This post is a partial response to a question raised on the post Married Saints and Continence.
The attitudes of Christians towards marriage and holiness have changed in the past centuries, and in a particular way in the 20th century.
In regard to the value of marriage and marital sexual relations, we might overall describe the change as an increase in realism (a change for the better), and a decrease in idealism (understood as orienting oneself by and striving for noble ideals–a change for the worse).
By the increase in realism I mean a greater appreciation of temporal reality, for instance, of how concretely the human ties to one's family can be an occasion and impulse to better live a truly human and Christian life, as well as how the marital act, if done with true love and concern for the spouse, can strengthen the relationship and consequently the family and Christian life of the spouses.
By the decrease in idealism I mean a lesser appreciation of the goods that though truest, are not directly visible or tangible: a lesser appreciation that only one thing really matters, that this life is only a shadow of that which is life in the fullest sense, etc.
The following texts, and some reflection on our reaction to them, may help illustrate this:
"Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage" (1 Cor 7:27). … Even if marriage had no troubles, it would still be better for us to press forward toward the things yet to come. But since marriage does have its troubles, why be further burdened by it? (St. John Chrysostom Homily 19)
Now that resurrection is at our gates, and we do not speak of death, but advance toward another life better than the present, the desire for posterity is superfluous. If you desire children, you can get much better old age, if you give birth by spiritual labor. So there remains only one reason for marriage, to avoid
fornication (St. John Chrysostom, Sermon on marriage).
As a side note, we may remark that this is said by a theologian and pastor who has a quite positive view of marriage:
"Pray together at home and go to Church; when you come back home, let each ask the other the meaning of the readings and the prayers…. Remind one another that nothing in life is to be feared, except offending God. If your marriage is like this, your perfection will rival the holiest of monks.
Seek the things which please God, and those which please man will follow soon enough…. It is possible for us to surpass all others in virtue by becoming good husbands and wives. (Homily 20).
Translations from On Marriage and Family Life, translated by Catharine P. Roth and David Anderson, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1986.
From St. Teresa of the Andes (1900-1920):
I'll give you some lights that can help you recognize your vocation… Do you have a strong desire to belong to God alone, and serve Him as much as you can, with the greatest perfection? That was the ideal God proposed to us when He created us: that we should serve Him and love Him above all things. Do you think your heart can be satisfied with the love of creatures, who for the most part and most times are fickle and fleeting? … Do you think that marriage to a young man is a happy venture, with a man with whom you can form a Christian home? Does that attract you? Wouldn't you prefer to belong to God, to live despised and unknown to the world in a convent, forming thousands of Christian hearts, being a mother of those souls, converting and bringing them to God? … Who can love us like God does? No one in the world.
… My dear little sister, think about all this. And if you're able to renounce all these comforts to live with Him, to be the bride of the divine Crucified One – clearly aided by God's grace – it's because God wants you for Himself, and because He's giving you the courage to abandon everything for Him. Letter 65, To a Girl Friend. Letters of Saint Teresa of The Andes, translated by Michael D. Griffin, Teresian Charism Press, 1994.
These statements tend to make us somewhat uncomfortable, as implying a too negative or disparaging view of marriage–unless we simply disagree with them. However, it seems to me that there are many statements of Christ and of St. Paul that tend to make us uncomfortable, and for rather similar reasons:
Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)
I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:5)
Relatively speaking (in comparison with persons living in earlier times), these and similar sayings tend to make us uncomfortable, because they seem too negative or pessimistic.
From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1-3).
We are similarly inclined to see these statements (certainly if someone now makes similar statements) as implying escapism and a negative view of the created world, and have difficulty identifying with them.
Right and Wrong Ways To Assess the Changes in Attitude to Marriage
In reviewing and evaluating the changes that have taken place in attitudes to marriage and the relationship between marriage and holiness, there are two errors we should avoid. On the one hand, we should be capable of a critical look at the tradition and refrain from immediately canonizing everything in the tradition. On the other hand, we should not set up ourselves (modern man or the modern Christian) as the reference point for evaluating the developments in the tradition; if we do so, then of course we will see the present attitude as the right one, and more traditional attitudes as imperfect or wrong to the degree that they deviate from present attitudes. Rather, the teaching of Christ and of the Apostles is the principal reference point for assessing both the attitudes to be found in the authors and saints in Christian history, and modern attitudes.
If we take this approach, in my opinion we do find a certain tendency to a lopsidedness in the Christian tradition–a favoring of continence, celibacy and virginity that lends a negative tone to speech about and attitudes toward marriage. We also find, however, that the modern Christian has lost a great deal of the fire of the early Christians and of the ideals present throughout the Christian tradition, and that it is in part due to this loss that most of the Christian tradition on marriage seems to him to be obviously a distortion of the truth about marriage.
What is needed is for us to on the one hand regain what has been lost of the faith and conviction of earlier Christians, and on the other hand to integrate recent positive insights into marriage and the call to holiness into a renewed and sound Christian view of life.