Today is my parent’s 37th wedding anniversary. To begin, I’d like to wish them a happy anniversary, and if you happen to see them, I hope you’ll tell them too. For the 30 years of my life, they’ve been an amazing example of a loving Catholic marriage, one I’ve tried to emulate in my 5 years of marriage.
In honor of their beautiful testament to love and fidelity, I wanted to look at one aspect of a Catholic marriage that is especially difficult for some couples.
As the bride and groom stand in front of all of their loved ones, they are asked 3 simple questions before they give their exchange of consent (the actual vows).
"Have you come here to enter into Marriage without coercion, freely and wholeheartedly?"
"Are you prepared, as you follow the path of Marriage, to love and honor each other for as long as you both shall live?"
"Are you prepared to accept children lovingly from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?"
This last question is the one I’ll be focusing on. For some people, the idea of having kids is terrifying or they’ve never pictured themselves being a parent. For most people, though, when they picture themselves being married, they picture a family. They picture little kids running around causing chaos but adding so much joy to their lives. With this picture in mind, this 3rd question brings the biggest smile to the couple’s faces.
This was true for my husband and myself, but a few years into our marriage we learned this line could be painful as well. Three years into our marriage, a week or two after my PhD defense, we discovered I was pregnant. Two weeks after that we discovered the baby had no heartbeat and it was only because of a medication I was on that my body was tricked into thinking it was still a viable pregnancy. After stopping the medication for a day, I had my miscarriage.
That same weekend, my husband and I were supposed to attend a wedding for one of our friends. I physically could not attend since I was still in bed, but Nick went. He, who just suffered through losing a child, had to sit there while another young couple answered that question, and the priest probably mentioned children a number of other times throughout the ceremony. How painful.
After our miscarriage we took just under a year addressing any health concerns of mine that could have been reasons for the miscarriage and made sure they didn’t cause another one in the future. Then we spent about a year trying with no success. In that time since the miscarriage, the two of us attended at least 10 weddings, 7 of them Catholic. Seven times we had to sit there thinking about our child we had lost as they answered that question. Seven times we had to sit there wondering if we would ever be able to lovingly accept a child into our lives that would live through a full pregnancy so that we could bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church.
Luckily for us, this time of wondering was only for a few years. Many couples suffer through infertility for their entire lives. In the United States, according to the CDC, about 7.4% of married women ages 15 to 44 are unable to get pregnant after one year of trying (infertile). Of the same age group, about 7.3 million have sought fertility services at some point, including medical advice, diagnostic tests, ovulation drugs, or Assisted Reproductive Techniques (ART).
Despite how getting pregnant is often portrayed, it is a complex biological process that requires all pieces to be working in harmony.
To get pregnant:
- A woman’s body must release an egg from one of her ovaries.
- That egg must be capable of traveling down the fallopian tube.
- The man must be able to ejaculate.
- His sperm must be able to travel to the fallopian tube.
- The sperm and egg must unite to fertilize the egg.
- The embryo must finally implant inside the uterus.
Although infertility may still occur when all of these steps are working correctly, often infertility results when there is a problem with one or several of these steps. Thanks to modern science, many of the breakdowns in these steps have medical interventions that can fix them. For Catholics, you run into the extra obstacle of which of those medical interventions are also morally allowed.
Often the outside world’s view of Catholic marriages is two people getting together so that they can have as many children as possible. If that were the case, then it wouldn’t make any sense why the Catholic Church would deny any medical treatment that could produce more children. Luckily for us, the Catholic teaching is much more rich and fulfilling than “get married, make babies”, even if it can at times be difficult.
Over and over in Catholic documents, children are spoken of as “gifts”, sometimes even the “supreme gift of marriage”. This phrasing can be confusing because it makes it seem like everyone gets this gift, but that’s not what it is saying. Just as we spoke about the Holy Spirit giving us different spiritual gifts last week, we all receive different gifts or blessings in our life. For some, that is the gift of children, but not for all.
When we have this mindset of expecting that God MUST give us this gift, then our view of the gift of children can get distorted. We then forget the “accept” part of that 3rd question and instead choose to “take” things into our own hands, removing God from the equation. The desire for a child cannot justify the “production” of offspring. Although it seems difficult, this teaching is rooted deeply in the importance of the dignity of all humans because we are made in the image of God. The Church’s position on accepted treatments essentially addresses the medical conditions that underlie infertility while always acknowledging the intrinsic value of human life. In other words, instead of a quick-fix procedure to achieve pregnancy that sometimes has immoral ramifications, the Church in her wisdom desires to heal whatever is not functioning properly in our bodies that may be causing infertility. There are actually more morally acceptable medical interventions for fertility than immoral ones, but the Church requires that sexual intimacy must be unitive and procreative and when either is left out, the act becomes immoral. Preventing the possibility of life denies the procreative aspect (a topic for another time). The immoral medical interventions for infertility instead deny the unitive portion of this equation.
This is where many infertile couples struggle, when they’ve exhausted all of the moral options and are told there is nothing more they can do. They remember their wedding day. They remember the joy of picturing themselves with children. They remember answering that third question which to them probably felt like an inevitable occurrence that they would happily be raising those kids. But now they are called to answer a different question. If you are unable to conceive of children through morally licit methods or are unable to carry children to term, will you accept this other path graciously according to the law of Christ and his Church?
This new question of accepting that you may never have kids of your own is beyond difficult. This type of difficulty has a number of ramifications on what this marital relationship looks like, but one aspect is how this changes how the husband and wife serve one another. Although it may take time to reach this point, others who have maneuvered this tricky path have pointed to the saying by Rabindranath Tagore, writer and philosopher: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted, and behold, service was joy.”
The catechism states that “spouses to whom God has not granted children can nevertheless have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Their marriage can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality, and of sacrifice.” (CCC 1654) Finding that meaning for an individual marriage is so very important for all marriages. Your marriage and your situation is unique and must be prayerfully discerned.
On this day when I celebrate a beautiful Catholic marriage that brought two amazing children into the world, on that same day when I’m 39 weeks pregnant with my own child, I choose to take some time to pray for those who are not as fortunate as my parents and I. I will think of and pray for those who have been given a different and very difficult path. Those who I know personally, I will reach out to. Their path in obedience to the Church can often feel overwhelmingly painful, but one of the beautiful benefits of this universal Church is how we are all joined together in the Body of Christ. The rest of the Church must be here to support those who are unable to have children, to walk with them in love and understanding. I hope that you will join me in prayer for these couples, in love for those we know personally, but I also hope that you will be conscious of how common infertility is when speaking to married couples about their plans for children. Please speak gently knowing that you may not be privy to all of their personal struggles.
For those struggling with infertility or those who want to lovingly walk with those who are, a terrific resource is the book, “The Infertility Companion for Catholics”. It gives answers, but it also gives understanding and hope.
Another good book recommended to me was “Facing Infertility – A Catholic Approach”.