The Catholic Understanding of Marriage and Sexual Intimacy
Catholics believe that marriage is "an intimate partnership of life and love" established by God and governed by God’s laws. It is rooted in theconjugal covenant -- a life-long, permanent and exclusive commitment made freely between a man and a woman. This relationship of conjugal love, when entered into by two baptized persons, becomes a sacrament – a living sign of God’s relationship with human kind.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sexual intimacy, particularly sexual intercourse, is a sign and pledge of this spiritual communion. It is “not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person” and is “realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another” (# 2360, 2361; cf. Familiaris Consortio #11).
Acts which express sexual intimacy between a couple “are noble and honorable," “a source of joy and pleasure," according to the Catechism. It quotes Pope Pius XIII, who wrote: “spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit;” they “do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment" because "they accept what the Creator has intended for them.” (#2362)
Marriage and the Procreation of Children
This sexual intimacy between married spouses achieves and expresses the two primary ends or purposes of marriage: the union of the spouses and the transmission of life—what the Catechism calls “the twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity.” The Church teaches that these two ends cannot be separated “without altering the couple’s spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family” (#2363)
Married love “naturally tends to be fruitful,” the Catechism explains. “A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment.” As a result, “the Church…teaches that ‘each and every marriage act must remain open 'per se' to the transmission of life'" (2366).
Family Planning and Contraception
The Catholic Church acknowledges that spouses may, for just reasons, wish to space the births of their children, but “it is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness [and] is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood,” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2368).
The Catechism continues: "Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom." In contrast, "'every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible'" is intrinsically evil" (#2370; cf. Humane Vitae #14).
Pope John Paul II summarized the Church's objection to contraceptive methods other than natural family planning in his Apostolic ExhortationFamiliaris Consortio: "...[T]he innate language which expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid through contraception by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life, but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality" (# 32).
Moral Issues Involving Fertilization
The Catholic Church recognizes that couples who are not able to have children suffer greatly, and the Catechism encourages research aimed at reducing the causes. However, the Church finds remedies which involve a third person or separate conception from sexual intercourse morally deficient.
Techniques which which involve the donation of sperm, ovum or uterus by a third person (such as heterologous artificial insemination and fertilization) “infringe the child's right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage,” according to theCatechism. They also “betray the spouses' ‘right to become a father and a mother only through each other.’"
Techniques which involve only the married couple (such as homologous artificial insemination and fertilization) are morally unacceptable because they dissociate procreation from sexual intercourse. “The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another," but one that entrusts the life and identity of the embryo to doctors "and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person,” according to the Catechism. In such cases, “procreation is deprived of its proper perfection when it is not willed as the fruit of the conjugal act.”
The bottom line in the Catholic understanding of such matters, is that “only respect for the link between the meanings of the conjugal act [ie, sexual intercourse] and respect for the unity of the human being make possible procreation in conformity with the dignity of the person" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2376, 2377).
Catholic Couples Using Birth Control
If you are using a form of birth control not approved by the Church, or are trying to decide what to do in the future, you should study why the Church believes some forms of birth control (such as IUDs, sterilization, condoms or the pill) are wrong and then reconsider your choice.
Catholic couples who feel the need to limit the size of their family should carefully examine the personal and moral reasons for doing so. There are morally acceptable reasons for limiting the number of children you have, including your personal, emotional, and material limitations, but material comfort, convenience, security or affluence alone are not sufficient moral reasons. Catholic couples who wish to limit the size of their family for morally acceptable reasons should consider using a form of natural family planning approved by the Church.
There may be circumstances which reduce a couple's moral culpability for choosing one of these, but the decision to do so should be made after careful discernment, prayer and consultation with a pastor, confessor or spiritual director.
Couples using a form of birth control not approved by the Church should continue to participate as fully as possible in the spiritual and sacramental life of the Church. They should pray for the grace to more fully understand and accept the Church's teaching; and be willing to re-examine their choice of birth control as their understanding, attitude or circumstances change. If this is an issue which causes you spiritual concern, or creates conflict between you and your spouse, you should discuss it more fully with a pastor, spiritual director or confessor.