Cherishing and Respecting One’s Fertility

Discussions about ending marital fertility by vasectomy or tubal ligation, even among Catholics, can often be nonchalant as if this procedure is no big deal with no moral implications. Such an attitude is likely the product of a culture which has pushed God into the background and which no longer acknowledges creation as a gift designed by God. We have returned to the moment in man’s beginning when he was presented with a choice to accept God’s authority or to reject it becoming “like gods, who know good and evil” (Genesis 3:5) and have decided, like the first man, that we can determine what is right and wrong and dare to go even beyond the first man thinking we can change our nature.

While this article is directed to the seeming ease with which contemporary couples cast aside fertility, much of what is here offered could also be applied to other Church teachings regarding pre-marital sex, artificial contraception, homosexual unions, abortion, artificial insemination, and surrogate motherhood which this author addressed in the marriage series published in winter 2021–2022 by Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

The authors from Mary University Press of From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age suggest that the present culture in the West is similar to that faced by the Apostles, in which the entire culture must be evangelized through individual conversion. It is not enough to merely dictate morality because often the receptivity is not there as it was when society was readily guided by religious tenets and authority. Instead, we have to help people, through our own witness, to experience Christ and put His will first, which can then lead them to follow Christ’s path for human beings found in His life and laid out for us in the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes.

On a macro level, this suggests that parishes must create a culture in which Christ becomes the center of life for each person. In such a pastoral environment, parishioners are regularly invited to experience participation in the love which exists among the Persons of the Divine Trinity and enable them to abandon themselves to the Lord’s will at every moment. Parishioners are encouraged to develop such a life through daily, fixed times of private prayer, of intimate time with Our Lord, if at all possible before the Blessed Sacrament; through increased experience of the Eucharist as the living Christ, not a mere symbol, which impels one to want to attend Mass; through the availability of regular periods of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; and through regular recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which provides the priest with the opportunity to provide spiritual direction, including counsel as to the Church’s teachings. Such a culture can produce receptivity to moral teachings seen not simply as moral precepts but as God’s design for fulfillment and happiness for human beings. Having a parish school may heighten or enhance the ability to engender such a culture since the children regularly experience, from an early age, the witness of those who live a life committed to Christ and parents are naturally embraced within the school’s milieu.

On a micro — person-to-person — level, one may realize that, when encountering a person who casually mentions the intention to undergo a vasectomy or tubal ligation, it may not be enough to point out the governing moral principles. Whether a priest, a teacher, a friend, or other advisor is the one to encounter such a person, that advisor needs to be an effective witness to Christ. The advisor should, as best as is possible, assess where the person is in his or her understanding of, or relationship with, God. This will help determine how best to approach the subject. It is also necessary to be patient with the person, not condemnatory or forceful.

One approach may require a compassionate acknowledgement of how demanding it is to parent children when both parents need to work. When young children are sick, particularly if either or both parents are working remotely, the stress of trying to attend to them while fulfilling their job responsibilities can be intense. Even determining how to share the shuttling of the youngsters to and from school, playdates, or sporting activities can be challenging. So, understandably, the thought of having additional children may seem overwhelming to some couples.

One can then begin to discuss the intimate life of the Triune God and lay out God’s derivative design for human beings: that God is a communion of three persons — God the Father Who loves the Son, and the Son Who loves the Father, and whose mutual love generates the third person, the Holy Spirit; that we have been created in the image and likeness of this dynamic union; that image and likeness is not only in intelligence, free will, and the ability to love, but also in the capacity to create another human person; in God’s design a husband and wife by nature reflect, and are able to share in, the creative love of the Trinity — in physically expressing their marital love, they have the potential to create life, a phenomenal gift and sacred trust provided to the married couple; thus, by design, sexual intercourse has both a unitive dimension, which draws the couple closer, and a creative dimension. Both are essential to the marital act and thus the integrity of God’s design must always be respected.

It can also be communicated that the Creator is not unmindful of the pressures of parenthood in this day and age. He has provided the means to calm this fear of having additional children while also respecting His creative design. His design provides that a couple can only become pregnant if the couple engages in intercourse when the woman is fertile. Through the development of science, it is known that a convergence of three events can help a couple determine when in a particular month the woman is fertile. The couple then abstains during the fertile period if they wish not to get pregnant or have intercourse in that period if they are trying to get pregnant. This method is commonly referred to as Natural Family Planning (NFP).

Of course, it must be conceded that this approach requires the exercise of self-mastery, but not in so different a way as the desire to eat requires self-mastery to consume food in a healthy manner with sometimes drastic consequences if we don’t. Self-mastery creates freedom in the sense that we do not become slaves to our appetites and we open space for the Lord’s action. We exercise self-control instead of relying on artificial devices or surgery and trust in God’s providence. Humbly respecting and cooperating with God’s creative design is the human way to apply the gifts of intelligence and free will to managing these natural appetites.

It should be pointed out that adoption of this method can reduce the temptation to end a couple’s fertility with the added assurance that the need to practice NFP will not last for the entire marriage. The Creator has also incorporated a natural end to fertility following the woman’s menopause. Those who have successfully used this natural method of family planning usually opt to not reject their fertility.

God’s assistance is invaluable, if not absolutely necessary, to adopt this way of life. So, encouragement should also be given to put one’s marriage in God’s hands and to develop or increase one’s intimacy with Christ through prayer and the Sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and Reconciliation. The product of such a spiritual life is trust that God would never give one more than one could handle, including even an unexpected pregnancy.

Perhaps for some, a more pointed reminder might be effective by candidly, but kindly, suggesting that to throw away this wonderful gift by prematurely terminating one’s fertility seems, although perhaps not intended, to be an affront to God, especially if one has already been graced with children. Failing to preserve the gift of fertility demonstrates a lack of trust in God, is a rejection of His design, and is essentially to act as if one knows better than, and to set oneself up as, God. It would be no different than cutting off a fully functioning arm.

While the above suggestions are addressed to a one-on-one encounter with a person in which this subject is discussed, it is important that these truths also be conveyed from the pulpit, in pre-Cana preparation, in confession and spiritual direction, religious education classes, and in high school and collegiate educational curricula. It is crucial to prayerfully request guidance from the Lord as to how and when to broach this subject or to respond when it comes up. However, prayerful consideration should never be an excuse for failure to address these truths. We cannot be paralyzed by fear of alienating parishioners or friends, as long as these truths are communicated with respect and in charity. No matter what approach, no matter how much tact is employed, not all will accept the truth or the invitation to live in the manner designed by God. Many walked away from Christ. We cannot expect better.

To convey the truth is a non-negotiable obligation of charity imposed on the Church — hierarchy and laity. In another context, Pope Benedict XVI articulated, in very understandable language, that

[o]nly in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity. That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith, through which the intellect attains to the natural and supernatural truth of charity: it grasps its meaning as gift, acceptance, and communion. Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love.

Caritas in Veritate, at 3. (Italics in original; boldface added.)

Note: I am most grateful for the invaluable advice and insights contributed to this article by the Rev. Daniel P. O’Mullane, S.T.L., Ed.S., pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel parish in Boonton, New Jersey.

Richard P. Maggi, Esq. About Richard P. Maggi, Esq.

Richard P. Maggi, Esq., has been a litigation attorney for the past 40 years. He is also a commentator on religion and politics, having been published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, First Things (web edition), Crisis Magazine, the Washington Examiner, Human Life Review, and Notre Dame Magazine. For seven years, four of which they were co-leaders, he and his wife were members of the Pre-Cana team at Our Lady of Peace Parish in New Providence, New Jersey.