The Procreative and Unitive Dimensions of Married Love

Author: Fr. William Saunders

"The Procreative and Unitive Dimensions of Married Love"

Straight Answers from Father William Saunders

The following article is a continuation of a series on marital love and artificial birth control. A question for you regarding Catholics who practice artificial birth control: What is their status in the Church? Are they committing mortal sin? I feel that this is a much misunderstood question by most Catholics, including myself. To further muddle the issue, what is the Church's position when one's spouse does not want to practice NFP?

Recall that in the two previous issues we have examined our belief concerning the sacrament of marriage and the beautiful expression of marital love, which is both unitive and procreative. Both dimensions are intrinsically good and inherent to the act of marriage. Consequently, in marital love one cannot separate the unitive from the procreative dimension.

For this reason, therefore, Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical "Humanae Vitae," stated, "Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life" (No. 11). The Holy Father continued, "This particular doctrine, expounded on numerous occasions by the magisterium, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage pact" (No. 12) With the introduction of artificial birth control to the marital act, the procreative dimension is purposefully suppressed and ignored. The unitive dimension, therefore, is separated from the procreative. Just as a forced act of physical love by one's spouse upon the other violates the unitive dimension of marital love, the impairment of the capacity to transmit human life violates the procreative dimension. Here note that artificial birth control involves an impairment or a suppression of one inherent dimension of an action as God has designed it. Essentially, God has designed marital love to be both unitive and procreative; to suppress or to violate either one contradicts the design of God.

Nevertheless, we have witnessed the proliferation of the use of artificial birth control in our society. As Pope John Paul II, as well as Pope Paul VI, have repeatedly warned, what has consequently evolved in society is a contraceptive mentality, the removal of conjugal love from the sacrament of marriage and, in many cases (especially outside the context of marriage), the reduction of conjugal love to simply a sex act without genuine love.

In "Evangelium Vitae," Pope John Paul II lamented about the effects of artificial birth control: "Sexuality too is depersonalized and exploited; from being the sign, place and language of love, that is, of the gift of self and acceptance of another, in all the other's richness as a person, it increasingly becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts. Thus, the original import of human sexuality is distorted and falsified, and the two meanings, unitive and procreative, inherent in the very nature of the conjugal act, are artificially separated: in this way, the marriage union is betrayed and its fruitfulness is subjected to the caprice of the couple. Procreation then becomes the 'enemy' to be avoided in sexual activity: if it is welcomed this is only because it expresses a desire, or indeed the intention, to have a child 'at all costs,' and not because it signifies the complete acceptance of the other and therefore an openness to the richness of life which the child represents" (No. 23).

Here we must pause to examine another dimension of the problem with some forms of artificial birth control. Most artificial birth control pills today are such that they have a "double barrel" effect. On one hand, they serve as a contraceptive in suppressing ovulation; on the other hand, if ovulation occurs and conception takes place "by accident," they also make the lining of the uterus hostile to implantation, thereby expelling the conceived life. Remember that once conception occurs, a unique, precious individual has been created who has the right to life. Consequently, these pills are really abortifacients, having the same effect as the intrauterine device (IUD). Actually, this "double barrel" effect is the sad selling point for the drug RU-486.

Moreover, we must also consider the possible side effects of these pills to the health of the woman. In examining the for various oral contraceptives available, the small-print list of possible health complications include, to name a few, myocardial infarction, thrombosis, cerebrovascular disorders, birth defects and various forms of cancer (breast, cervical, ovarian and uterine). Tragically, many doctors do not inform the woman of these health risks when prescribing these drugs. Since each individual has an obligation for maintaining his or her own health, any drug which consistently changes the normal functioning of the body and which carries these risks would be morally objectionable.

So what is a couple who has serious issues facing their marriage, such as a medical problem or economic constrictions, to do? The Church has always taught that a couple must act as responsible parents: "The couple must fulfil their role as cooperators of God's creative love with responsibility: they must respect the divine providence of God, consider their own good and the good of their children, born and yet to be born, weigh their own situation and needs on the spiritual and material levels, and look to the good of family, society and Church" ("Gaudium et Spes," No. 50). A husband and wife, with a vision of being responsible parents, must decide if now is the time to have a child. There may be serious reasons for postponing a pregnancy -- even indefinitely -- because of health, financial burdens or other serious reason.

However, one must be careful not to distort what is a "serious" reason. Pope John Paul II stated, "The decision about the number of children and the sacrifices to be made for them must not be taken only with a view to adding comfort and preserving a peaceful existence. Reflecting upon this matter before God, with the graces drawn from the sacrament, and guided by the teaching of the Church, parents will remind themselves that it is certainly less serious to deny their children certain comforts or material advantages than to deprive them of the presence of brothers and sisters who could help them to grow in humanity and realize the beauty of life at all ages and in all its variety" (1979).

If a couple thinks serious reasons do indeed exist for postponing pregnancy, the Church teaches that a couple may take advantage of "the natural cycles of the reproductive system" ("Humanae Vitae," No. 16). We know that a woman can only conceive a child during the period of ovulation. Therefore, a couple may resort to expressing their love only when they are in the infertile phases of their cycle. This method of regulating birth is called Natural Family Planning, a safe and effective means which is morally acceptable and which preserves the covenant love of marriage. This topic will be addressed in next week's issue.

Fr. Saunders is president of the Notre Dame Institute and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the October 19, 1995 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.