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Clarifications on Sterile Marriages

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Jul 08, 2011

My recent writings have caused some readers to raise two problems with respect to my arguments against homosexual unions. More than one person has written to question my emphasis on the procreation of children in marriage as the key to its special worth. And one seriously misguided correspondent has insisted, through thick and thin in a spirited exchange, that those who practice natural family planning are as guilty as those who use contraception in making it impossible to argue effectively against homosexual “marriage”. I hope to clarify both issues below.

1. The Social Benefit of Marriage

I asserted, in point 5 of Why Gay Marriage is Straight Business that “To privilege gay marriage in tax and benefit laws simply supports an institution which serves no possible benefit to society.” The phrase “no possible benefit”, of course, refers to the fact that homosexual “marriages” cannot be ordered to the procreation and raising of children.

This point has drawn a few responses from heterosexual couples who are unable to have children, and who feel hurt that their marriage has been devalued by this argument. In response, I would stress the following points:

First, this argument applies only naturally and, indeed, sociologically, so to speak. I have deliberately prescinded from discussing sacramental marriage here, as the sacrament is not directly relevant to society’s vested interest in the institution of marriage. For society’s natural interest in marriage is that it is the natural means—and by far the most effective means—to propagate the race and form future members of society who are secure, well-balanced and productive. Naturally speaking, anything else that society may gain from the relationship between a husband and a wife is no different from what can be provided by any productive collaboration between a man and a woman who are not married. It is precisely the larger family, to which marriage is intrinsically ordered by nature, that is of interest to the social order.

Second, this does not imply that a true marriage without children is worthless, especially a sacramental marriage which, as I have written elsewhere (see especially A Meditation on Marriage, November 5, 2010), will certainly be fruitful in many other ways. But it does mean that a healthy society’s interest in privileging marriage lies in what the institution of marriage is by its nature ordered to provide—and what it ordinarily does provide—which is well-raised children. Thus all sound societies privilege marriage in various ways, recognizing the sacrifice of parents, and rewarding to some extent the signal service parents provide to the social order.

It would, of course, be perfectly legitimate for society to privilege only families with children, and indeed some of our own tax laws do this. But it also makes sense to publicly recognize and promote the institution of marriage itself, because of its unique purpose and promise, so that men and women may be encouraged to choose that state in life. The fact that some particular marriages will never have children, through no fault of the couple—or even through the fault of some particular couples—is incidental to the purpose and promise of privileging the institution. After all, some couples will also lose their children through disease or accidents. The institution is privileged socially because of its purpose, which (in the absence of a desire to the contrary) is also ordinarily fulfilled.

Third, the reason I have focused on the problem of sterility in marriage at all—far from wishing to add to the heavy cross of those who, through no fault of their own, cannot have children—is to stress that a society becomes confused when a high percentage of marriages are kept deliberately sterile, and this confusion makes it difficult to justify the very thing that is essential to its own well-being. It tends to lose sight of the real connection between marriage and the health of the social order, viewing marriage instead as simply a traditionally privileged status which it now seems discriminatory to restrict to one man and one woman. Undoing the damage caused by widespread willful sterility in marriage is essential to the preservation and development of a healthy society.

2. Natural Family Planning

My emphasis on this problem of willful sterility in Gay Marriage and the Next Gulag led one correspondent to insist that it is not just contraception that makes it difficult to fault homosexual “marriages”, but also natural family planning. He persistently called NFP “Catholic contraception”, insisting that it is just a different form of the same thing, and that it is clearly characterized by the same evil fruits.

This last point was simply the fallacy of restating a premise as a conclusion. He began with the assertion that NFP led to our incapacity to resist homosexuality, and he concluded “in consequence” that the fruits of NFP are bad. Unfortunately, even citing the Magisterium of the Church to the contrary was insufficient to deflect the remarkable moral obduracy of this Catholic’s idée fixe.

I’ll begin with a brief comment on the one aspect here that merits discussion, namely the motives or reasons for which a couple decides to attempt to space their children. It is certainly possible for a couple to lack generosity in this regard, to hold off having children for selfish reasons even though they are using a moral means to effect the result. The Church has long taught that, broadly speaking, the allowable motives stem from the parents’ duty to provide for the material needs and Christian education of their children. To try to have more children than a couple can provide for in this way, then, is actually wrong in itself, just as marrying without the intention of having children in the first place is wrong.

Beyond that, each couple must prayerfully examine their own situation, their own capacities, in order to act reasonably and responsibly in the matter of procreation, hopefully with suitable spiritual advice. For the marital act, like every other human action, is to be guided by reason, which in turn is to be clarified and guided by God and His Church.

But it so happens that God has not created us to reproduce spontaneously, as it were, in response to His direct intervention. Rather, He has ordained that procreation is to be the result of the marital act, a free sexual union of a husband and wife, which itself is governed by a sort of rhythm, and is at times more likely to result in conception, and at times less likely. Clearly, husband and wife are not called to engage in the marital act each and every day, as if this is morally superior because it leaves everything to God. No, the couple is to make decisions about when to engage in the marital act based on their own situation, with a sincere effort to reason in accordance with God’s will. If, therefore, a couple judges for good reason that the time is not propitious for conceiving a child, they may without fault choose to abstain from the marital act during those periods in which, as they know through reason, the marital act is most likely to result in conception.

My experience, and that of many others with far greater experience, teaches me that those who are willing to exercise sufficient self-control to utilize methods of natural family planning, very far from being selfish as a rule, typically wish to attune themselves to the will of God. They are generous and open in the matter of children, and in most cases the very thing that led them to NFP in the first place was a desire to act in conformity to God’s will, and to grow in His love. There are, I suppose, a few couples who eschew contraception in favor of NFP for purely ecological reasons, and who also make very selfish decisions with respect to having children. In general, however, NFP seems to militate in the opposite direction, while also increasing a couple’s mutual love and respect for each other, for nature, and for God.

The Nature of Things

But, in any case, in no sense can couples who practice NFP ever be guilty of “Catholic contraception”, because refraining from the marital act at fertile times is not contraceptive in any sense of the term. Contraception refers to the deliberate blocking of the potential fertility inherent in a particular marital act. For this reason, contraception is clearly contrary to the procreative end of the marital act (and, I might add, there is much about it which harms the unitive end as well, which helps to explain why divorce rates are so very much higher among those who contracept as compared with those who use NFP). NFP, by contrast, wholly respects God’s plan for the marital act, leaving it open in each particular case to the love and life which God, in His wisdom and design, so clearly intends.

This distinction was hard to see for many when Pope Paul VI issued his condemnation of contraception in Humanae Vitae, in 1968, shortly after the “Pill” came into wide use. I suppose for those whose intellects are clouded by the sin of contraception, the distinction may still be hard to see. But anyone who opposes contraception without understanding what distinguishes it morally from NFP simply fails to understand what makes contraception within marriage intrinsically evil. That distinction is a distinction between working in accordance with God’s will as expressed in nature, and working against God’s will as expressed in nature—a distinction between respecting and reverencing God’s gifts on the one hand, and attempting to replace God and subvert or alter those gifts on the other.

Yet however hard it may be for some to see this distinction, there can be no excuse for confusion in the mind of anyone who claims to be Catholic—which is precisely why I was so very frustrated by my recent correspondence with a self-proclaimed Catholic who would not even accept the decision of the Magisterium. For in the very encyclical in which Paul VI explained what was wrong with contraception, and declared it to be intrinsically immoral in marriage, the Pope clearly stated that the same was not true of natural methods. The passage is worth quoting at length:

If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.

Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the latter they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love. (HV, no. 16)

The Relevance, in Context

The relevant point from which I began is that we are right to charge that the use of contraception has opened the way to widespread homosexuality, as well as to the inability of our culture to see what is wrong with it. But we are not right—in fact we make an egregious error—when we make the same charge against natural family planning.

I should point out in passing that it is actually quite possible to commit grave sins by rejecting the use of reason in the spacing of children, whether by NFP or through complete abstention. There are men who, believing that the conception of children must morally be left completely in God's hands, such that any effort to space children is intrinsically immoral, insist on unremitting relations with their wives even when conception is known to be seriously dangerous to their health. These are unusual cases, perhaps, but no less real, and no less wrongheaded in their application of the moral law.

Now, again, it is possible for a couple to use NFP for selfish motives, as it is possible to perform any morally permissible or even morally good act for a selfish reason. We might, for example, give to the poor primarily to be recognized by others for our generosity, thereby lacking that charity in an objectively good act which alone earns merit in the eyes of God. Here I can only repeat that, in my experience, the trajectory of those who discipline themselves through NFP is almost always in the opposite direction, as the discipline of NFP encourages growth in that same charity which is truncated and diminished through contraception.

But, as the Pope noted, it is not possible to redeem the use of contraception in marriage by claiming any sort of good motive, because contraception is a grave sin against the marital act, a participation in the same violation of the objective order which characterizes homosexual relationships—a decision to ape the marital act in mockery of the One who created it as a rich possibility, the One who invested it with meaning, and the One who alone can bless it with fruit according to His wisdom and grace

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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: littleone - Feb. 03, 2012 9:28 PM ET USA

    I appreciate this very well reasoned essay. As to the commenter who knows of "no small NFP families" - I can attest to at least one; my own. For those who have serious reasons to make recourse to the use of NFP throughout much of their marriage, we can attest to the efficacy of NFP, the beautiful and difficult sacrifices involved, and the appreciation for a way of life/love that teaches love and respect for each other and for the children with whom we are blessed.

  • Posted by: paul20105493 - Jul. 14, 2011 3:22 PM ET USA

    This is all good stuff, but there is such a simpler way to justify sterile couples. The church doesn't say every couple must have children, because no one can have a child unless God grants it. The important thing is be open to children if God does grant it, like Abraham & Sarah, or Zachariah & Elizabeth, who were long sterile. I'm sure most infertile couples would welcome a child if God ever granted them one. Maybe God will never grant one, but the important thing is to remain open to new life.

  • Posted by: timothy.op - Jul. 11, 2011 9:30 PM ET USA

    Once when I was defending NFP, a friend objected that women are not as easily aroused during the infertile periods. Of course, phenomenologically, this only strengthens the argument that union and procreation are naturally designed to go together. However, perhaps we paint too rosy a picture of NFP in promising, effectively, that 'sexual satisfaction is just a week or two away.' Instead, we oughtn't understate the discipline that is needed. After all, no one said it would be easy.

  • Posted by: Catilieth - Jul. 09, 2011 11:04 PM ET USA

    When discussing why NFP is licit, I often get the response that "NFP is just Catholic birth control". I respond "yes, it is. The Church condems contraception, not controlling births." There are licit and lllicit ways to space births. Humanae Vitae's subtitle is on controlling births. It's called "Natural" because it respects Natural Law, not because it's not artificial (as though "natural" contraception would be licit...it's not. In fact, only the husband and wife have the right to decide.

  • Posted by: Saved by Grace - Jul. 09, 2011 10:28 PM ET USA

    Your original piece on Why Gay Marriage is Straight Business was courageous and well thought out. We need more people who would be so willing to speak the truth!

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Jul. 08, 2011 7:12 PM ET USA

    The state has no interest in adult relationships per se. It is only because there might be children: who are vulnerable. Also, marriage is the best way to raise the future. The normal rejoinder to this concerns married couples who are infertile (perhaps due to age). We have never had the stomach to set up a State Fertility Board to test all couples to see if they should get a marriage license. It seems absurdly intrusive. But that doesn't change the fundamental state interest involved.

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Jul. 08, 2011 7:08 PM ET USA

    In NFP, when the fever comes upon you during a fertile period, you have two choices: 1. Abstain. This is a mortification which helps you grow in holiness. 2. Don't abstain. This results (9 months later) in a mortification which helps you grow in holiness. Either choice leads to holiness...unlike artificial birth control. BTW, I know of no small NPF families (absent fertility problems).

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