The Meaning and Purpose of Marriage | Alice von Hildebrand | Homiletic & Pastoral Review | August-September 2008
The beauty of the marital embrace is meant to benefit not only the spouses themselves but all those related to them.
Prior to his conversion to the Catholic Church, Dietrich von Hildebrand already had a high idea of marriage; he deeply sensed its beauty and sacredness. But the moment he entered the Holy Ark, this appreciation deepened considerably. Realizing that, religiously speaking, he had been “deprived” (although born and raised in Italy, he knew nothing about the Catholic Church, nothing about grace, nothing about the sacraments, nothing about sainthood), he made a point of catching up. For seven years, he spent every free moment at the Munich public library. He read the Fathers of the Church, the Doctors of the Church, the lives of the founders of religious orders, the lives of saints. His hunger was insatiable. His enthusiasm and love for the Church increased by leaps and bounds. He actually “fell in love with the Catholic Church”—a love that not only never abated in the course of his life, but kept deepening. At the end of his life, when he solemnly confided his literary bequest to me, he added: “If you ever find a single sentence in my works that is not in perfect harmony with the teaching of Holy Church, do not hesitate, burn it.”
For seven years after his conversion, he remained silent, but one day, he felt that he had to give expression to his gratitude for the overwhelming beauty that he had discovered through the Church. He wrote an article entitled “The New World of Christianity”—that is, the world of the supernatural. To his joy, he realized that all the natural values he had received so abundantly in his youth—thanks to the high degree of culture of his parents (in literature, music, the arts)—far from losing their meaning and beauty, received a new splendor because “heaven and earth sing God’s glory.” His noble conception of marriage was going to benefit from it.
In the early twenties, Dietrich von Hildebrand was asked to give a
lecture on marriage. Reflecting upon the reading that he had done for
years, it struck him that in Catholic teaching (in textbooks, for
example)—as opposed to Catholic doctrine—when speaking of marriage, the
whole emphasis was put on procreation. The love between the spouses was
tacitly presupposed, but not satisfactorily highlighted. Before his
conversion, love between man and woman had been prominent; to his mind,
this was the meaning and justification of marriage. He had no sympathy
for “mariages de raison,” marriages entered into for social, financial
or other such reasons. One truth, however, had escaped him: the
immorality of artificial birth control. When he and his wife were given
instructions to enter the Church, this question came up. The young
philosopher told the priest that he could not see why preventing a life
from coming into existence (as opposed to killing one in the bud) was
viewed by the Church as immoral. The answer of the Franciscan who
instructed him was categorical: “If you wish to enter into the Holy
Ark, you must accept the teaching of the Church in its entirety. To
pick and choose is unacceptable. Otherwise, I cannot let you enter into
the Holy Church.” The response of the young man was immediate: “Credo
ut intelligam”—“I believe in order to understand.” This gesture of
intellectual humility was to bear rich fruits. He was soon granted such
deep insights into the immorality of artificial birth control that he
was the first Catholic thinker to strongly challenge the conclusions
reached by the Lambeth Conference in l930. He was the first to defend
Humanae Vitae in l968 when, unfortunately, very many so-called Catholic
theologians and philosophers opposed the Church’s teaching (see Humanae
Vitae: A Sign of Contradiction).
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