“The primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children; its secondary end is mutual help and the allaying of concupiscence.” (Canon 1013, 1917 Code of Canon Law)
Anyone familiar with the history of contraception and the Church in the 1960s will know the name of John T. Noonan. His singular 1965 work Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, remains a classic research volume on the subject. Just days ago, on April 17, Noonan passed away at age 90. Please add prayers for the repose of his soul.
And yet … there is more to consider.
Noonan’s iconic presence in the contraception debates was a mixture of strength and weakness—the strength of his scholarly research was diminished by the weakness of some of his conclusions during the period of the Second Vatican Council and Humanae Vitae. Most notably, he erroneously persuaded himself—and so many others—that the Second Vatican Council had actually “developed” the Church’s doctrine on the “ends” of marriage, such that the Church no longer taught that the procreation and education of children was actually the primary end of matrimony.
Fifty-plus years later, this single aspect of the contraception debates has had a breathtakingly negative impact on the life of the Church. Even among faithful Catholics, the fact that procreation really is the “primary end” of marriage—with the secondary ends of “mutual help (aid)” and “remedy for concupiscence” subordinated to it—is scarcely known in the full measure of its meaning and beauty.
Before sharing this truth in greater detail and with due respect for the technical language it requires, let’s look a bit more at how and why the primary end of marriage seems so obscured today.
The Beginning of the “Ends” Debate
While debate over the meaning of the ends of marriage may have reached its zenith during Vatican II itself, the theological conflict has its roots in the decades prior to the Council, when, broadly speaking, the philosophical landscape occupied by the Church’s theologians developed a bit of a fault-line between natural law with its emphasis on “acts” and various forms of “personalistic” philosophy, which of course focused more on the human person who chooses the acts.
Pope Pius XII was both attentive and decisive when it came to the debate about the ends of matrimony that began to simmer in the 1940s—personalistic thinkers were objecting to the subordinated status of the end of “mutual help” (which many imprecisely referred to as “mutual love,” as though the virtue of love was to be found only in this marital end and not the others) and were asserting that it was wrong to say that the act of “procreation” was primary. But, the Holy Father begged to differ.
On April 1, 1944, he approved a Holy Office decree that answered “no” to the question of whether it was permissible to assert anything other than the traditionally expressed truth that marriage had a primary end and a secondary end subordinated to it. This decree is found in the Acts of the Apostolic See (#103 in the linked file), and remains official magisterial teaching.
So, why did so many Council Fathers, theologians, and observers like Noonan seem to overlook this simple fact? Why in some cases did Council document crafters actively seek to suppress the natural-law framework of marriage during the crafting of the Vatican II draft texts? I suggest a two-fold answer, with one part well-intended and one part not.
A Mixed Bag of Intentions
One on hand, the arena of personalism was indeed making a very positive contribution in the Church, and the language of Vatican II beautifully emphasizes the value of looking beyond “act” and toward “person.” Doing so is effectively a very positive development of doctrine that has enriched the Church immensely, particularly and more recently through the personalistic thought of Pope St. John Paul II.
On the other hand, however, pro-contraception thinkers readily knew that the only way to reach a change in Church teaching on contraception was to do an end-run around natural law and the primary end of marriage. Personalistic language effectively became a Trojan horse for promoting contraception as a potential “value” for the human person, despite contraception being a clear violation of the “act” of marital relations.
For both good and ill, in my view, in large part only the personalistic language (not the technically precise and clear language of natural law) won the day in the approved Vatican II documents, despite the numerous debates of the Council Fathers. The result sufficiently enabled those who went on to claim that Vatican II had rejected the old, outdated thinking on marriage in favor of “love” over “reproduction.” The once-secondary “mutual love” was now on an equal footing with “procreation” and could be pursued on its own merits, even in ways that would place the end of procreation in subordination to it. Contraception was no longer going to be seen through the antiquated natural-law lens of “intrinsic evil”!
The End of the “Ends”? Not So Fast…!
That was the theory, at least, and it necessitated putting every possible nail in the coffin of natural law and its associated concept of “primary end.” But the Holy Spirit apparently had other plans, eventually guiding Blessed Pope Paul VI to reaffirm both natural law and the integrity of the ends of marriage even while introducing a thread of genuine personalistic thinking in Humanae Vitae. An authentic development of doctrine was indeed taking place. But it was not the jettisoning of natural law in favor of personalism. Rather, it was the emergence of what many now refer to as the Thomistic personalism of Pope St. John Paul II—a monumental “both-and” that beautifully synthesizes the meaning of both “person” and “act.”
The pro-contraception Catholics simply couldn’t grasp this “both-and,” and to this day, such Catholics remain hostile to the beautiful thought of Pope St. John Paul II on marriage and sexuality. Indeed, the Church is still reeling from the disconnect it has experienced regarding the truth of the “ends” of marriage, and the consequences have been devastating. So, how can we once again understand—and then share with others—the technically precise and true primary end of marriage ordained by God himself?
Re-Claiming the Wisdom of 1944
One hugely important point of reference is a seldom-considered text from 1944, the same year that Pope Pius XII magisterially confirmed that, yes, procreation is the primary end of marriage, with secondary ends subordinated to it. The Sacred Roman Rota wrote at some length on how we need to understand the ends of marriage.
Its treatment of the ends of marriage affirm that God indeed is the author of marriage, and marriage has by its own nature—independent of the intentions of spouses—its own God-given ends. Importantly, the text clarifies that “end” is a precise, technical, natural law term defined as “a benefit which is meant to be obtained both on the part of nature and by deliberate intention of the agent.” Even when the “agent”—the spouse—doesn’t intend the ends of marriage (procreation, mutual aid, remedy for concupiscence), those ends are immutably part of the nature of marriage. Violating these ends is always wrong.
Completely overlooked in the contraception debate, but stated clearly by the Roman Rota text, is the fact that natural law requires that an object under consideration must have a primary end. The very fabric of natural law itself necessitates this. This is not unique to marriage. While something may have more than one end, all other ends are necessarily subordinate to whatever is the primary end. Thus it actually would seem impossible for the Church to change or suppress the primary end of marriage that arises from natural law itself.
It’s also false to frame the debate over ends as being about “love” (mutual aid) versus “reproduction” (procreation). The term “procreation” (think pro-creation) is also a technical term with special meaning. The reason the primary end is procreation and education of children is because the parental role of “pro-creator” is not merely biological but is life-long. Just as God both creates and sustains us in existence as our creator, parents as pro-creators have the vocation of forming their children and sustaining them in their existence. Thus “pro-creation” means vastly more than merely conception or reproduction.
Pro-Creation: The Solution, Not the Problem
When seen with clarity and precision, the Church’s unchanging teaching that marriage’s primary end is procreation should not serve to alarm the faithful Catholic. Rather, it should reassure us and help us to see the role as husband or wife in its proper light. Doing so requires the grace of marriage itself, so that we can push against culture’s constant claim that children are the problem, not the prize, of marriage.
While the late John Noonan and so many other Catholics of his generation got this question wrong, we can each do our part to echo the wisdom of the Church and the natural law truth that sex is for marriage, and both sex and marriage are primarily ordered toward offspring. In our age of rampant sexual confusion and the tragic secular “re-definition” of marriage, we see the consequence of failing to claim procreation as the primary end of marriage.
The time has come for us to turn the tide. Children indeed are the “supreme gift” of marriage—let’s not ever diminish this beautiful, God-given, “both-and” truth about who we are as husbands and wives, and how we are to act.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail of “Le depart du bergère” painted by William A. Bouguereau in 1866.