“Treat yourself,” my friend said. “It will be a shot in the arm for your marriage.” He was encouraging me to read Pius XI’s December 1930 encyclical, Casti Connubii (Chaste Marriage). As it turns out, it’s more than a treat. It’s strong medicine for what ails marriage more than eighty years after it was penned.
Pius XI set out to expound “on the nature and dignity of Christian marriage, on the advantages and benefits which accrue from it to the family and to human society itself, on the errors contrary to this most important point of the Gospel teaching, on the vices opposed to conjugal union, and lastly on the principal remedies to be applied.”
But let’s begin with the title.
To most twenty-first century ears, the title “Chaste Marriage” seems paradoxical if not downright contradictory. We think chastity is a synonym for celibacy. It’s not.
Some, the unmarried primarily, are called to celibacy, that is, abstaining from sex. But everyone, married or single, is called to chastity. Chastity is the virtue that keeps sexuality in its place, subject to God’s revealed will and to reason. And it’s in that context that Pius addresses the nature of marriage.
The most important fact about marriage is that it’s God’s idea. Pius insisted
. . . that matrimony was not instituted or restored by man but by God; not by man were the laws made to strengthen and confirm and elevate it but by God, the Author of nature, and by Christ Our Lord by Whom nature was redeemed, and hence these laws cannot be subject to any human decrees or to any contrary pact even of the spouses themselves.
Even in the 1930s, the meaning of marriage was up for grabs. Divorce was increasingly commonplace as more countries made it legal and easier to obtain. Couples opted for open marriages and cohabitation, prostitution was widespread, and contraception made it all that much easier. These distortions were then and are now chipping away at marriage.
But it’s not just the libertine side of the culture that has redefined marriage. Many of us in the Church have helped.
My wife and I took our marriage vows thirty-three years ago. We promised . . . actually, we have no idea what specifically we promised. You see, we wrote our own wedding vows, and while they must be around here someplace, we can’t find them.
Now one way or another we more or less promised “to have and to hold . . . forsaking all others . . . till death us do part.” Our vows conformed to what the Bible (and Pius XI) teaches about marriage. But with our own little twists. And it’s those idiosyncratic twists that should at least give us pause. Enough of them over time necessarily result in distortion. Marriage must be what God says it is, not what we would like it to be.
This is because marriage, as God designed it, comes with blessings, Pius’s second subject. “Amongst the blessings of marriage,” he wrote, “the child holds first place.” After all:
God wishes men to be born not only that they should live and fill the earth, but much more that they may be worshippers of God, that they may know Him and love Him and finally enjoy Him for ever in heaven. . . .
Married couples have the blessing of cooperating with God by giving birth to little immortals, ones created for unending joy with God. Such a blessing is not to be missed by married couples who are able to have children.
Marriage also blesses couples with “conjugal honor,” which is “the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof.” Marriage is about spousal unity in love.
These are intimately connected with the third blessing Pius lists, the sacramental quality of marriage. This includes the stability that comes from living the words of Jesus, “What God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mark 10:9). In the stability of marriage, husband and wife enjoy “that particular grace by which ‘it perfects natural love, it confirms and indissoluable union, and sanctifies both man and wife.’” They also paint a picture of God’s unchangeable love for his people.
Pius then turned to errors about marriage: that humans invented marriage and thus can change it to suit their tastes, that children are an optional burden rather than a blessing, that marital fidelity is a thing of the past, and that marriage is a secular institution subject to the state rather than the Church. How little things have changed since 1930.
Finally he outlined the remedies, his plan for fixing marriage.
The first is to give ourselves wholly to God. This comes as we recognize the power and destructiveness of what Pius calls “unbridled lust.” We want what we want when we want it—or else. It’s part of original sin and, he wrote, “since man cannot hold in check his passions, unless he first subject himself to God, this must be his primary endeavor, in accordance with the plan divinely ordained.”
To use an old illustration, marriage is like a triangle—husband and wife on the angles at the base, God at the angle at the top. As husband and wife move up the sides and get closer to God, they necessarily get closer to each other. Neither the problems in any individual marriage nor the problems in the culture can be solved without devotion to God.
After that, Pius wrote, we need instruction about marriage from the Church combined with a willingness to accept the Church’s authority. Every Christian should read the Bible, but reading with private judgment instead of reading with the Church can only get us into trouble.
“Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church,” wrote St. Paul in Ephesians 5:25. He did not intend to present a justification for divorce and no church teaches that he did. Yet I know of at least one woman whose private judgment led her to divorce her husband because, while he loved her, he failed to love her “as Christ loved the Church.” She remained a church member in good standing.
The need among Christians for clear, authoritative teaching about marriage continues to be enormous. This includes, as Pius pointed out, the need to instruct our children. “For it cannot be denied,” he said, “that the basis of a happy wedlock, and the ruin of an unhappy one, is prepared and set in the souls of boys and girls during the period of childhood and adolescence.” And so parents, teachers, and youth ministers have to enlist in the cause.
Of course, Pius knew that instruction is not enough. In addition to knowledge, we need “a determination of the will, on the part of husband and wife, to observe the sacred laws of God and of nature in regard to marriage.” A good marriage, as they say, takes work.
Only after focusing on the responsibility of Christians to live the truth of marriage does Pius turn to the state and its responsibility to protect and promote marriage. The state is tasked with the good of its citizens and “the prosperity of the State and the temporal happiness of its citizens cannot remain safe and sound where the foundation on which they are established, which is the moral order, is weakened and where the very fountainhead from which the State draws its life, namely, wedlock and the family, is obstructed by the vices of its citizens.” Pro-marriage and pro-family activism is fully appropriate—beginning in our own homes.
Reflecting on Pius’s remedies, I’m reminded of what G.K. Chesterton wrote about Christianity: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” Similarly, Pius XI’s remedies for what ails marriage—remedies set forth more than eighty years ago—have not been tried and found wanting. They have been found difficult and not tried. As a result, marriage has been in a slow death spiral for over a century. Beginning with individual marriages and with the Church, it’s time to learn, teach, and live the biblical vision of marriage and family.
And since you don’t need to be Catholic to read Casti Connubii, let me commend it to you as a wise game plan—and as a treat.
Jim Tonkowich is a senior fellow at The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, and former editor of BreakPoint. More of his work is available at JimTonkowich.com.
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