Why Catholic, Sacramental Marriage is Not “Just a Piece of Paper”

The philosopher and theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) wrote with profound insight on marriage, especially marriage from a Catholic, sacramental perspective.

His insights helped shape an understanding of intimacy from a Christian perspective, and informed Catholic teaching on the concept of mutuum adjutorium (mutual assistance) as an essential attribute of marriage.

Von Hildebrand studied phenomenology with its founder, Edmund Husserl, in the early years of the Twentieth Century, shortly before another Husserl protege, St. Edith Stein. Von Hildebrand was a friend of the philosopher Max Scheler, who assisted von Hildebrand in his conversion to Catholicism in 1914. Von Hildebrand’s thought is also sometimes classified within the traditions of personalism.

Dietrich von Hildebrand demonstrated great moral courage by publicly and continuously criticizing the Nazis, was condemned to death in absentia by them, and was forced to flee into exile on more than one occasion, narrowly escaping with his life.

Von Hildebrand brought a different perspective to the Catholic understanding of marriage which had for centuries followed the construct, as established by St. Augustine of Hippo and followed by St. Thomas Aquinas, of the ends of marriage being proles (offspring), fides (fidelity), and sacramentum (sacrament). Von Hildebrand wrote, “In stressing the primary end of marriage–procreation–certain theological treatises have overlooked the primary meaning of marriage, which is love. (Dietrich von Hildebrand, Marriage, Longmans Green and Co., NY, 1942, p. vi.)”

Von Hildebrand has been credited with influencing Chapter I of the Vatican II Pastoral Constitution on the Church and the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes and the approach of Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, who discussed a unitive aspect of marriage as well as a procreative.

In his book, In Defense of Purity (later republished as Purity:
The Mystery of Christian Sexuality)
, originally a series of 1925 lectures, von Hildebrand wrote of the three traditional ends of Catholic marriage already noted above:

“There exists, however, a profound relation of quality between the bodily union and that psychological and spiritual factor of specifically matrimonial love formulated under the terms of mutuum adjutorium (mutual assistance), and fides (fidelity) as one of these three ends. We have here to do with an organic unity, deeply rooted in the attributes of wedded love on the one hand and of sex on the other. And just because sex is so uniquely intimate and represents the secret of the person concerned, the sexual gift of one person to another signifies an incomparably close union with that other and a self-surrender to him or her. The sexual union is thus the organic expression of wedded love, which intends precisely this mutual gift of self.

There are, to be sure, certain modern theories which exaggerate beyond all measure the part played by sex, while nevertheless missing its deeper significance, and venture the absurd thesis that love in general, and not only the love between man and woman, is a sublimation of the sex instinct. Such a doctrine betrays, in the first place, complete failure to understand the spiritual structure of the personality, and secondly, an entire misapprehension of the nature of love, the supreme actuation of the spirit. We can understand the nature of love without and reference to sex; indeed, it is only in that way that we can understand clearly the distinctive quality of the genuine act of love. We can understand it best in its source, the Divine Love, as it issues from the most sacred Heart of Jesus, where every thought of sex fails. It is therefore of the first importance to realize the complete independence and sovereignty in respect of sex of love generally. But the specific quality not only of love as such, but of wedded love in particular, is independent of the physical aspect of sex. What distinguishes wedded love from other kinds of love–for example, love of parents or children or the love between two friends–is the quality of the love itself, the distinctive correlation between two persons, the completion of both parties, which only this kind of love affects, and that unique splendor which invests “being in love” in the noble sense. It is impossible to reduce all this to the so-called sex instinct.

The distinction between male and female, whose roots lie far deeper than the biological sphere, is certainly the presupposition alike of the power to complete and of the distinctive splendor of wedded love. But, on the other hand, the view that physical sex is a purely external addition to wedded love, in the sense that pride may be added to love, as, for example, to parents’ love for a child, is equally false. On the contrary, I can only understand that true significance and nature of physical sex from above, from wedded love. The moment I treat physical sex as something complete in itself and make no account of its profoundest function, namely, in wedded love, I falsify its ultimate significance and become blind to the mystery it contains. Physical sex is certainly something distinct from love, but nevertheless, between it and wedded love there subsists a pre-established harmony. Its true significance as an experience is inseparable from its character as the expression and flower of a specific kind of love. The man who has grasped the meaning of sex recognizes its central position–intimacy and mystery–and understands the distinctive quality of the act of marriage as uniting and amalgamating the partners, also the unique connection which subsists between physical sex and wedded love and, moreover, knows why sex alone and not any other bodily function must enter into this combination.”

Dietrich von Hildebrand, In Defense of Purity: An Analysis of the Catholic Ideals of Purity and Virginity, Franciscan Herald Press, 1970, pp. 7-10. Used copies available here.

Von Hildebrand recognized in a very concrete way that human beings have a spiritual nature, and developed his expositions on marriage around this fact. Von Hildebrand also recognized that love is a divine and eternal gift, and that married love participates in this divine gift.

Since von Hildebrand’s influential writing on marriage ironically appeared in a book on purity and virginity cited above, he responded in 1942 with a short but very powerful book specifically on marriage. The chapter on “Love and the Mystery of Sacramental Marriage” should be closely considered by every husband and wife undertaking vows of marriage in the Catholic Church. Here is a salient excerpt:

“We have found that the primary meaning of marriage which enables it to serve as an image of the relationship between the soul and God, consists in that closest communion of love whereby two persons become one–one heart, one soul, one flesh. But what relation does this communion bear toward Jesus, toward the salvation of the soul, toward the Kingdom of God? Let us first consider the supernatural significance of sacramental marriage: what transformation of natural marriage takes place and what is brought into the sacrament from the natural marriage. Let us consider further the sublime value of marriage and the incomparably high rank it holds among all other earthly communities. He who was heard by Saint John saying: “Behold, I make all things new,” also elevated marriage, the most noble community of mankind, to unprecedented heights and invested it with sublime dignity.

Great as is this permanent community of love in itself, marriage objectively as well as subjectively is all the more sublime in Christ and the Holy Church. Christian marriage solemnly engaged in for Christ and in Christ, in the light of eternity, and carrying with it a sense of the deepest responsibility, differs radically from even the noblest natural marriage in which one spouse sees the other only within the limits of the natural order. A world of difference separates the two.

Conjugal love undergoes a deep, even a qualitative change in the living members of the Mystical Body of Christ. Not that wedded love ceases to have the characteristics discussed above: mutual self-giving, the character of an I-Thou communion, the living for each other, and the formation of a complete unity as a couple closed off from the rest of earthly things. Indeed, it does not cease in any way to be conjugal love in the full sense of the word. The supernatural does not dissolve this finest earthly good, but transfigures it. “The greater the man, the deeper his love,” Leonardo da Vinci said. And Lacordaire said: “There are not two loves–and earthly love and a divine one. It is one and the same feeling, with the sole difference that one is infinite.” Conjugal love represents something so great, so ultimate, so vitally enveloping of the whole person, that its depth can be taken as a measure of the depth and greatness of the whole man. It offers the highest and noblest earthly happiness, one which fills the soul more than any other value on earth. It is the most noble of natural powers, moving the world beyond anything else. Thus the Canticle of Canticles says: “If a man should give all the substance of his house for love, he shall despise it as nothing.”

This conjugal love is fully preserved in Christian marriage. But it assumes a completely new depth, a completely new seriousness, purity and unselfishness in those persons who see everything consciously in the sight of God, who are aware that all things acquire an authentic importance only in Jesus and through Jesus, and who consider their own sanctification and that of others for the glory of God as the primordial, true task of man. Conjugal love is here based upon sublime Christian charity. This is not to say that conjugal love does not represent something completely new in relation to the love of our neighbor and that it must not conserve its specific nature, but rather that love in Christian marriage is fully aware that the beloved is a being created by God, even more, an image of God–indeed, an immortal soul redeemed by the blood of Jesus, loved by Jesus with an infinite and eternal love. The whole individual charm and the particular atmosphere of the beloved which touches in a unique way the soul of the consort–these are incomparably ennobled when they appear as a particular aspect of the eternal value of the spiritual person who has become a temple of the Holy Ghost.

So long as we do not conceive of the person as an image of God, as an immortal soul destined to eternal communion with God, above all, so long as we do not consider the person as a vessel of grace, we have not grasped the authentic dignity and ultimate solemnity which is invested in the beloved and which is connected with the destiny, depth, and beauty which this person is called upon to fulfill. How greatly is conjugal love increased and deepened when we recognize in the beloved a member of the Mystical Body of Christ, belonging to Christ as we ourselves belong to Him. What respect and chastity must permeate conjugal love which is aware of this mystery! What sublime rhythm, far beyond that of even the most ardent and noble natural love, must penetrate it! We see here in what sense the conjugal love of the Christian also embraces the supernatural love of our neighbor. In this way, conjugal love in its entirety is deeply transformed and acquires an extraordinary solemnity, an unexpected depth, for in loving the partner love Christ simultaneously. In the beloved we love Christ. . . .

Only in the marriage fulfilled in God does the objectivity and validity inherent in every marriage find its full achievement. Here only is achieved the full realization of the unity and communion of love in an existence which is independent of the changing dispositions and feelings of either consort. This communion only represents in itself a good for which both partners must strive and make sacrifices. Here only does marriage become a reality that does not exist exclusively for the consorts, but something for which the consorts themselves exist.

Christian marriage embraces even more than all this. Not only is it concluded in God, but the partners’ promise of mutual fidelity is also a promise made to Christ. This solemn union is not only contracted with the spouse; it also concerns Christ to whom both partners belong as members of His Mystical Body. The conclusion of marriage, therefore, becomes a consecration to God which may be likened to a religious vow. It does not only mean that both spouses give themselves to each other in God; they give themselves anew to Christ in the other; the sacred tie is placed in the hands of Christ, is confided to Him; the marriage bond belongs to Him. To unfold this bond in its ideal form, to cherish it as a sublime community of love, to protect it as a sanctuary from every profanation, is a divine service.”

Dietrich von Hildebrand, Marriage, Longmans Green and Co., NY, 1942, pp. 33-41; currently available from Sophia Institute Press.

Those who do not embark on Catholic, sacramental marriage are missing something eternal! The gift of such a marriage, and of the spouses to each other, can be eternal life in Christ. So why not give the best?

Christian marriage got a good send-up with the famous scene in the film the Princess Bride, in which the bishop intoned, “Mawwiage is what bwings us togethow, today.”

But for the Catholic, marriage not only brings us here today, but to eternity.

For more about Dietrich von Hildebrand see the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.

© Copyright 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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  1. […] 20th century philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), best known in the English-speaking world for his writings on human intimacy and […]

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