Marriage and Mulieris Dignitatem

By Coughlin, John J. | Ave Maria Law Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Marriage and Mulieris Dignitatem


Coughlin, John J., Ave Maria Law Review


It is a great pleasure to be with you here at The Catholic University of America on this twentieth anniversary of Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem. (1) My assigned task is to speak about the theology and canon law of marriage in light of the apostolic letter. With this focus in mind, it seems helpful to recall that one of the document's central themes is the universal call to holiness lived out through sacramental marriage or virginity. In the first part of my remarks this morning, I shall discuss St. Augustine's teaching on the relation between marriage and virginity. In the second part, I shall mention several prominent features of Mulieris Dignitatem, including the complementarity of marriage and virginity, the personalist interpretation of Ephesians 5, and the Eucharistic understanding of marriage and virginity. I shall discuss these features in relation to the Augustinian tradition.

I. THE AUGUSTINIAN TRADITION ON MARRIAGE

St. Augustine provided the classical description of the goods of marriage as fidelity (fides), children (proles), and sacrament (sacramentum). (2) According to Augustine, fidelity is the understanding and intention of the married couple to exercise exclusive sexual faithfulness to one another. As the fruit of fidelity, parents accept children in love, nurturing them in affection, and educating them in religion. The sacrament constitutes a symbol of the permanence and stability in marriage. (3)

A. The Debate Between St. Jerome and Jovian

In describing the goodness of marriage, St. Augustine did not set out to afford a systematic theological and canonical treatment of the subject. Rather, his teaching on marriage was formed through his experience as a bishop writing to address pastoral situations in Northern Africa. During the end of the fourth century, Augustine faced a challenge raised by an ascetical movement in the Church that had Manichean overtones. (4) Some full-fledged Manicheans, the "Elect," adopted the ascetical practice of sexual continence. The Manicheans thought that sexual reproduction is a trick employed by an evil deity to trap the human spirit in a physical body. (5) This view was in conflict with the Christian interpretation of the Book of Genesis and its doctrine about the fundamental goodness of creation. (6) As Christian asceticism developed, St. Jerome entered into a debate with his fellow Christian, Jovian, over the nature of sexual reproduction and marriage. (7) Jerome taught the superiority of virginity over marriage, (8) and he urged married persons to end marital relations and to live a chaste asceticism. (9) In extolling the goodness of marriage, Jovian argued that the married state is equal in status to virginity. He insisted that the married person who adheres to Christian belief could be just as virtuous as the Christian virgin. He accused Jerome and other Christian ascetics of tending toward a Manichean denigration of the human body and sexual reproduction. (10)

B. St. Augustine's Middle Course

As Bishop of Hippo, Augustine attempted to steer a middle course in the debate between Jerome and Jovian. Augustine believed that the procreation of children is the "primary, natural, and legitimate purpose of marriage." (11) At the same time, he concurred with Jerome that virginity and the chastity of continence are ways of Christian ascetical practice superior to the chastity of marriage. (12) Marriage is, according to Augustine, a cure for concupiscence. (13) In Augustine's view, sexual intercourse even between married persons always involves a degree of corruption, but sexual intercourse for the purpose of procreation is not sinful. (14) Although Augustine describes a faithful marriage between Christians as chaste, he thought that such chastity is not as good as the chastity of continence. (15)

At the same time, in The Good of Marriage, he wrote, "[T]he marriage of male and female is something good. …

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