“The primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children; its secondary end is mutual help and the allaying of concupiscence,” read the 1917 Code of Canon Law. But the 1983 Code of Canon Law reads: “[Marriage is] a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.”
The dates matter. Between them came Vatican II, the discussion which preceded Humanae Vitae, and then the encyclical itself. A definition once worded in terms of primary and secondary purposes was now expressed as a sacred process in which the unity of marriage is both a good in itself and inseparably connected to procreation and its responsibilities.
It may seem that there is little real difference between the two. After all, the question of the moment – the unlawfulness of contraception – remained. But significantly, the 1917 definition harmonised with a contemporary theological description, by Hieronymus Noldin SJ, of sexual intercourse as res in se foeda – a thing filthy in itself.
Was this theologian a man with a problem? If so, he was not alone. It was common 100 years ago for theologians to categorise the parts of the body as the decent, the less decent and the indecent (partes inhonestae). You can work out which. Edward Genicot, in his moral theology (1931), assured readers that such “shameful” acts were lawful to married people. This oxymoron reads strangely, although we may be helped by Pope St Gregory’s comment that, although these acts are not sinful in themselves, it is in practice not possible to avoid sin as a result of enjoying them.
This preoccupation with shame and the sexual act was established early on. Faulty Aristotelean biology implied that Original Sin was actually transmitted through sexual intercourse. And it was sometimes argued that the apple was a metaphor for the first, forbidden sexual encounter. Canaanite myth associated the serpent with lust, and sexual shame was, of course, Adam and Eve’s first reaction after the Fall. It fitted with Psalm 51: “For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me.” Seminarians were reminded in the 17th century: “For the manner of thy begetting is so foule that the name, nay the lightest thought of it, defileth the purest minde, so that our B. Sauiour refused none of our miseries but onely that [one].” We might no longer see this as sound preparation for pastoral care, although we cheerfully sing: “The one spotless womb in which Jesus was laid.”
Speaking as a former occupant of a spotted womb, I wonder how this sense of shame, by no means confined to the religious, came about. A possible cause is that the organs of evacuation and generation are closely located. Indeed, the formation of both is triggered by the same genes. The association of evacuation with disgust is encouraged in human young for sanitary reasons, and it may be that this early association contributes. As the old Latin writer remarked: Inter urinas et faeces nascimur omnes. Following Gibbon, I leave this in the decent obscurity of a learned language.
But this does not fully explain a shame that seems to lie at a deeper level than the shame of other passions. The Garden of Eden story suggests that sexual concupiscence best typifies the loss of control brought about by the Fall. It is actually built into the sexual act since the response of the male organ requires the presence of sexual passion to be able to function. Thus passion itself is an arational but fundamental element in the sexual process. It is a lack of control which we are reluctant to broadcast about ourselves. This was Augustine’s view – and he knew about sexual passion.
Against the background and the traditions of the time, the 1917 definition of marriage is understandable. It appeared necessary to give precedence to the one purpose which could excuse such a distasteful activity. Procreation in itself could hardly be faulted. And the patronising claim that an incidental benefit was an allaying of concupiscence suggested only that marriage offered a safer channel for a regrettable tendency.
The 1983 definition recognises that marriage is a fundamental relationship of committed love. For married people, the expression of that love in all its aspects is the most proximate way through which they work out their salvation. We are Christ to each other, night and day. Within that intimacy, sexual passion is a welcome servant to be valued for its capacity to promote closeness – in its spiritual, psychological and biological aspects.
That is the background needed for the awe-inspiring task of sharing in God’s creative powers through the conception of new, immortal life, and in preparing that life “to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next”.