12 October 2008

Lewis Wrong on Love?

An interesting discussion is taking place over at What's Wrong with the World. C.S. Lewis's view of married love is being critiqued, based primarily on these passages from The Four Loves:
No one is going to deny that the biological end of the sexual functions is offspring. And this is, on any sane view, of more importance than the feelings of the parents....Surely to put the mere emotional aspects first would be sheer sentimentalism....The third reason [for marriage in the Prayer Book] gives the thing that matters far more than "being in love" and will last and increase, between good people, long after "love" in the popular sense is only as a memory of childhood--the partnership, the loyalty to "the firm", the composite creature. (Remember that it is not a cynic but a devoted husband and inconsolable widower, Dr. Johnson, who said that a man who has been happy with one woman cd. have been equally happy with any one of "tens of thousands" of other women. i.e. the original attraction will turn out in the end to have been almost accidental: it is what is built up on that, or any other, basis wh. may have brought the people together that matters.)
And from The Screwtape Letters:
From the true statement that this...relation was intended to produce...affection and the family, humans can be made to infer the false belief that the blend of affection, fear, and desire which they call "being in love" is the only thing that makes marriage either happy or holy....In other words, the humans are to be encouraged to regard as the basis for marriage a highly coloured and distorted version of something the Enemy really promises as its result. Two advantages follow. In the first place, humans who have not the gift of continence can be deterred from seeking marriage as a solution because they do not find themselves "in love," and, thanks to us, the idea of marrying with any other motive seems to them low and cynical. Yes, they think that. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion.
Finally, another passage from The Four Loves:
Most of our ancestors were married off in early youth to partners chosen by their parents on grounds that had nothing to do with Eros. They went to the act with no other "fuel," so to speak, than plain animal desire. And they did right; honest Christian husbands and wives, obeying their fathers and mothers, discharging to one another their "marriage debt," and bringing up families in the fear of the Lord.
You can read the critique here.

Personally, I don't find anything particularly objectionable about Lewis's attitude. I think it comes down to a difference between a more Catholic versus a more Protestant understanding of marriage (the critique is being made by an Episcopalian). Lewis was, after all, a High Church Anglican, and some went so far as to suspect him of being a closet Catholic (his marriage to a divorcée, though, can disabuse one of such a notion). I'm not interested in turning this into a Catholic vs. Protestant thing, but I do think this fundamental difference underlies the differing approach to marriage, the latter focusing more on the subjective emotional aspect of union, the former focusing more on the objective nature and duties of married love.

As I wrote in the comment thread and say here, the Catholic Church teaches that there are two ends to marriage: to raise a family, and to learn to love one’s spouse with the love of Christ. These are, in Her eyes, inextricably linked. Back when I was a Protestant, I placed a much greater emphasis on the latter, on finding self-fulfillment in a soulmate, and a minimal emphasis on the former. Indeed, I even thought it legitimate to marry and deliberately choose never to have children.

This makes sense, because the 20th century understanding of marriage (which I had fully imbibed), with its legalization and popularization of contraception, along with the change in stance of every major religious denomination except for the Catholic Church on the morality of its use, divorces the procreative aspect from the conjugal act, and makes the former merely an option, an afterthought.

These days, I see marriage in its unitive as well as procreative aspect, seeing both as essential, but recognizing that if the former is lacking due to human defect, one cannot then choose to cut off the latter. Not only do I agree with Lewis that this would be “sheer sentimentalism”, I think it would in fact be immoral to do so—to deprive one’s spouse of the conjugal act because he is not sufficiently “in love” with one. But I also think it immoral of a spouse to use the other for mere physical gratification. Ideally, the conjugal act should be one of mutual self-giving, and never a selfish act, as Pope John Paul II discussed extensively in his Theology of the Body. But we are all at varying degrees in achieving this, and there are certainly times in the best of marriages when one does not “feel” love for one’s spouse when physically intimate (this is as true for women as for men). We have a duty not to use the other selfishly; we also have a duty not to deprive the other of conjugal union simply because there isn’t as much of a spark as we would like.
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