Marriage: Fertility and Infertility
“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)
Fertility and marriage.
When a couple marries, embracing the task of marriage for “two to become one”, it is with the knowledge that the most obvious sign of this task is in children that the couple brings into the world together, with God. In fact, part of marrying in the Catholic Church is being open to children, a bridegroom and his bride must be able to respond yes to the question “Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?” in order to approach the Church for the Sacrament of Matrimony. [The word Matrimony actually means to make motherhood.]
To “accept children lovingly from God”, helps us to see the proper place in which children belong in the marriage relationship. They are something given to the spouses by God – a gift. As Catholics, we believe they are a gift to neither be rejected (through use of artificial contraception or sterilization) nor demanded (through use of artificial reproductive technologies).
The ‘supreme gift of marriage’ as both the Catechism and Gaudium et Spes tell us, children are the living, breathing, walking, talking image of the two spouses having become one. Perhaps a son has his father’s eyes and his mother’s nose or a daughter her father’s ears and mother’s hands. Whatever it is, the mystery of the one flesh union of husband and wife is on display for the world to see, a love so great it created a new person. This beautiful invitation that God gives spouses to co-create life with Him. By accepting this invitation, spouses enter into a relationship that is fundamentally “at the service of life”, and the children better the spouses as the parents raise them to adulthood, realizing they are but on loan from God, His children entrusted to them to raise.
Infertility and marriage.
So, what of the marriage that is infertile? What about those couples to whom this supreme gift of marriage is denied? If there are no children one might be tempted to ask if the marriage is real or full. Certainly the suffering spouses ask it – wondering if their love is somehow less than the love of a couple blessed with multiple children.
“The Church pays much attention to the suffering of infertile couples, it cares for them and, because of this, encourages medical research. The science, nevertheless, is not always able to respond to the desires of many couples. I would like again to remind the spouses who experience infertility that their vocation to marriage is not frustrated because of this. The husband and wife, because of their baptismal and matrimonial vocations themselves, are always called to work together with God in creating a new humanity. The vocation to love, in fact, is a vocation to the gift of self and this is a possibility that cannot be impeded by any organic condition. Therefore, where science cannot find an answer, the answer that brings light comes from Christ.” ~Benedict XVI, Feb. 2012 to the Pontifical Academy for Life.
The Emotional Side (Shared by an infertile couple)
In the beginning of trying to conceive a child, there is much hope and anticipation; for some, even a small fear of “what if we get pregnant right away?” It is a joyful time that for most couples results in a positive pregnancy test within the first few months. However, for one in six couples, the months go by without a positive test and the fears and doubts begin to creep in.
As the months go by, the hopes and dreams are replaced with fears, doubts, and the most invasive doctors’ appointments possible. As a Catholic couple faithful to the teachings of the Church, we are presented by secular doctors with options that are not options for us and are told things like “you’ll never have children” and “you have unexplained infertility”.
We find it hard to fit in. We have faith and values that are different than our culture, but our childlessness (primary infertility) or our small family (secondary infertility) makes us blend in with the norm. We have faith and values that are in line with the teachings of our Church, but our daily life looks so much different than the others who share those values and that makes us stand out in a way that we would rather not. We are Catholic husbands and wives living out our vocation fully. Our openness to life does not come in the form of children; it takes on the form of a quiet “no” or “not yet” or “maybe never” from God each month as we slowly trod along. Our openness to and respect for life courageously resists the temptations presented to us by the artificial reproductive technology industry.
Often times our friends and family do not know what to say to us, and so they choose to say nothing. Most of the time, we don’t want to talk about it, especially not in public or in group settings because it is painful and we will often shed tears. We realize it is difficult and we will do our best to be patient and to explain our situation to those who genuinely would like to know. Please respect our privacy and the boundaries we establish, as not only is infertility painful, it is also very personal.
One of the hardest experiences of infertility is that it is cyclical. Each month we get our hopes up as we try; we spend two weeks walking a fine line between hope and realism, between dreaming and despairing. When our next cycle begins we often only have a day or two before we must begin taking the medications that are meant to help us conceive. There is little to no time to mourn the dream that is once again not achievable; no time to truly allow ourselves to heal from one disappointment before we must begin hoping and trying again. We are at the mercy of hope, and while that hope keeps us going it is also what leaves us in tears when it is not realized.
Our faith is tested. We ask God “why?”, we yell at Him; we draw closer to God and we push Him away. Mass brings us to tears more often than not and the season of Advent brings us to our knees. The chorus of “Happy Mother’s Day” that surrounds us at Mass on the second Sunday in May will be almost more devastating than the blessing of mothers itself. We know that the Lord is trustworthy and that we can trust in Him; sometimes it is just a bigger task than we can achieve on our own.
The Physical Side
For many, in seeking answers, one or both spouses are left feeling broken, or somehow less than fully masculine or feminine. A quick Google search of “catholic” and “infertility” will quickly lead the couple to what seems like a long list of ‘NOs’ in regard to medical options and even more quickly to a list of novenas and prayers that simply must be prayed in order to remove the affliction causing the infertility.
While yes, certain reproductive technologies are not permitted, many others are permitted and encouraged. Infertility is often referred to as a disease but more accurately it is a symptom of another disease or problem. To treat this disease or problem is not only permitted, but encouraged for the overall health of either the man, woman, or both. Following the principle that children are a gift from God, a visible sign of the one-flesh union of husband and wife coming together in the marital act (intercourse), anything that supports this act and heals a defect would be permitted and encouraged. (For example removal of endometriosis surgically or supplements to improve hormone levels.)
Treatment options such as in-vitro fertilization (IVF), intrauterine insemination (IUI), surrogacy, and egg or sperm donation all fall under the category of Artificial Reproductive Technologies (ART) and seek to cure the symptom of infertility rather than the underlying disease causing the inability to conceive and bear children. Each of these options removes the procreation of new life, the invitation and gift from God, from the marriage bed and places it in a laboratory or hospital room. The manner in which a child is conceived (through ART, out of wedlock, etc) has no impact on the dignity of the child. Couples who pursue ART do so from a place of great suffering and, just as with all of us who sin, are in need of healing and reconciliation.
The good news is that the couple experiencing infertility is not left without options. They are permitted, and encouraged, to seek medical treatments that heal the underlying problem causing the symptom of infertility so that conception within the marital act is possible. Natural Procreative Technology (NaPro) seeks to do just that with a thorough diagnostic process for both husband and wife. When rates of pregnancies of NaPro patients and ART patients are compared, NaPro is not only healthier but more successful as well.
While NaPro provides a moral option, for some couples (whatever treatment they pursue), biological parenthood will not happen for them. [“Therefore, where science cannot find an answer, the answer that brings light comes from Christ.”] In this case the couple must discern whether they are called to adoption or to remain a family of two. Even in the case of a couple who pursues adoption, it is important to remember that adoption cures childlessness, not infertility and the sorrow over the lack of biological children may remain.