As St. John Paul II concluded his Theology of the Body (TOB) Catechesis in November of 1984, he indicated that the application of TOB could go “far beyond the content of the reflections presented here” (TOB 133:1), while reaffirming the importance of his explicit applications to the teachings on responsible parenthood found in Humanae Vitae. Just three years later, the Magisterium provided its first major example of these wider applications of TOB when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith promulgated Donum Vitae to address medical interventions into the transmission of human life. The teachings of Donum Vitae continued the application of TOB to the theme of responsible parenthood but directed it to the question of how couples can seek to grow their family in a morally sound way when they are experiencing challenges with their natural fertility.
Echoing the main teachings of Donum Vitae, this installment of the series summarizes how the anthropological and moral principles of TOB support the proper use of medical science in the exercise of responsible parenthood, while highlighting the grave evils of artificial reproduction.
Procreative Love and Responsibility
Within the TOB framework, procreation essentially means providing the dignified and just context for God’s creative action, and the essence of responsible parenthood centers on the commitment of man and woman to provide that context out of love for each other and with a sense of obligation before God. Responsible parenthood means being fruitful in a way that does justice to all involved precisely in order to fulfill the privileged role of man and woman in the mystery of creation, thus preserving the truth of procreation as an essential aspect of the love to which human sexuality is ordered.
Procreation springs from the heart of conjugal love, rather than being something added on to the love of the man and the woman, and represents an utterly unique way for them to express their love and commitment to each other. Through procreation, man and woman give motherhood and fatherhood to each other and thereby give themselves to each other with an unsurpassed depth. For that reason, those who love in this conjugal way deeply want to give motherhood and fatherhood to each other and to see new life spring from their loving communion. Therefore, it is natural and fitting that a man and a woman in conjugal love seek medical help whenever they are experiencing infertility. Likewise, the teachings of the Church recognize with great compassion the pain of infertility precisely because it frustrates the deep currents of conjugal love.
However, along with the deep desire to give children to each other, married couples stand before God with an obligation to cooperate with him in the transmission of life. Married couples should feel that same sense of obligation to seek proper healthcare if they experience infertility. In other words, a couple that truly loves each other and that wants to fulfill their obligations before God cannot remain indifferent to infertility.
There are natural limits to human fertility within God’s plan for human sexuality, but medical science generally says that more than twelve months of sexual intercourse in the fertile phase of the woman’s cycle without conception would be a cause for concern. According to the meaning of responsible parenthood, a couple in that situation should seek fertility care out of love for each other and with a sense of obligation before God.
We should keep in mind that this medical care does not always lead to very complicated or invasive procedures or expensive treatments; sometimes very simple observations and changes can be made to help a couple overcome their infertility. However, no matter how simple or complicated their fertility issues may be, the couple should feel a moral obligation to try to overcome their infertility within the bounds of prudence and within the meaning of the same language of the body that governs all responsible parenthood.
By seeking fertility care in line with the principles of responsible parenthood, couples say to each other, “Because I care so much about you, I can’t act like I don’t care about our infertility. Sharing parenthood with you means so much to me that I am willing to take the time and effort to seek help and to accept the physical and emotional costs of trying to overcome our infertility. I am not willing, however, to do anything that degrades our bodies, contradicts the meaning of our spousal communion, or violates the dignity of the children we seek to give each other. The treatment we seek must be dignified and loving in order to genuinely express the movements of my heart toward you.”
Fortunately, TOB offers couples a clear basis for understanding the criteria by which treatments would be dignified and loving and thus within the proper meaning of responsible parenthood.