Thursday, September 18, 2008



Alice von Hildebrand has an interesting article in The Homiletic and Pastoral Review. The following is an excerpt from that article:

The point that von Hildebrand highlights, however, is that the relationship between the marital embrace and procreation should not be viewed as an instrumental one.

An instrument, in the strict sense of the term, is a being the existence of which is justified by its role in reaching an end. A tool is a typical instrument: a knife came into existence to enable us to cut. Combs and brushes exist to serve a definite purpose; if all human beings were as bald as billiard balls, combs would become meaningless. To give a comb as a gift to a bald man is the peak of uncharitable irony.

Nevertheless the role and importance of means cannot be denied. Woe to the philosophers (like Spinoza) who claim that the belief in final causes is simply a fruit of ignorance! This metaphysical relationship plays a crucial role in human existence. But—and this is a contribution of Dietrich von Hildebrand that deserves highlighting—there are also things that have their own worth and dignity in and by themselves; this value, because of its inner richness and fecundity, inevitably “flows over” and brings about new goods. Von Hildebrand calls this a relationship of “superabundance” (a key concept in his thought), an inner richness that, because of its inner nobility, flows over and brings about a fruit that, in the case of the marital embrace, is a new human being made to God’s image and likeness.

A great and noble friendship—so highly praised by St. Augustine—makes us better persons, and in a Christian context, brings us closer to God. However, it would be wrong to view a friend as “a purely instrumental cause” the purpose of which is to improve us morally. St. Augustine writes that he loved his friends “for their own sake.” This “fecundity” calls for a different concept than mere instrumentality. In other words, the spouses desire their union because they love each other.

On the other hand, love is fecund by its very nature (Bonum diffusivum sibi), and God has so admirably arranged that this union should bring about a fruit: the child.

Conscious of the fact that his formulation was “new” and anxious to remain totally faithful to the teaching of the Church, von Hildebrand decided to submit his text to Cardinal Pacelli (who was residing in Munich at the time and who later dubbed Dietrich von Hildebrand “a modern doctor of the Church,” see Die Oesterreichische Wochenschrift, Der Christliche Staendestaat, p. 37). Pacelli enthusiastically endorsed the young thinker’s views, and encouraged him to publish them.

Von Hildebrand’s analysis of love had led him to the conclusion that an intentio unionis is an essential mark of love, for love is not only a response to the beauty of the loved one, but also includes an ardent intentio benevolentiae and an intentio unionis. This latter finds its deepest expression in the consummation of marriage: in becoming one flesh.

One danger, prevalent today, is to isolate the intentio unionis from procreation. It cannot be emphasized enough that this violation is bound to harm the love between the spouses. The openness to the possible conception of a child, made to God’s image and likeness, necessarily belongs to the inner fecundity of love; it flows from its inner goodness and generosity.

Another tendency is to view procreation as being included in the meaning of marriage. The consequence of this view is that when the marital embrace is not biologically fruitful, the meaning of this embrace would in some way be frustrated and jeopardized. This is bound to happen in the majority of cases. A woman is fruitful only very few days each month; she cannot conceive when she has reached a certain age; she cannot conceive when she is already pregnant; she cannot conceive when she has had a hysterectomy; she cannot conceive if she happens to be sterile.

But love, every love, is essentially fecund. The mark of every true love is that it makes us better persons: kinder, more generous, more forgiving. In other words, the very inner goodness of love flows over, benefiting and enriching others. What is unique about the love between spouses is that this goodness and generosity can lead to the mystery of procreation. The child born of this union is the fruit of love. The number of genes that he receives comes in equal number from father and mother.

It should be clear that if the spouses choose to prevent this generosity, which I shall term superabundance (following the terminology of von Hildebrand), it will severely impact the quality of their love. Instead of a generous giving, it becomes a self-centered keeping. This is why the Church, the Holy Bride of Christ, has from the beginning prohibited artificial birth control. It destroys this noble superabundance. A husband and wife who choose to prevent a new life from coming into existence find their punishment in the very crippling of their union.

The marital embrace should make the spouses more loving and more generous not only toward each other, but superabundantly toward their neighbor, whoever he is. Granted that not being able to conceive is a legitimate source of profound grief, this should in no way eliminate the fruitfulness and fecundity of their loving embrace. It can and should superabundantly bear fruits, be it in adopting unwanted babies, in taking care of orphans, in having the great blessing of having spiritual children, or simply by radiating goodness and generosity.

The beauty of the marital embrace is meant to benefit not only the spouses themselves but all those related to them. This spiritual superabundance definitely belongs to the meaning of marriage. We dare say that a marital embrace between two saintly spouses that for reasons not under their control cannot possibly lead to procreation justifies our claim that God is glorified more by the embrace of these two than by the embrace between two practicing Catholics whose love is less deep, in whom tenderness has not yet totally eliminated concupiscence, who are less conscious of God’s presence as witness of their union.

Every expression of authentic love will, by its very nature, bear fruit; this fruitfulness need not be biological (desirable as that is), but it is constitutive of the very nature of love. Any love, but especially spousal love, should have this superabundant character. If a love relationship, a friendship, or a love between parents and their children or between siblings resulted in selfishness, self-centeredness or an interest in those close to us to the complete exclusion of the needs of others, this love would not deserve the name of love; it would be what the French call so aptly “egoisme a deux” (“double selfishness”).

This is why the notion of superabundance is so crucial to grasping the inner beauty and richness of the marital embrace as well as its inner generosity, which clearly differs from instrumentality. All values—love, beauty, friendship—have worth of their own, but their very richness is bound to benefit others. Elisabeth Leseur, a French woman who left us a beautiful diary, must have had this in mind when she wrote, “Une ame qui s’eleve, eleve le monde” (“A soul which is lifted up, lifts up the world”).

That this is in full harmony with the doctrine of the Church is obvious as soon as we realize that the Church blesses the union of persons who love each other and who, because of age or some other impediment, cannot procreate. Their marriage is just as much a sacrament, is just as indissoluble as the marriage of those blessed with a progeny. Why is it that the Church allows the practice of natural family planning (for legitimate motives) if procreation essentially belonged to the meaning of marriage? Let us repeat again: the overwhelming majority of marital embraces cannot possibly lead to the creation of a new life. Spouses married for fifty years who have ten children certainly have “failed” to procreate in the majority of cases. But fruitfulness cannot and should not be jeopardized by biological obstacles.

The conclusion we can draw is the following: meaning and purpose are so closely related that to artificially eliminate the possibility of a conception has the inevitable consequence of draining, weakening and ultimately killing the love between the spouses. On the other hand, meaning and purpose are clearly distinct, and to include purpose in meaning inevitably leads to the danger of leaving the concrete sphere and flying into abstractionism.

Thomas a Kempis was right: “Magna res est amor.”

Dr. Alice von Hildebrand was born in Brussels, Belgium. She earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University. She was the wife of the famous philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand. She is the author of Introduction to Philosophy and collaborated with her husband in the writing of Situation Ethics, Graven Images and The Art of Living. In 1989 Sophia Institute Press published her book By Love Refined. She has lectured extensively and is professor emeritus at Hunter College of the City University of New York. Her last article in HPR appeared in April 2007.

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