The Goods and Goals of Marriage

54 Pages Posted: 27 May 2011 Last revised: 21 Nov 2017

Date Written: 2001


New social science research has shown that it is healthier for most adults to be married rather than single, widowed, or divorced. Two parents raising a child are better than one, and marital cohabitation is better than non-marital cohabitation for the flourishing of men, women, and children. This Article compares these new social science data with some of the traditional Western ideas about the goods and goals of marriage.

Ancient Greek and Roman writers viewed enduring marriages as the foundation of the republic, which brought essential private goods to the couple and their children, and vital public goods to society and the state. These views were reflected in early Christian political thought as well. St. Augustine went on to describe three fundamental goods of marriage: the procreation and nurture of children (proles), the fidelity and friendship between husband and wife (fides), and the structural and symbolic stability of the household within the broader community (sacramentum). St. Isidore of Seville offered an overlapping formulation of the goods of marriage: the mutual love of husband and wife, their mutual protection from sexual sin, and their mutual procreation and nurture of children.

The medieval and early modern Catholic tradition developed Augustine’s goods of marriage, with Thomas Aquinas rooting these views in sacramental theology, and the canonists applying these views in the marital rules and procedures of the church. These teachings remain central to Catholic canon law and theology today. The early modern Protestant tradition emphasized Isidore’s goods of marriage, placing a premium on the role of marriage as a protection against sexual sin and temptation. These teachings still render Protestants instinctively skeptical of clerical celibacy and of restrictions on remarriage after divorce or death. Today, Christians join many other people of faith in resonating with the modern social science data about the goods of marriage and the need for the state to support this vital institution for purposes of public and private health.

Keywords: Marriage; Family; Law and Religion; The Goods of Marriage; Augustine; Isidore of Seville; Thomas Aquinas; Martin Luther; Martin Bucer; Divorce; Remarriage; Cohabitation; Children

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, The Goods and Goals of Marriage (2001). Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 76, No. 3, 2001, Emory Legal Studies Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

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