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Friedrich Engels was a prophet of marriage in the modern age. Monogamous marriage, he declared in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published in 1884, is “unnatural,” setting the practical against the genuinely emotional, reducing persons to commodities, and undermining the real possibility for fidelity and happiness. It thus sets the stage for the great class warfare of male against female and parent against offspring. It is “the first form of family to be based not on natural, but on economic, conditions—on the victory of private property over primitive . . . communal property” and ushers in what he describes as the greatest moral advance of mankind: “modern, individual sex-love.”

While the chief motivation for marriage and children had historically been the accumulation and preservation of wealth and property, he argued, modern legal and economic developments allowed passion and desire to be the main motivation. The law in the early modern period increasingly required that marriage be entered into freely by both parties and that both “must stand on a common footing of equal rights and duties.” It is easier, he condescendingly notes, for the impoverished proletariat to enter into such marriages because they have no real property to preserve in marriage and thus can marry solely for love. If love, however, is the chief motivation for entering into a marriage, then “falling out of” love is naturally a good reason to end a marriage, and the wife—until then rarely permitted legally to divorce—should be as free to end it as the husband.

Where are the children in this evolving picture of marriage? Engels argues that in traditional societies, the motivation for having offspring was largely a matter of economics, honor, family lineage, and so on. In modern societies, children no longer confer any necessary economic advantage and instead are clearly a financial burden. The only possible reason to have them now is natural affectivity, and Engels believes this ought to be the sole reason for having a child—indeed, this motivation safeguards children from the logic of capitalist society. Though parents, particularly mothers, have natural affection for their offspring, Engels insists that children are just one of many effects of marriage, all of which are meant to contribute to the couple’s personal fulfillment. He has absolutely no vision of a further social good to which the having of children might be ordered in the absence of economic considerations.

And on precisely that point he proves prophetic. Affective models of marriage and parenting dominate today, with attendant obsessions with psychological fulfillment, behavior, status, and methodology. Indeed, there are no longer many good reasons to have children, to the extent that they no longer contribute usefully to the running of a household.

What, then, is the alternative? A return to the genuinely political understanding of the family is essential. This understanding in turn builds upon a very basic human instinct. To have a family, to reproduce oneself within one’s community is, Gabriel Marcel writes, to have an “experience of plenitude” through an “affirmation of the good life that we ourselves have been given.” Mother and father are privileged to participate with God in the mystery of creation itself. Children are a gift: the startling, beautiful, and even miraculous effect of the equally given, freely offered love of two persons.

This is a great life-sustaining mystery. But it is not, without the political understanding of the family, an adequate answer to the question “What are children for?” Beyond the foundation of biology, how is the having of children essential to a right understanding of marriage and, in turn, to a right integration of marriage as an institution with human society?

The polarity between the terms procreative and unitive is central to how we speak of marriage, and the Catholic Church has developed its understanding of marriage through the interplay of these terms. Both aspects have deep roots in the Church tradition. The traditional sources of the concern for procreation are better known, but the unitive dimension is present in the concept of marriage as friendship, for example, in what St. Augustine describes as the “natural companionship” between husband and wife. Though the three goods of marriage outlined in the Catechism—children, fidelity, and sacramental grace—interpenetrate and enable one another, the Church has traditionally considered the primary end of marriage to be the formation of society through the “procreation and nurture of children,” with the secondary ends being the remedy for concupiscence (fidelity) and mutual assistance (sacramental grace).

In the Second Vatican Council’s document Gaudium et Spes, argues Mark Lowery, the Church “abandoned the traditional hierarchical terminology regarding the primary and secondary ends of marriage,” the procreative and the unitive. “The traditional hierarchy of ends remains intact, but now exists within a much broader framework that has developed gradually since [Pius XI’s encyclical on marriage] Casti Connubii.” In 1983, the new Code of Canon Law introduced the more personalist terminology of “community of life” and the “good of the spouses.” Mutual assistance, commonly thought to consist in the raising of children, is presented through the lens of the good of the spouses one to another, so that formally speaking, the help of marriage consists in the work of parenting, but materially speaking, it consists in the spouses’ mutual self-discovery, “their growth in holiness or sanctification.”

This understanding of marriage is far better than the modern understanding Engels foretold, but does it answer the question of what children are for? Is Marcel’s language adequate, seeing that it is reflected in the Code of Canon Law? The sacramental graces of marriage do promise that married persons are sanctified and “share in Christ’s power to break them from the grip which sin holds on their conjugal life,” as Paul Gondreau has put it. Through participation in the sacramental life of the Church, married people share in the love that exists between Christ and his bride, the Church.

But love, ordinary human love—with its attendant sexual desire, its aligned vices, and the passions in general—poses real cultural and practical challenges to even the loftiest theologies of married love. Moral theologian David McCarthy explains in Sex and Love in the Home that “romantic love is a cultural grammar.” Everything in Western culture, from films and books to linguistic habits, tells us that the passion of romantic love is a mode of transcendence. On the one hand, there is a thrilling descent into the animal aspect of human nature; on the other, an emotional transcendence takes a person away from the ordinary demands of “utilitarian rationality and cost-benefit analysis.” As McCarthy puts it, according to this romantic vision, “through passion, we can find the depth of who we are, apart from roles, duties, and merely functional relationships.” The idea that the social-domestic sphere is the culmination of human desire no longer seems plausible or, for that matter, sufficiently exciting.

If we allow that marriage is the fitting fulfillment and ordering of romantic love, we have to admit that it puts quite a burden on the institution itself, given that it must be both an outlet and a “resting place” for passion. The affective drive is the proximate cause of the family, but also the source of the relative isolation of the modern family, which is, to use Dietrich von Hildebrand’s words, a “closed union . . . a relationship in which the regard of each one of the two parties is turned exclusively upon the other.”

And this idea of marriage is even more of a problem when we try to answer the question of children. This personalist description of marriage can be traced back to German Romanticism, Kant, Fichte, and then to its specifically Catholic instantiations in Matthias Joseph Scheeben, Vladimir Solovyov, Herbert Doms, and of course Karol Wojtyla. Hildebrand merits closer examination, specifically for his account of spousal love and its relation to parenthood.

In his book Marriage, first published in 1929, Hildebrand distinguishes between the end of marriage and the meaning of marriage. This in itself opens personalist language to the charge of vagueness. While the end of marriage is procreation, its meaning is “spousal union.” By “meaning,” he is describing what is integral to a thing, its natural goodness. Hildebrand is writing in response to a perceived “terrible anti-personalism, a progressive blindness toward the nature and dignity of the spiritual person” as human life is increasingly considered exclusively from a biological point of view.

In focusing on human loving as a spiritual act, and considering its presence in the imagery of Scripture, he identifies the essence of marriage as the “gift of self” and stresses the “spiritual significance” of married love, which is distinct from the sexual act but hermeneutically essential to a certain theology of sex. As something that touches the innermost core of a person’s being, marital sex is not simply an animal act, born of natural desire and seeking a physical fulfillment. Without regard to intention, it is an inevitable form of self-gift, producing a mutual, spiritual giving of love. The language is reminiscent of Pope John Paul II’s in Familiaris Consortio: “The total physical self-giving [of sexuality] would be a lie if it were not the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving, in which the whole person, including the temporal dimension, is present.”

This deep personalism makes for an awkward connection between marriage and the procreation and raising of children. In distinguishing between the end of marriage, which is procreation, and its meaning, which is spousal love, he makes procreation an extrinsic purpose of marriage. Subjectively speaking, procreation does not inform the meaning of the conjugal act; that meaning is what Hildebrand calls the “sublime communion of love.” Procreation brings about a “superabundant finality,” in which we might have varying degrees of separation between the formal cause (the essence of marriage) and the final cause of procreation.

In Hildebrand’s account, children do not constitute the central meaning of marriage, but are ends. At best, children are gifts, given from one spouse to another, but even then the language is transactional, contingent upon the “sublime communion” of spouses. The ends, especially children, are external to the meaning of the act.

Missing in this particular view of marriage is the recognition that marriage orders spouses in relation not only one to another but also to some common good in which desire and end may, but will not necessarily, coincide. This common good could be described loosely as self-transcendence. Hildebrand clearly wants to set the family against the state in the sense that each occupies a distinct sphere of meaning. Any political (in the classical sense) or communitarian dimension to the love of marriage is excluded from the outset.

To be fair to the historical context, he is concerned with the specter of collectivism in Europe, but as a result he excludes from marriage’s integral ordering, both in end and in meaning, the raising of children for the society of the city of God. For Hildebrand, the two meanings of marriage, unitive and procreative, can be separated, even if, morally speaking, they should not be; they are actually united only at the time of fertility (by God as primary cause, by nature as secondary cause).

St. Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of the good provides a rich context in which to discuss children as the fullest “meaning” of marriage while avoiding the problems with Hildebrand’s personalist understanding. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas considers the concept of the common good first in the context of law. He observes that human actions are concerned with particulars, and so the law seems to order persons to a particular good rather than a common one. Nevertheless, the “first principle” of practical matters to which practical reason is ordered, namely, happiness, is the final end of man, and thus the common good unites all persons precisely as a principle of reason. At a more elemental level, Aquinas links all the virtues back to justice as the general virtue, given that justice orders a person both in relation to himself and in relation to others.

The family orders persons to the common good, albeit imperfectly. The family requires a host of other social bonds—organizations political, ecclesiastical, and more broadly familial—so that its members may be more perfectly ordered to the common good. The family alone is the elemental principle of social order, a unity out of which the diversity of society is constituted. Thus men and women participate in God’s providence through family life in that the members of the family are ordered to the common goods of the family.

Aquinas argues in his Summa Contra Gentiles that diversity in creation is not only the fitting effect of the universal cause of being, but is even necessary so that “a perfect likeness to God might be found in [creation] according to their manner of being.” And what is this manner of being? “Being many,” through which God’s own goodness is reflected in and more generously poured out in creation.

We tend to consider private and common goods to be naturally opposed, and to be sure, in the normal activities of family life, this is quite often true. The common good, however, proposes that in certain social organizations the personal good of several individuals can coincide: This works only because the good is founded in nature and desired as the proper end of the many individuals. That is, in God all things are loved as they ought to be loved—a far more radical “communitarianism” than Engels could have imagined. But to the extent that the determining purpose, the meaning, of marriage lies in the co-inherence of individual goods in the common good, a higher unity comes into view.

Concerning marriage in the order of nature, Aquinas says that “generation is the only natural act that is ordered to the common good,” which is essential to the unique character of marriage as a sacrament. This point is key, and perhaps not intuitive: The sexual act immediately orders persons beyond any consideration of individual good. In parents’ natural inclination to care for their children, he identifies a desire to know one’s legitimate offspring and realize a desire for the friendship of marriage”the “gentle association [that exists] even among beasts”—as well as “partnership of the whole range of domestic activity.”

He argues also for the indissolubility of marriage for reasons of justice to the spouse, though he observes that the natural instincts of men are deficient in this regard. Divine law confirms the justice of indissolubility precisely because the natural generative act is ordered to the common good. In this case, the common good pertains to the support and well-being of the mother while she cares for and raises young children, even as it educates the affection and interest of the father.

Aquinas is not, however, just talking about having babies; he is talking about mothering and fathering—raising children in virtue. He argues first that the confounding of generation is an evil because it is contrary to nature. This is a familiar argument for moral theologians. But he then argues that it is also contrary to the good for sexual generation to occur in conditions in which “proper upbringing (educatio) would be prevented.” The force of this argument lies in his conviction that one spouse cannot easily raise a child, in virtue, alone. Thus, it is fitting that a man remain with a woman after having a child, for the sake of this educatio.

Charles Reid argues that Aquinas here stands at the head of a legal tradition that emphasizes anew that the purpose of marriage is the cherishing and education of children. St. Bonaventure says, in his Commentary on the Sentences, that procreation “is concerned with” the generative power, but that marriage is for more than this, namely, for the education of children in virtue “so that they may receive their heavenly reward.”

In the order of nature, the common good to which marriage is ordered is thus the having of children—the simple propagation of species—as well as the fulfillment of the natural promptings that humans have to raise, nurture, and educate their children. In an obvious sense, the children themselves are extrinsic ends, for they have their own personhood and dignity. But the domestic activity of raising children is essential to the meaning of marriage; indeed, it constitutes “mutual help” as the very substance of married life and through this builds up the property of unity. In and through the ordinary work of married life, spouses cherish and honor one another.

To be fair to Hildebrand, there is indeed a problem with viewing marital relations solely as biological events with a certain legal and moral meaning. But we need not look beyond a very practical account of the activity of married life in order to understand its meaning more richly. Nor does speaking in such practical terms exclude the spiritual potency of romantic love.

Nevertheless, the demand that Engels recognized for divorce at will when love no longer abides between spouses raises the question: Can romantic love, in all of its admitted frailty, be the theological foundation for marriage? Considering the common good of spouses, a more precise end for marital relations comes to light: the building up of society, not simply as the act of procreation but for the sake of perfecting the whole civitas Dei. To raise children is to help them tend, as much as possible by their own power, to the end of the common good.

This is a complex matter and does not—alas—consist in parents calmly dispensing wisdom to their children. Ideally, with many challenges and over a great deal of time, parents become more like Christ, through one another and through their children. Children in turn teach their parents how to be teachers and exemplars. Through this symbiotic relationship, the deep love that moves people to marriage is fulfilled tangibly in the way of sanctification, precisely through the ordinariness of sacrificial love.

This picture of marriage is not defined by the romantic self-transcendence promised by spouses’ mutual fulfillment; rather, it is a basically social institution into which two persons enter, with an objective, formal character, and determined by a clear end. The sociality of marriage is definitively announced in the arrival of children, whose presence shatters the impression of oneself as end, or of the mutually desiring couple as an adequate form of society. The advent of children first of all teaches young persons how gravely they are dependent upon many, near and far, around them.

In the ordering of various social institutions, Aquinas would likely agree with a former first lady that, to raise a child, it does indeed “take a village”—by which I mean most of all a Church, but also an extended family, a community, a spiritual father, a parish, friends, and neighbors, with all the obligations, manners, and interactions that these relations entail. The beautiful mundaneness of the work of married life, the many unacknowledged and thankless sacrifices and tasks, is lost sight of in the vague language of “romantic theology.”

But herein lies one of the great and potentially sanctifying gifts of marriage, both for parents as educators and for children: All the individuals that constitute the family are ordered beyond their particular interests to the common end of happiness, to the good. (Incidentally, it is clear from this why, for Aquinas, married persons who cannot have children share in the political logic of family life, both through their mutual intimacy and through their work for the common good as determined by institutions outside of their marriage.) Thus, to the question “What are children for?” one might respond: They are for their own sake, specifically for the sake of the salvation of their souls. With regard to this final end, the good of all the family members coincides without tension.

Aquinas says that charity is a great political virtue because it orders us to God, who is the highest common good. In a very real sense, the family is actually and sacramentally constituted in the unity of love of the good. In the Disputed Questions on the Virtues, he discusses the unity of the family of believers in blessedness: “In this way, when a person is admitted by divine grace to participating in blessedness, which consists in the vision and enjoyment of God, he becomes a citizen and member of that blessed society.” He continues:

A person who is in this way counted as part of the heavenly city must have certain freely given virtues, which are the infused virtues. The right exercise of these virtues requires a love of the common good that belongs to the whole society, which is the divine good as the object of blessedness . . . . To love that good according to itself, that it may remain and be shared out and that nothing be done against this good, this gives to a person the right relation to that society of the blessed. And this is the love that loves God for his sake and one’s neighbors, who are capable of blessedness, as oneself.

Thus, the end, the common good, to which all the members are ordered determines the “meaning” of the society in question and therefore its purpose.

What obtains more perfectly on the level of the city also obtains, to a fitting extent, within the family. To say that both the having and raising of children is the end of marriage and is determinative of its meaning does not commit us to the biologism Hildebrand so feared. Rather, if we understand how marriage orders the whole family to the common good—the shared end of happiness—and if theologians speak about the work of marriage in warm but realist terms, there is no reason why we cannot have a theology of marriage that is genuinely metaphysical (understood in the traditional terms of end and goods), as well as genuinely realistic and pastorally useful.

Paige Hochschild is assistant professor of systematic theology at Mount St. Mary’s University.