Theology of the Body for a Married Couple

An Introduction to the Modern View of Marriage

In today’s post-Christian society, marriage as an institution is in shambles.  Almost half of all marriages end in divorce with fewer and fewer people even “tying the knot” than just a few decades ago.  Movies and the media have made love out to be only an emotional and physical feeling of erotic passion.  When this feeling, which is simply “eros”, goes away, so too does love; or so says modernity.  This leads to a view of marriage as only a contract.  For example, two people of any sex (due to the rapid push of LGBT legislation — especially Obergerfell) can choose to enter into a legal contract, share finances and benefits, have children, and be so-called “marriage” according to the state.  That is all society proposes the purpose of marriage to be — a matter of individual preference cemented by some sort of ceremony legally contracting the individuals together along with a sexual relationship.

The irony of this, that marriage is viewed only in terms of a contract, is astounding since with current divorce laws one party can unilaterally break the contract with no repercussions and without any consent of the other party.  Nowhere else in contract law can this occur.  Somehow our culture has accepted the idea that in the most sacred and profound contract one can enter into in with another human person in this life, it has less value than a cell phone contract.  The societal view on marriage, needless to say, is far from correct.  Instead, the true purpose of marriage is far more than a contract, though a contract it is.

The Purpose of Marriage: The Natural Viewpoint

If marriage is not for the purpose our modern society says it is, what is its purpose?  Now, the purpose of marriage is rightly wrapped into two dimensions — the natural dimension and the divine dimension.  These two dimensions correspond to human nature through reason (the natural dimension) and the divine plan for marriage (the divine dimension).  Each will be developed in this brief essay, but emphasis will be primarily placed on the divine plan for marriage since it is within the divine plan for marriage that the Theology of the Body is found in its completion.

As a base of understanding, St. Thomas, in Summa Contra Gentiles, offers the three-fold aspect of marriage:

“There are three goods of matrimony as a sacrament of the Church: namely, offspring to be accepted and educated for the worship of God; fidelity by which one man is bound to one wife; and the sacrament – and, in accord with this, there is indivisibility in the marriage union, in so far as it is a sacrament of the union of Christ and the Church.”[1]

Though this, of course, is viewing marriage from a divine perspective as a sacrament, one can still use this as a foundation to examine the natural order of marriage. Procreation especially can be seen to be a natural and essential good of marriage.  This is because of all the biological functions of the human person, procreation is the only function that cannot be fulfilled within a single person.  Digestion, for example, takes place completely within one person.  So too does the powers of intellect and the will.  Procreation, as a biological function, requires the complementarity of the sexes.  A new life, materially speaking, can only come from the sexual union of one male and one female.  Even modern science, with its highly disordered abuses of nature, cannot create life without the matter of the man and of the woman.  Further, no one can claim that modern fertility techniques that seek to “create” children from the materials of three persons[2] is in any way natural.

So, examining the natural means of procreation that is indeed a necessary biological function of the human person, it is obvious that one man and one woman are required to provide the matter for new life.  A sexual encounter between two men cannot bring forth new life, nor can a sexual encounter between two women.  Further, it is not just the matter of a sexual encounter between one man and one woman — procreation can only come from the conjugal union.  Properly said, that means that a sexual encounter that is not the conjugal union serves no purpose towards the natural propagation of the human species.

St. Thomas, in his Summa Theologica, demonstrated that marriage is of natural law by drawing largely from Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics. He argues that marriage is natural in two ways: “in relation to the principal end of matrimony, namely the good of offspring…(2nd) in relation to the secondary end of matrimony, which is the mutual services which married persons render one another in household matters.”[3]

This viewpoint, which our society rejects, is not simply the viewpoint of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church outside which there is no salvation.  Since its origin is found in human nature and the natural law, one can know that procreation is an end of marriage when examining the question from human reason alone.  “Ancient thinkers who had no contact with religions such as Judaism or Christianity — including Xenophanes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Musonius Rufus, and Plutarch — reached remarkably similar views of marriage.”[4]  Aristotle especially developed the understanding that the biological function of the propagation of the species can only be fulfilled by one man and one woman.[5]

In their work, What is Marriage?, authors Girgis, Anderson, and George argue further about the purpose of marriage from a non-religious base.  They argue that marriage is more than just the conjugal act since it encompasses essential aspects without which human cannot exist.  They state:

“In short, marriage is ordered to family life because the act by which spouses make love also makes new life; one and the same act both seals a marriage and brings forth children.  That is why marriage alone is the loving union of mind and body fulfilled by the procreation — and rearing — of whole new human beings.”[6]

Further tying their argument to the above mentioned understanding of marriage by Aristotle, they state:

“If bodily union is essential to marriage, we can understand why marriage, like the union of organs into one healthy whole, should be total and lasting for the life of the parts (’till death us do part’). Being organically united — as ‘one flesh’ — spouses should have, by commitment, the exclusive and lifelong unity that the parts of a healthy organic body have by nature.”[7]

Natural marriage necessitates a commitment to fidelity and permanence because without these, the good of the child (a principle end of marriage) is not realized.  The importance of marriage as being for the good of procreation is why Aristotle placed the family as the core building block of society.  Without the family, united through the fidelity and permanence of the parents’ marriage, society is in a chaotic downward spiral.  A downward spiral that our current society has been caught in for decades.

Since from a natural viewpoint can be shown to be for the sake of the spouses in raising up children, which is why the marital act found within marriage is to be permanent and exclusive, the issue of contraception and infertility arise as a natural issue prior to a being a moral issue.  Simply put, contraception is an unnatural frustration of the principal end of marriage and for that reason, is against the natural order of marriage.  Infertility, on the other hand, is not an unnatural frustration of the principal end of marriage; instead, infertility is the result of a natural defect which is no fault of the spouses nor does it make their marriage less of a marriage.  The difference between the two is vast and, since the issue of contraception is most easily examined under the viewpoint of the divine plan for marriage, this essay will address it further in depth in a further section.

The Purpose of Marriage: The Divine Plan for Marriage

Since the natural viewpoint of marriage has been examined, we will now examine the divine plan for marriage.  This is where the Theology of the Body can be most fully seen since in the divine plan for marriage, marriage has been perfected and sanctified.

Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical On Christian Marriage, acknowledged that marriage is for “propagation of the human race”.  He notes that the sacrament of marriage most aptly fulfills this natural role when spouses bring “forth…children for the Church, ‘fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God’; so that ‘a people might be born and brought up for the worship and religion of the true God and our Saviour [sic] Jesus Christ.'”[8]

And, utterly consistent with the previous examination of marriage from a natural viewpoint, Pope Leo XIII continues in his encyclical:

“[When] we consider the end of the divine institution of marriage, we shall see very clearly that God intended it to be a most fruitful source of individual benefit and of public welfare, not only, in strict truth, was marriage instituted for the propagation of the human race, but also that the lives of husbands and wives might be made better and happier…many and glorious fruits were ever the product of marriage, so long as it retained those gifts of holiness, unity, and indissolubility from which proceeded all its fertile and saving power.”[9]

The divine plan for marriage is further explained and affirmed by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical, Casti Connubii.  He, adhering to the perfect teachings of Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church, shows that the divine plan for marriage has principally three goods: the raising up of children for the worship of God; for the sanctification of the spouses and their attainment of salvation; and as a remedy for concupiscence.  [10]

This teaching tradition, shown in the writings of both aforementioned Popes, has been one consistently taught by the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church outside which there is no salvation.  Since the goal of this early life is to attain eternal salvation, knowing the divine plan for marriage is vital since most people are called to follow Christ through the vocation of marriage.

Understanding marriage as a sacrament, one must look back to the beginning, that is, prior to sin when man was in the state of Original Justice.  St. Thomas Aquinas notes that since marriage “was instituted for the begetting of children…[and] the begetting of children was necessary to man before sin…therefore it behooved Matrimony to be instituted before sin.”[11]  This is in accordance with Pope St. John Paul II’s (JPII) examination on the Theology of the Body which begins with Genesis and the state of Original Justice.  It is from this foundation that JPII moves on to show the re-elevation of marriage by Christ.

After the fall of man, marriage was gravely abused.  Of these abuses, the paramount abuse could be said to be the introduction of divorce.  Clearly seen in Sacred Scripture, any allowance for divorce by the Patriarchs was due to the frailty of the human condition under Original Sin, not because the divine plan for marriage allowed for divorce.  With the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, He once again elevated marriage to how God intended it — as a sacrament.  This can be seen in His defense of what marriage was intended to be in the beginning, that is, in the Genesis account.  Christ states,

” Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.’ [The Pharisees] said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.'”[12]

This lengthy quote from Our Lord, Jesus Christ, is vitally important because there is no greater authority than God Himself.  It is abundantly clear from the Gospel accounts and the New Testament in general, that marriage is to be exactly what we have shown marriage to naturally be in the first part of this essay.  That is, an exclusive, permanent union of one man and one woman for the bearing and raising up of children.  The added element of the divine plan as compared to the natural viewpoint of marriage is the divine plan is ordered towards the salvation of souls.

The divine plan affirms that marriage is indissoluble[13] and that the marital act is made only for marriage.  It further affirms that marriage is ordered to the bearing and raising up of children to know, love, and serve God.  The divine plan for marriage goes beyond the natural end of marriage because it is ordered to the salvation of souls, but it does not destroy any aspect of natural marriage.  Simply put, the divine plan for marriage perfects natural marriage and raises it to the level of a sacrament; it raises marriage union to the same level as Jesus Christ is united with His Bride, the Church.

Living the Divine Plan for Marriage: Chastity Within Marriage

The previous examinations have laid out the purpose of marriage from both a natural viewpoint as well as it is in accord with the divine plan.  In a culture that denies both of these claims, it is not surprising that knowing how to live the natural or divine plan for marriage is extremely difficult.  That is why it is so important for faithful Catholics to share the Truth of Jesus Christ with others especially in this most important area the effects all our lives.

First and foremost, it needs to be shared that marriage truly does affect every single person.  A good and moral society can only exist upon the solid foundation of a stable marriage culture.  When marriages fall apart through divorce, individuals are left in an unstable, chaotic environment.  Children are especially affected and there are many studies that clearly demonstrate this.[14]  Further, marriage, even simply natural marriage, is an exclusive and permanent union between one man and one woman ordered to the raising of children.  When marriage is no longer viewed as permanent or exclusive, or if it unnaturally frustrates the end of marriage that is procreation, grave harm comes to both society and individuals.

With this foundation, the a second, more difficult, topic must be shared with our culture — the immorality of contraception and its destructive nature.  This is, as previously noted, primarily a moral question though it is apparent from natural law as well.  Since it is primarily a moral question, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, is a fitting place to start.

Pope Paul VI states, “the problem of birth, like every other problem regarding human life, is to be considered, beyond partial perspectives — whether of the biological or psychological, demographic or sociological orders — in the light of an integral vision of man and of his vocation, not only his natural and earthly, but also his supernatural and eternal vocation.”[15]

Since procreation is an end of marriage, and since, as we saw in the examination of the divine plan for marriage, the sacrament of marriage is ordered for the salvation of souls, Pope Paul rightly ties the issue of contraception with the divine plan for marriage.  His thought was largely influential in JPII’s own examination of the Theology of the Body who said, “This language of the body is something more than mere sexual relation.  As authentic language of the persons, it is subject to the demands of truth, that is, to objective moral norms.”[16]  Tying in with our development of both the natural viewpoint and the divine plan, JPII notes that the issue of the act of contraception “belongs not only to the natural moral law, but also to the moral order revealed by God.”[17]  Contraception, then is against both the natural law and the divine plan for marriage.  It is, as clearly taught by the Church, an intrinsic evil which means that an act of contraception is always grave sin.

To frustrate the marital act through the use of contraception is opposed to the Theology of the Body because the marital act is an act of complete gift of one’s self to another.  When a married couple uses contraception, they are lying with their bodies because though they are acting with their bodies in such a manner that should be a complete gift of one’s self, they are in fact keeping part of themselves from their spouse.  JPII summarizes this well when he says, “In the conjugal act it is not licit to separate the unitive aspect [of marriage] from the procreative aspect, because both the one and the other pertain to the intimate truth of the conjugal act…the conjugal act, deprived of its interior truth because it is artificially deprived of its procreative capacity, ceases also to be an act of love.”[18]

The “mastery of self”, however, through the use of periodic continence based around the natural rhythm of fertility, is not intrinsically evil.  Since such self mastery is in accord with the divine plan, one can prudently space births using such means and the marital act remains a loving act in accord with the Theology of the Body.  If, however, one where to use periodic continence to avoid pregnancy without valid reasons, JPII notes that this is a separate ethical problem than contraception since the act is not intrinsically evil.

Now this leads to the third important truth on marriage and the theology of the body that needs to be shared with our modern society — that the spacing of births must be done in accord with prudence and for licit reasons.  Pope Paul VI states that if “there are reasonable grounds for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological conditions of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that then married people may take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and use their marriage at precisely those times that are infertile, and in this way control birth without offending moral principles.”[19]

Such a use of the marital act does not offend moral principles because, as noted previously, it is in accord with both natural and divine law.  That being said, the weight of the reason to avoid pregnancy must be grave since “the concept of responsible parenthood contains the disposition not merely to avoid a further birth but also to increase the family in accordance with the criteria of prudence.”[20]  God made man to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) so the norm of marriage is to bear and raise children according to the natural cycle of fertility that God placed in nature.  Given that man is a rational animal, he can apply his reason even to the regulation of birth, but, given that he is a sinner, he must be very careful that he is acting not in accord with his own will, but with God’s.

Finally, the fourth important message of the Theology of the Body and of marriage that should be shared with all mankind is the difference between eros and agape.  Both eros and agape are a type of love.  In fact, the marital act rightly includes eros since, as St. Thomas explains, “it is not a mortal sin for a man to use his wife merely to satisfy his desire.”[21]  Granted, such an act is a venial sin, but, as such, a venial sin does not cut one off completely from the grace of God nor is a venial sin utterly opposed to the Theology of the Body.  Therefore, eros is a proper part of love within a marriage if it is not in opposition to the natural or divine plan for marriage.

As explained by Pope Pius XI “there is no possible circumstances in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties and preserve in wedlock their chastity unspotted.” [22]  This gives us hope that, even in our fallen state, the married vocation can be a source of sanctification of the spouses and the means by which one attains salvation.  Chastity within marriage, then, is attainable and begins with the Theology of the Body, that is, with the true and complete gift of self from one spouse to the other.  It means not lusting after even one’s own spouse, but treating them with love that respects their dignity and personhood.  As JPII notes, “It is though that in which the human eros closes its horizon is still opened, through Paul’s words, to another horizon of love that speaks another language, the love that seems to emerge from another dimension of the person, and which calls, invites, to another communion.  This love has been called agape and agape brings the eros to completion by purifying it.”[23]


In this essay, we examined the foundations of marriage from both a natural law and divine plan perspective.  This foundation is essential to understanding the Theology of the Body today in the modern world since if one does not realize the natural or divine foundations of marriage, they will not be able to accept or understand the hard truths that come from them — truths that, though hard, set us free to live fully in Jesus Christ.  Since to evangelize includes to share the Truth of Jesus Christ, which is an intellectual endeavor, all Catholics should be prepared to do so — to “give a defense” for what they believe as Sacred Scripture states.

After laying down a foundation about the purposes of marriage, Catholics are called to share the divine plan for marriage and those things that are part of living out that divine plan.  This includes teaching about the indissolubility of marriage, the illicit and evil nature of contraception, that marriage must be open to live and the raising up of children to know, love and serve God, and that the ideal love of marriage, agape, perfects and completes the eros of the marital act.  Though this is a difficult task, it is a task we are all called to and, through the grace and providence of God, we have been given the resources to do so especially from the Theology of the Body of Pope St. John Paul II.


[1] St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles: Book 4: Salvation. p.296

[2] cf. “UK Allows 3-parent embryos in new ‘genetic engineering’ regulations” from LifeSiteNews

[3] St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica Part V, Q41, A1. p.2699

[4] Girgis, Anderson, & George. What is Marriage? p.10

[5] Girgis, Anderson, & George. What is Marriage? p.102

[6] Girgis et. al. What is Marriage? p.30

[7] Girgis et. al What is Marriage? p.33

[8] Pope Leo XIII. Arcanum. p.10

[9] Pope Leo XIII. Arcanum. p.26-27

[10] Pope Pius XI. Casti Connubii.

[11] St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica Part V, Q42, A2, p.2704

[12] Matthew 19:3ff

[13] cf. Casti Connubii, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thomas More, St. Thomas Fisher, Sacred Scripture

[14] cf. Girgis et. al in What is Marriage?

[15] Pope Paul VI. Humanae Vitae. p.7

[16] Pope St. John Paul II. Theology of the Body. p.398

[17] Pope St. John Paul II. Theology of the Body. p.389

[18] Pope St. John Paul II. Theology of the Body. p.398

[19] Pope Paul VI. Humanae Vitae. p.16

[20] Pope St. John Paul II. Theology of the Body. p.394

[21] St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, Part V, Q49, A6 p.2730

[22] Pope Pius XI. Casti Connubii. p.31

[23] Pope St. John Paul. Theology of the Body. p.375

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