This news story from The New York Times highlights in a helpful way the extent to which many people have effectively divorced themselves from the reality of the human being as a bodily entity faced with biological facts. Two same-sex couples (four women) are suing a New Jersey state commissioner over an insurance mandate about infertility coverage which they claim discriminates against them. The complaint? “It defines infertility as the inability to impregnate another person, the inability to carry a pregnancy to live birth or the inability to conceive after one or two years of unprotected sex, depending on the woman’s age.” While this definition may sound innocuous, the women in the lawsuit claim discrimination because this definition could never apply to them, and hence coverage for “infertility treatment” is inaccessible.
“Where do babies come from?” is a child’s question with a concrete, physical, objective answer. When a mom (for example) answers this question from her precocious four-year-old, she may not go into detail, but she will at the very least include a man and a woman in the answer. Indeed, babies come from a specific action requiring two persons of the opposite sex. Even with immoral procedures like IVF, which separates the coming-to-be of a child from a couple’s intimacy, a male and female contribution is required.
Given these foundational facts, two women can’t be fertile together, no matter how much they want to “start a family,” and no matter if both of them individually are healthy and fertile. As Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel law firm said, the policy “does not discriminate against same-sex couples. These women have chosen to engage in sexual relations that cannot produce a child and now they want the insurance company to pay for their personal choices.”
Further, children are not a right; they are not owed to anyone. Pope Francis reminds us of this in Amoris Laetitia when he writes about the right children have to the love of both their mother and their father, together. “Without this, a child could become a mere plaything” (no. 172). Addressing the idea that children are one’s right, the pope says:
The choice of adoption and foster care expresses a particular kind of fruitfulness in the marriage experience, and not only in cases of infertility. In the light of those situations where a child is desired at any cost, as a right for one’s self- fulfilment, adoption and foster care, correctly understood, manifest an important aspect of parenting and the raising of children. They make people aware that children, whether natural, adoptive or taken in foster care, are persons in their own right who need to be accepted, loved and cared for, and not just brought into this world (no. 180, emphasis mine).
Children are a gift from God, meant to be received by the couple through a loving act of sexual intimacy and not demanded as a right by any means possible.
Another problematic aspect of the lawsuit is that it minimizes the real experience of infertility. These women claim to understand a pain that is inaccessible to them. Two women may deeply desire a child, but at no time could they realistically have thought that they would be able to have one together (ever) or to have one without scientific intervention (for one of them). They could not wonder, each time they physically expressed their love for one another, whether this would be the moment that their child would come into existence. They could not experience a time of waiting and anticipating, only to be disappointed. For those who have actually suffered from infertility, comparing these two situations can be painful and even offensive. Further, true infertility treatment seeks to heal the underlying medical reasons for a couple’s infertility so that they are able to conceive a child together. The “treatment” described in the article does no such thing, and in fact “treats” nothing.
The article does provide a great opportunity to think about a beautiful phrase, not without its pain, that comes from the experience of many Catholic married couples: “We experience infertility.” We… Not I. This comes from a deeper understanding of fertility and infertility, given the truth of the human person and our call to marital love and the gift of self. An individual man or woman may have “working organs” and in that sense be “fertile”; but fertility (and therefore infertility) more properly belongs to a couple who is united in a procreative act of intercourse. A man or a woman cannot have a child by him- or herself because we are a sexually reproductive species. Being fertile, then, does no individual person any good unless they are united to someone of the opposite sex. Only in a marital union does fertility take on its full meaning.
In this fourth of the 5-week series, MUR is going over the FAQ #3 in Section 2: What’s the difference between a husband and wife who can’t have children, and two persons of the same sex, who also can’t have children?
This is a great question and one that requires a bit of patience to find a satisfying answer. The soundbite answer is: A man and a woman, united in the sexual act, is always and only the type of act that can result in the conception of a child.
As the MUR FAQ puts it, even when a husband and wife do not in fact conceive a child (due to infertility, age, and so on), their sexual acts are still the kind of acts by which children are naturally conceived. In contrast, two persons of the same sex may be perfectly healthy, but will never be able to enter a one-flesh communion and thus unite in such a way that a child is conceived.
On the human level, the marriage between a man and a woman, regardless of whether they have children, is deeply affected by the relationship of each of them has to their parents. You see, every child has a mother and a father, and then grows up, and to some extent bases his (or her) understanding of marriage and relationships on what he saw between his own parents.
Let’s flip the question around a bit: if marriage is supposedly about children, then why allow couples who cannot procreate to be married?
Well, first of all, we never said that marriage is only about children. We’ll come back to that later.
Setting aside the privacy issues and the horrifying idea of the government being allowed to peek into health records before issuing marriage licenses, hopefully the answer is still pretty clear: because a man and woman, no matter what, can share the whole of their lives with each other, uniting bodies, hearts, minds and souls. The community benefits from every witness of fidelity and love between a husband and a wife. Children in their extended families and neighborhoods can see in them a picture of love, of what is possible, even if their own parents are not together. They may choose to open their marriage to children through adoption, foster care, or other more temporary arrangements, or they may choose to serve in any number of different ways. They are still complements to one another.
A quick philosophy lesson before the next question: An accident means a trait or a quality that something has, that is not always or necessarily there. For example, color is often an accident; an apple doesn’t have to be red to be an apple. The essence, on the other hand, is what makes something be what it is. It’s not an apple if it’s a pear, even if the pear is red.
So here’s the question: Is the impossibility of conceiving a child an accident in the couple, or connected essentially to their relationship?
A man and a man, or a woman and a woman, cannot become parents together, by definition, by essence. Their infertility is a result of the nature of human beings, not to an accident of infertility in one or the other (or both).
Does that help?
Intention: For married couples whose hearts ache to welcome a(nother) child into their family: that they may find refuge in Jesus’ Sacred Heart, and that His love would fill their hearts and flow to others through them.
Reflection: As our lives unfold, we may find that they look quite different than we expected, and it may seem as though God does not hear our heart’s requests. Times like this can be very painful. But let us recognize that in the midst of the heartache and confusion, there is an invitation.
There is an invitation to run into the arms of the Father as His little child and entrust to Him our fears and disappointments, as well as our hopes and desires. There is an invitation to stop, look and listen: to stop for a moment, to look at our desires more deeply, and to listen to what the Lord may be telling us through them. There is an invitation to surrender everything to Him, plunge deeply into His heart, and allow Him into ours.
Let us draw close to the One who loves us so tenderly and ask that our hearts may be open to see His presence in our lives and that we may trust in His loving care for us.
Did you know? Read the stories of three married couples who have faced the ache of infertility, and learn more about resources for effective and morally sound ways to treat the causes of infertility in “Hope for Married Couples Who Want to Have a Child.”
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Made for Life, Part 5: "We were open to life, whether through…giving birth or through the adoption process."
Background: This is part 5 of the Viewer’s Guide that accompanies the video “Made for Life.” Previous sections include: 1) openness to life; 2) gift of self and gift of life; 3) children as a gift; 4) the call to welcome a child and be a child. In part 5, we’ll look at the witness of infertile couples and of those couples who adopt a child. In that context, we’ll reflect on how openness to life is essential for all marriages, not just those that are blessed with children.
“We were open to life, whether through…giving birth or through the adoption process.”
As Kevin and Brenda witness in the video, openness to life has a meaning more profound than popularly recognized today. In the midst of recent attempts to “redefine” marriage, the objection is sometimes raised that there are many husbands and wives who are unable to have children. What makes them different from a relationship between two persons of the same sex, who also can’t have children of their own?
The truth is, there is an unbridgeable difference between a spousal union (a male-female couple united as husband and wife) and a relationship between two men or two women. This difference is sexual difference. First, conceiving a child requires the joint action of both a man and a woman. This intimate participation in conceiving a child is simply impossible for two persons of the same sex. Two men or two women cannot—ever—have a child together. [i]
Second, sexual union between a husband and wife is the kind of union apt for generation. That is, male-female intimacy is the natural route through which a child comes into the world. There are times when a husband and wife may be unable to conceive a child due to infertility or sterility (for reasons beyond their control) or advanced age. Still, their sexual union remains the kind of union that expresses total self-gift and openness to the gift of the child. [ii] The situation is very different for two persons of the same sex. Even if both are young and perfectly healthy, any sexual behavior between them can never form a true union and will never be able to welcome a new child into the world.
The painful cross of infertility does not mean that a couple’s marriage is not fruitful. As Pope John Paul II taught, “Physical sterility . . . can be for spouses the occasion for other important services to the life of the human person, for example, adoption, various forms of educational work, and assistance to other families and to poor or handicapped children.” [iii] In particular, the Church praises adoption as an expression of “true parental love,” which “is ready to go beyond the bonds of flesh and blood in order to accept children from other families.” [iv]
Adoption, as a response to a tragedy or loss, is never meant to be held up as an “alternative” to the natural family of father, mother, and their children. Instead, adoption “takes its form” from the natural family. There is a difference between generously responding to an abandoned child’s need for a mother and a father, on the one hand, and deliberately depriving a child of a mother and a father by placing him or her in the care of two men or two women.
In sum, openness to life is essential to every marriage. Husbands and wives who are not blessed with children of their own still exemplify the fruitful communion of persons in a way two persons of the same sex never can. This communion, built on the sexual difference between husband and wife, opens the door to adoption and to other generous forms of service while still respecting the beauty of sexual difference, the needs of children, and the indispensable place of mothers and fathers.
Background: We’re reading through the Viewer’s Guide that accompanies the video “Made for Life.” We’ve already looked at Part 1 (openness to life) and Part 2 (the gift of self and the gift of life). Today, in part 3, we’ll reflect on what it means that children are a “supreme gift,” how marriage is responsible stewardship of that gift, and what it means that procreation is participation in God’s creative action.
“Children are a gift and a blessing.”
While marriage includes many blessings, the gift of a child is incomparable. Children indeed are the “supreme gift” of marriage. [i] This is witnessed to both by spouses who rejoice at the birth of a son or a daughter, as Tyrone’s words above demonstrate, and by those couples who bear the sadness and pain of infertility or miscarriage. Every child is a gift because every child is a unique, irreplaceable human life. The human person “is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake.” [ii] In conceiving and giving birth to a child, husband and wife have the awesome responsibility of welcoming a new human life into the world: in fact, a person for whom the world was created, a person for whom God became man, a person called to live with God for all eternity. [iii]
Because every child is an unrepeatable gift, no one can claim a “right” to have a child. “A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift. The ‘supreme gift of marriage’ is a human person. A child may not be considered a piece of property, an idea to which an alleged ‘right to a child’ may lead.” [iv] The proper attitude of parents toward a child is joyful receptivity and awe that the Creator would entrust this new life to a mother and father. [v]
Because the child is always a gift, it would make sense that any consideration of marriage’s meaning would take children seriously into account. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Children today are often seen as a “product” to be manufactured or obtained at whatever cost, or discarded at will. [vi] Pop culture icons show off their children as if they were “trophies.” In all of these instances, the child is used as an object, not respected as a gift. The proposal to redefine marriage to include two persons of the same sex is a radical instance of “forgetting” the gift of the child. This proposal in effect subverts the most fundamental pro-child institution into a self-serving relationship defined in reference to the whims and desires of adults, not the needs of a child, the most vulnerable among us.
Marriage protects the gift that every child is. As the union of husband and wife, marriage is the natural and proper context wherein every child ought to be welcomed as a gift. Children deserve to be conceived in love and received into an environment grounded in the unity between a mother and a father. In this way, marriage is uniquely made for stewardship over life, stewardship of the gift of children. Human experience across every human society attests to the singular role of marriage in keeping together a mother and a father in their shared task of parenting, of being stewards of the gift of new life. [vii]
The truth that every child is a gift also reminds us that husband and wife are not the ultimate source of life. Instead, every child traces his or her origin directly back to God and can truly call him “my Father.” In the video, Cora and Ernie share the meaning of their son Matthew’s name, “gift of God”; truly every child is a gift of God. “God ‘willed’ man from the very beginning, and God ‘wills’ him in every act of conception and every human birth.” [viii] Every human soul is “created immediately by God—it is not ‘produced’ by the parents.” [ix] In conceiving and giving birth to new life, a husband and a wife participate in God’s creative action. [x]
This capacity to participate in bringing forth new human life—the capacity to procreate—is inscribed within the personal, bodily reality of the human person, created male and female. Only a man and a woman, as husband and wife, have the capacity to welcome the gift of the child as a unique human life who springs “from the very heart” of their marital self-giving. [xi] As the bishops have explained, “Participating in the creative work of God means participating in the self-emptying or self-giving love of God, the rendering of one’s whole being into a gift.” [xii]
Note: We’ve been reading through the Viewer’s Guide for the video “Made for Each Other.” In the video, married couple Josh and Carrie reflect on the meaning of sexual difference. Each section of the Viewer’s Guide takes a quote from either Josh or Carrie and fleshes it out. The goal of the Viewer’s Guide is to help you, the reader, become more confident in promoting and defending the meaning of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
In part 8 (the final part), we’ll think about what it means that marriage is a gift, and how marriage is an indispensable model for the world.
“The gift for life…the gift of life.”
Josh sums everything up in these concise words. Marriage is the gift for life and the gift of life. It’s unique and irreplaceable—the fundamental institution for life.
The Church affirms that the love of husband and wife is a great good in and of itself, even if, for non-deliberate reasons, they do not receive the gift of a child. Marriage uniquely bridges sexual difference without emptying the difference of man and woman of its meaning and value.
The Church also teaches that human marriage is a foreshadowing of the marriage between Christ and his Church and that sacramental marriage actually participates in and shows forth the love between Christ and his Church (see Eph 5:28-33).
Marriage lived in truth is an indispensable model of communion for the world and is always an affirmation of life. The love of husband and wife reminds the couple and the rest of the world that no one is completely an isolated individual, that we need one another at the most fundamental level. This love is meant to be the context for welcoming, forming, and educating new life. This is why marriage, as a personal relationship, has always been recognized to have great, public significance. The love of spouses, the responsibilities of mothers and fathers, and the rights of children—all are tied to the unique truth of marriage and its protection and promotion.
The Church will never waver in her teaching that marriage is the union of a woman and a man. Marriage is the union of two distinct persons: man and woman, who, in the sacrament, signify Christ and his Church and embody the very love between them. From the beginning, man and woman are made for each other. There is nothing else like it. To abandon sexual difference in marriage would be to abandon the quest for unity between men and women.
- “We were made for each other, as a man and a woman.”
- “That connection…to be authentic, it has to be the whole person.”
- “Making love and having children…that depends on our difference.”
- “That’s why it’s unique to a man and a woman.”
- “It’s not just about biology…”
- “We share a common humanity, but our sexual differences are essential to who we are.”
- “Every time we make love…we’re making life…giving life…It’s not just sex…I come alive, and there’s a sense of forever in that.”
Today is the feast day of St. Joachim and St. Anne, the married couple traditionally honored as the parents of Mary, which makes them the grandparents of Jesus.
Grandparents and the Incarnation
How wonderful that Jesus has grandparents! St. Joachim and St. Anne remind us of the mystery of the Incarnation: God truly became man and entered into a human family that included not only his mother Mary and father Joseph but their parents, and their parents, and their parents, all the way back to Adam (and Eve) at the dawn of creation, according to St. Luke’s chronology (Luke 3:23-38). Like all of us, Jesus was born into a web of relationships, the “cradle of life and love” that is the family (John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, no. 40).
The burden of infertility
However, becoming grandparents – or even parents – must have seemed like a far-off dream for much of Joachim and Anne’s married life. Tradition holds that these saints struggled with infertility and were childless for decades. Like other barren couples in Scripture (eg. Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah), sterility was a great burden to Joachim and Anne and even a hindrance to their participation in community life. A story told of St. Joachim relates that he wanted to offer sacrifice in the temple but was turned away because of his childlessness. He retreated into the mountains to air his grievance with God, and during this time both he and his wife received an angelic prophecy of Anne’s pregnancy. We can picture her thanking God in the same words used by Hannah when she became a mother:
“My heart exults in the Lord,
my horn is exalted in my God.
I have swallowed up my enemies;
I rejoice in my victory.
. . .
The barren wife bears seven sons,
while the mother of many languishes.”
– 1 Samuel 2: 1, 5
Their steadfast faith during the trial of infertility explains why they are often invoked by married couples struggling to conceive a child.
A model for parents
Tradition depicts St. Joachim and St. Anne as loving and dedicated parents to their daughter, Mary. Artwork often shows Mary on her mother’s lap, learning how to read. It is no stretch to imagine that St. Joachim and St. Anne laid the groundwork for Mary’s faith, preparing her to answer one day to the angel Gabriel “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to thy word.”
A model for marriage
Finally, St. Joachim and St. Anne are a particularly special married couple for the Marriage: Unique for a Reason project, seeing how they are the couple featured in the Marriage: Unique for a Reason logo and artwork. As the website says:
Saints Joachim and Anne are the father and mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary is the fruit of their marriage. By a singular grace of God in view of the merits of Jesus, she was preserved from all stain of Original Sin from the moment of her conception. Thus it is in the context of married life and conjugal love that Mary is prepared to receive the Divine Logos, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus is the Logos, the “Reason” at the heart of all reason and truth, including the truth of marriage. The marriage between Joachim and Anne is a significant witness to why marriage is “unique for a reason.”
St. Joachim and St. Anne are the patron saints of grandparents and infertile couples.
St. Joachim and St. Anne, pray for us!
- Novena to St. Joachim and St. Anne from the USCCB: “Saints Anne and Joachim are powerful intercessors for all married couples, expectant mothers and married couples who are having difficulty conceiving, as well as all who have grown old.”
- Novena to St. Ann from EWTN
- Prayer to St. Joachim from About.com (Catholicism)