Joint Pastoral Letter on Christian Marriage and Family Life




The great majority of our people share a cultural tradition which has deeply imbued marriage and family life with Christian values. For centuries, Filipino life has been wedded to Catholicism; it has brought forth an outlook and practices that are both deeply Christian and deeply Filipino. This Christian moulding of our spirit is expressed in many ways – in our appreciation and love of children, in the deep respect in which we hold our parents and elders, in our esteem for chastity, in the dignity and respect accorded to women, in our close ties with one another within the family. The Christian values have indeed, found a unique expression in the Filipino way of life; we cherish them and wish to preserve them for future generations as their rightful inheritance.

Yet today, we find that those Christian traditions of marriage and family life are seriously threatened, both from outside and from within. The rapid changes in the modern world create problems which seriously affect the family from outside. More and more people move to the city, attracted by the possibility of attaining a higher standard of living. Material ambitions, and the difficulty of raising children make many wish to limit the size of their family. Modern science and techniques offer means of family planning, such as contraceptives, sterilization and abortion, which are contrary to the Christian idea of marriage. In the city, married couples lack the social support of the extended family and of local customs and traditions. When their marriage comes under stress, it sooner reaches a breaking point. Many people believe that divorce would be a solution; but divorce is incompatible with Christian marriage.

The family is threatened also from within. Some of the weaknesses of our own character harm the family. The tendency, for instance, of parents to be excessively authoritarian alienates the emancipated younger generation; many tolerate unfaithfulness of the husband and the moral license of sons, accepting thereby a double standard or morality; in unconscious selfishness, some parents see their children as means of support and fail thereby in giving them the love they deserve as children. All this undermines the unity of the family.

The recognition of the stress to which marriage and family life are subject, and the awareness of the threats to our own values, fill us with deep apprehension. We wish therefore to remind the faithful once more of the Christian meaning and values of marriage and the family which, for centuries, have found expression in the Filipino way of life. We are convinced that in this way we are serving not only the cause of Catholic faith or the good of the Church, but also the highest interests of the Philippine national community.

A Lofty Calling

Marriage has its origin in the mysterious attraction which draws a man and woman together, and inspires them with the desire to share their lives in an exclusive and permanent pact of love. That attraction and desire spring from the human heart as God created it in His wisdom and goodness. It is the Creator’s will that man find in a woman “a helpmate like unto himself” (Gen. 2:18) God has also willed that a physical union seal and fortify the intimate friendship which binds husband and wife, and it is He who makes that physical union fruitful. The Creator blessed the first human couple and told them to increase and multiply (Gen. 1:28). Children are indeed, God’s gift and blessing. They embody the bond of love which makes their parents one, and are another reason for the permanence of the conjugal union.

A Great Sacrament

In the partnership of marital love and of parenthood, the couple can find a unique form of Christian self-realization if they dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to one another and to their children. Marriage and family life promise a singular happiness.

We all know nevertheless that there are marriages which end in disillusionment and frustration. The weakness of human nature, and the materialistic and moral character of secularized modern society, make men and women vulnerable to the temptations of selfishness. Egotism evidently goes counter to the very nature of the conjugal commitment, which requires precisely an unselfish devotion to one’s spouse and children.

Aware of our human weakness, God has set a high ideal for Christian marriage, and has promised the help which is needed for its attainment. He has elevated marriage to the dignity of a sacrament, making it a sign of the bond of self- giving love which binds Christ and the Church. He pledges at the same time the grace which a Christian couple need in order to make their marriage truly a living reflection of that holy union it signifies.

It is important that Christian spouses understand what it means when they are told that marriage is a sacrament. In the light of our Christian faith, the sacrament of marriage presents itself as the sacred crowning-piece of the divine plan for man and woman. Thus they see each other wrapped in the sacred mystery of Redemption, and their mutual love acquires a mystical significance; it represents and realizes God’s love for his people. Already in the Old Testament, the Spirit expressed through the prophets the relationship of Yahweh with Israel under the form of human love. In the new dispensation of the Incarnation, human love, raised to a sacrament, signifies and embodies, even physically, the marriage of Christ, the Word of God, with his eternal Bride, the Church.

This is the model that is proposed to Christian spouses: God’s immeasurable love for his human creature, a love unto the death of the Cross, indissoluble love that no power in heaven and earth can destroy. Because God has wanted Christian marriage to reflect the bond of love between Christ and the Church, He gives the assurance that the couple will be able to perfect their fallible human love. But His grace will remain inoperative if the couple are unreceptive. They must live their married life, from day to day, as a holy union. They must be aware of the need for God’s grace, and must dispose their hearts to receive it. It is therefore necessary that the Christian couple pray, and pray together; that they read the word of God and worthily receive the sacraments, in particular the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist which confirms their union “in the Lord” (I Cor 7:39).

Christian marriage is a great sacrament, moreover, not simply because it reflects the relationship between Christ and the Church, but also because it cooperates in making the love of Christ for His Bride fruitful. As members of the Church by baptism, the Christian spouses have become part of the New Covenant with God in Christ. As individuals they have risen with Christ and remain oriented by their baptism towards eternal happiness as long as they do not renounce their faith. A Christian marriage consequently unites members of Christ’s body, giving them an additional mission. The natural function of marriage, the propagation of the human race, is elevated in Christian marriage to the role of building up the Mystical Body of Christ. The natural contract has become a Sacrament. When a couple sees in the light of faith that a function of the Church has been entrusted to them as two of her members, they will realize that it is the Church, the mother of all the living, who is the true mother of their child. It is she who, through the sacraments of baptism and marriage, bears the child into the New Covenant, into the fullness of life, both human and divine. The love of husband for wife and that of Christ for His Church are made fruitful in the child, as a child of God by grace.

Unity and Indissolubility, Acceptance of Love

It is in this context that we are able to fully appreciate our Lord’s categorical teaching: “A man therefore, will leave his father and mother and will cling to his wife, and the two will become one flesh … what God has joined, let no man put asunder … if a man puts away his wife and marries another, he behaves adulterously towards her, and if a woman puts away her husband and marries another, she is an adulteress” (Mark 10:2-12). On the basis of these words, the Church has always affirmed the indissolubility of marriage. This was done by the Council of Trent, by Pope Pius XI in the encyclical Casti Connubii, John XXIII in Mater et Magistra, Vatican II in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Paul VI in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. They are words expressive of a consistent magisterial teachings that go beyond free discussion among Catholics. Indeed, what the Father has united, and what the Spirit has sanctified, is no longer subject to human power; the marital bond is placed in an order in which the magistrates of this world have no jurisdiction. Even if they legalize divorce, such an attempt at lawmaking will never receive its binding force from God, the source of all laws, because human lawmakers, having received their power to legislate from God through the people, cannot go against the ultimate source of the same power without its invalidating consequences. True, they may still confer the name of “law” on such an attempt against the divine decree, and even enforce it; but it will never be worthy of the name “law”, nor can it bind people in conscience.

Evils of Divorce

People who favor the legislation of divorce, we would want to believe, do not intend to undermine the stability of successful marriage. They are concerned with the so-called broken marriages. They fail to realize, however, the evil consequences that flow from divorce. Where the dignity of Christian marriage has been violated, people have substituted legal concubinage for the legitimate union, married couples have neglected their mutual duties of fidelity; children have not observed the respect and obedience due to their parents, the ties of domestic affection have been relaxed, and – as a most detestable example and gravest prejudice to public morals – pernicious and regrettable separations have often succeeded an insensate love (Leo XIII, 1878, Inscrutabili; SW 1, 10).

Once divorce is tolerated, no restraint is powerful enough to keep public morality within the bounds marked out or anticipated. Great indeed, is the force of example, and even greater still the might of passion. When are we going to learn from the experience of those countries where divorce is permitted by civil law? For as soon as divorce has become possible, quarrels, jealousies and judicial separations increase. Wherever divorce was introduced, the abuse that followed far exceeded anything the lawmakers foresaw. In fact, many people contrive all kinds of fraudulent devices, such as false accusations of cruelty, violence and adultery, merely to obtain the dissolution of a matrimonial bond of which they have grown weary. As a result of all this such moral havoc followed that an amendment of the law has been regarded as urgently needed.

One hears it said that Catholics being opposed to divorce for religious reasons, should abstain from taking advantage of divorce laws, without however preventing others from having recourse to them, and without imposing their own beliefs on the whole nation. But this opinion, which invokes in its favor the pluralism of our society, is based on an individualism that we cannot share. For the purpose of legislation is not the advantage that the individual can draw from it or not, but the common good of society as such. We believe that divorce with the dissolution of the bond is contrary to the real national interest, whether believers have recourse to it or not. And it is in the name of this solidarity with the whole country that we address ourselves to all Filipinos.

There are voices heard around us which favor divorce on the ground that it is impossible to commit one’s future by an irrevocable promise. We ask why not, since man is something more than the chance result of biological and psychological becoming? Man is the only creature capable of making a promise, and our very dignity is based on the power of carrying our promises. We believe that man being a person is capable of keeping his word until death, and that marriage is precisely a call to this kind of promise. Karl Marx, not a Catholic, opposed divorce on this same ground. He said: “Does there exist in nature a healthy, strong and firmly organized body that can be destroyed by any external impulse or by any injury? Would you not be offended if it were established as an axiom that your friendship cannot stand up to the slightest difficulty and that it must necessarily be dissolved on account of every slight caprice?” (The Bill on Divorce)

Positive Measures

As Pastors of the Church, we are not insensitive to the plight of many marriages. For this reason we now propose some positive measures which could give greater legal support to marriage.

1. Legal aid touching on marriage laws ought to be provided free for the poorer members of the community so that they may be accorded the same rights under the law as others.

2. Continued social research into the sources and causes of marital instability is desirable so that more factual information becomes available regarding the various factors which contribute to the breakdown of marriages, for example, the age at the time marriage was concluded, the degree of preparation and maturity of the spouses, extenuating circumstances, etc.

3. A more conscientious preliminary investigation of the contracting parties’ capacity and attitude towards marriage should be made mandatory. Our existing civil law on this matter can be enriched by adopting the Church’s parallel law which is more specific and has proven effective in ascertaining the degree of preparation of prospective spouses.

4. Broaden the legal bases for nullity of marriage. In this regard we propose that, in addition to the cases mentioned in Article 80, of the Civil Code as bases for void marriages, the following be included:

a) Those contracted without the consent of either contracting party, freely given;

b) Those not solemnized in accordance with Art. 55;

c) Those contracted with physical incapacity or impotence coeundi of one or both contracting parties, which exists at the time of the celebration of marriage and appears to be incurable and perpetual, whether known or unknown to the other party;

d) Those marriages declared null and void from the beginning by the authority of a church, religious sect or denomination legitimately operating in the Philippines on common grounds accepted and recognized by both religious and civil laws.

These positive measures, to our mind, will promote the stability of marriage so necessary for a stable society. They would be positive steps to prevent the breakdown of marriage and to provide a more effective and realistic way of meeting the social problems and frustrations underlying the contemporary breakdown of marriage.

A Community Life

The Church has always held that both marriage and married love aim at the begetting and educating of children, who are “their ultimate crown” (Gaudium et Spes, n.48), thus preparing for them a community of love and life, as some kind of a spiritual womb in which the children can properly and best grow to maturity and responsibility both as human beings and as Christians. This community of life, bonded by love and once conjugal, parental and filial – the home in the full sense of the term – is something for which no human invention can substitute. Yet, it is often denied today that this is an essential purpose of marriage and conjugal love. Some even go as far as to frustrate systematically the natural result of the marital relationship or to destroy the fruit of that relationship.

Our people, fortunately, have never fully accepted this. The Filipino couple spontaneously wish to be parents, and to be parents of several children. Recently, however, a systematic propaganda campaign has been launched against the large family. This campaign would have us believe that children will be better off if the family remains small, and that the development of the country requires a reduction of the growth rate of the population.

The Church is in favor of responsible parenthood. She means thereby that parents must plan the number of their children according to their capacity to raise a family. The Church does not allow, however, that artificial means are used to space birth, or to prevent them altogether. Nor does the Church hold that a small family is under all circumstances desirable. On the contrary, she encourages parents who can bring up a large family to do so “with generous and stout hearts” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 50).

We are of the opinion that it is a misconception to believe that the Philippines must reduce its birth rate at all cost. Elsewhere, the pressure of rapid population growth has been a strong and positive stimulus to economic development. It leads to an increase of industrial production, it promotes specialization, and it stimulates responsiveness to change. On the other hand, the negative experience of other countries with population control programs makes us wonder whether our nation would not develop faster if the means available for population control were spent on more positive solutions to our economic problems, like manpower development, agricultural extension services, irrigation facilities, credit to farmers, etc. Furthermore, it is undeniable that a large family is a strong motivation force for hard work and enterprise. By inducing the married couples to reduce the number of their children to one or two, people’s motivation to work may be decreased unwittingly. We do not believe that the Filipino family is an obstacle to economic development. On the contrary, if the family is made the core and center of educational efforts directed to foster the spirit of hard and efficient work, and of the imaginative and economic use of both physical and human resources, the family would be a major catalyst of progress.

We are sadly aware that the media, and a number of social workers, nurses and doctors who favor family planning, advocate means which the Church rejects as immoral, means such as abortion, sterilization and contraception. No scientist doubts that new life has begun when a woman conceives and that this life is a human life. Since God is the giver of life and remains its master, man cannot claim any right to dispose of that life at will. Hence, the Church rejects abortion as the immoral taking of innocent life, whatever the stage of pregnancy. Advocates of abortion give many reasons why an unborn human life could be sacrificed in the early stages of its development. Whatever those reasons, the end does not justify the means if the means are in themselves immoral. God has not given us the right to dispose of our body as we please.

Sex in God’s Design

The sexual act is in its physical aspect entirely oriented towards conception. Conception however, does not necessarily follow, for nature limits the fertility of the woman. The Church does not object if a couple exercise their marital right with the knowledge that conception would not take place because nature makes the woman infertile. It is not however permissible either for the husband or the wife to deliberately interfere with the natural course of the marital act in order to prevent conception.

In God’s plan, the sexual act is both unitive and procreative by nature. Man is not free to separate the two. In fact, he deceives himself and his partner if he thinks that the sexual act can be truly an act of love, and therefore unitive, if the natural course of the act is deliberately interfered with to prevent conception. Everybody admits that the sexual act must be an act of love. This means that the act must express a gift of one’s whole self and an acceptance of the whole of the other. If one of the parties or both resort to artificial means of preventing conception, the mutual acceptance and giving is not total anymore, and the sexual act is therefore not truly an act of love. The woman gives herself totally, and is accepted as fully woman, in as much as she can become a mother, and the man gives himself totally, and is accepted as fully man, in as much as he can become a father. Artificial means of preventing conception diminish one or both of the spouses, and frustrate thereby the integrity of the sexual act as an act of love.

Heroism in Marriage

We do not question the fact that Christian morality demands and imposes sacrifices. A false philosophy of life suggest that man is entitled only to pleasure and that the pain of sacrifice should have no part in life. Christ sacrificed Himself for the church and the Church suffers readily for Christ. The relationship of Christ and the Church is inconceivable without the sacrifice of the Cross. If the spouses live their married life in a spirit of faith, and pattern their relationship after the bond between Christ and the Church, their sacrifices will be redemptive like the sacrifices of Christ and the Church; they will bring down blessings on them and on their children.

Educative Role of Parents

Marriage is the foundation of the Christian family. The procreative nature of marriage, so vital to the understanding of the meaning of the contract and of the sacrament, involved not merely the begetting of children, but also their upbringing as adult Christians, men and women who are ready to accept responsibility in the world. To this end, the children should be given the rightful view of the family principally by their parents who should be a living example to their children of family unity based on mutual love and a common life in the light of God’s law.

It is in their image that the children will develop and grow up, for the parents are the models which the children will follow. Few parents are constantly aware of the responsibilities they share in this regard. No matter what attitude the parents have towards these sacred obligations, this will constitute the example which the children will see and imitate. If the parents pay only lip-service to the faith, their children will eventually do even less, and their children will be almost ignorant of the very existence of religion. Hand in hand with this will go a serious decline in religious and priestly vocations, and the faithful, deprived of the help of priests will become even less Christian. The result is a vicious circle of dechristianization. It is the grim lesson of the Church in much of Europe and South America. It indicates that the notion of the prophetic role of the laity, is no mere empty formula, particularly in the context of the family. To live up to these responsibilities, therefore, the parents must set the example of Christian devotion and fidelity within the family as true witnesses to Christ’s teachings and love.

Unfortunately, many parents fail in this respect. They think that they have acquitted themselves of their responsibilities if they send their children to school. The school, however, can never impart to its students the lessons they would learn from exemplary Christian parents. Worse still, many parents today are unconcerned with the educative effect that the secularized society has on their children. The movie industry, magazines and newspapers, radio and television, the lessening of moral values induced by a growing tourist industry – all these promote a permissive attitude towards sex. They often give the impression that the old morality which values chastity and fidelity in marriage, is outdated, and that a free lifestyle suits the modern world.

We deplore the confusion which is sown in the minds of many people. The sexual act expresses a total mutual self-gift. If it is otherwise, the act becomes a means of self-gratification which diminishes the personal dignity of both partners. But a total self-gift is unconditional and irrevocable. It implies a lasting commitment, and for this reason finds its proper place only in the context of the exclusive and permanent marriage commitment. The freedom which many young people believe they are entitled to in sexual matters does not in fact exists. Freedom is never the liberty to do what is immoral. Nor is it true that love makes good what otherwise might be bad. Love is simply not true love if it seeks as its expression an act which is immoral.

There is then a need to re-stress the value of chastity, understood properly in its Christian meaning, and particularly as it applies to the courtship between prospective spouses. Courtship as a prelude to marriage must be taken seriously. It is an important preparation for marriage and, in some sense, more important than marriage itself, because if there is bad courtship the married life is already jeopardized. In this context, we urge that a pastoral program of pre-marriage counselling be formulated that will help prospective spouses acquire a clear idea of marriage and family life. This should include instruction on the sublime dignity of marriage, its nature as a personal commitment for life, and its relationships to society. A minimum of instruction along this line should be required of the prospective spouses before they are allowed to marry. This instruction on marriage and family life should also be integrated into the curriculum of our Catholic schools. Catholic groups should spread the same to our out-of-school youth. There should be holiness in the preparation, in the interpersonal relationship that precedes to this holy institution. Chastity in those who are engaged to be married is a prelude to true love in the married life because if there is not reverence before marriage there will be no reverence in married life.

Similarly, we encourage the ongoing family life programs the main objective of which is the enrichment of Christian life within the family.


We make an ardent plea to all of you to provide our country and the world with a testimony of the splendor of Christian marriage. Let the love of God for His People shine forth in your lives, in your conjugal love, in your dedication to the apostolate of family life and to the establishment of means adequate to make that apostolate effective. This means a dedication on the part of the hierarchy and the clergy; this means a devotion on the part of the laity. Together, we can strive to elevate Christian marriage and the Christian family to the sacred height where they belong. Less than this we cannot do if we believe we are God’s own people.


For the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines:


Archbishop of Cebu


May 1, 1976

Feast of St. Joseph



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Joint Pastoral Letter on Christian Marriage and Family Life