Christian Spirituality of
Marriage Possible Only by Living According to the Spirit
General Audience, November 14, 1984
the light of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, the fundamental element
of the spirituality of married life is the love poured out into the
hearts of the couple as a gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 5:5). In
the sacrament the couple receive this gift along with a special
consecration. Love is united to conjugal chastity, which,
manifesting itself as continence, brings about the interior order of
Chastity means to live in the order of the heart. This order permits
the development of the manifestations of affection in their proper
proportion and meaning. In this way conjugal chastity is also
confirmed as "life by the Spirit" (cf. Gal 5:25), according to St.
Paul's expression. The Apostle had in mind not only the immanent
energies of the human spirit, but above all the sanctifying
influence of the Holy Spirit and his special gifts.
Chastity at the centre
2. At the center of the spirituality of marriage, therefore, there
lies chastity not only as a moral virtue (formed by love), but
likewise as a virtue connected with the gifts of the Holy
Spirit—above all, the gift of respect for what comes from God (donum
pietatis). This gift is in the mind of the author of the Ephesians
when he exhorts married couples to "defer to one another out of
reverence for Christ" (Eph 5:21). So the interior order of married
life, which enables the manifestations of affection to develop
according to their right proportion and meaning, is a fruit not only
of the virtue which the couple practice, but also of the gifts of
the Holy Spirit with which they cooperate.
The Encyclical Humanae Vitae, in some passages of the text
(especially 21 and 26), dealing with the specific asceticism of
married life, that is, the commitment to acquire the virtues of
love, chastity, and continence, speaks indirectly of the gifts of
the Holy Spirit, for which the couple acquire a sensitivity in
proportion to their development in the virtue.
Power of the Spirit
3. This corresponds to man's vocation to marriage. Those two
who—according to the oldest expression in the Bible—"become one
body" (Gn 2:24), cannot bring about this union on the proper level
of persons (communio personarum) except through the powers coming
from the spirit, and precisely from the Holy Spirit who purifies,
enlivens, strengthens, and perfects the powers of the human spirit.
"It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless" (Jn 6:63).
It follows from this that the essential lines of the spirituality of
marriage are inscribed from the beginning in the biblical truth on
marriage. This spirituality is also open from the beginning to the
gifts of the Holy Spirit. If the Encyclical Humanae Vitae exhorts
married couples to "unremitting prayer" and to the sacramental life
(saying: "...let them drink deep of grace and charity from that
unfailing fount which is the Eucharist"; "humble and persevering,
they must have recourse to the mercy of God, abundantly bestowed in
the Sacrament of Penance" HV 25), it does so insofar as it is
mindful of the Spirit who "gives life"
(2 Cor 3:6).
Spirit's gift of fear
4. The gifts of the Holy Spirit, and especially the gift of respect
for what is sacred, seem to have a fundamental significance here.
This gift sustains and develops in the married couple a particular
sensitivity to everything in their vocation and life that bears the
sign of the mystery of creation and redemption: a sensitivity to
everything that is a created reflection of God's wisdom and love.
Therefore that gift seems to introduce the man and woman to a
specially profound respect for the two inseparable meanings of the
conjugal act, which the encyclical speaks of in relation to the
Sacrament of Marriage (HV 12). Respect for the two meanings of the
conjugal act can develop fully only on the basis of a profound
reference to the personal dignity of what in the human person is
intrinsic to masculinity and femininity, and inseparably in
reference to the personal dignity of the new life which can result
from the conjugal union of the man and the woman. The gift of
respect for what is created by God is expressed precisely in this
5. Respect for the twofold meaning of the conjugal act in marriage,
which results from the gift of respect for God's creation, is
manifested also as a salvific fear. It is a fear of violating or
degrading what bears in itself the sign of the divine mystery of
creation and redemption. The author of the Ephesians speaks
precisely of this fear: "Defer to one another out of reverence for
Christ" (Eph 5:21).
If this salvific fear is directly associated with the negative
function of continence (that is, to resistance with regard to
concupiscence of the flesh), it is also manifested—and to an ever
greater degree as this virtue gradually matures—as sensitivity
filled with veneration for the essential values of the conjugal
union: for the two meanings of the conjugal act (or, to use the
terminology of the previous analyses, veneration for the interior
truth of the mutual language of the body).
On the basis of a profound reference to these two essential values,
that which signifies union of the couple is harmonized in the
subject with that which signifies responsible fatherhood and
motherhood. The gift of respect for what is created by God enables
the apparent contradiction in this area to disappear and the
difficulty arising from concupiscence to be gradually overcome,
thanks to the maturity of the virtue and the power of the Holy
6. If it is a question of the problem of so-called periodic
continence (or recourse to natural methods), the gift of respect for
the work of God helps, to the greatest extent, to reconcile human
dignity with the natural cycles of fertility, that is, with the
biological dimension of the femininity and masculinity of the
couple. This dimension also has a significance of its own for the
truth of the mutual language of the body in married life.
In this way, even what refers to conjugal union in the flesh—not so
much in the biblical meaning as directly in the biological
meaning—finds its humanly mature form thanks to the life in the
The whole practice of the upright regulation of fertility, so
closely linked to responsible fatherhood and motherhood, forms part
of the Christian spirituality of married life and family life; and
only by living "in the Spirit" can it become interiorly true and
Taken from: L'Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English 19
November 1984, page 1.
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