What The Church Has to Say About Natural Fertility
The Church has always extolled fertility as a good of marriage despite this being somewhat contrary to the modern secular understanding of fertility as either a nuisance, some sort of disease to be treated with medication, or alternatively as a ‘right’.
Today it sometimes appears that we spend the first half our lives desperately trying to avoid pregnancy, and the second half trying desperately to conceive. The perspective offered by the Catholic Church may be one you actually find refreshing, surprising, relevant and clear, especially when explained through the lens of modern teaching.
The ‘good’ of fertility consistently upheld and taught by the Church speaks to our physical reality, without making excuses, acknowledging the complimentarity of our bodies and the good of the sexual inclination we experience.
Through these realities, a husband and wife, as sexually differentiated beings, are able to unite themselves to one another in the deepest way possible in the conjugal act. Not merely biologically, but in all that they are as persons (bodily, sexual, rational, spiritual beings), and in all that they are as spouses. This same act is unique, because it is also the only act they could perform together in which and by which they could become co-operators with God in the possible transmission of new life.
Today we often hear of children being “a mistake’, or “an accident”. Catholic marriage challenges us to look differently at the family and asks whether you want to have accidents or precious, planned for, divine gifts. Catholic sexuality fosters a better marriage between spouses who understand their fertility and consider each other completely when they make love, without de-personalising or reducing each other’s humanity to mere gratification, and thus give themselves to each other completely.
Far from artificial birth control being optional in the Church (i.e. ‘simply a matter of conscience’) the Church (q.v. Humanae Vitae) has consistently taught a binding moral norm which is part of the constant teaching of the Church’s Magisterium. In fact all popes who have addressed the issue of artificial birth control have spoken with one voice: it is a violation of the pro-life, pro-fecund law God has inscribed in our natures. This teaching acknowledges the reality that birth control is the introduction of an impediment, something which contradicts the deep veneration which the Catholic Church has always had towards sex.
None of this means that every time a couple has sex, they must have a baby. The Church has always taught irresponsible parenthood is immoral and Humanae Vitae teaches that married couples are in fact required to examine the social, health and economic factors if they are to have an upright intention and act as responsible parents.
The Church rejects the introduction of artificial methods of birth control which destroy the inviolable bond between the procreative and unitive ends of sexual intercourse and you might be surprised to learn that in this it is joined by such thinkers as Mahatma Ghandi, and the founder of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who, though no friend of the Catholic Church, viewed birth control as the prime enabler of sexual perversion:
Freud wrote: “it is a characteristic common to all the perversions that in them reproduction as an aim is put aside. This is actually the criterion by which we judge whether a sexual activity is perverse—if it departs from reproduction in its aims and pursues the attainment of gratification independently...Everything that...serves the pursuit of gratification alone is called by the unhonored title of ‘perversion’ and as such is despised.”, Freud, S., A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, translated by Joan Riviere (New York: Liverwright, 1935), p. 277The key teaching, which has been widely hailed as a revelation on these complex issues is Pope John Paul II’s catechesis on human sexuality, widely know as The Theology of the Body. In the context of the principle of inseparability, he teaches why artificial birth control is wrong thus:
“According to the criteria of this truth,...the conjugal act ‘signifies’ not only love, but also potential fecundity, and so it cannot be deprived of its full and adequate meaning through artificial intervention. In the conjugal act it is not licit to separate artificially the unitive meaning from the procreative meaning because the one and the other belong to the intimate truth of the conjugal act; the one is activated together with the other and in a certain sense through the other...Therefore, in such a case, the conjugal act, deprived of its interior truth because artificially deprived of its procreative potential, also ceases to be an act of love" Catechesis 123, 22nd August 1984, The Theology of the Body, 396-99, translated from the original Italian by Canon George Woodall and cited in Woodall, G. J., Special Moral Theology (Birmingham: Maryvale Institute, 2009), p. 97.In other words, when you divorce sexual pleasure from its undoubted purpose, (i.e. procreation) you divorce the act from the responsibility it naturally demands. Sex then becomes about self-gratification and the truth, always upheld by the Church, is that it is something pure, holy, and wonderful. The Church, therefore, endorses several practical and highly effective methods of understanding fertility.
These methods help us to understand our natural fertility as a couple, making it a joint responsibility and aiding us in achieving pregnancy as well as avoiding or postponing pregnancy when that is what conscience dictates. Far from constituting “Vatican roulette”, modern methods of natural fertility management are at least as effective as unnatural methods, and medically safer.
Due to the prevalence of errors regarding fertility and the essential nature of this teaching to ensure the manifestation of Christ in Catholic marriages, the development of the family in the image of the Trinity (i.e. a communion of persons), and in order to ensure that the family operates as a “school of deeper humanity”, it is essential that part of any marriage preparation course involves access to information on what the Church teaches in this regard, recommendations for further research and the details of the methods of fertility awareness and family planning endorsed by the Church.