The Inseparable Unitive and Procreative Purposes of Marriage — and Appropriate NFP Use

In 1946, theologian Fr. Mathias Scheeben’s The Mysteries of Christianity appeared and therein he wrote of married couples, “They can rightfully unite with each other in matrimony only for the end which Christ pursues in His union with the Church, that is the further extension of the mystical Body of Christ.” (602) Scheeben was stating the singular purpose according to a long Catholic tradition. The great Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine, following St. Clement of Alexandria, had declared it the purpose of marriage. In his thinking, the sexual union for any other purpose was merely lust, and he believed that intercourse during any time the couple knew to be infertile — known times then were only pregnancy, nursing, and menopause — was even sinful!

But back in the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI was already speaking of procreation as only the most important of marriage’s ends. Then section 50 of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes taught us that “marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and education of children.” Parents were not to proceed arbitrarily in this field, but were to follow the Church, which is the interpreter of divine law. But it also stated, “Marriage to be sure is not instituted solely for procreation, rather, its very nature as an unbreakable compact between persons, and the welfare of the children, both demand that the mutual love of the spouses be embodied in a rightly ordered manner, that it grow and ripen.” Because of this it is a valid union, that is, “marriage persists . . . even when despite the often intense desire of the couple, offspring are lacking.”

The second purpose of marriage was being officially recognized: the unitive one. God intended value to come from the union even when He did not bless it with children. The unitive end has emotional and spiritual value for the couple themselves and for all others who encounter them. Furthermore, the married couple’s love, fruitful or not, is to be a sign of the love that God has for His people, the Bride of Christ. Now the Church was clearly talking about there being at least two purposes of marriage. This second was not an alternative purpose, could not be a substitute for the first. It was just seen that the two were to both be simultaneously, constantly, pursued.

The world, of course, had for some time seen them as two different ends, and been trying to separate them, trying to make love without making babies. Then, the cataclysmic and tragic advent of the contraceptive pill in 1960 had made it easy. The pill immediately allowed couples to readily unite with no intention of having children, and the sexual revolution it spawned would eventually lead to people deliberately having children without the commitment of marriage. For the world, the unitive and procreative purposes of sexual union had been completely torn asunder.

But could the Church ever see the two purposes as being able to be separated? Could we ever righteously simply pick or choose, pursue one and not the other? Could Catholics rightly think, “We’re going to embrace the unitive purpose of marriage now, the procreative one some other time”?

The truth is, these two purposes are mutually supportive and belong together. Gaudium et Spes §50 states that “the unbreakable compact between persons, and the welfare of the children, both demand that the mutual love of the spouses be embodied in a rightly ordered manner,” and §50 goes on to argue that, “when the intimacy of married life is broken off . . . its quality of fruitfulness is ruined, for the upbringing of the children and the courage to accept new ones are both endangered.” Section 48 says that children contribute to their parents’ holiness, to their parents’ love, even as they themselves derive from it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church §2366 teaches magisterially that “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 the mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment.”

The two purposes are mutually compatible, not in competition, never at variance with one another, as though we could decide to fulfill one, even temporarily, to the exclusion of the other. The two purposes, one basically spiritual, the unitive, and the other basically physical, the procreative, are as much one and inseparable as the embodied person is one and inseparable, the spiritual and physical together. We might say that the subjective end of the marital union, the one of which we are most conscious, is the unitive one; the objective end, though, is the procreative one.

When Pope John Paul II developed his “theology of the body,” he saw the union of man and woman as a sign of the Trinitarian God. There is a Giver (the Father), a Receiver (the Son), and the Love which flows between them as the fruit of their union (the Holy Spirit). In human beings, the fruit of their union is the child implicit in that union. But if the human child is a sign of the Holy Spirit, Love Himself, then surely the love which flows between the parents is just as much a sign of the Third Person of the Trinity. The unitive and the procreative purposes are conjoined.

Finally, in 1992, the Catechism declared the “inseparability principle” regarding the two ends: “the twofold end of marriage, the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couples’ spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family.” (§2363)

And yet, this is exactly what most Catholic couples are trying to do: separate the two ends and set aside the God-ordained procreative purpose of marriage. And most of them are doing it just the way the world does: with the pill. But even many of the faithful minority who would never willfully ignore Church teaching, who would use only NFP to avoid conception, are doing it with the world’s agenda: choosing to fulfill the unitive purpose of marriage and not, at least not right now, fulfill the procreative purpose. They may be furthering their education, pursuing one or two careers, achieving material advantages; or perhaps even concentrating just on knowing and loving each other. These, of course, are not bad things — but they are not the best. “Children,” states Gaudium et Spes §50, “are the supreme gift of marriage.” (Emphasis added.) Besides, such couples are not acting according to Church teaching.

Even if today’s young Catholic couples have been taught in their NFP classes that in Humanae Vitae in 1968 Pope Paul VI stated that there needed to be “serious reason” for using it, they see whatever reason they have as serious. That is, they are serious about it, whatever it is. And they have to be quite serious if they are going to all the bother to use NFP! But they have not been taught the nature of an appropriately serious reason. What is that nature?

Consider: if neither purpose of marriage can ever be set aside, how can it be that the Church, repeatedly since the 1930 discovery of the monthly fertile time, has declared licit, under certain conditions, the exclusive use of the infertile time — “periodic abstinence,” NFP — to avoid the conception of a child?

Simple! It is because of another “inseparability principle.” Bearing a child is not enough, the Council documents point out. There is a second half of procreation: education, raising the child, forming him for life, life in this world, and, more importantly, in the next. Each child we bring into being we are to do our utmost to bring into Heaven. So when Catholics “find themselves,” as Gaudium et Spes §50 put it, “in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased,” the Council is talking about situations which Humanae Vitae §10 says are economic and health concerns such that the parents believe they need to avoid a new conception in order to be able to adequately, in dignity and self-respect, raise all their children.

Casti Connubii, which was first to allow the use of “rhythm” to avoid pregnancy, did so as it spoke of “the sufferings of those parents who, in extreme want, experience great difficulty in rearing their children,” and Pope Pius XII in his 1951 “Address to Midwives” spoke of its use for “sufficient morally sure motives” and “grave reasons.” These popes were not talking about avoiding a child in order to pursue a career or an education or a vacation, or anything other than facing health and economic concerns which might prevent parents from raising their children appropriately. So, in such cases, the parents would be using periodic abstinence, NFP, to avoid conception — not to avoid procreation, but in order to fulfill the second half of it, the upbringing of the child.

Before Vatican II made “rhythm’s” use completely a matter of the parents’ decision, it was taught — I recall — that the couple needed to first get their confessor’s permission to use it. Clearly, then, it was not just a question of whether or not they felt like having something other than children at the moment. There obviously were objective standards, in the areas of finances and health, that needed to be thoughtfully brought into the judgment. It was about their ability to properly form, educate, raise their children — the ones already born and the ones that might come to be.

In marriage, we can never righteously, deliberately not pursue the purpose for which God intended it. So the only justification for using NFP and avoiding procreation in its first instance, the conception of a child, is to enable parents to fulfill procreation in its second instance: education, properly forming and raising them for the Kingdom.

There is a yet unanswered question with regard to the righteous use of NFP: how can we ignore the scriptural admonition of 1 Cor 7:5, to “separate only for prayer”? Dr. Greg Popcak, Catholic radio’s “Family Man,” has stated that couples using NFP should be separating to pray for the solutions to whatever unfortunate problems they have which lead them to use it — that the day might come when they would no longer feel it was necessary.

It would be appropriate for a couple to “separate for prayer” during the several fertile days, even perhaps adding fasting, to ask the Lord if their minds and hearts are conformed to His in this matter; to ask if they really have, or really still have, adequately serious reasons to avoid conception; to ask Him for healing if health issues are presenting the problem; to ask for wisdom and His intervention if economic difficulties constitute the concern. For any other prayer concern, it would not be appropriate to deliberately choose to separate during the fertile days . . . unless those few days just happened to be part of a longer or randomly chosen period of time. But over this question, it would be appropriate to “separate for prayer” during the fertile days. In such case, making temporary exclusive use of the infertile period would not be separating the unitive purpose of marriage from the procreative purpose — that is, from its second half.

We can end as we began, with Fr. Mathias Scheeben’s thoughts: the purpose of marriage is “the further extension of the mystical Body of Christ.” How can it be otherwise?

Anne Cherney About Anne Cherney

Anne Cherney, mother of ten (and grandmother of 38, so far!), went back to school after her children were grown, getting her M.A. in Theological Studies from the John Paul II Institute, in Washington D.C., in 2009. One More Soul recently published her book, Supernatural Family Planning.


  1. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    ‘The two purposes, one basically spiritual, the unitive, and the other basically physical, the procreative, are as much one and inseparable as the embodied person is one and inseparable, the spiritual and physical together.’

    Dear Anne Cherney,
    The Peace of Christ.
    Thank you for your article.
    What seems to need exploring is an adequate anthropology. Man, one in soul and body (Gaudium et Spes, 14) is also a being-in-relationship (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 24). It seems arbitrary, therefore, to divide the ‘unitive’ as ‘spiritual’ from the ‘procreative’ as ‘physical’. What of the psychological? the attitude of being open to life inscribed within spousal love. What of the act of God within the moment of fertilization which brings to exist a whole human being: conceived from relationship to be in-relationship. In other words, as St. John Paul II said himself, we need to explore the anthropological depths of Church Teaching to discover, in a way, a new understanding of the integrity of human being and action; indeed, it may even be the good that God seeks to bring out of this crisis: that we need a deeper, richer, more intimately ’embodied” account of the human person in love.
    God bless, Francis.

  2. There are a number of problems with the second half of this essay, which lead to unnecessary moral confusion and anxiety for couples using NFP. This very publication previously featured a more accurate analysis of Humanae Vitae and “grave reasons”:

    An “inseparability principle” in regards to an inherent moral evil cannot be overruled by another “inseparability principle.” This is consequentialism and not in accord with Catholic moral theology. The characterization of sexual intercourse during an infertile period as separating the unitive and procreative ends is a category error. From Humanae Vitae, the Vatican translation, on the difference between contraceptive and infertile sexual intercourse:

    “In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable.”

    The categorical moral problem with contraception is its artificiality, its imposition of the will to obstruct natural procreation. NFP is a cooperation with that process as it is. The question of whether it is wise to conceive a child or not is a separate question not specific to the choice of “method,” nor is there a simple, official answer to it.

  3. Avatar Patrick Cullinan, Jr. says:

    What is the nature of this “mutual giving,” which has, over so many years, been often mentioned in treatments concerning marriage? Can it be an allusion to an idea that the spouses give (subjunctive mood) each other their bodies? In any event, how can this vulgar notion be nipped in the budding?

  4. This is a beautiful and helpful article, Anne. Thank you very much for writing it.