That the teaching of Vatican II should be of the greatest relevance to Catholic doctrine on contraception is not surprising when it is remarked that the Second Vatican Council was the first council in the history of the church to speak on the purposes of marital intercourse. This subject, which was unmentioned in the gospels, had been left largely to the speculations of the theologians. It had never been a matter of authoritative teaching by a general council, nor, I believe, by any council. Now, for the first time, as the culmination of a slow evolution that took a decisive turn about 1680, a council gave authoritative teaching on coital purpose.
At various earlier times in the history of the church it had been the common opinion of Catholic theologians that the only lawful purpose for initiating intercourse was procreation; a consciously procreative intent was required. This view, derived from the Stoics, was asserted by Clement of Alexandria, and, adopted by Origen, played a guiding role in the Greek Church. In the West it was affirmed by St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and, above all, by St. Augustine, who riveted it on Western moral thought. From 1100 to 1680 the Alexandrian or Augustinian requirement of procreative purpose was dominant among Catholic moral theologians.
By the end of the fifteenth century, however, a sharp critique had been made of the dominant theory, and Paris theologians had suggested that among the lawful purposes of marital coitus were the avoidance of adultery, the restoration of bodily and psychic health, and even the achievement of pleasure. Between 1480 and 1680 there went on a major theological controversy conducted in these categories. In 1563 the Council of Trent for the first time spoke at a conciliar level about love in marriage, but did not relate it to intercourse. Yet during the next century it became accepted that intercourse in order to avoid incontinence elsewhere was lawful; after all, this view had the implicit support of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7. In adopting this analysis, the seventeenth-century theologians broke with the Augustinian insistence that sexual acts must be somehow tied to procreative purpose. At the same time they were uneasy about pleasure as a purpose in itself, and the consensus was that to seek pleasure only in intercourse, while excluding other purposes, was to commit venial sin.
Only in the nineteenth century was the idea advanced that the expression and fostering of love could be recognized as a purpose of marital intercourse. This thought was not developed in nineteenth-century theology, although by the end of the century Alois de Smet could add the un-Tridentine thought, apropos of the love which Trent had spoken of in marriage, that “the marriage act itself, by which the partners are made one flesh, cultivates and nourishes this love.” Substantial theoretical development of this new, non-Augustinian insight was made in 1925 by the German layman Dietrich Von Hildebrand in his Reinheit und Jungfraulichkeit, and above all, in 1935 by the German priest Herbert Doms in his Vom Sinn and Zweck der Ehe. Doms set out a complete theory of coitus as an ontological act of reciprocal love, “an act which contains the abandonment and enjoyment of the whole person and is not simply an isolated activity of organs.”
Doms’ theory was received with coldness, the Holy Office issuing a decree on April 1, 1944, that was interpreted as rebuking it. But his emphasis on persons, in contrast to the earlier focus on the biological act, was taken up by Pius XII in 1949 in an allocution condemning artificial insemination. In the 1950s, a position balancing procreation and conjugal love was set out by the leading moral theologians Bernhard Häring and Joseph Fuchs. Marital intercourse, Häring said, was “a fundamental mediation of charity.” Apart from procreation, one of its permissible purposes was “the augmentation of love.” The loving union of spouses, however, was not directed to their own completion, but to the child, whose “virtual presence” was “inscribed in the ontological act of total union.” Similarly, Fuchs taught that expression of love was a purpose of intercourse, although this love “entirely (although not solely or as a mere means) serves and is subordinated to the education of offspring, to whose generation such an act expressive of love is evidently ordered.”
There had then already occurred in theological thought a development which, blending procreation and conjugal love, recognized both as purposes of intercourse. Vatican II confirmed and crowned this development by relating the coital expression of conjugal love to procreation, but also giving such expression a substantial value independent of procreation. Conjugal love, the Council now taught, had its origin from God’s invitation to the married to love each other, and the Lord had “cleansed, perfected, and elevated” this love. Such love is “directed from person to person” and “completes the good of the whole person.” This was Doms on the ontological significance of coitus. Such “eminently human love,” the Council continued, “is able to enrich the expressions of the body and of the spirit with a peculiar dignity and ennoble them as elements and special signs of conjugal friendship.”