The bible begins with two creation stories, and each has its own purpose. Gen 1 tells the story of how all creation came to be, with the creation of humanity, male and female, as the culmination of creation. In this story, which is dominated by themes of generation and fertility, God tells people to be fertile and multiply, fill the earth; eat these things for your food, and leave those things as food for the animals. This is a story about the world, and humanity’s relationship to the world.
Genesis 2 tells a story about humanity. In Gen 2:18, God says “It is not good for the human to be alone,” determines that none of the animals are suitable companions for the human, and fashions a suitable companion from the side of the human, from the very same flesh. (Note the single-nature anthropology implied here: ie, there is a single human nature shared by women and men.) Gen 2:24 says “that is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” This is a story about the origin of marriage.
Notice that the story about the origin of marriage says nothing about procreation.
Catholic moral theology is grounded primarily in natural law, rather than scripture. Catholicism embraces the “two books” approach to revelation: that is, that God is the author of both the book of creation (ie, the entire created natural order) and the book of the Bible. It calls the former “general revelation” and the latter “special revelation.” The paradigm of natural law assumes, first, that there is an objective moral order (ie, that actions are objectively right or wrong, good or evil); and second, that it must be possible for all people to discern this objective moral order from general revelation. (Because God is just, and would not hold all people responsible for their good or evil actions if it were not possible for all people to distinguish between good and evil, whether or not they accepted the bible as the word of God.) In general, it focuses on identifying the “right use” of our abilities by discerning God’s intended purpose for those abilities. Right uses are those which align with God’s intended purposes.
Catholic teaching on marriage recognizes both a procreative and a unitive purpose to marital sex: that is, it is intended both for reproduction, and for the expression and strengthening of the unifying love between the spouses.
But since Humane Vitae, which declared artificial contraception illicit (while still permitting natural family planning, and marriage of persons who are barren or sterile) and required for the first time that every marital sex act be “open to new life,” the procreative purpose has effectively trumped the unitive purpose. Whenever a married couple cannot, in good conscience, lovingly accept the gift of a child (eg, because of the health of either husband or wife, or the stability of the relationship, or to avoid either imprudence or improvidence), the church teaches that the couple may not licitly express and strengthen their loving union through sex.
Without challenging the fundamental grounding of Catholic moral theology in a natural law paradigm, I argue that the theology of Catholic marriage — which logically need not restrict itself to general revelation — ought to be significantly influenced by the only story in the Bible whose purpose is to offer an explanation for marriage. This story clearly privileges the unitive, not the procreative, purpose of marriage.
As the extraordinary synod of bishops on the family begins, let us keep all its participants (bishops and non-bishops, married and non-married) in our prayers, praying especially that they will be open to the Word and the Breath of God in their meditations on how the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love can most efficaciously be lived out within the vocation of marriage.
Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.