Marriage — the Mystery of Faithful Love: Von Hildebrand’s Thought Revisited

Some years ago, when I sat on the Board of Regents of a well-known Catholic women’s’ college, the question of parietals, and more generally of a moral code suitable to the student body, was regularly brought before the board. After one of these sessions, one of my fellow regents, the president of another women’s’ college and generally accounted a gentleman of the old school, expressed his exasperation to me over what he considered the unrealistic expectations of some members of the board by saying that, while he could not im­agine being unfaithful to his wife, a certain amount of unap­proved mixing of the sexes was inevitable as a part of college life. What struck me about this remark was not its statement about the young, but the unembarrassed way in which my friend took for granted his fidelity to his wife. I could not recall having heard anyone — that is anyone not under some suspicion or duress — having made a similar declaration. Love we hear praised all around us, but faithfulness is not much talked about. There are perfectly good reasons for this, but I suspect that the more important not-so-good reason is that we are constantly bombarded with movies and TV that leave the impression that not to be open to adultery and infidelity is to be desperately out of tune with the times. It is not so much that fidelity is one of those things mature people need not talk about, as it is a category that we fear being associated with too closely. Better to be thought of as “open.”

To take up Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love, recently republished by the Sophia Institute Press (Box 5284, Manchester, New Hampshire 03108) is to be jolted by contact with a very different way of looking at the world. I am not sure that Von Hildebrand is much read anymore, although he was one of the great writers of the “Catholic revival” of the mid-century. One does not get much mileage these days out of having been labeled by Pius XII “a 20th century Doctor of the Church,” and such ap­proval sets one apart from all those scholars, “condemned, or at least restricted” (Richard McBrien, Catholicism, 1st, unchastized, edition, vol. 1, p. 56), who became enmeshed in the same pope’s Humani Generis (1950). I, too, have my criticisms and queries to direct toward Von Hildebrand, but first a summary of his argument in Marriage is in order.

As Alice von Hildebrand states in her 1984 Introduction to the book, the concepts of love and fidelity are intimately tied to one another. It is only when we see relations between the sexes under the head of pleasure seeking, something necessarily transient, that we miss the point that “love by its very essence longs for infinity and for eternity. Therefore, a person truly in love wants to bind himself forever to his belov­ed — which is precisely the gift that marriage gives him.” But such a binding, “forever,” is not possible unless each spouse limits him- or herself for the sake of the other. In a sense the possibility of infidelity is the least problem, nothing more, when it occurs, than a symptom that victory over self has not been obtained. Fidelity, on the other hand, is one name for a life of perpetual discipline.

Von Hildebrand, writing before the salutary impact of Henri de Lubac’s Le Surnaturel, consistently distinguished between marriage as an institution of the natural order, and as a sacrament of grace. Certainly in this life, with or without Christianity, one of the profoundest forms of suffering is to be separated by death from a truly loved spouse. For the Von Hildebrand’s, this reveals the tragic dimension of natural love. Although one could hope against hope, as witness many an­cient pagan funerary inscriptions, “even in the happiest of natural marriages” the inevitable separation must take place, and love cannot achieve eternal union. Yet the advent of Chris­tianity revealed much more than life everlasting, which taken in itself might signify no more than the well-mated couple circling forever in mutual delight, a kind of sanctified Paolo and Francesca. For as Augustine had said, we find our delight in God, and in sacramental conjugal love each loves the other in the light of love for God. Christianity not merely introduced the idea of eternal life, but expanded the idea of faithful union into a sacramental sense in which marriage, witnessed before God and the Church, became an especially corporate life lived within the Body of Christ. Beyond our every expectation, not only was the finite and tragic end of every natural love over­come, but also the eternal character of love came to be seen as unexpectedly involving much more than simply “being with” one’s spouse forever. One’s love for the other, completely justified and fulfilling in its own order, now was seen as never­theless but one expression of an Uncreated Love which has made us to live in a society of love forever, and is Itself the Love towards which all other loves point.

The historical importance of Von Hildebrand’s understanding of marriage was to catalyze traditional teaching. The ancient suspicion of the liceity of pleasure within even the marital embrace, and the concomitant idea that the purpose of marriage was procreation, had combined to obscure, or make uncertain, the place of the equally ancient idea that marriage was a formal expression of conjugal love. In this cir­cumstance, Von Hildebrand understood his task to be to reveal the true dimensions of marriage as having as its purpose pro­creation, but as its meaning love. This formulation of the problem, so novel in its day that Von Hildebrand sought out Pius XII’s endorsement of his views (which he received), perhaps influenced the language of Vatican II itself, where marriage is described as “partnerships of love” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 47). In any case, Gaudium et Spes, n. 48, seems replicate Von Hildebrand’s intentions:

By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and educa­tion of the offspring…the man and woman, who “are no longer two but one” (Mt. 19:6), help and serve each other by their marriage partnership. The intimate union of marriage, as a mutual giving of two persons, and the good of the children demand total fidelity from the spouses and require an un­breakable unity between them. Christ our Lord has abundantly blessed this love… coming as it does from the spring of divine love and modeled on Christ’s own union with the Church… Authentic married love is caught up into divine love…

This teaching was put even more succinctly in Humane Vitae, n. 8:

 By means of the reciprocal personal gift of self, proper and exclusive to them, husband and wife tend towards the communion of their beings in view of mutual personal perfection, to collaborate with God in the generation and education of new lives.

Finally, as Archbishop John J. O’Connor points out in his Foreword to the Sophia Institute edition of Marriage, John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, Familiaris Consortio, n. 12, returns to this language:

The communion of love between God and His peo­ple …finds a meaningful expression in the mar­riage covenant that is established between a man and a woman…Their bond of love becomes the image and symbol of the covenant uniting God with His people.

Thus the historical importance and intrinsic worth of Von Hildebrand’s work cannot be denied. Yet, viewed from a van­tage point more than forty years after its first publication, cer­tain problems arise which are not easily dismissed. The first of these is the question of the a-historicity of Von Hildebrand’s presentation. This has both a less and a more serious form. In the less serious form, simply misleading historical ideas are presented. Thus on the first page of the work marriage is praised: “No natural human good has been exalted so high in the New Testament. No other has been chosen to become one of the seven sacraments.” This is in an obvious sense true, since none of the other sacraments is so directly linked to some earlier institutionally expressed natural good. Yet what follows in Von Hildebrand’s presentation is but a part of the New Testament and later Christian historical record. The passages in the New Testament that radically deepen the meaning of marriage as a natural institution are dealt with at length; the more somber passages which see marriage as a concession to weakness are passed over. Certainly the Christian attitude toward marriage was a very mixed one for more than a millenium, and, as Christopher Brooke pointed out in his Marriage in Christian History, there was until the twelfth century much ascetic opposition to the idea of including marriage among the sacraments at all, an opposition which could quote both Jesus’ sayings in Matthew 19:10-13, and Paul’s remarks in I Corintiams 7.

In a similar manner, Von Hildebrand tends to read his own profound insights into the historical record. I doubt that many of the ancients would have agreed that, in its extra- sacramental or natural state “conjugal love is the most pronounced form of an I-thou relation.” Outside Judaism and Christianity, after all, marriage was first and above all a con­tract for the preservation of familial and property interests. Von Hildebrand gives natural marriage too much credit for having discovered that at the center of love is self-giving for the other. Such a view fails to confront the thought-world of Plato’s Symposium or much other male-oriented non-Christian thought, with its idea that the highest form of love can only ex­ist between men, because of their nature; as Plato says, men are more rational than women. I am not even sure that, in a sacramental context, it confronts Paul’s notion of the love that lays down one’s own life for one’s friends. Friendship, affection, and sometimes love were found in natural mar­riages, but the idea that especially the wife was a “thou” was very. Much clarified by Judaism and Christianity themselves. Christianity, while both fighting and succumbing to attitudes inherited from natural marriage, helped the natural order define itself, but only after the passage of many centuries. Who would want to deny von Hildebrand’s splendid vision of sacramental marriage, in which “Only one motive can be ad­mitted as completely adequate for marriage: mutual love and the conviction that this union will lead to the eternal welfare of both spouses?” Yet in ruling out as completely unworthy motives for marriage such as economic advantage, Von Hildebrand does not engage the realities of most centuries of Christian marriage.

A more serious form of historicity appears at a number of points in Von Hildebrand’s book, perhaps most pointedly in the ambiguous comment that marriage is “the most noble community of mankind.” Von Hildebrand is well aware that there is a danger in natural conjugal love, in which, in an asocial manner, the spouses may have eyes for no other. He is concerned to show that Christianity saves us from such nar­rowness by centering love on Christ, found in neighbor and spouse. Yet for all this, it is surprising how little children and family play a role in this book. Especially in the treatment of the natural order, almost all attention is focused on the loving couple, and their love is not clearly related either to children or to what Aristotle would call the more perfect communities that perfect the life of the family. Von Hildebrand indeed distinguishes marriage, as “the most intimate community of love,” from the family in a way that Aristotle would not have; and it is not clear to me that the advantage here lies with Von Hildebrand. By this I do not mean to defend Aristotle’s indif­ference towards wives, but his greater sense of natural com­munity, and of the fact that the “nobility” of an institution may be determined not just by the degree of intimacy it achieves, but by its suitability to the perfected education of the individual. In spite of the fact that Von Hildebrand’s sacramental couple lives a full life within the Body of Christ, this couple is not very clearly related to its own children or to the historical institutions around it. Augustine saw man’s final end as lived in a city, and there is perhaps a certain nar­rowness, in spite of his earlier warnings about the dangers of pagan exclusivity in marriage, in Von Hildebrand speaking of wedded love as “the formation of a complete unity as a couple closed off from the rest of earthly things.” And is there not a certain ambiguity in the remark, “The most perfect state or nation cannot glorify God as much as a perfect marriage?”

I have suggested that the danger in natural marriage that the couple would concern themselves only with each other was rarely realized, because women most commonly were seen as possessions rather than persons. Much more common was the temptation of the man to become absorbed in the life of the state, to the neglect of his wife. What is implied by such obser­vations is that no historical society much evidences the ideas and attitudes that Von Hildebrand attributes to “marriage as a natural institution.” We are then led to ask what is the status of what Von Hildebrand calls “natural marriage.” My claim is that this no more refers to some point of historical existence than do Hobbes’ or Locke’s “state of nature.” In all these cases the “natural” is an analytic rather than an historical tool. In Von Hildebrand’s case, it is a means for trying to talk about what marriage, stripped of the Christian overlay by which we moderns know it, looks like in principle without any super­natural dimension. Von Hildebrand’s “marriage as a natural institution” bears so little resemblance to any historical socie­ty that one must conclude that it is rather a construct derived from subtracting all specifically Christian features from a nineteenth-century chivalric, romantic, and idealistic idea of conjugal love. It is much more this than a composite made from accurate observation of marriage in the societies predating or outside Christianity. This is meant more as an observation than as a criticism, but it perhaps explains why Von Hildebrand’s picture of marriage as a natural institution bears so few resemblances to what has been discovered about the “history of the family” in the last forty years.

The second kind of problem I sometimes find in Von Hildebrand’s presentation is the lack of a certain psychological realism, i.e., naiveté. This may be illustrated by his treatment of the idea of “love at first-sight.” Von Hildebrand believes in the possibility — there are of course lesser forms of love — of a radical form of “love at first-sight,” in which “love can arise quite suddenly, and even develop to maturity at the first encounter of two persons. In this love the personality of the beloved is instantaneously revealed as a complete unity…we penetrate at one glance to that innermost, mysterious essence of the other person… ” I can only speak for myself — and I may be one of those “too coarse, too blunt, too primitive” — but this does not ring true, and indeed seems to embody a cer­tain romanticization, idealization, or exaltation of conjugal love beyond all bounds. Von Hildebrand seems to treat the beloved more as a Platonic idea than as a person with a per­sonality. Ideas, not people, are “instantaneously revealed as a complete unit.” People, even the most beloved, have a mystery that remains a mystery, opaque and unpredictable. To suggest otherwise may have as seriously negative conse­quences for the person trying to form an accurate idea of mar­riage as the alternative confusion of marriage with the merely sensual, more commonly found in our culture.

Another instance of the lack of psychological realism may be found in the interesting discussion of the old problem of the naturalness of monogamy. Von Hildebrand’s powerful argument is that by definition a full giving of the self to another could only be directed toward one other. One can have many friends, for friendship expresses first of all, as Cicero said, shared interest, but one can only have one person for whom one lives without reservation. I have already com­mented on the absence of children from this book, and it seems odd to me that in connection with this idea of one person for whom one lives without reservation, there is no discussion of the love of parent for child, and of the ways in which this af­fects the exclusiveness of conjugal love. Without wishing to detract from the substance of this argument for monogamy, I again observe that we have here a highly idealized view of marriage (Von Hildebrand acknowledges this): I suspect that, at least in happy families, self-giving is oriented at least as much toward children as toward spouse, or that spouses col­laborate in a mutual sacrifice for their children. But the main point stands: “it is not possible for a man to love two women conjugally.” Seen in this perspective, the marital act itself is a physical expression of the surrender of self to the other (just think what an act of self-fulfillment would be like). To in­terfere with the mystery by which this act subjectively ex­presses love, but objectively is open to the creation of new life as the expression of this love, is to show irreverence toward God, the source of all mystery, but specifically of the union of love with procreation.

So much for criticism. What Von Hildebrand has to say about wedded love is very profound. By revelation love is seen as infinite, the spouse of infinite worth, and the married couple as vessels of grace by which each is sanctified. In sacramental love the social dimension is brought more into play than in natural marriage, because love of spouse is seen as a special form of love of neighbor, and the spouse is seen as a member of the larger Mystical Body. We cannot help but be self- interested, for we have a sense that our own destiny is bound with that of the spouse, and yet at the same time we express a selflessness that goes beyond time altogether.  Added tot he openness to procreation of the marital bed is a spiritual fertility which raises the couple Godward.  Here the idea of fidelity reaches its fullness, for it is sen not just as a natural fidelity of spouse to spouse, but as a mutual promise made to Christ, not unlike a religious vow.

Von Hildebrand argues that natural marriage is not ab­solutely indissoluble, because the vow is made only between the spouses. It is only when the existence of God is establish­ed, and the vows of a sacramental marriage are concluded in Christ, that we may promise an unending fidelity. “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” Von Hildebrand does not play down the chanciness of marriage, its possibilities for disappointment and suffering. Indeed his little paperback would be a fine gift to put in the hands of the engaged couple, for through it they can consider whether they have a vocation for marriage, whether they really want to undertake the ir­revocable risk marriage implies, and whether they have removed from their minds every aspect of the mentality of the trial-marriage, which, with its bourgeois attempt to preserve a way out from commitment, is a sure sign that conjugal love does not yet exist.


  • Glenn W. Olsen

    Glenn W. Olsen a Professor of History at the University of Utah, with a Ph.D. in the history of the Middle Ages. He has contributed numerous articles to many historical journals, including Communio and Logos, and is also the author of the book Christian Marriage: A Historical Study (2001).

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