Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Rarely Discussed Morals in Marriage

by Rev. Garrett F. Barry, O.M.I., J.C.D.


In this article written 50 years ago, Rev. Garrett F. Barry outlines some frequently misunderstood moral obligations of the married state. When both spouses embrace these "obligations," they are fulfilling God's plan for marriage, and they will help each other grow in holiness. Although his mention of the rhythm method is somewhat outdated (Natural Family Planning has come a long way) there are still many worthwhile points in his article, many of which are no longer emphasized today. These include the father's role as the head of the home and the mother as the heart of the home, and the husband's duty to be the primary provider so that his wife will not have to work unless it is strictly necessary. In addition, he discusses the obligation of a woman to breastfeed her children, and the moral risks that can arise when newlyweds plan to postpone having a child.

Larger Work

Sanctity and Success in Marriage


115 - 126

Publisher & Date

National Catholic Conference on Family Life, Washington, D.C., 1956

In marriage, as in life itself, success and sanctity are attained through the faithful fulfillment of the mind of God as expressed in revelation and in the teachings of the Church He has founded. Married life, as life itself, cannot be lived according to a plan fashioned by the married persons themselves. God has His own plan for marriage. That plan must be faithfully traced within each marriage if success and holiness are to be achieved. Marriage will be a source of sanctity to the extent that married persons adopt and follow the precepts and counsels established by God and His Church.

The plan of Divine Providence dictates that just as things are brought into being, so also shall they continue in existence. For Catholics, marriage begins in the presence of Almighty God and with His help. So also should it continue if it is to be what God has intended. God and His Church must play a major role in every marriage. Love of God will fill the home and pervade its atmosphere to the degree that it fills the hearts of those who live within that home. But there can be no true love of God where there is not faithful adherence to His commands and His counsels. "If you love Me, keep My Commandments."

It is a truism in Catholic thought that it takes three to make a marriage — man, woman and God. Well do we know that in some homes there is too much man; in others there is too much woman. Perhaps we can say that in all homes there is not enough of God. And to the extent that He is not within the home, that home will be lacking in the success and sanctity which God intended it to have.

Single persons have only one thing to say regarding marriage — whether or not they will be married. Once married, however, they must live their marriage as God desires it to be lived. This entails a knowledge of the mind of God and of His Church. Without this knowledge they cannot hope so to live that theirs will be the mind of God and of His Church. And without this mind of God and His Church pervading their thinking and their acting, success and sanctity will be difficult of attainment in the marriage state.

With these few thoughts in mind we intend to outline herein a few of those definite but more obscure points of obligation which affect the lives of married persons. Their fulfillment will serve to bring the persons and their marriage closer to God and nearer to the goal of every marriage — success and sanctity.

The Duty of Making a Success of Marriage

Generally speaking, the words of our Blessed Lord, "What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder," are directed towards those individuals who take unto themselves a power which is not theirs, as they pass down sentences of divorce to the detriment of the marriage state and society. Such is obviously the primary interpretation which commonly attaches itself to this passage of Scripture.

But in a very real, if accommodative, sense this admonition of Our Lord applies with equal force to the married persons themselves. In it may be found the obligation encumbent upon all married persons to make of their marriage a successful and holy union. Marriages do not reach the civil courts for dissolution until first they have been morally dissolved by the persons themselves. Moreover, what person familiar with marriage and its problems does not know that many marriages which have not ended in divorce by reason of this admonition of Our Lord, have nevertheless been despoiled of that union and love which once they possessed? Life together without love and affection and a striving for success and holiness can equally be a violation of the precept of God.

There does rest upon each person entering marriage the positive obligation so to work, so to love, so to sacrifice, so to surrender himself to this union that every favorable opportunity will be utilized to guarantee its success. Married persons, in marrying, take upon themselves the obligation to make of their marriage the success which God intends it to be.

Any mode of action which will not serve to further the purposes of God in instituting marriage can be a failing, and a sinful one, on the part of the married person. Attitudes of selfishness, self-love, lack of sacrifice, unwillingness to love to the degree demanded for success in marriage — all these are wrong and sinful on the part of married persons. No longer are they single persons concerned only about themselves and their own personal relationship to God and the Church. Now there has been added the marriage state which is over and above themselves and which deserves and must be given primary consideration. There must be a sacrifice of self to that state in which they find themselves. Failing to do this, they fail in their primary obligation as married persons. God's plan must be their plan. And God's plan dictates that marriage be so lived that failure can in no way be attributed to the married persons themselves.

Married persons have been the ministers of the Sacrament which each has received. They have conferred upon each other the Sanctifying Grace attached to the Sacrament. Now they must so live that each will be for the other the instrument through which an increase of this same grace shall fill their souls. Each must strive, with an obligation flowing from the married state itself, so to live that both "may have life [holiness], and have it more abundantly."

The love which is manifested one for the other must be supernatural as well as natural. The union which is theirs must be a union in Christ. This can be possible only for those who maintain within their souls the state of Sanctifying Grace. Over and above the obligation which rests upon each to live in the love of Christ, there rests upon married persons an additional obligation flowing from the state which is theirs.

Thusly did Pius XI speak in his encyclical On Christian Marriage when he stated:

This outward expression of love in the home not only demands mutual help, but must go further; it must have as its primary purpose that man and wife help each other day by day in forming and perfecting themselves in the interior life; so that by their partnership in life they may advance ever more and more in virtue, and above all that they may grow in that true love towards God and their neighbor, on which depends the whole Law and the Prophets.

Husband is Head of the Home

There is perhaps no married woman who is not aware of the teaching of St. Paul that the husband is the lawfully constituted head of the home.

Let wives be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord; because a husband is head of the wife, just as Christ is head of the Church . . . But just as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let wives be to their husbands in all things.

It must be remembered that when expounding this teaching Saint Paul had in mind a husband who loves his wife to the extent that he is willing to lay down his life for her. If such be the husband, then he himself will clearly understand that subjection in this case in no way indicates that the woman loses her personal freedom or liberty or dignity in marriage. She is bound to obey her husband in all those things which are consonant with right reason. Maintaining her dignity as a human being and as a partner in marriage, she is subject to her husband in all those things which he commands as necessary and useful for the good and betterment of their home and married life. Speaking of this subjection of the wife to the husband, Pius XI asserted that it

forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head to the greater detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love. (On Christian Marriage)

It would be sinful, however, for a wife, admitting this teaching in principle, so to act in her married life that she would in practice render it difficult or impossible of attainment. The ways of a willful woman to circumvent this teaching are many. The adoption throughout marriage of a manner of acting which would render impotent the decisions of a husband in important matters affecting the marriage life and the lives of children would be sinful on the part of a wife and mother. True submission entails not only external but also and especially internal acceptance of this principle. Lawful and legitimate wishes and commands of the husband as head of the house must be fulfilled.

On the other hand, husbands must accept and fulfill this duty which has been imposed upon them. It is wrong for them to neglect the fulfillment of this office or so act that it would be generally fulfilled by the wife. This is an obligation which may not be delegated to the wife. The husband is constituted in the grace of state. Prayerfully he must cooperate with this grace in striving courageously to command when commands are needed and to insist upon the fulfillment of those commands. His wife and children are committed to his care. This is the stewardship for which he shall be held accountable. He must fulfill it with strength tempered with kindness and gentleness. But, fulfill it he must. Popularity or the desire for peace at any cost cannot be purchased within the home at the price of compromise with this duty which the married state imposes on the husband and the father.

Wives Working Outside the Home

The fulfillment of the task of the faithful wife, homemaker and mother is a job which demands full-time activity on the part of a woman. The proper performance of this activity is normally incompatible with the holding of a job outside the home. Ordinarily speaking it is not right for a wife and mother to be engaged in activity which will keep her from the home and her primary duties therein. First things must come first. As a rule, the two cannot be satisfactorily combined. One will suffer and it will always be the duties attached to the home.

Circumstances can and do arise in individual cases which will justify the wife's and mother's leaving the home for work outside. Such could be the necessity of supporting the family when the husband is unable to work. But all such cases are of a nature dictated by the necessity of preserving the home and home-life.

A spirit of independence can be engendered in the wife when she is not dependent upon her husband for the means whereby the family and home are maintained. This can be particularly true when the wife continues to work immediately after marriage, apart from any reasonable necessity. This practice can and does give rise to the temptation not to have children, or to defer their arrival, and the consequent practice of birth-control. Only when there is a readiness to assume the burdens of child-bearing and a willingness thereafter to spend her time and energies within the home, could one justify the practice of wives working full time after marriage.

Part-time jobs undertaken by wives are sometimes necessary and can more readily be justified, even when there are children to be cared for. But at no time should the children and their proper education and upbringing suffer detriment through the unnecessary absence from the home of the mother for purposes of work. God will provide additional graces to supplement for the lack of care when the wife and mother must necessarily be absent from home. Such help cannot reasonably be expected when the absence is unnecessary and unjustified.

The ordinary plan of Divine Providence places the wife and mother in the home. It is here that she is queen and in her proper setting. In this matter she is obliged to accede to the reasonable wishes of her husband, desiring that she remain at home. In this matter she owes him obedience.


Much has been written in Catholic periodicals on the subject of periodic continence and the conditions which must be verified before this practice may be employed by married couples. It is not our purpose here to add to that which already has been treated so ably.

We do wish, however, to focus the spotlight of moral teaching on one aspect of this teaching which often is not considered sufficiently by those who employ its benefits.

Three conditions must be verified before couples are justified in the use of rhythm: the couple must be mutually willing to practice it; they must be mutually able to practice it; they must have a good reason to practice it.

The first and the third condition have received much treatment and are often the subject of questions directed towards priests by those seeking advice in the practice of rhythm. The second question, however, does not receive the attention it merits. The couple must be able to practice rhythm. By this we simply mean that couples must be able to live continently during that period of time when the fulfillment of the marital act is not permitted by the law of the rhythmic cycle. The absence of a just cause permitting rhythm will generally involve a venial sin. The inability, however, to remain continent during the fertile period may give rise to seriously sinful actions. The temptation can be powerful in this respect. And this is particularly true of those newly-married who are endeavoring to live their married life according to the calendar.

Much care must be exercised in advising couples who desire to make use of rhythm. Although the principles governing its use are well-formulated, the actual fulfillment of these principles — and particularly the one which demands continent living — is not to be assumed readily. The very nature of this condition renders it difficult and embarrassing to discuss. Yet, it necessarily must be given its proper consideration. Failure to do this could result in the commission of sins of unchastity on the part of the married persons and sins of neglect of office on the part of those whose duty it is to instruct and advise.

Faithful cooperation with the grace of God and deeply prayerful lives are necessary pre-requisites if fidelity to the principles and practice of rhythm is to be expected. The forces of temptation are strong and can be combated only with strong and grace-filled wills.

Obligation to Foster and Encourage Vocations

It is to the Catholic home that the Church looks for an increase in the ranks of her priests and religious. Today we are witnessing a decreasing flow of boys and girls from those homes into our convents and seminaries. The causes of this are many and have received much treatment by those most concerned. But, among these causes cannot be included a dearth of vocations flowing from God. What Pius XI said of vocations to the priesthood can, with equal force, be applied to vocations to the sisterhood and the religious life:

Now God Himself liberally sows in the generous hearts of many young men this precious seed of vocation; but human means of cultivating this seed must not be neglected. (On the Catholic Priesthood)

Our concern here is the attitude which is sometimes adopted by some Catholic parents when faced with the revelation of a possible vocation within their own children. In some instances there is a definite expression of displeasure and an unwillingness to permit the fostering, let alone the fulfillment, of this call. A myriad of parental obligations frequently arise to make attainment of this vocation difficult, if not impossible.

Pius XI asserts that the seed of vocation should be cultivated and fostered and given growth. Here we find it being subjected to forces which, rather, will smother and kill. How far removed from the true concept of Christian and Catholic living are such attitudes on the part of parents — and at times of parents who consider themselves faithful followers of Christ and His Church. How seriously should they ponder the words of Pius XI when he commented on such an attitude:

Only too often parents seem to be unable to resign themselves to the priestly or religious vocations of their children. Such parents have no scruple in opposing the divine call with objections of all kinds; they even have recourse to means which can imperil not only the vocation to a more perfect state, but also the very conscience and the eternal salvation of those souls they ought to hold so dear.

It is understood, of course, that parents have a right and obligation to direct the lives of their children and to assist them in making a choice of a particular state in life. But we must insist that the duty and office of parents in this regard is one of counsel, advice and direction only. The choice of a state of life is not a part of the child's education subject to the will of the parents. This is a purely personal matter for the child himself to decide with the parents contributing only wise and loving guidance. Undue influence exercised by parents with a view to steering the child away from his chosen state of life can indeed be sinful, and seriously so.

All theologians are agreed to this.1 In the matter of determining his state of life the child is equal to the parent and owes to the parent only the respectful seeking of advice and counsel. For the parent to impose his will upon a child in such an instance would be an invasion of the rights of the child and certainly a violation of justice. St. Alphonsus minced no words in declaring that those parents are guilty of mortal sin who unjustly prevent their children from embracing the religious and clerical life.2

We find no fault with those parents who offer worthy and valid reasons directed towards the discouragement of children in following what falsely is assumed to be a vocation. This is all a part of the guidance which parents are expected to give. Nor, do we find fault with those parents who reasonably and justly expect of their children support which the parents need. Such justification is recognized by the law of the Church. (Canon 542)

Rather than opposing the call to a vocation on the part of their children, parents have the obligation to foster, by their prayerful and loving direction, the fulfillment of this vocation. Such is their duty before God and their children.

The Mother's Obligation to Nurse Her Children

One of the roles assigned to a mother by Nature itself is that of nursing the children which she has brought into the world. Yet, it is common knowledge that in this country this role of motherhood too often is neglected. One gynecologist has made the statement that "about 65 per cent of our babies are bottle-fed."3

There was a time when the breast of woman was regarded as the symbol of motherhood. In this modern day, however, the bosom of woman has assumed a new and unreal purpose intimately associated with sex and so-called sex appeal — a purpose far removed from that which the God of Nature intended it to play. In this regard Catholics have permitted themselves to become unduly influenced by the propaganda of advertising which is exploiting womanhood in the interest of financial gain to the detriment of true feminine charms.

It is not our purpose herein to cite extensively the testimony of medical men in favor of a fulfillment by mothers of this duty of motherhood. Suffice to quote from one who has said, "Regardless of the marked advances that have been made in artificial feeding, the best food for the newborn baby is what Nature intended it to be — mother's milk."4

In this regard good medicine is good morals. It is the common teaching of moral theology that mothers have an obligation to nurse their own children.5 This obligation flows from the very nature of motherhood itself. Having been endowed by the Creator with the means whereby she is enabled to nurse her child, the mother ordinarily is expected to employ them.

Theologians do not assert that this obligation is serious. They would rather affirm that ordinarily the obligation binds venially, unless in a particular instance serious harm would result to the child from being artificially fed. Good reasons are present at times which will serve to excuse a mother from this obligation. Such could be reasons of health — on the part of the mother or the child — or the necessity of working to provide the means of support for herself and the child. Where no excusing cause exists, the obligation must be insisted upon. Certainly mere custom in any given locality or country is not of a nature sufficient to excuse from this obligation.6

Catholic doctors should urge their patients to return to the ways which God has so obviously indicated. Parents also should so train and instruct their daughters that the preparation for marriage will include proper information regarding this obligation. If this be done, it is to be hoped that girls will enter upon marriage and motherhood with a more firm desire to accept this role allotted them by nature.

Obligation of Common Conjugal Life

The Code of Canon Law (Canon 1128) affirms that husband and wife are obliged to observe community or conjugal life unless a just reason excuses them.

This obligation includes normally the habitual sharing of bed, board and home. It is generally obligatory as a necessary means to the full attainment of the primary and secondary ends of marriage. The life of married persons must be lived together. It goes without saying, of course, that husbands and wives shall not be separated for any long period of time without good reasons.

We are not concerned here, however, with the more obvious violations of this obligation such as separate vacations and long and unnecessary absences from the home. Such violations are not frequently committed by Catholic couples striving to live a successful and holy married life.

There are, however, more subtle violations of this community life. Recreation can sometimes be taken outside of the home to such an extent that communal life suffers as a result. Other works, good and worthy in themselves, can so engage a married person's time and energy that home life suffers and the partner is left to carry on those tasks destined for communal fulfillment. Such works may be of a social, religious or charitable nature. They may be of immediate benefit to society and the church. Yet, in the long run, such prove more a detriment than a benefit, since they take a person away from that which is his primary obligation. This will be true when a married person is engaged excessively in activities of this nature.

If any married person is engaged in external activities to such an extent that his family is being deprived of that which he would and could contribute to it by his presence at home, then such activity must be discontinued or curtailed. Christ will be found by married persons first and foremost in the home. He will not be found nor served outside the home at the expense of familial obligations and duties.

The few points of obligation touched upon in this article in no way cover all the duties which married persons must observe if they would live in accordance with the plan of God and His Church. They are offered merely as indications of some phases of married life which are sometimes misunderstood or overlooked. The living of a full married life entails the faithful fulfillment of all obligations which marriage embodies.


1. D. M. Prummer, Manuale Theologiae Moralis, II. N. 585 (Barcelona: Herder, 1945-46).

2. St. Alphonsus, Theologia Moralis, L. 3, n. 335 (Rome ex typographia Vaticana, 1905-1912).

3. G. C. Schauffler, "This Bosom Business," Readers Digest (August 1955), p. 22.

4. F. L. Good and O. F. Kelly, Marriage, Morals and Medical Ethics (New York: P. J. Kenedy, 1951), p. 62.

5. D. M. Prummer, op. cit., n. 588.

6. B. H. Merkelbach, Summa Theologiae Moralis, II, n. 826 (Paris: Desclee de Brouwer et Cie, 1949).

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