The Personalist Project

Just now I was listening for a second time to the talk Jules gave yesterday morning in Steubenville on von Hildebrand's distinction between the primary "meaning of marriage", i.e. love, and the primary "end of marriage", i.e. children.  (I can't think of anything I'd rather do than listen to my beloved talk about marriage.)

Specifically, he tries to show that not only does this distinction not (as some critics charge) undercut the Church's teaching on the inseparability of sex and pro-creation, it deepens and enriches our grasp of that teaching, by drawing out and emphasizing the personal structure of conjugal relations.  

Spouses don't use each other to produce children. God doesn't use couples to propagate the human race. Rather, the spouse give themselves to each other in love, and they receive their children as gifts—the superabundant fruit of their love for one another.

There was some discussion, too, about the impiety involved in contraception—the separating of what God has joined, namely sex and procreation.

A question came up afterwards on that point. One participant wanted to point out that while sex can't be validly separated from procreation, it can, it seems, be validly separated from love.  She gave the example of a couple who are in an arranged marriage, where there is as yet no experience of spousal love. Can they not validly engage in sex, and therefore can we not say that it is possible to (legitimately) have sex even apart from love?

Several good points were made in reply, both by Jules and by other participants. I won't rehash them here. But this morning I noticed a comment by someone following the talk by livestream. He said this:

In fact, it is loving to love one's spouse, even in an arranged marriage where there is no feeling of love, in an intrinsically good martial act (open to life, self-giving, etc).  Spousal love still exists, even apart from the feeling of affection...

I have some things to say in reply to this.

First, it is of course morally valid for a married couple who are not in love with each other to have sex. Sex in such cases can even be a genuine act of love, in the sense that it is consciously intended to "do good for" the spouse, to honor the objective relation between them, to draw closer to each other, etc. 

BUT, a few things should be noted. 

1) It would not be true to say that because the marriage is valid and objectively open to life, sex within it is ipso facto an act of love. In fact, sex within marriage can be unloving, both objectively and subjectively.

2) It's not easy for sex to be an act of love absent the conscious experience of love. (This is one reason why all Christians should reject the practice of arranged marriages.) It is much easier for the sex in such cases to be selfish, utilitarian, perfunctory, or merely pleasure-seeking. Wives in loveless marriages often feel (and are) not loved, but used by their husbands' sexual advances. They feel disregarded as persons, reduced to their function as wife. The result is alienation, not intimacy. And it's not only wives. I know of cases of couples struggle with infertility, where the husband has felt used by his wife. "I'm ovulating. We need to have sex right now!"

3) Even the best cases of loveless sex—I mean cases where the sex is genuinely motivated by a desire for union and an intention to do good for the other—fall short of the ideal.  And by "ideal" here I don't mean "perfection," but something more like "what God intended in the design of conjugal love."  The conjugal act is meant to be a union of  reciprocal love, felt love.  When it's not, something vital is missing, and usually the spouses suffer the lack.

We shouldn't imagine anything else. 

Comments (8)

Marie Meaney

#1, Jul 21, 2013 11:34am

Great points, Katie! I agree with you that though sex can be morally valid and an expression of an act of love in an arranged marriage, the fullness is lacking without the affective dimension. As you rightly say, the spouses suffer from this lack. I could see this also happening in a couple, where, for example, one of the spouses is suffering from depression and therefore can't "feel" anything for the other anymore. Sexual intimacy will suffer from it, the other spouse will suffer, as will the one who is depressed. I could see them therefore deciding to abstain from intimacy while this lasts - though they would also be justified in engaging in intimacy (even more so than in the arranged marriage), knowing that the affective dimension is not absent (as it would be in an arranged marriage), but just hidden by the depression.  

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jul 22, 2013 2:21pm

Yes. It's not only a problem in arranged marriages, but really in any marriage that is going through a period of affective dryness. At those moments, morally awakened spouses experience that absent the experience of love—even when they may know the love is there somewhere—sex easily derails into something not just not-ideal, but something alienating.

A great strength and depth of inloveness, made permanent through sacred vows, is the best safeguard of the beauty, meaning and integrity of the conjugal act.

Rhett Segall

#3, Jul 22, 2013 2:24pm

Jules, what is the writing of Lonergan referenced in you talk where he says that VH is inexcusably vague?

In Lonergan's important work "Method in Theology" he references VH and explicitly follows his analysis on the distinction between intentionality and states.(pp.30,31) He also says the following:

" A wealth of analysis of feeling is to be had in Dietrich von Hildebrand's 'Christian Ethics""

I thought your lecture very clear and very important regarding the distinction on the different kinds of finality. In addition I had not heard the distinction between "begetting" and "making", which I think is of capital importance. I shall use it in my classes!

I think the issue of arranged marriage in Asia and India still needs further addressing.  I think Tevye's song to his wife- "Do you love me?" in Fiddler on the Roof is a very insightful response to this area.

In Africa Christianity is confronted with the conversion to Christianity of people who nonetheless remain polygamous.Here the issue is sexual exclusivity.

Perhaps the Christian ideal of a loving , sacramental marriage (and today we have to add "heterosexual") must be seen within the context of the ideals of the Sermon on the Mount.



Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jul 22, 2013 2:29pm

Rhett Segall

I think a major issue still not sufficently addressed is the still very widespread phenomena of arranged marriage in Asia and India. 

One of my goals for the summer is to finish an article on arranged marriages, and the nostalgia for them found among so many western Christians.  

Jules van Schaijik

#5, Jul 23, 2013 1:08pm

Thanks for listening to my presentation, Rhett.  I'm glad you liked it.

Rhett Segall, Jul. 22 at 2:24pm

Jules, what is the writing of Lonergan referenced in you talk where he says that VH is inexcusably vague?

I'm referring to his review of Hildebrand's Marriage published in The Canadian Register on May 23, 1942. About von Hildebrand's claim that love is the primary meaning of marriage Lonergan writes:

The difficulty is the studied vagueness of the position. …what is a primary meaning, what would be a secondary meaning, are so many questions conveniently left without an answer. So far is such lack of precision from Catholic philosophy and theology that it reminds one rather of Anglican comprehensiveness.

The review is somewhat disappointing in that it hardly discusses Hildebrand's book at all.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jul 23, 2013 1:26pm

I'm thinking—to answer Lonergan—that social position, remediation of loneliness, practical economy, and desire for progeny might be considered secondary or tertiary meanings of marriage.  

They are all real and valid reasons for wanting to get married.  But they aren't, and shouldn't be, the primary reason we marry.

Jules, do you think it's right to say that at least one way of conceiving of the difference between "end" and "meaning" in von HIldebrand's thought here is that "meaning" has more to do with what makes it what it's "about", its essence, while "end" has more to do with what it "does", its aim?

Jules van Schaijik

#7, Jul 23, 2013 2:12pm

Katie van Schaijik, Jul. 23 at 1:26pm

Jules, do you think it's right to say that at least one way of conceiving of the difference between "end" and "meaning" in von HIldebrand's thought here is that "meaning" has more to do with what makes it what it's "about", its essence, while "end" has more to do with what it "does", its aim?

Yes, I think that's exactly it. That seems to me the natural meaning of the two terms. It may well be, however, that for theological purposes, more precision is needed. It is important to capture that the conjugal act is essentially (though superabundantly) procreative.

Some people thing we should speak of two ends, union and procreation. The difficulty with that, however, is that since procreation is primary, union or love would have to be secondary, which seems intolerable.

Rhett Segall

#8, Jul 23, 2013 4:23pm


Kathy and I have just seen  "Fill the Void", It's about a young Haredi woman in modern day Israel. While there are many dimensions to this film, such as prayer, the ubiquitious role of the Rabbi, honesty, identity, etc, arranged marriage is certainly front and center. 

What is amazing to me is that intelligent, educated people can accept this approach today.

The film is slow and demands an inquiring commitment, but worth the effort.



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