‘Amoris Laetitia’ III: Responsible parenthood

This is the third in a series of six articles by Archbishop Cordileone on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (the Joy of Love).

In “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis notes the difficulties as well as the joys facing couples and families today. In this article I would like to address one of the most common questions of married life in our time, namely, that of the spacing of children within the spouses’ years of fertility in their marriage.

As discussed in my previous article, Christian marriage is intended for the spouses to make a complete gift of self by honoring their vows of exclusive fidelity, permanence, and openness to life. The final vow, of openness to life, is often misunderstood in the strongly subjective and relativistic culture in which we live, which tells us that sexual union has whatever meaning one chooses to assign it. In contrast, Pope Francis reminds us that “the conjugal union is ordered to procreation ‘by its very nature’” and that “no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning” (AL, n. 80).

The Christian call to married couples, then, is that of “responsible parenthood,” that is, openness to any new life God may wish to give them but also prayerfully discerning if and when “there are wellgrounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances” (“Humanae Vitae,” n. 16). The Holy Father encourages “the use of methods based on the ‘laws of nature and the incidence of fertility.’” “Such methods,” he says, “are to be promoted,” since they “respect the bodies of the spouses” and “encourage tenderness” (AL, n. 222).

Modern methods of natural family planning (not the outdated rhythm method) are up to 99 percent effective in postponing pregnancy if the couple discerns that need for serious reasons. They are also highly effective (up to an 80 percent success rate) in helping couples who have fertility difficulties – an increasingly common phenomenon – to conceive. The Church recognizes the great difficulty and anxiety that infertility can cause couples, and supports these methods which work with a woman’s natural fertility. Indeed, the discovery of the natural methods of family planning resulted from scientific research aimed to help couples struggling with infertility to attain pregnancy in the natural way.

Artificial reproductive technologies such as IVF, on the other hand, do not treat infertility. Rather, they introduce a third party into the conception of the child, and do so in a way that eliminates the marital embrace. As Pope Francis says “a child deserves to be born of that love” between husband and wife, but artificial methods have the unintended effect of treating the child as a “right” instead of a gift (AL, n. 81).

Of course, every child is to be received with love and welcomed as a gift from God with equal dignity, no matter how the child comes into the world. And yet, still another problem with such technologies is that they usually create “unwanted” embryos. (In addition, it should be noted that these methods are very expensive and often have a low rate of success.) For these reasons the Church has determined that these artificial technologies are not in keeping with God’s plan for marriage and family life.

Whether in seeking to attain or postpone pregnancy, the Church approves of the natural means for doing so, and great scientific progress has been made in both of these areas. The archdiocese offers many resources for couples struggling with infertility or seeking a method to regulate births in agreement with Pope Francis’ teaching. I encourage all couples who find themselves in either of these situations to familiarize themselves with the resources that are available to them by visiting our website, www.sfarch.org/familyplanning.

Please know, too, of the love and concern the Church has for you, and the readiness of our pastoral ministers to assist and support you in the awesome mission you have as married couples of being co-creators with God of new human life, life made in the image and likeness of God with an immortal soul, created for living in happiness with God in this life and forever in heaven.

This column was published on September 29, 2016 in Catholic San Francisco.