Seventh in a Series on Catholic Marriage and Parenthood
Fr. Thomas J. Gerrard
All who look forward to marriage do so as to a state of ideal happiness. Yet how many fail to realize their ideal! It makes you jump, as Chesterton would say, when you think of what you expected, and compare it with what you have got. So we come round again to the same old theme: if you want to enjoy the Catholic ideal of a perfect marriage you must follow the Catholic rules. He who wishes for the end wishes also the means to the end.
Now, one of the chief means to happiness proposed by the Church is conjugal restraint. It would be very strange if in all the other animal tendencies she counselled moderation, and in this allowed unlimited indulgence. Yes, there can be debauchery in the pleasures of married life just as in the pleasures of eating and drinking. Such excess is a violation of the law of nature, and inevitably brings on nature's punishment. In this, as in all other functions of man, virtue, happiness, and well-being are to be found in moderation, and moderation is secured by rational restraint.
The question before us is not so much as to what is sin or no sin, but rather as to what helps to a higher happiness. The Church allows a wide freedom in the enjoyment of conjugal pleasures. She never for a moment forgets that one of the ends for which marriage was instituted was that it should be a remedy for concupiscence. In order therefore that there shall be no danger of indulgence outside lawful matrimony, the widest possible exercise is permitted within matrimony. The Church goes, hand in hand with nature, to the furthermost of nature's limits before she says that such or such an act is sin. She counsels the married pair, however, not to avail themselves of the whole range of nature's freedom. She declares that rational restraint is the way to the highest and fullest happiness in married life.
The root reason of this counsel is to be found in the fact that by restraint the sexual appetite is brought under control of the will. The will is guided by reason, and reason in its turn is illumined by divine wisdom. Thus, restrained and controlled, the sexual appetite can be directed to the three great ends for which it was made, and thus can it be prevented from abuse, for which it was not made. The order and higher satisfaction thus secured constitute the essence of happiness.
Let us see now how this higher satisfaction is reached. There are three ends for which marriage was instituted, and consequently three reasons which make the marriage act lawful and holy. The first and chief is the begetting of children. The second is the calming of concupiscence, and consequent avoiding of incontinence. The third is the fostering of conjugal love and affection. But all these minister to the perfection both of the individual and of the race. The married pair see in their offspring the continuance of their own life. Their joy is to know that a child is born to them, to see the child grow up and become settled in life, to hear that their own son is making his mark in the world, or that their own daughter is married well and happily.
The second and third reasons minister to the first. Unless there were a remedy for concupiscence, incontinence would follow, and with it all the evils of jealousy, quarrels, illegitimacy, separation, or divorce. Further, the fostering of conjugal love tends both to the increase of offspring, and to its good bringing up when born.
Sensual pleasure for its own sake is not amongst the recognized reasons for the exercise of the marriage act. It passes away with its own satisfaction, and if indulged merely for that purpose has neither use nor dignity. As a matter of fact, it was made to minister to higher ends. It is a mere adjunct to the marriage act, intended to make it attractive for the benefit of the race. If, therefore, it is perverted and made an end in itself, and if its higher ends are excluded, then it defeats the aim of matrimony, it kills the love between husband and wife, it shirks the burden of children.
In order that sensual pleasure may be the servant and not the master of man it must be restrained. It must not be crushed or destroyed. That was the error of Manicheism and Buddhism. But it must be moderated so that it may remain as long as possible a help towards conjugal love, towards the normal satisfaction of the sexual appetite, and towards the procreation of a large and healthy family of children. To let it have its full fling is to lessen its keenness, to destroy its power, and to render it disgusting.
There can be no general law for everybody. What is excess for one pair may be moderation for another. What is moderation for one partner may be excess for the other. Each case must be judged according to its own circumstances.
In deciding this, the existence and the welfare of the offspring is the first consideration. Incontinence tells against the interests of the offspring. Each partner then has the duty of seeing that, as far as possible, the other shall not be exposed to this danger. For the sake of home and family, therefore, each one is bound to render the debt as often as reasonably asked.
For such a sacred purpose either partner should be willing to undergo serious inconvenience. Indeed, marriage is supposed to be fraught with serious inconveniences. These are love's opportunities, and love is given to overcome them. The cares of child-bearing are no excuse for the wife refusing consent, nor yet is the expense of the child's education an excuse for the husband refusing consent. Not even a difficult childbirth is a sufficient reason for refusing. The only justification for refusing is something so serious as to involve danger of death, or long painful illness. Complete debauchery will come within this category. Such excessive indulgence may so weaken a man's will as to render him liable to incontinence. In the interests of conjugal fidelity the wife would in such a case be justified in refusing.
The intention of this chapter, however, is to indicate counsel rather than precept, to point the way of the higher happiness rather than the lowest degree of strict justice. St. Paul is our inspired authority. In laying down his doctrine, he is careful to say that it is a mere recommendation and not a binding obligation.
Defraud not one another, except perhaps, by consent, for a time, that you may give yourselves to prayer; and return together again, lest Satan tempt you for your incontinency.
In the first place, he defends the conjugal rights of each partner. The husband is not to take upon himself any extraordinary restraint without the consent of the wife, nor the wife without consent of the husband. The aim of restraint is to acquire a wider and deeper spiritual life. But to do so at the expense of another's rights is an act of injustice which of its very nature militates against the deeper life desired. God instituted marriage as a remedy for concupiscence. But to deny the right is to put the other partner in danger of incontinence. Such an act of injustice can only entail spiritual loss to all concerned, and become the source of discontent and unhappiness in the family circle.
Lawful restraint requires three conditions. First, it must be by mutual consent; secondly, it must be only for a limited time; and thirdly, it must be for the sake of a higher spiritual life.
All things have their season: a time to embrace and a time to be far from embraces.
And the time most fitted for this abstention is the time of solemn fast or feast.
Blow the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly: let the bridegroom go forth from his bed, and the bride out of her bride-chamber.
The two observances are mutually helpful: the abstention promotes religion, and religion promotes restraint.
The Church makes no law about the times of this restraint. She recommends, however, that it be practiced at the times of the ecclesiastical fasts and festivals. At the end of the marriage service, the priest is directed so to admonish the bridal pair. Owing to the delicacy of the public conscience, this admonition is usually omitted. It remains, however, to be read privately by all those who will avail themselves of the wisdom of Mother Church.
The counsels of St. Paul and the Church are supported by the counsels of nature. Nature will allow a wide liberty, but she will rebel if she is over-taxed. It is astonishing how the race continues, considering the extent to which its reproductive powers are abused. But nature is both kind and strict. She gives ample warning as the limits of moderation are transgressed. If the excess be persistent and grave, she visits the offenders with grave chastisement.
The married pair, then, have the advantage of two guides, nature and religion. Nature will give the first warning against excess. The moderate exercise of the sexual life ought not to interfere with the working-life of either husband or wife. The strength of the weaker partner, then, will be the measure by which restraint is judged.
If the advice of the Church, too, be followed, it will be a strong help to the married couple to regulate their life within the bounds of physical fitness. To be explicit, the Church mentions the eves of all great festivals, and the seasons of Advent and Lent. But, once again, the rule is not one of obligation, but only one of counsel and can thus be changed to suit each one's individual needs.
This restraint is not accomplished by unaided nature. It is the result of a special grace of God which is conferred through the matrimonial Sacrament. The woman is the minister of grace to the man, and the man to the woman. Grace is given to accomplish all the ends of matrimony. But this restraint is needed for these ends. Therefore it will be supported by grace. Thus, the Catholic ideal is again seen to be the power making for family happiness. It tends to keep the parents in good health and consequently tends to produce a healthy offspring. In preventing excess, it prevents the married pair from becoming mere instruments of pleasure for each other, and consequently promotes a reverence and love which debauchery would destroy.
Now, although this abstention during ecclesiastical seasons is not of obligation, yet there are occasions when it is of obligation; and it will then be difficult to observe unless the non-obligatory restraint has been practiced.
Common decency demands that abstinence should be observed during the whole period of menstruation. The same must be said of the time immediately following childbirth. There is an idea prevalent, especially amongst the poorer classes, that it is bad luck to return to the married life until the woman has been churched. There is no rule of the Church to this effect. But it is a good custom, provided it is regarded merely as a custom and not adorned with the sanction of magic, of good luck, or bad luck.
Then comes the question of times of illness. For one partner there is danger of grave illness, whilst for the other there is danger of incontinency. Rather than expose a partner to the danger of sin, the other partner is bound to suffer grave inconvenience, but is not bound to go so far as to incur dangerous illness. It is difficult sometimes to draw the line, and wherever the line is drawn it means dissatisfaction for one or other of the parties concerned. How much better it would be, then, if both had practiced restraint when it was not of obligation! It would have produced a habit of mind and heart, by which the stronger partner would show a tender regard for the weaker. It would have become an effective expression of love, powerful to create a return love and thus to weld anew the marriage bond.
There may also arise the necessity of temporary separation on account of business. A commercial traveler may be away from home for months at a time. A sailor may be ordered abroad for a year or perhaps two. Whenever possible a man should take his wife with him on his travels. But since this, for many, is not practicable, the mind must be especially strengthened by the practice of restraint when it is not obligatory.
The plight of the very poor calls for special consideration. There are thousands upon thousands who have not got a living wage, yea, indeed, thousands upon thousands who have no wages at all. A poor dock-laborer of Liverpool, writing to me on various topics of the social question, thus very delicately tells his story. He says:
I will now touch briefly on the birthrate. Many good, earnest-minded men have often said of us workers that it was a crime for a man earning a small wage to marry and bring children into the world whose only heritage was one of poverty and want. Too well do we know with what anxiety the arrival of each little new-comer is looked forward to, as it means more to feed and clothe, while the earning power of the bread-winner is gradually growing less. But as the Church tells us that we are obeying the law of God, we may well ask 'Is it ever to be thus? Must we, in order to do what we were created for, commit a serious crime against our own offspring?' And in this dilemma we inquire: 'Which is the greater criminal, the working-man for obeying God's law, or he who is responsible for his condition in life and who prevents him from rearing his family in decency and comfort?' Although I look on little children as precious heirlooms sent from God, and with full knowledge that they beget happiness, could I be blamed should I advise my sons not to marry till late in life, or else refrain from marriage altogether; and so further restrict the birthrate, the decline of which is causing so much agitation throughout the country?
The writer is a good Catholic and so does not go so far as to suggest the artificial restriction within marriage. This evil, though, is closely bound up with the economic evil of which he speaks.
Let it be said at once, then, that poverty is no bar to the Sacrament of marriage. The poor are entitled to receive all the graces and all the joys which pertain to the marriage state, including the possession of children. Poverty in its extremity - destitution, that is - is a deplorable evil; but it is a mere trifle compared with the sins of incontinency which would surely follow if the poor were forbidden to marry. It is a mere trifle compared with that detestable sin against nature, the artificial restrictions of the birthrate.
Of course, there is no reason why young people should not abstain from marriage until they have a living wage, or, having married, abstain from the marriage act, provided this can be done without danger of incontinency. This course, indeed, may be profitably recommended and the Sacraments of the Church will be the best help in carrying it out. But Satan will be busy amongst those who try it. If it fails, marriage is the remedy in spite of all poverty, marriage and all the normal blessings of marriage, the procreation of children, the avoidance of incontinency, and the promotion of mutual love and affection. And if eventually the marriage is to be made ideal and despoiled of the stigma of destitution, it can only be by fidelity to the complete ideal of the Church, for it pertains to the complete ideal of the Church that a man should receive as much wages for his labor as will keep himself, his wife, and his family in reasonable and frugal comfort.
The sexual question, therefore, though largely a physical and economic one, is at bottom a religious one. The restraint needful for a happy marriage wants religious illumination and strength. The marriage bond has its likeness in the bond between Christ and the Church, namely, the bond of intense, strong love. The marriage bond is thus something quite distinct from lust. Lust seeks its own animal gratification, regardless of any other end but its own indulgence. Love, however, seeks the higher well-being. The love of the married pair, then, will be tender above all things. It will be selfless to a degree so that the weaker party has every consideration. Whatever sensual pleasure may be incidental to this love, all will be controlled and directed to the higher well-being of husband, wife, and children.