Skip to content
For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Marriage in the News January 2009

  • What new Vatican bioethics instruction says to married couples
  • Bishops reflect on same-sex marriage vote and dignity of homosexual persons
  • Pope Benedict XVI’s post-Christmas reflection on marriage and family
  • Couples, families and individuals: The Christmas of the economic crisis
  • Marriage at its best


What New Vatican Bioethics Instruction Says for Married Couples

“The origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and in the family, where it is generated through an act that expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman,” the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says in an instruction on bioethics released Dec. 12. “Procreation that is truly responsible vis-à-vis the child to be born ‘must be the fruit of marriage,’” the congregation adds.

Titled “The Dignity of a Person” (“Dignitas Personae”), the instruction updates a 1987 instruction by the Doctrinal Congregation titled “The Gift of Life” (“Donum Vitae”). The new instruction says the earlier document’s teaching “remains completely valid,” but that since 1987 “new biomedical technologies … introduced in the critical area of human life and the family have given rise to further questions.”

A number of bioethical issues related to marriage and procreation are taken up by the new instruction. Its extended discussion of infertility will capture the attention of many couples.

“The church recognizes the legitimacy of the desire for a child and understands the suffering of couples struggling with problems of fertility,” the instruction says. However, it continues, the desire to have a child “should not override the dignity of every human life to the point of absolute supremacy,” and “the desire for a child cannot justify the ‘production’ of offspring, just as the desire not to have a child cannot justify the abandonment or destruction of a child once he or she has been conceived.”

New medical techniques for treating infertility “must respect three fundamental goods,” says the instruction:

  • “The right to life and to physical integrity of every human being from conception to natural death.”
  • “The unity of marriage, which means reciprocal respect for the right within marriage to become a father or mother only together with the other spouse.”
  • “The specifically human values of sexuality that require ‘that the procreation of a human person be brought about as the fruit of the conjugal act specific to the love between spouses.’”

According to the instruction, “techniques that assist procreation ‘are not to be rejected on the grounds that they are artificial. As such, they bear witness of the possibilities of the art of medicine.” However, these techniques “must be given a moral evaluation.”

The church, the instruction makes clear, does not object to treatments for infertility when their aim is to remove “obstacles to natural fertilization, as for example hormonal treatments for infertility, surgery for limited endometriosis, unblocking of fallopian tubes or their surgical repair.” These “are licit,” the instruction states.

Such techniques “may be considered authentic treatments because once the problem causing the infertility has been resolved, the married couple is able to engage in conjugal acts resulting in procreation without the physician’s action directly interfering in that act itself. None of these treatments replaces the conjugal act, which alone is worthy of truly responsible procreation.”

But the instruction finds that the same is not the case, for example, with the increasingly common practice of in vitro fertilization. In the church’s eyes, a significant problem with in vitro fertilization is that it involves the creation of several embryos at one time, not all of which can be used. The instruction says:

“The fact that the process of in vitro fertilization very frequently involves the deliberate destruction of embryos was already noted in the instruction ‘Donum Vitae.’ There were some who maintained that this was due to techniques that were still somewhat imperfect. Subsequent experience has shown, however, that all techniques of in vitro fertilization proceed as if the human embryo were simply a mass of cells to be used, selected and discarded.”

The instruction discusses both heterologous and homologous techniques of artificial fertilization, each of which may involve either in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination. A couple employing a heterologous technique brings about the conception of a new human being through the use of reproductive cells from at least one donor who is not one of the spouses. A couple employing a homologous technique to obtain a human conception uses the reproductive cells of the two spouses joined in marriage. The instruction states:

“All techniques of heterologous artificial fertilization, as well as those techniques of homologous artificial fertilization that substitute for the conjugal act, are to be excluded. On the other hand, techniques that act as an aid to the conjugal act and its fertility are permitted.”

The Doctrinal Congregation also expresses concern about what it says is the growing use of such means of conception not only in cases of infertility, but for quite different purposes. It says, “Cases are becoming ever more prevalent in which couples who have no fertility problems are using artificial means of procreation in order to engage in genetic selection of their offspring.”

A few of the other bioethical issues discussed by the new Vatican instruction include human cloning, stem-cell research, embryo freezing and adoption, abortion, the morning-after pill, and gene therapy and genetic engineering. It isn’t possible here to give each point in the new instruction the attention it deserves. Readers of this “News About Marriage” section may want to know that the full text of the instruction can be found online at The full text also was published in the Dec. 18, 2008, edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service.

One basic principle of the instruction holds “that it is ethically unacceptable to dissociate procreation from the integrally personal context of the conjugal act.’” The instruction says that when we encounter another person, “we meet a human being who owes his existence and his proper characteristics to the love of God, and only the love of husband and wife constitutes a mediation of that love in conformity with the plan of the Creator and heavenly Father.”

The instruction also aims “to reiterate both the dignity and the fundamental and inalienable rights of every human being, including those in the initial stages of their existence, and to state explicitly the need for protection and respect that this dignity requires of everyone.”

A concern is expressed in the instruction that some bioethical developments may promote a “eugenic mentality” and a desire to bring children into the world only if they are free of “defects.” The instruction states, however, that “dignity belongs equally to every single human being, irrespective of his parents’ desires, his social condition, educational formation or level of physical development.”

The instruction expresses support for many bioethical developments. It says:

“In recent decades, medical science has made significant strides in understanding human life in its initial stages. Human biological structures and the process of human generation are better known. The developments are certainly positive and worthy of support when they serve to overcome or correct pathologies and succeed in re-establishing the normal functioning of human procreation.”

However, it adds, these developments “are negative and cannot be utilized when they involve the destruction of human beings, or when they employ means that contradict the dignity of the person, or when they are used for purposes contrary to the integral good of man.”

Some people will think “that the moral teaching of the church contains too many prohibitions,” the instruction says. But, it comments, “behind every no in the difficult task of discerning between good and evil, there shines a great yes to the recognition of the dignity and inalienable value of every single and unique human being called into existence.”


Bishops Reflect on Same-sex Marriage Vote and Dignity of Homosexual Persons

“The passage of Proposition 8 in the state of California does not diminish in any way the importance of you, our homosexual brothers and sisters in the church. Nor does it lessen your personal dignity and value as full members of the body of Christ,” Cardinal Roger Mahony and the six auxiliary bishops of Los Angeles said in a Dec. 3 pastoral letter.

In balloting Nov. 4, California voters approved an initiative known as Proposition 8, thus amending the state constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The vote overturned the May 2008 decision of the state Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage.

Two days before the Los Angeles pastoral letter’s release, Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco issued an open letter that said Proposition 8’s proponents “supported it as a defense of the traditional understanding and definition of marriage, not as an attack on any group or as an attempt to deprive others of their civil rights.”

Some in the wider community declared that only “hatred, prejudice and bigotry against gays, along with a determination to discriminate against them and deny them their civil rights” could have motivated support for Proposition 8, the archbishop observed. But, he insisted, “that is not so.”

“We churchgoers need to speak and act out of the truth that all people are God’s children and are unconditionally loved by God,” said Archbishop Niederauer.

Archbishop Niederauer’s Dec. 1 open letter explained that Proposition 8’s approval added these 14 words to the state’s Constitution: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

The pastoral letter of the Los Angeles bishops said Proposition 8 never was intended, “directly or indirectly, to lessen the value and importance of gay and lesbian persons.” Addressing homosexual members of the church, the bishops said: “Your intrinsic value as human beings and as brothers and sisters continues without change. If we had ever thought that the intent of this proposition was to harm you or anyone in the state of California, we would not have supported it.”

The bishops said: “We are personally grateful for the witness and service of so many dedicated and generous homosexual Catholics. We pledge our commitment to safeguard your dignity.”

Church support for “Proposition 8 was our effort to resist a legal redefinition of marriage,” the bishops said. They added, “Our support for Proposition 8 was in defense of the longstanding institution of marriage understood as the lifelong relationship of a man and a woman ordered to the good of the spouses and to the procreation and education of their children.”

Marriage, the Los Angeles bishops commented, “is not a merely religious concept but is so fundamental to human experience that it cannot be redefined legally.” No one is diminished when “marriage as it has always been understood” is supported, said the bishops.

Archbishop Niederauer’s open letter said “the churches that worked in favor of Proposition 8 did so because of their belief that the traditional understanding and definition of marriage is in need of defense and support, and not in need of being redesigned or reconfigured.” These churches, he said, “see marriage and the family as the basic building blocks of human society, existing before government and not created by it.”

The archbishop said that after Proposition 8’s passage, “the fact remains that under California law … same-sex couples who register as domestic partners will continue to have ‘the same rights, protections and benefits’ as married couples. Proposition 8 simply recognizes that there is a difference between traditional marriage and a same-sex partnership.”

Archbishop Niederauer, addressing those on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate and noting that many in the gay community felt “hurt and offended” after Proposition 8’s approval, said: “We need to stop talking as if we are experts on the real motives of people with whom we have never even spoken. We need to stop hurling names like bigot and pervert at each other.”

The archbishop said, “We need to be able to disagree without being disagreeable.”


Pope Benedict’s Post-Christmas Reflection on the Family

Christmas, while underscoring the family’s important role in people’s lives, can be a time when “the discomfort and pain caused by certain family wounds are amplified,” Pope Benedict XVI said in remarks Dec. 28, the feast of the Holy Family. He urged families everywhere not to allow any diminishment of their love and openness to life or of “the incomparable bonds that unite your home.”

The pope prayed for families in difficulty and family members who are sick or out of work. He said he feels close to all families and prays “especially for those in every family who have greater need for health, work, comfort and companionship.”

Speaking at the time of the Angelus, Pope Benedict called the family a sign that “allows us to see who [God] is: love.” Thus, the family is a sign of a love that is “eternally gratuitous” and that “sustains faithfully and without limits, even in moments of difficulty or discouragement,” he added.

The Holy Family resembles all families, but is at the same time unique, said the pope. First, he explained, the Holy Family is, like other families, “a model of conjugal love, collaboration, sacrifice, trust in divine providence, industriousness, solidarity — of all those values safeguarded and promoted by the family.”

Yet, at the same time “the family of Nazareth is unique, different from all others because of its singular vocation,” Pope Benedict said. In this way the Holy Family is a sign to all families, and Christian families primarily, of “the horizon of God,” the primacy of God’s will and “the perspective of heaven to which we are destined.”


Couples, Families and Individuals Celebrate the Christmas of the Economic Crisis

Christmas 2008, a time of global economic turmoil, would prove to be a different kind of celebration in many homes, and bishops around the world anticipated this in holiday messages. Husbands and wives, families and individuals were uncertain how to plan for Christmas at a time when the future seemed uncertain, numerous church leaders observed.

With people in many homes worried about the gifts they could not afford to give, Bishop Paul Bootkoski of Metuchen, N.J., exhorted them to remember that “the greatest gift we can give is the gift of our presence to one another.”

Some bishops, including Bishop Bootkoski, called attention to the journey Mary and Joseph were forced to take as Jesus’ birth approached. There are resemblances between the life of Mary and Joseph and that of couples today, it was suggested. And the experience of Mary and Joseph helps people today gain perspective on events that touch their lives.

“Like so many couples of today, Mary and Joseph were poor. They were forced by circumstances to leave their home in Nazareth and travel to Judea to the city of Bethlehem,” Bishop Bootkoski said. The journey of Mary and Joseph “was long and arduous,” he pointed out. He exhorted readers of his Christmas message to:

“Imagine Mary, eight months pregnant, praying for the safety of her child about to be born. Imagine Joseph worried about Mary and whether they would have a place to stay once they arrived at their destination. Imagine Mary and Joseph alone in a city, with no family or friends with whom to stay, no money to secure shelter, no inn willing to take them in.”

“Seems pretty bleak too, doesn’t it?” the bishop stated.

But, said Bishop Bootkoski, “the story of that first Christmas doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end in despair, but with great joy at the coming of the Christ Child.”

The bishop encouraged people at Christmastime not to focus on “what we don’t have or what we can’t give but, rather, on the gifts we have been given and those we can share: the gift of life, the gift of our families and friends, the gift of our country and its freedom and, most especially, the gift of the word of God.” These gifts, the bishop said, are priceless, and they “give meaning and purpose to our lives.”

In Detroit, heart of the U.S. auto industry, the presence of a financial crisis made itself known with particular force. In a Christmas homily, Detroit’s Cardinal Adam Maida called attention to the specific concerns so many families are facing. He said:

“Many of us are overshadowed with anxieties and fears, worry about the financial well-being of our families and the companies and businesses for which we work. Many of us are even anxious about the future of our own homes and face the possibility of foreclosure or bankruptcy. And then there are the usual physical and psychological challenges that burden us.”

In many ways, the situation in Detroit this Christmas mirrored and matched “the kind of world into which Jesus was born 2,000 years ago,” said Cardinal Maida. He told Massgoers that “life was not easy in first-century Palestine; the Jews were under oppressive Roman rule and had little reason for joy or hope. They continued to believe in the Lord and his promises, but, nonetheless, the Lord seemed far away. The irony was the Lord was right in their midst and they did not know it!”

In a separate Christmas message, Cardinal Maida acknowledged the fear people were experiencing in families and homes and said fear is a natural human reaction to unpredictable and unfamiliar events. Yet, he said, “more than ever, we need to reflect on the hope-filled message of Christmas. Again and again in the Christmas Gospels, whenever an angel appears, consistently the message is the same, ‘Do not be afraid.’”

Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, Australia, president of the Australian Catholic bishops’ conference, observed in a Christmas message that many families this year were “keeping a wary eye on their job security and their mortgage commitments.” Both individuals and families were tightening “the purse strings to prepare for what looks like a bumpy road ahead,” he wrote.

The archbishop took note of an unsettling aspect of the financial crisis – the sense people may experience of having little or no control over events in their lives. “Much of the anxiety we might feel about the global economic crisis comes about because we know we cannot control it. The decisions that will be made to deal with this global situation will be made by others, but they will affect our lives,” Archbishop Wilson said. But, he said, the message of Christmas is relevant to this particular form of anxiety. He wrote:

“This Christmas, Christians all over the world will draw strength from knowing that far from being an anonymous cog in the economic machinery, each human being is precious beyond understanding, having been individually created, known and loved by God. Indeed, God loves us so much that he became human. And when God became human he was not born into a situation of wealth or prestige. He didn’t earn multimillion dollar bonuses in the subprime-mortgage or hedge-fund industry of his day.

“Jesus Christ was born of a lowly maiden in a stable and raised by a carpenter. And yet despite these humble beginnings, Jesus Christ had a profound impact on the world and continues to be present in people’s lives today.”


Marriage at Its Best

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O-Connor of Westminster, England, said in an end-of-December pastoral letter on marriage and the family that he is “particularly aware of the special challenges that face so many families in today’s climate of economic and social difficulty.” He wrote, “Like the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, every family is a suffering family at some stage or another.”

The letter accented the commitment a husband and wife make in marriage, and the importance of their faithfulness. “Jesus’ love is unconditional, and our love must be the same,” the cardinal said. The pastoral letter for the feast of the Holy Family was read at Masses in the archdiocese the weekend of Dec. 27-28.

In the Christian vision, “marriage is not an arbitrary set of moral rules,” Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor wrote. Rather, he said, marriage “is the clearest example we have of what it means to share your life with another and to express your belief about God and what he is like with that person.”

According to Christian faith, there is a “fundamental pattern behind the universe in which we all find our way to fuller and eternal living” – a pattern expressed in the life of Christ that involves “sharing, rejection, forgiveness, reconciliation, new life and above all, love,” said the cardinal. Expanding upon this, he wrote:

“What Christianity has done is to take marriage, that natural, worldwide human institution through which most human beings pass their lives and to say that at its best, as it is meant to be, marriage is a symbol of the image of God. It is a means by which we can grow more like him.”

This vision’s focal point “is the requirement of mutual faithfulness,” said the cardinal. For him, one of happiest celebrations of the past year took place May 10 when he invited couples “celebrating significant and jubilee anniversaries of their marriage during 2008 to come to the cathedral and give thanks to God.” The cardinal said that “after the homily, each couple faced each other and said, one after the other:

“‘I, in the presence of God, reaffirm my commitment to you. I give thanks that you have shared my life. All that I am and all that I have I continue to share with you. Whatever the future holds, I will love you and stand by you as long as we both shall live.’”

While accenting the commitment made in marriage, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said he also was thinking of those “who are single, either from choice or circumstance, and of how much God values your gifts and your participation in the family of the church and of the world.” Some of those he had in mind, the cardinal said, included “widows and widowers, one-parent families and divorced people.” All these people “in different ways have a positive part to play in the family of the church,” said the cardinal. He added:

“I remember well the words of Pope John Paul on his visit to England when he said, ‘We must reach out in love — the love of Christ — to those who know the pain of failure in marriage; to those who know the loneliness of bringing up a family on their own; to those whose family life is dominated by tragedy or by illness of mind or body.”

About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.