July 14, 2015

Saint Augustine on the Three Goods of Marriage

In his treatise De bono coniugali (Of the Good of Marriage) St. Augustine answers two competing views of matrimony. The Manicheans, to whom his treatise was largely addressed, saw the created material world as debased and corrupt. Human souls were spirits trapped within the created order (i.e. the body). The enlightened must free the soul and thus achieve beatitude by rejecting the material order and its sins of the flesh. Marriage and reproduction were manifestly evil.

The legal statutes of pagan Rome viewed marriage differently. According to such laws, the institution of marriage was primarily for protecting the assets and interests of the elites. Through matrimony, upper class citizens united their interests, reproduced, and bequeathed their wealth to the next generation. Marriage existed for the creation of households that served the economic, political, and dynastic concerns of the state. It was not for any other purpose and could, following the proper formalities, be dissolved.

St. Augustine developed his theory on the goods of marriage with both aforementioned schools of thought in mind. Synthesizing Sacred Scripture with elements of Stoic philosophy, he based his analysis on his vision of human persons. "Every human person," St. Augustine stated, "… by virtue of human nature, has a kind of sociability." Friendship was a natural state of affairs among human beings and marriage was its highest expression. St. Augustine explained that the first instance "of this natural human society" was the sexual union of man and woman. Referencing the act of creation, St. Augustine observed that, God did not make man and woman to be strangers. Rather, creating woman from the side of the man, God affirmed the power of their enduring bond in holy matrimony. St. Augustine asserted that "the marriage of man and woman is something good," and dedicated the remainder of his inquiry to exploring why.

While procreation is noble in and of itself, it is not the sole good of marriage. According to St. Augustine, the three goods ("bona") of marriage are permanence, fidelity, and openness to offspring. Therefore, marriage properly understood is the conjugal union of a man and woman for life, of exclusive and mutual fidelity, for the procreation and education of children. Augustine writes:
Let these nuptial goods be the objects of our love: offspring, fidelity, the unbreakable bond... Let these nuptial goods be praised in marriage by him who wishes to extol the nuptial institution“ (The three "bona" are essential properties which distinguish the marital covenant from any other type of relationship between two persons.) This is the goodness ("bonum") of marriage, from which it takes its glory: offspring, chaste fidelity, unbreakable bond...


It is natural for the human heart to accept demands, even difficult ones, in the name of love for an ideal, and above all in the name of love for a person.
 — Pope St. John Paul II
1. Offspring: The (potential) fruitfulness of the union (procreativity or openness to having children: the "bonum prolis", or the "good" of offspring). The fruitfulness of the conjugal union fulfills man's and woman's longing for self-perpetuation and for the perpetuation, in offspring, of the conjugal love between them. "A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment" (CCC 2366). The fruitfulness of conjugal love extends to the fruits of the moral, spiritual, and supernatural life that parents hand on to their children by education. Parents are the principal and first educators of their children. In this sense the fundamental task of marriage and family is to be at the service of life. Spouses to whom God has not granted children can nevertheless have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Their marriage can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality, and of sacrifice.

2. Fidelity: The exclusive fidelity of the marital relationship (one man with one woman: the ("bonum fidei") Many people today are suspicious of an exclusive relationship. And yet everyone wants to be someone very special in someone else's eyes. Hence arises the good or value of the "bonum fidei", the commitment to a faithful and exclusive love in marriage. The person who does not wish to "belong" to someone else (in a mutual "belonging") consigns himself or herself to perpetual isolation and loneliness. The Lord says in no uncertain terms: “Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else” And, when the Lord says all thy heart, it allows for no sharing nor dividing nor depriving. And, to the woman it is paraphrased: "Thou shalt love thy husband with all thy heart and shalt cleave unto him and none else." The words none else eliminate everyone and everything. The spouse then becomes preeminent in the life of the husband or wife, and neither social life nor occupational life nor political life nor any other interest nor person nor thing shall ever take precedence over the companion spouse.

3. Permanence: The permanence of the relationship (the unbreakable character or indissolubility of the marital bond: the ("bonum sacramenti") Many people today are suspicious of binding themselves for ever. And nevertheless that is what love aspires after: "I'll love you for always". "Love seeks to be definitive; it cannot be an arrangement 'until further notice'..." (CCC 1646). When there is acceptance of a permanent bond of love, one enjoys the goodness of knowing one is entering a stable home or haven, that one's "belonging" to another - and that other's belonging to one - is for keeps. People want this, and while they know that it will require sacrifices, it should be natural for them to sense that the sacrifices are worth it.

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