Fall 1998

Humanae Vitae and the Perfection of Love

David S. Crawford

"Our understanding of the wrongfulness of contraception . . . will only be as good as our theology of marriage."

Given the “great commandment,”1 it has always been held that all are commanded, not just counseled, to perfect love.2 However, the Second Vatican Council has again emphasized this—and given it a new accent—in the form of a “universal call to holiness.” Lumen gentium tells us that “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state—though each in his own way—are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect.”3 Or again, “The Lord Jesus, divine teacher and model of all perfection, preached holiness of life (of which he is the author and maker) to each and every one of his disciples without distinction: ‘You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt 5:48).”4 It is important to note in these passages that this “universal call to holiness” is explicitly and repeatedly related to the “perfection of love,” to being “perfect” as the “heavenly Father is perfect,” and not to some lesser standard such as merely leading a moral life or avoiding serious sin. All of the saved must strive for and eventually attain this “perfection”—that is, fullness, completion, even consummation—of love. Indeed, this perfection of love, which finally means nothing other than sharing in trinitarian love, would seem, when all is said and done, to be the whole point of human existence.5

Because this “call” is first related to baptism, without respect to the two “states of life” mentioned in Lumen gentium, the married and the consecrated states, an initial question arises: What specific value is added or what specification is brought to the universal baptismal call to holiness by a “state of life”? There is much in the tradition to explain what is added to the call to perfect love by the state of “evangelical perfection,” and this teaching is strongly reaffirmed by Lumen gentium.6 There has been, however, less development of what the married state might add. Indeed, a question arises as to whether marriage adds anything at all to this basic, baptismal call. Suárez, for example, concluded that it does not: “speaking simply and only with respect to eternal life, [matrimony] does not exceed the common state of Christian life.”7 This approach has made it difficult to see marriage as in itself constituting a call to the perfection of love or as providing any particular specification or shape to holiness. The universal call to the perfection of love, because it is universal, clearly applies to the married as well as to the consecrated. Indeed, given that most of the baptized do not receive a vocation to the consecrated life, the majority of those addressed by use of the term “universal” are married. Is this perfection of love to be seen as something to which husband and wife are called qua individuals, as something simply added extrinsically or “accidentally” to their status as married? Or is this perfection of love, the very holiness to which husband and wife are called, given its specific form or shape from within marriage? Is marriage itself, in other words, in some sense ordered to the perfection of love?

The answer we give to these questions will largely depend on how we understand the tradition’s teaching that marriage is ordered to the “procreation and nurturing of children.” Humanae vitae reaffirmed this ordination, teaching that there is an “inseparable connection” between the procreative and unitive “meanings” of the “conjugal act.” Thus, we are necessarily led to another question: If marriage is in some way ordered to the perfection of love, as I will argue that it is, how does this ordering relate to the constant teaching that marriage is ordered to procreation? In the first part of this essay, I will discuss the sense in which marriage may be said to be ordered to perfect love. In the second part, I will apply the results of this discussion to the question of how marriage’s procreative end relates to the call to perfect love and, in particular, how this call may shed light on Humanae vitae’s teaching with respect to the inseparability of the “unitive”
and “procreative” meanings of the conjugal act.


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1. Mt 22:36–40; Lk 10:25–28.
2. See e.g., St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2–2.184.3.
3. Lumen gentium (=LG), 11.
4. LG, 40; See also, Familiaris consortio (=FC), 16.
5. For a rich development of this theme, see H. U. von Balthasar, The Christian State of Life, trans. Sr. Mary Frances McCarthy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), 25 ff.
6. See LG, 43–47.
7. Francisco Suárez, Opus de Religione, pars secunda, De Statu Perfectionis, bk. 1, chap. 2, sec. 2, quoted in Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Christian State of Life, 240.