Can Catholic couples choose childlessness?

There was a time when the cultural consensus was that children and marriage were a package deal. Today, however, there is a growing trend among couples to rule out childbearing. According to statistics released by the Census Bureau, there is a small but significant increase in the number of childless women in their early 30s over the past decade. In 2006, 26.2 percent of women ages 30-34 were childless and by 2016, that number had risen to 30.8 percent.

Those statistics do not reflect rising levels of infertility, but rather the idea that children should be considered optional for marriages. Yet is choosing not to have children an acceptable choice for Catholic couples?

The short answer is “no,” according to Father Thomas Urban, who is a judge at the Metropolitan Tribunal in Detroit, Michigan. “The first thing Catholics need to understand, and come to grips with,” he explained, “is that most people, even among Catholics, have a secular understanding of marriage from Hollywood and magazines.”

The marriage agreement

Father Urban points to the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the starting place to understand the purpose of marriage. “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord ” (CCC No. 1601). He explained that when couples say, “I do,” they establish the marriage partnership.

“So, if one of these conditions is intentionally left out, then no marriage takes place,” he said. “I’ll marry you but not for the rest of our lives — no marriage. Or, I’ll marry you only if I can continue my bachelor lifestyle — no marriage. Or, I’ll marry you but I will not have any children — no marriage.”

Father Urban adds the caveat, however, for those already married, that just because one might see something missing, an invalid marriage cannot be assumed. “This is what the Tribunal is for,” he said. “Canon 1060 states: ‘Marriage enjoys the favor of law. Consequently, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven.’”

An openness to children

Christian J. Meert is the director of CatholicMarriagePrep.com, which he and his wife, Christine, founded in 2004 to help engaged couples build strong marriages. The Meerts also run the Office of Marriage and Family Life in the Diocese of Colorado Springs.

Meert said he recently had a bride-to-be argue about being open to children. She claimed that since there are overcrowded orphanages and abortions, there is no longer a moral requirement to be open to children.

Pope Francis on Discernment and Parenthood
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“Decisions involving responsible parenthood presupposes the formation of conscience, which is ‘the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There each one is alone with God, whose voice echoes in the depths of the heart’ (Gaudium et Spes, 16). The more the couple tries to listen in conscience to God and his commandments (cf. Rom 2:15), and is accompanied spiritually, the more their decision will be profoundly free of subjective caprice and accommodation to prevailing social mores.” The clear teaching of the Second Vatican Council still holds: ‘[The couple] will make decisions by common counsel and effort. Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society and of the Church herself. The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God.’
  — Amoris Laetitia No. 222 (first quoted passage taken from the final document of the 2015 Synod of Bishops)

Such a worldly view reflects the prevalent idea today that one can decide wrong or right on their own, Meert explained. “Revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone,” he said. “Certainly this couple hadn’t read Veritatis Splendor which states: ‘People today need to turn to Christ once again in order to receive from him the answer to their questions about what is good and what is evil.’”

Not being open to children was just one of many disagreements the couple had with Church teachings according to Meert. Such thinking, he said, often reveals a lack of understanding or perhaps woundedness that points to the need for evangelization and healing. “We must build trust with couples before they can freely choose to accept God’s will,” he said. “God gave us a law — the truth that will make us all free.”

The Church also teaches that artificial contraception is wrong, but it does allow non-contraceptive methods such as Natural Family Planning. They are to be used, however, in union with prudent discernment and openness to God’s will. Natural Family Planning is useful when another pregnancy — whether the first or ninth — would be dangerous for the mother or fiscally, physically or emotionally difficult for the parents; being completely closed to the possibility of children is not being open to whatever God wills.

“Sex is both unitive and procreative, and the two cannot be separated,” Meert said. “The Church encourages us to enjoy the gift of sexuality in its fullness. And we need to understand that sex means the wedding consent made flesh. It’s a total gift. You hold back nothing from your spouse, not even your fatherhood or motherhood, and it is a gift that is open to life.”

Children with disabilities

Although the Church accepts working with a woman’s natural fertility to limit children, it can be abused if used with a contraceptive mentality. The default marriage setting is to be open to the gift of life unless there are serious reasons dictating the contrary.

Pope Paul VI, in his 1968 encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, explained the Church’s constant teaching: “The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator.”

Connie and Jeff Gross of Bismarck, North Dakota, always planned to be completely open to receiving children, but their oldest son Dallas was diagnosed with the genetic disorders cystic fibrosis and a very serious form of muscular dystrophy. He was not expected to live past his teens.

They practiced natural family planning as a way to space their children, knowing that each one might need extra care. “The realization that any child born to us might not reach adulthood had no bearing on our decision to be open to life,” Connie explained. “The souls of our children were destined for eternity.”

Jeff and Connie had three more children; one had cystic fibrosis, but by then treatments and expected lifespan had improved. Dallas passed away at age 15 on Sept. 17, 1989. “He made us all better people than we would have been without him,” Connie said. “And now, we know someone in heaven who is praying for us and will be there to greet us one day.“

Inability to have children

If a couple knows ahead of time that they are unable to procreate, can they still marry in the Church? “For couples who can’t have children due to physical issues, or if they have passed the age of procreation, one can’t say that they are closed to procreation, it’s a natural situation,” Meert explained. He also noted that many couples previously sterilized have successfully reversed the condition through surgery, but the Church does not require it. According to Father Urban, there is a difference between the intention not to have children and the inability to do so. “For instance, I am walking along the beach and discover someone drowning, but I do not know how to swim,” he said. “I want to save the person, but I can’t. My intention is there but my ability is not. However, if the person got sterilized before the marriage precisely because he did not want children in this marriage, that would invalidate the marriage.”

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Each couple is unique and some have physical or emotional challenges, Meert explained, but freedom to marry includes the capacity of understanding the commitment and responsibilities. “The Code of Canon Law states that the matrimonial consent is valid when the future spouses understand what they are entering into when they marry; that they understand all the requirements and responsibilities of marriage, and that they also have the capacity to marry; physiological, emotional, psychological,” he said.

“A pastor may have to tell the couple that they can’t get married for a lack of understanding, or they don’t have the capacity or other reasons,” he said. “It’s a tough call, and it has to be done in a loving pastoral way that will lead the couple to live their lives to the fullest, in love.”

Ultimately, Meert said couples should encounter Christ and the love of God and come to understand that the “rules” exist for their good.

Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from North Dakota.