MARRIAGE is an institution which has existed from the dawn of creation, from Adam and Eve, whether that first couple be accepted as historical characters, or whether we regard the Biblical account as an allegory. Yet in recorded history no-one has yet succeeded in defining marriage in terms which are universally acceptable.
More particularly, since the advent of Christianity, no-one has succeeded in providing a definition of marriage in terms which have been universally and permanently acceptable to all Christians.
Most of us, and in particular those of us called to the married state, believe that we know what a Christian marriage is, or should be. What would probably surprise most Catholics is the definition of marriage currently provided by Canon Law. This consists of several statements which, taken together, set out what the law of the Church has to say about Christian marriage.
One statement is: "The primary end of marriage is the procreation and nurture of children; its secondary end is mutual help and the remedying of concupiscence."
Another statement is: "The essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility, which acquire a unique firmness in Christian marriage by reason of its sacramental character."
A further Canon provides that marriage is created by the exchange of consent between the parties, and that this consent is to 'perpetual and exclusive rights' over one another's bodies for 'acts which are of themselves suitable for the generation of children.'
If you are wondering where' love comes into it, so far as the present Canon Law on marriage is concerned, there is no reference to love whatsoever. Small wonder then that, since the promulation of the Church's Code of Canon Law in 1917, there have been theological debates about whether these terse and unbeautiful phrases can really be said to define a relationship which is meant to reflect that between Christ and his Church.
In his book on marriage Fr Mackin sets out the fascinating
history of marriage and the Church's understanding of it from the earliest days of Christianity and before, leading up to the Canonical definitions, and culminating in an account of Vatican II's Constitution on Marriage, with its emphasis on marriage as 'a community of love'.
It is Fr Mackin's contention that the understanding of marriage reflected in Gaudium et Spes, and also in Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae, compel a re-examination of the Church's present definition of marriage.
Gaudium et Spes states: 'The marital institution itself and marital love have as a natural characteristic an orientation to procreation and nurture. Indeed they come to their natural completion in procreation and nurture.'
Fr Mackin believes that this statement marks a crucial turn in the Catholic theology of marriage, in the moral theology of married conduct, and in the theology of the Church itself.
For at least fifteen centures, he explains, 'the claim that marriage has two inherent ends — procreation and nurture the primary end, mutual help and the remedying of concupiscence the secondary end had stood consecrated at the centre of the Catholic teaching on marriage.'
It was not until the late 1920s that this teaching began to be challenged by some Catholic European philosophers and theologians, who urged that in attempting to define marriage one should think not of ends, but of meaning.
In 1944 the Congregation of the Holy Office condemned this thinking and reiterated the traditional supremacy of the ends of marriage in the doctrine of the Church. Seven years later Pope Pius XII himself publicly condemned any suggestion that this doctrine could be a matter for debate.
In spite of these denunciations, the Bishops at Vatican II, in their statement on marriage and the family, apparently treated the issue as being still an open one.
The implications of this are, of course, of enormous significance. Fr Mackin suggests that what it may mean is that the doctrine of marriage in the Church has been replaced or been developed to a point where there is no supremacy of the
procreative end of marriage over the end of mutual help, or as Gaudium et Spes terms it, the community of love.
If that is so, then the traditional attitude of the Church to contraception may actually be called into question.
The Code of Canon Law is, of course, in process of revision at the present time. Canons in relation to marriage have in fact been formulated, but still await promulgation.
One reads: "The marital covenant, by which a man and a woman create between themselves an intimate sharing in all life, a sharing of its nature oriented to the good of the spouses and to the procreation and nurture of children, has been raised, when it is of baptized persons, to the dignity of a sacrament."
Another reads: "Marital consent is an act of the will by which a man and a woman give themselves and accept one another in an irrevocable covenant in order to create a marriage."
It is to be hoped that it is not presumptuous to comment that those statements come closer to reflecting what happity married Christians feel about their marriages that the present Canon Law definitions.
Fr Mackin concludes by observing that the Church must obviously design "her own most precious intra-familial relationship." But who, he asks, shall do this designing? Promulgation is the task and function of the Church's bishops with the Bishops of Rome at their head.
But, he warns, "the design cannot be drawn out of thin air; even a prescription must prescribe a relationship possible and productive in real life, and must therefore to some degree be descriptive. For the design must be of a form of life that helps men and women to the happiness that is available in intimate, persevering and sexually expressed love.
"Only those men and women who have searched for happiness in this kind of relationship can say which forms and sub-forms of it work.
"Since they are the Christian married who experience marriage in the Church, they are its proper definers.'