‘Chaste Marriage’ for Today
By: Jim Tonkowich
“Treat yourself,” my friend said. “It will be a shot in the arm for your marriage.” He was encouraging me to read Pius XI’s December 1930 encyclical, Casti Connubii (Chaste Marriage). As it turns out, it’s more than a treat. It’s strong medicine for what ails marriage more than eighty years after it was penned.
Pius XI set out to expound “on the nature and dignity of Christian marriage, on the advantages and benefits which accrue from it to the family and to human society itself, on the errors contrary to this most important point of the Gospel teaching, on the vices opposed to conjugal union, and lastly on the principal remedies to be applied.”
But let’s begin with the title.
To most twenty-first century ears, the title “Chaste Marriage” seems paradoxical if not downright contradictory. We think chastity is a synonym for celibacy. It’s not.
Some, the unmarried primarily, are called to celibacy, that is, abstaining from sex. But everyone, married or single, is called to chastity. Chastity is the virtue that keeps sexuality in its place, subject to God’s revealed will and to reason. And it’s in that context that Pius addresses the nature of marriage.
The most important fact about marriage is that it’s God’s idea. Pius insisted
. . . that matrimony was not instituted or restored by man but by God; not by man were the laws made to strengthen and confirm and elevate it but by God, the Author of nature, and by Christ Our Lord by Whom nature was redeemed, and hence these laws cannot be subject to any human decrees or to any contrary pact even of the spouses themselves.
Even in the 1930s, the meaning of marriage was up for grabs. Divorce was increasingly commonplace as more countries made it legal and easier to obtain. Couples opted for open marriages and cohabitation, prostitution was widespread, and contraception made it all that much easier. These distortions were then and are now chipping away at marriage.
But it’s not just the libertine side of the culture that has redefined marriage. Many of us in the Church have helped.
My wife and I took our marriage vows thirty-three years ago. We promised . . . actually, we have no idea what specifically we promised. You see, we wrote our own wedding vows, and while they must be around here someplace, we can’t find them…
Reflecting on Pius’s remedies, I’m reminded of what G.K. Chesterton wrote about Christianity: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” Similarly, Pius XI’s remedies for what ails marriage—remedies set forth more than eighty years ago—have not been tried and found wanting. They have been found difficult and not tried. As a result, marriage has been in a slow death spiral for over a century. Beginning with individual marriages and with the Church, it’s time to learn, teach, and live the biblical vision of marriage and family.