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Reflecting on the Nature of Marriage Series

Posted Aug. 31, 2020 by DOM No comments yet

Reflecting on the Nature of Marriage Series

We began the “Nature of Marriage” blog series by discussing the basic philosophical concept of nature: why? For the past year, we have discussed the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage, sexuality, and the family — tackling some tricky ethical questions in the process. Just to name a few, we have discussed the ethics of contraception, divorce, chastity, and in vitro fertilization. It was the purpose of this blog to explain how a proper understanding of human nature is essential for answering such questions. As Catholics, we believe that human nature is the grounding for certain truths about the human person. For instance: that mankind was created male and female, that the human being is ordered toward procreation and family life, and that the human being is by nature a social creature. It is impossible to understand what is good for us, our families, and broader society without knowing who we are and who God designed us to be.

One idea stressed in this blog was that the human being holds a unique place in the whole of God’s creation. Today, it is common to appeal to “nature” without considering the uniqueness of human nature. That something occurs “in nature” does not necessarily mean that it is good for us. There are many activities that may be natural to, say, a beaver, bird, or fish that are not natural for human beings.

Our human nature is the standard against which we judge whether or not an activity is good. In fact, the ability to deliberate about activities is a defining trait of human nature. Human beings are not mere animals but rational animals. Natural reason means, among other things, that we have the ability to guide ourselves in our actions and lead a good life.

But, as Catholics, we believe that human nature is caught up in the divine. What does this mean? First, consider the fact that human beings are the creation of a wise and loving God. We are able to recognize that each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. From this, we know that each and every human person has inherent dignity and deserves to be treated as such. Second, we believe that all human beings naturally seek God Himself insofar as human beings naturally seek the truth, desire to understand their place in the world, and wonder about what they must do to be a good person. In the words of Pope Saint John Paul II, “No one can escape from the fundamental questions: What must I do? How do I distinguish good from evil? The answer is only possible thanks to the splendour of the truth which shines forth deep within the human spirit…”[1]

St. Thomas Aquinas, whose ideas we discussed in this blog series, also recognizes the certain divine quality of human reason. St. Thomas teaches that God designed human reason pre-programmed, so to speak, with the basic moral principle to do good and avoid evil. This is written into our human nature. The predisposition to seek goodness is a way in which we “participate in the wisdom and goodness of the Creator” (CCC 1978). Interestingly, then, the division between the natural and the divine is not so cut and dry. This blog has sought to explain that Catholic moral teaching on the issues of marriage and family life is founded upon the notion that mankind was created by God for a unique purpose and that God cares about who we are and what we do.

Of course, this blog didn’t and can’t cover every issue pertinent to Catholic moral teaching, and new challenges face us every day. But I hope that this blog laid a foundation for approaching a wide array of ethical questions that one may face as a Catholic person in the modern world. To reiterate the introduction to this blog series: it is more important than ever to understand and promote the true nature of the human person and the true nature of marriage. It is more important now than ever to remember that nothing in God’s creation is arbitrary, that (in the words of Aristotle) “nature does nothing in vain”—to remember that not only is marriage unique, it is unique for a reason.

[1] Pope John Paul II. Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 6 August 1993. http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor.html

About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. This blog post concludes her work as a part-time intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

 

 

 

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NFP and God’s Design for Married Love

Posted Jul. 21, 2020 by DOM No comments yet

NFP and God’s Design for Married Love

It’s National Natural Family Planning (NFP) Awareness Week! In this post, we continue to discuss what it means to be “open to life.” Last time, we discussed a fertility “treatment” that is contrary to the good of the spouses and the good of human life: In vitro fertilization. This month, we’re going to switch gears and talk about Natural Family Planning, the only authentic way of family planning that respects God’s design for married love. We will explore what makes Natural Family Planning “natural” and why it is oriented towards the good of the spouses and their children.

What is NFP? NFP is a term that encompasses certain methods of family planning that can be used to achieve or avoid conception naturally. NFP methods are based on observing the naturally occurring signs and symptoms of the fertile and infertile phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle.[1] This is one sense in which NFP is “natural”: NFP does not rely on drugs, devices, or surgical procedures to plan or prevent pregnancy. In another sense, NFP is natural because it complements and supports God’s design for human nature and God’s design for marriage, which is written into human nature itself.

Let’s take a closer look at the nature of marriage and God’s design for married love. Marriage is both a natural and a supernatural reality. [2] This means that marriage is written into God’s creation, “in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (CCC, 1603) , and that this natural relationship has been elevated by Jesus Christ to a sacrament. Marriage is a sign of God’s love for His Bride, the Church, and it is a source of sanctifying grace.[3]

The marriage bond is a lifelong and indissoluble commitment. In marriage, man and woman are united as one flesh, one heart, and one soul. At the heart of the one-flesh union is the sexual embrace. The spouses integrate God’s gift of human sexuality into their relationship by giving themselves to one another entirely. This entails that the married couple be open to children. The married couple recognizes that sexual intercourse is “ordered … toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children” (CIC, c. 1055 §1) . The good of the spouses is called the “unitive” end of sexual intercourse, while the “procreation and education of children” is called the “procreative end.” It is crucial that these two ends or purposes are not severed or separated from each other.

How does NFP work in harmony with God’s design for marriage? NFP acknowledges that the human body reflects both the unitive and procreative ends of marriage. Man and woman’s bodies are complementary; only a man and a woman, through their distinctive otherness that is ordered to each other, can fully unite in the conjugal embrace. NFP also affirms that our reproductive systems were designed for a distinct end or purpose: procreation.[4] NFP is designed to support this reality, and its methods do nothing to interfere with the purposes of our reproductive organs. To prevent or postpone a pregnancy, a couple that practices NFP will abstain from sexual intercourse during the wife’s fertile window. By contrast, a couple that uses contraceptives prevent pregnancy by deliberately inhibiting the proper purpose of their sexual organs.

Deliberately inhibiting conception is different from consciously limiting intercourse to one’s infertile window. A couple that practices NFP may decide that now is not the right time to have another child but still want to experience the unity and intimacy of sexual intercourse. This is a good thing! Limiting sexual intercourse to the times when conception is unlikely does not mean that they have rejected the procreative nature of sexual intercourse. Because the couple has consciously accepted that God’s design for marriage entails the procreation and education of children, the NFP-practicing couple effectively say to themselves, “We are not trying to have a baby right now, but if we were to conceive we are open to that life!” By contrast, a couple that uses contraceptives (so that they can have sex at any time) separates the unitive and procreative ends of the marital act as if to say, “I only want the pleasure and intimacy of intercourse right now, and an openness to children is not part of this experience.”

NFP educates the married couple to consider not only their own relationship and personal desires, but also those of their children! This is called responsible parenthood.[5] Planning one’s family responsibly does not simply mean avoiding pregnancies; rather, it is about encouraging couples to make decisions about the size of their families in ways that benefit the spousal relationship and the spouses’ relationship with their children.

NFP also helps the married couple to strengthen their sacramental marriage bond, and it strengthens their receptivity to the special graces that they receive. The Church teaches that “Christian spouses have a special sacrament by which they are fortified and receive a kind of consecration in the duties and dignity of their state” (GS, no. 48) . NFP requires communication and cooperation between husband and wife. By practicing NFP together, the married couple grows in intimacy, communication, and perseverance while learning about God’s design for both the human body and for married love. NFP is designed to help the married couple fully integrate into their lives God’s design for marriage.

During this year’s NFP Awareness Week, let us continue to celebrate the truth and beauty of God’s plan for married love! To learn more, read the NFP FAQ’s, the USCCB’s “What We Believe” on Love and Sexuality, check out the Made for Love Podcast, or visit the FAQ’s on the Marriage: Unique for a Reason website.

[1] http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/natural-family-planning/

[2] To read more about natural marriage: Why is Marriage a Natural Institution?

[3] To read more about the sacrament of marriage: Sacramental Marriage

[4] To read more about human nature and natural ends: Nature Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

[5] http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/natural-family-planning/what-is-nfp/responsible-parenthood.cfm

About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

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Treating Infertility: In Vitro Fertilization

Posted Jun. 1, 2020 by DOM No comments yet

Treating Infertility: In Vitro Fertilization

In our last post,[1] we discussed the difference between infertility and impotence, stressing that infertility is not an impediment to marriage and that infertile couples can still be fruitful and open to life. We ended our last discussion by considering the fact that some methods of treating infertility may be perfectly acceptable and even praiseworthy, while others are seriously immoral. In this post, we will consider one such treatment: In vitro fertilization (IVF). While it has become a commonplace treatment for infertility, IVF is not compatible with the ends of marriage nor the human good as such.

So, what is IVF? In vitro fertilization is the process by which several human eggs are aspirated from a woman’s ovary, mingled with her partner’s (or someone else’s) sperm, and then grown in a petri dish (in vitro is Latin for “in glass”). When conception takes place, the embryos are then implanted in the woman’s womb in the hope that at least one of the embryos will survive. This process is gravely immoral for several reasons.

First, IVF bypasses the conjugal act between husband and wife. The embryo is not “generated” through an act of love; instead, it is “generated” through a highly controlled laboratory procedure.[2] The doctors and lab technicians are the agents of conception, while the husband and wife merely supply the sperm and egg, the necessary “ingredients.” The husband and wife watch the conception of their child “from a distance,” so to speak, and the act of conception thereby becomes a thoroughly un-intimate and impersonal process.

Secondly, the means by which the “ingredients” for IVF are obtained are gravely immoral. The sperm is often collected by masturbation, which is in itself a serious abuse of the reproductive organs and an act of unchastity. It is not uncommon that clinics provide pornographic materials to those providing sperm samples. In this way, pornography and masturbation become normalized, viewed as a part of a medical procedure. Furthermore, if the man who provides the sperm is the woman’s husband, masturbating (especially with the aid of pornography) is also an act of adultery.

Thirdly, because the doctor aspirates multiple eggs from the woman’s womb, multiple embryos – each a human life – are grown in the petri dish. The doctors and technicians generate multiple embryos because they know that most if not all of the embryos will die inside the womb. Many women also freeze extra embryos, which are often disposed of later. These extra embryos exist as “insurance” in the event of embryonic failure, but they are not valued in themselves; they are not seen and cared for as the individual human lives that they are. Because the conception of a human life is the goal of IVF, participants may feel that they view human life as extraordinarily valuable. In reality, however, IVF is radically anti-life. When multiple embryos are generated, the participants are full of hope and value each embryo as a “potential human being.” When an embryo dies, however, it becomes “useless,” and the participants suddenly cease to view the embryo as valuable. After the process is complete, they may convince themselves that only the successful embryo was a human being all along. There are also cases in which multiple embryos are successful, but the husband and wife only want one child. This is called “selective reduction.” In this case, the participants may choose which of the babies they want, and the doctor then kills the “extra” or “undesired” babies.

The participants of IVF essentially deem some embryos human beings and not others; they only care about the successful embryo, but they do not effectively value human life as such. And if more than one embryo is successful, some participants may also arbitrarily decide which baby is worth keeping. In both cases, the participants think their personal discretion is what determines whether the embryos or fetuses are human beings.

In a word, IVF reduces the procreative end of marriage to a technical process whereby many human lives are discarded. Rather than elevating or helping the natural process of conception, IVF eliminates it. The husband and wife’s desire for children, while natural and praiseworthy, does not justify the immoral means by which they achieve this end. With this being said, we cannot understate the inherent dignity and value of children conceived through IVF. All children, regardless of how they were conceived, are made in the image and likeness of God. However, the means by which a child is conceived may not always respect the child’s right to be born of a loving marital act of a husband and wife.[3]

[1] Infertility vs. Impotency

[2] Check out this Church document for a more detailed discussion of this point. “The child has the right to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up within marriage: it is through the secure and recognized relationship to his own parents that the child can discover his own identity and achieve his own proper human development. The parents find in their child a confirmation and completion of their reciprocal self-giving: the child is the living image of their love, the permanent sign of their conjugal union, the living and indissoluble concrete expression of their paternity and maternity.” Also check out this list of resources from the USCCB on reproductive technology.

[3] Check out Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology, esp. 13-14.

About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

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