Sunday 18th March 2018

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Openness To Fertility In Marriage

March 3, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


The essential properties of marriage, as we saw last week, are unity and indissolubility. As qualities inherent to the institution of marriage itself in virtue of the natural law, they are common to all marriages, not only those of Christians.
In a nutshell, unity refers to the fact that marriage is a monogamous relationship, between one man and one woman; indissolubility refers to the irrevocable permanence of marriage, that once a marriage is validly entered, it cannot be intrinsically dissolved by the subsequent withdrawal of consent by either party.
As affirmed by the Vatican II fathers, “As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate [partnership of married life and love] and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them” (Gaudium et Spes [GS], n. 48 § 1).
We also saw last week that “the Church permits the physical separation of spouses when for serious reasons their living together becomes practically impossible” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 384).
It is made clear, however, that one in such a situation is not free to enter into a new marriage as long as the spouse lives (unless a declaration of nullity has been granted). Moreover, the Church “cannot recognize the union of people who are civilly divorced and remarried….They cannot receive sacramental absolution, take Holy Communion, or exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities as long as their situation, which objectively contravenes God’s law, persists” (ibid., n. 385).
In her desire for their return to the sacramental life, “the Church manifests an attentive solitude toward such people and encourages them to a life of faith, prayer, works of charity, and the Christian education of their children” (ibid.).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) now considers a topic that has fallen upon deaf ears in recent decades: the openness to fertility. As opposed to being recognized as one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind, fertility tends to be seen by many as a disease that should be treated.
In surveying the situation of the family in the world, St. John Paul II identified one of the most serious issues we face as “the appearance of a truly contraceptive mentality” (Familiaris Consortio [FC], n. 6 § 1). This was perhaps most stridently apparent at the time of the release of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV), which was greeted in 1968 with much opposition and even outright dissent.
The Church’s unchanging and unchangeable teaching on openness to fertility is unmistakably evident in the Catechism’s opening statement in its subsection on the topic: “‘By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory’ (GS, n. 48 § 1)” (CCC, n. 1652).
This dovetails seamlessly with an earlier teaching regarding God’s purpose in instituting marriage: “In marriage God unites [husband and wife] in such a way that, by forming ‘one flesh’ (Gen. 2:24), they can transmit human life: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth’ (Gen. 1:28). By transmitting human life to their descendants, man and woman as spouses and parents cooperate in a unique way in the Creator’s work (cf. GS, n. 50 § 1)” (CCC, n. 372).
The Church, then, teaches that the primary end of marriage is the generation and nurturing of offspring. In his remarkable book entitled Love and Responsibility, St. John Paul II expresses this teaching in the following way:
“The Church…teaches and has always taught that the primary end of marriage is procreatio, but that it has a secondary end, defined in Latin terminology as mutuum aditorium. Apart from these a tertiary aim is mentioned — remedium concupiscentiae.”
By way of explanation, the Holy Father adds: “Marriage, objectively considered, must provide first of all the means of continuing existence, secondly a conjugal life for man and woman, and thirdly a legitimate orientation for desire” (p. 66).
Pope Pius XII, confirming the teaching of Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubii, explains the ordering of the ends of marriage:
“The truth is that matrimony, as an institution of nature, in virtue of the Creator’s will, has not as a primary and intimate end the personal perfection of the married couple but the procreation and upbringing of a new life. The other ends, inasmuch as they are intended by nature, are not equally primary, much less superior to the primary end, but are essentially subordinated to it. This is true of every marriage, even if no offspring result, just as of every eye it can be said that it is destined and formed to see, even if, in abnormal cases arising from special internal or external conditions, it will never be possible to achieve visual perception” (Allocution to Midwives, October 29, 1951).
In an excellent volume entitled Marriage: A Path to Sanctity, Javier Abad and Eugenio Fenoy conjecture that “a superficial reader may perhaps conclude that, according to this view of matrimony, love between spouses is of lesser importance or that little value is accorded the mutual help and enrichment husband and wife give each other” (p. 72).
However, as they clarify, this is the result of an incorrect understanding of the use of the term “secondary.” In context, it “does not so much involve a quantitative measure of a thing’s importance . . . as it does a hierarchical reference to other objectives that come before it” (ibid.).
It is thus that the Church teaches that the unitive and procreative aspects of the marital act must never be separated through contraception. As stated in Humanae Vitae, “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (HV, n. 11). Defense and exposition of this doctrine was a hallmark of St. John Paul II’s pontificate.
For example, in Familiaris Consortio he discussed the irreconcilable differences between the true dignity of the human person and contraceptive use:
“The innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality” (FC, n. 32 § 4).
In her introductory essay in a booklet entitled Humanae Vitae: A Challenge to Love, Dr. Janet E. Smith offers her instructive insights, based on St. John Paul II’s teachings, of how the unitive aspect of the marital act is frustrated by contraception:
“The sexual act is meant to be an act of total self-giving and in withholding their fertility from one another spouses are not giving totally of themselves. [John Paul II] has developed an interesting line of argument where he speaks of the ‘language of the body.’ He claims that bodily actions have meanings, much as words do, and that unless we intend those meanings with our actions, we should not perform them, any more than we should speak words we don’t mean” (p. 14).
As expressed in The Didache Series: The Sacraments: “When artificial contraception is used, the couple, by a positive act of the will, intentionally removes one of the inherent meanings of the marital act, thereby corrupting the meaning of the act itself. By intentionally withholding the complete gift of one’s entire being and by refusing to accept the gift of the other in his or her totality as a human person, they distort both the one-flesh and the resultant procreative meaning for which the marital act was intended” (p. 187).

A Prophetic Encyclical

Earlier in this column, Humanae Vitae was described as prophetic. Nearly fifty years later, any rational person would be hard-pressed to deny the consequences predicted by Blessed Pope Paul VI have come to pass.
In a work published in 2014 by Ignatius Press entitled On Human Life, Mary Eberstadt recounts in the Foreword that the encyclical warned of four trends that would follow if artificial contraception became widespread (see HV, n. 17): “a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments” (p. 11).
She goes on to argue that the predictions are borne out by the social facts; moreover, many of the experts who produced the empirical evidence are secular social scientists.
The Catechism is also attentive to remind the faithful that “the fruitfulness of conjugal love extends to the fruits of the moral, spiritual, and supernatural life that parents hand on to their children by education” (CCC, n. 1653).
As the Vatican II fathers state: “Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators” (Gravissimum Educationis, n. 3 § 1).
According to St. Paul, parents are to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). This includes preparing each child for his or her eventual vocational choice — it is parents who are responsible for a child’s remote preparation for married life (see volume 150, n. 18; May 4, 2017).
In closing this section, the Catechism affirms that married couples to whom God has not granted children can nonetheless have a conjugal life full of meaning in marriages that radiate charity, hospitality, and sacrifice (cf. CCC, n. 1654).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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