Virtue in Marriage

Just married couple, holding hands and walking in nature

In discerning a vocation to either the married life or to the priesthood it is often counseled to do whatever vocation one thinks will lead to greater holiness. Holiness is the goal of both. Married life can and should lead one to greater virtue and a life dedicated to and a reflection of Christ Himself and a life that trusts in God to bring this to fruition. Pope Saint John Paul II reaffirms this call to holiness of a husband and wife saying, “In God’s plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God’s command with serene confidence in God’s grace and in His or her own will.”[1]

Married life to be successful needs the cultivation of virtues both before and during one’s marriage. Through Christ, the theological virtues should be understood and fostered. “By filling their whole lives with faith, hope, and charity, that spirit enables them to advance in perfection, sanctify one another, and thus contribute jointly to the glory of God.”[2] Faith, hope, and love should be the maxim for each’s response towards God and should be the response of each to the other. Ultimately, the virtues of each will become the virtue of one as while individually they seek to have faith in God and each other, hope for the future grounded in the goodness of God and a love that knows no bounds this ultimately gets so intertwined that their virtues become communal and unitively grafted into that of Christ. The two become one in virtue.  Pope Saint John Paul II  acknowledges that, “It must also be kept in mind that conjugal intimacy involves the wills of two persons, who are thereby called to harmonize their mentality and behavior, requiring much patience, understanding, and time.”[3] Mutual giving and a desire to give of one’s self completely and unselfishly are virtues that lead to oneness and holiness.

To dominate instinct by means of one’s reason and free will undoubtedly requires ascetical practices, so that the affective manifestations of conjugal life may observe the correct order, in particular with regard to the observance of periodic continence. Yet this discipline, which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort, yet thanks to its beneficent influence husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one’s partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of love, and depends their sense of responsibility.[4]

In order to be life-giving, one must die to self, requiring the virtue of humility. The sin of pride will destroy a marriage. Humility is most important in attaining holiness, realizing one’s weaknesses and faults, and ultimately turning ones gaze towards the heavens understanding that one must trust in God for all things including one’s marriage. Humility must be a starting point to attaining the other virtues. All other virtues flows from this.

Prudence is that of which directs ones actions towards the good namely God. This governs all other virtues by “setting rule and measure.”[5] Prudence will lead to greater holiness in marriage life through guiding us in not only what is right, but how to get there without manipulation, or false motives. Prudence will help guide our instincts and inclinations and lead us to cultivate the virtue of temperance and self-control. It is important to be able to control ones desires, wants, and inclinations. To have control over the senses and to abstain from those things that bring one pleasure for the greater good of the spouse or even for the individual is highly valued. Self-control will lead to the virtue of chastity. Chastity is not just for the single person, but for those in the state of marriage as well. Christopher West describes its importance, “The virtue of chastity is…essential if we are to discover and fulfill the very meaning of our being and existence.” Chastity often has negative overtones in our minds such as “Don’t do that.” For the single person chastity takes on the element of abstinence in regards to sexual gratification. But, chastity as defined by West is liberating and freeing. It is the saying “yes to the true meaning of sex.” It is a positive virtue “because it orders our sexual desires, thoughts, and behaviors toward the truth of authentic love.” Sexual expression in marriage must be faithful to the wedding vows and should be ordered to authentic love. Thus, chastity is a virtue of the marital state as much as it is to the single one.[6] “Chastity is not a mortification of love but rather a condition for real love. In fact, if the vocation to married love is a vocation to self-giving in marriage, one must succeed in possessing oneself in order to be able to truly give oneself.”[7]

Lastly, in a book written about the virtues in relation to priests, Mark O’Keefe[8] raises joy to the level of a virtue more than a mere feeling. He views joy as a “habitual disposition to view and respond to the world around us and its challenges in a particular way.” Furthermore, he believes that every Christian should nourish this disposition. In this way, joy for the married couple must be there from the beginning of the relationship and if for some reason is not present then ones vocation to marriage needs to be examined and reflected upon before one enters into such a state. While the couple may have trials and tribulations in their marriage, joy should be ever present and throughout both their triumphs and defeats.

[1] Pope, 33.

[2] Pg. 2, Faithful to Each Other Forever.

[3]Pope, 33.

[4]Pope, 32.

[5] CCC 1806.

[6] West, 66, 89.

[7] Pontifical Council for the Family, 9.

[8] Priestly Virtues: Reflections on the Moral Virtues in the Life of the Priest. Abbey Press: St. Meinrad, Indiana.

  1. Pg. 101.

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