Christ has ordained that the bond of Christian, consummated marriage can never be broken, save by the death of one of the partners. “And the Pharisees coming to Him asked Him, tempting Him; Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? But He answering, saith to them: What did Moses command you? Who said: Moses permitted to write a bill of divorce and put her away. To whom Jesus answering, said: Because of the hardness of your heart, he wrote you that precept. But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife. And they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. And in the house again His disciples asked Him concerning this same thing. And He saith to them: Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another commits adultery against her. And if the wife shall put away her husband and be married to another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10: 2-12)

Saint Matthew and Saint Luke record these same words, and Saint Paul reasserts this law: “But to them that are married, not I, but the Lord commands, that the wife depart not from her husband. . . . And let not the husband put away his wife” (1st Corinthians 7:10,11). The apparent exception in Saint Matthew, “except it be for fornication,” cannot be permission for divorce, for this would contradict the other Evangelists and Saint Paul. Nor, if this were an exception, would there have been any stringency in Our Lord’s words to shock the disciples or Pharisees, as they already allowed no more than this. It may permit separation without remarriage in case of unfaithfulness, but not a full divorce, for Our Lord expressly states that anyone who marries the wife who is put away commits adultery. Moreover, to allow divorce for unfaithfulness would be putting a premium on the foul sin of adultery, so that it would become in the eyes of many of little import and a mere convenience for obtaining divorce; as indeed has happened in our own times.

Again the word used, “except it be for fornication” is not the correct name for marital unfaithfulness, which is adultery, whereas fornication is intercourse between unmarried people. Dr Arendzen, in The Gospels, has an ingenious suggestion that it is used to translate the Hebrew hervath which was the bone of contention between the Pharisees and Sadducees, into which dispute they were trying to drag Our Lord, and all the phrase means is, “never mind your hervath.”

Declaration Of Nullity Is No Divorce

Quite different to a divorce is a declaration of nullity. It is possible that a marriage may be invalid or null and void from the very beginning, and after careful examination this fact may be established by the Church’s court. In such a case there never was any marriage bond and the declaration of nullity simply asserts this fact. Marriage is a contract, raised to the dignity of a sacrament, but like all contracts there must be legal conditions for its validity. As it is a sacred contract, the legal authority which makes these conditions for Christians must be Christ’s Church. Hence the Church has made a number of laws for the safeguarding of the sacred character, primary ends and public registration of the marriage contract. Some of these laws impose conditions necessary for validity, and hence, if they are not fulfilled, the marriage is null and void.

Conditions Of Valid Marriage

Among conditions for valid marriage are: the law which forbids the marriage of near relations; the law that Catholics must be married in the presence of a priest and two witnesses, and the law forbidding the marriage between baptized and unbaptized persons. Other laws bind under the pain of sin, but breaking them does not render the marriage invalid. Among these we may note the law forbidding the solemnization of marriages during the penitential seasons (though a marriage is permitted at all times in a simple and quiet manner); and the law which forbids Catholics marrying baptized non-Catholics.

Some Legal Conditions May Be Dispensed

These legal conditions laid down by the Church can be dispensed by her for sufficiently grave reasons and on conditions which safeguard the faith of the Catholic partner and the Catholic upbringing of the children. This last condition is necessary, not only for the sake of the children, but also because of the grave obligation binding all Catholic parents to bring up their children in the true faith.

Catholics Are Urged Not To Marry Non-Catholics

The Church has always disapproved of “mixed marriages” as it becomes extremely difficult, and frequently well-nigh impossible, for her children to observe her ideals of the marriage union “as having one mind in Christ,” when the partners are divided on so fundamental a matter as their religion. Moreover, the children need the teaching, help and example of both parents if they are to grow up zealous and faithful members of Christ’s Church, and where one is not a Catholic this is impossible. It cannot usually be hoped that children will learn to respect their religion as all-important if they see their parents disagree about it.

Parents Duties To Their Children

If parents bring up their children with loving care on Catholic principles, it would indeed be an unnatural child who failed to observe the fourth Commandment, “Honour thy father and thy mother”. Nevertheless with our human fallen nature it is all too easy for children to be unnatural and fail in this duty of love and reverence. They must be taught by good example and proper discipline to obey and practice virtue. Clearly there is no obligation to obey any sinful command, nor can parents expect respect if their conduct does not deserve it. There can be few rewards to compare with the life-long love and dutiful care of loving children, nor can there be any reward which is more deserved and well earned than this return to good and conscientious parents, who have spent themselves in God’s service by the exact and loving fulfillment of their duties to their children.

Supplement

Catholic teaching on the correct moral approach to marriage union is at great divergence with modern ideas and it may be helpful to say a little more on this subject. The best way to discover the correct attitude to marriage must surely be to look back to what would have happened had our first parents not fallen into sin.

The physical relations would have been the same as now, for God made the bodies of man and woman to cleave to each other as man and wife and so to propagate the human race in marriage. Moreover there can be no doubt that they would have found happiness in this loving union, but being perfectly governed by right reason and free from concupiscence, they would have found joy in intercourse only when they were fulfilling its primary end of generating new human life. In other words they would have had marriage relations only when they wanted a child to be born to them. The three agents of this new human life, God, father and mother, would have been perfectly of one mind and intention in their co-operation together to create a human soul and procreate a human body for their child.

This, then, is the perfect disposition for a man and his wife when they use their marriage rights of union, to desire positively that it will fulfill its primary purpose of conception in the mother’s womb. In such circumstances they are of one mind with God and their intercourse is truly holy. However human nature has fallen into sin and mankind is far from perfect and God in His mercy will not condemn as sinful intercourse that falls far below this ideal. They may not positively desire the fruit of their union, a child, and yet not definitely not desire it. They may keep their minds, as it were, neutral, and, though they do not positively wish for conception, say “If God so wills, so be it.” It accepts God’s will without actually anticipating what it may be. Such union is in no way sinful but blameless and even virtuous.

Again a man and his wife may come together positively hoping that their union will not result in its natural and primary fruit, the conception of a child. Here the minds of the human agents are contrary to the mind of God when He created the sex function to co-operate with Him in reproducing the human race. Hence it is far from a perfect state of mind but it is not positively evil because it does not definitely refuse to allow God to fulfill that primary purpose. Such intercourse may be practiced without sin and may be justified as a necessity to prevent grave sins of incontinence. As Saint Paul says, “It is better to marry than to burn.” (1st Corinthians 7:9)

Finally a far lower disposition may accompany marriage intercourse, when the partners, one or both, not only do not desire conception but take positive action to prevent its possibility, either by breaking off the union too soon, or using preventatives. In this case they are not only not at one mind with God, but they push God on one side and positively and rebelliously refuse to allow Him to fulfill His part of the intercourse of His own creatures. Such a state of mind and intention is clearly evil and is the vice of so-called birth-control.


MLA Citation

  • Father Herbert C Fincham. “How We Are Saved”. The Catholic Postal Course, 1951. CatholicSaints.Info. 14 April 2016. Web. 6 December 2016. <>