Marriage Debate Enlivens Council Session

138th General Congregation
September 29, 1965

The attention of council Fathers, which had begun to wane, sprang to life again as debate began on the parts of the schema on the Church in the modern world concerning marriage.

While the council listened in unbroken silence, an Eastern-rite prelate urged the Church to cast a merciful eye on the plight of husbands and wives who have been abandoned and left to live lives of perpetual continence.

Could not the Church dispense the innocent party from the bonds of matrimony according to the practice of some Eastern churches, asked Archbishop Elie Zoghbi, Melkite-rite patriarchal vicar in Egypt. He declared that heroic virtue cannot be imposed on everyone.

There was no visible or audible reaction by the council Fathers to this speech, which one churchman described as a “bombshell.” In fact, throughout the first day of debate on marriage problems as contained in the revised schema 13, council Fathers listened in earnest attention. They remained stolidly in their seats and the coffee bars, which usually do a bustling business, were virtually deserted.

Four cardinals were among the day’s 10 speakers. Ernesto Cardinal Ruffini of Palermo, Italy, and Giovanni Cardinal Colombo of Milan, Italy, called for a forthright reaffirmation of the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage and sexual morality. Paul-Emile Cardinal Leger of Montreal and Leo Cardinal Suenens of Malines-Brussels, Belgium (who was the day’s moderator), sought a deepening of the Church’s doctrine in the light of modern discoveries and in the view of modern conditions.

Cardinal Suenens asked the Church to give support and encouragement “to the few Catholic scientists” engaged in research into sexuality. He also called for a liturgical ceremony at which Catholic couples might renew their marriage vows.

Coadjutor Archbishop Pierre Veuillot of Paris delivered a report on the first chapter of the schema on the pastoral duties of bishops. Voting began on amendments to this schema.

Bishop Franz Hengsbach of Essen, Germany, delivered a report on the second part of the revised schema on the Church in the modern world. This report was distributed to council Fathers along with one on the revised schema on the Church’s missionary activity, which will be the next council document to be debated.

Cardinal Ruffini opened debate on part two of schema 13, the Church in the modern world. Speaking in the name of 32 Italian bishops, he praised the schema for its doctrinal content and pastoral approach. While the chapter on marriage and the family is good, he said, it has serious defects. He said its description of the ends of marriage appears more confused than in the previous version because it obscures the distinction between the primary end of marriage and its secondary ends. He styled this distinction as a firm point of Catholic teaching, repeated by numerous pontiffs and confirmed by many acts of the Holy See.

The present text, he said, so emphasizes the value of the secondary ends as to make them appear irrenunciable even to the point of avoiding procreation.

He asserted that doubts could have been avoided by using the language of Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Casti Connubii.

This is not a simple question of the pill, which has been impudently termed “Catholic,” he said. Divine and natural law at times impose continence in marriage, and in obeying this difficult law, spouses can count on divine help, he continued.

Cardinal Ruffini observed that the text has surprisingly little to say on divorce.

Cardinal Leger voiced deep reservations on the schema’s doctrine and method, both of which, he said, would disappoint the legitimate expectations of modern Christians.

“The principal defect of this schema is that it fails to reflect correctly the goal pursued by the human person in marriage,” he declared.

He cited as an example the formula defending marriage as an institution ordained to procreation and to the education of children.

“In my opinion,” he stated, “this formula is incomplete and ambiguous. For that matter this judgment seems to be admitted in the schema itself, when it adduces a correction saying that marriage is not ‘a simple instrument of procreation.’”

Cardinal Leger said the formula he criticized could well express the meaning of marriage for the human species. “But because it is persons who are united by marriage, the meaning marriage has for persons must be described, without of course neglecting the meaning it takes for the human race.” Cardinal Leger proposed:

  1. That it be clearly and openly said that marriage is an intimate community of life and of love.
  1. That the deep meaning the child takes for love and the conjugal life be carefully explained, with fecundity at the summit of the love of the spouses.
  1. That it be stated how it is God’s will that the spouses bring children into the world and thus become His cooperators.

Cardinal Leger criticized the text for repetitiveness and preachiness.

Cardinal Suenens, in calling for further research into sexuality, called it “essential that we have a better understanding of the laws of human fecundity, for man as well as for woman; that we also have a better understanding of the psychological laws of self-control …; and finally that we have a better understanding of the laws of conjugal life as a whole.”

He asked that this final point be studied not chiefly from the husband’s point of view but from the wife’s as well and from the point of view of married life itself.

He urged the council to issue an appeal for such scientific research, and to bring Catholic universities into this research through the establishment of scholarships, chairs, institutes and laboratories.

Cardinal Suenens, whose own writings on love and marriage have been widely acclaimed, emphasized that to undertake such studies would not imply any theological or philosophical prejudgment on any specific method of regulating births. Such studies could never settle this moral problem on their own level, he said.

But he asserted that a better knowledge of the vital laws of marriage and procreation “will in any case be extremely profitable, whichever doctrinal position may eventually be taken on the issue of the moral lawfulness of the methods.”

He then asked that the liturgical commission choose a date suitable for the renewal of the marriage vows in a ceremonial to be established. He said a simple ceremony could be prepared for use in the home.

“By closely associating family life and the liturgy, we foster them both at once,” the Belgian cardinal said. “It seems particularly suitable to defend conjugal fidelity today since it is being attacked from all sides by a flood of eroticism and by a calamitous increase of divorces.

“This public and annual remembrance of the sacramental bond which constitutes the family would be a durable benefit proceeding from the council, and a striking occasion to remind the marriage partners of the teaching proposed to them by the council Fathers.”

Cardinal Suenens criticized the schema for failing to explore various pastoral problems (aside from the question of birth control, which the Pope reserved for himself). He cited the problem of early marriages which are lightly undertaken.

He also criticized the text for failing to sound the tocsin for the struggle against “the wave of immorality flooding our streets, movie screens and literature.” This immorality “threatens to ruin all respect for marriage and its laws,” adding that too many people “are resigning themselves to it with a sort of fatalism.”

Cardinal Colombo heaped praise on the document for what he termed its “fully human and personalistic” approach, through which “conjugal love is presented as an intrinsic end of matrimony, co-essential with the procreative purpose.” In this light, he said, even so-called responsible parenthood is not a “concession to human weakness” but rather “the duty of the parents.”

However, he asserted that the schema fails to reaffirm strongly the Church’s teaching on marriage and that by a timid and reticent tone it seems to justify the suspicion that something basic has been changed in the Church’s teaching.

He declared: “As love and the procreative intention cannot be separated in the sublimity of the spirit, they cannot be separated in the humility of the flesh.”

Archbishop Luis Alonso Munoyerro, military vicar of the Spanish armed forces, lamented the absence of the classical term “contract” from the part of the schema dealing with marriage. He said that while some people look askance at this term, it has roots in the Church’s most profound doctrine.

He also deplored what he called the schema’s tendency to exalt conjugal love without stating clearly the primary end of marriage. This must be stated clearly to forestall errors already condemned by the Congregation of the Holy Office, he said. This primary purpose, he stated, is the begetting and education of children.

He branded as erroneous and perilous the principle set down by the schema on the determination of the number of children. He also asked for a condemnation of sterilization.

Bishop Paul Taguchi of Osaka, Japan, echoed the reservations about the passage which envisages the right of married couples to “determine” the number of their children. However, he maintained that this term expresses the truth. His objection was that it could offend many people both of East and West.

He said children should realize that they have come into being not merely for their usefulness to their parents or for their parents’ satisfaction, but through love and at a cost of sacrifice.

Auxiliary Bishop Kazimierz Majdanski of Wloclawek, Poland, speaking in the name of the bishops of Poland, decried the “great modern calamity” of abortion.

(This practice, virtually encouraged by Poland’s communist regime, has become a burning moral and social issue in Poland, with strong political overtones.)

God, Bishop Majdanski said, is no longer regarded as the master of all life. Abortion is an open violation of the sacredness of the human person.

In the name of Poland’s bishops he called for a powerful conciliar proclamation declaring that any act against the life of an unborn is sheer unmitigated murder.

He also asked for a clear conciliar doctrine on birth control because of the widespread confusion on the subject.

The council bulletin summarized Archbishop Zoghbi’s speech as follows:

“In connection with marriage there is a problem more serious than that of birth control. What is to be our stand on cases where a marriage has been contracted with great promise but where an innocent spouse has been abandoned and, according to our traditional teaching, must face a life of solitude and continence? Another instance of the same type of case would be that of the permanent insanity of one party.

“The counsel to live a life of solitude and continence is not for everyone, because it calls for heroic virtue which cannot be imposed indiscriminately.

“Could not the Church, without prejudice to her doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage, use her authority on behalf of the innocent party in these cases, as has been the case in the Christian Orient? This practice was also followed sometimes in the West.

“Did the Church get from Christ the power to handle such cases? It is up to the Church to decide on the intrinsic force of the passage in Scripture which has been consistently invoked against this practice. The Council of Trent chose a formula which would not offend Orientals who were following the contrary practice. New patristic studies are shedding more light on the stand of the Greek Fathers.

“This is a thing which should not be done lightly because abuses are always possible. Still the problem must be faced.”

Archbishop Enrico Nicodemo of Bari, Italy, asking for a more explicit explanation of the nature of the family in the schema, said the text seems to contradict itself. In one passage, he said, it praises marital fecundity and in another states that married people are free to determine the size of their family according to subjective criteria.

He said the text gives insufficient emphasis to the right of private property.

He objected to the schema’s treatment of conscientious objectors on the grounds that it gives the impression that conscientious objectors offer more witness to Christ than those who answer their country’s call to arms.

Bishop Hermann Volk of Mainz, Germany, suggested a logical order for the treatment of marriage as a state. He said man as such must first be considered, then man as a Christian, then his right to establish a state. The same principle, he said, applies to the priestly and Religious state. He said that as a creature of God man has a right to choose his state of life.

The 138th general meeting of the council was opened by a Mass celebrated by Bishop Louis Haller for Saint Maurice, Switzerland. The Gospel was enthroned by Archbishop Andrea Cesarano of Manfredonia, Italy.

The council’s secretary general, Archbishop Pericle Felici, read a letter sent in the name of Pope Paul acknowledging the letter the council sent to him, thanking him for the encyclical on the Eucharist and the creation of a Synod of Bishops.

Patrick Riley
NCWC News Rome correspondent

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