Friday, 07 October 2016 17:15

Living the Fullness of Married Love

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Beginning-of-Life Ethics Related to the Dignity of Marriage. 

Marriages are under a greater threat today than ever before.  Divorce rates are higher than ever. Children are learning to cope with blended families and the absence of parents in their lives.  Many couples choose to have pets rather than children and by so doing cancel out the procreative aspect of marriage all together.  It can be said that by doing so, these couples are entering into an adult contract, not a marriage, since one of the basic ‘goods’ of marriage is the openness to children.

In such a climate of confusion many ethical dilemmas arise that impact the living of the spousal relationship, and these bring with them beginning-of-life ethical issues. How do we put all this into a context so we can share an understanding of the moral life we are called to as followers of Jesus Christ?  Let’s start with looking at the call to live freedom in a responsible manner so that we can develop fully as human persons.

Freedom and Responsibility:  Keys to Living Life Fully

In order to discover what makes men and women great and what alternatively causes men and women to truncate their greatness, it requires looking at what makes a person come fully alive as a human being.  It is a central issue that cannot be answered without looking at what constitutes the essence of the human being. When viewed across the continuum of a lifetime, it is the body-soul relationship and our eternal destiny that should shape how we live our lives including the way we relate to one another in our most intimate relationships.

To make good life choices, we must be free to choose and must take responsibility for our choices.  We develop to our fullest potential when we recognize the need to set limits and live within those limits in a responsible manner.  The exercise of self-control is what reflects one’s level of maturity and also the level of freedom and spiritual capacities one expresses.  To be able to exercise true freedom, we should be able to choose what is good and in accord with our own and another’s well-being.  The basis for moral theology that governs family life and associated beginning-of-life issues comes from God’s design for man and woman and the vocation of marriage lived in freedom and responsibility.

Let God Lead

God is the reference point for what is absolutely good.  God created us male and female and intended for husband and wife to become one flesh (Mt 19:3-12, Mk 10:2-12). This is a profound mystery (Eph 5:32) and is one that is not commonly appreciated in our secular world.  The more we act in accord with the mind and heart of God, the more we are exercising our freedom in the most life-giving way.  It is God who calls us to live for others and to become a gift for others.  We are most fully alive when we live up to our potential and live in concern for the well-being of others and in respect for God’s law.

Conscience is what guides us to do what we ought to do and what we ought to avoid doing.  The formation of conscience is greatly influenced by prevailing cultures, political, social and economic factors, and family settings.¹   More and more it is also reflective of the thinking of the medical profession which has a great deal to say about beginning-of-life and end-of-life issues.  While the prevailing culture and its various sub-cultural influences can shape the uninformed conscience, a fully alive individual will carefully consider the decisions he or she takes that shape his or her destiny and recognize that it is God who ultimately calls each person into being and it is God who grants us our freedom.  We are given the ability through the exercise of our intelligence and free will to choose to act freely in a moral way according to God’s law.  We are also free to reject God’s law and live a more self-serving way.²  

Our tendency towards sin (concupiscence) impedes us living out our existence in harmony with God’s plan as we were originally called to do.  God will help us move towards the good of our existence if we allow Him to help us to form our consciences and allow Him to transform us into the fullness we are called to.  This requires that we overcome the shadow of our existence which each of us struggles with.  That shadow varies from person-to-person but universally blocks each of us from achieving our greatest good which is also our highest level of freedom.  It is through submitting to the teaching of the Church and Sacred Scripture that we discover truth.  It is the Divine Presence that illumines the intellect and will and gives us the grace we need to live in accord with truth.  In truth we discover our call to love and in God we regain our capacity to love.

Living a Chaste Marriage:  NFP and Contraception 

Conjugal union is a divine gift and has great dignity when approached in a self-giving, loving, chaste way.  We are called to exercise sexual intimacy in marriage in a chaste way because this encounter has a spiritual significance and should reflect the dignity of each person who bears the image of God. Chastity involves refusing to use or abuse our own or another person’s body as an object for consumption.  Sexual intimacy should always involve the sharing of deep personal intimacy between the spouses and an openness to procreation between a man and a woman who are committed to one another exclusively in marriage for life.  To enter into sexual union for any other reason than spousal union and openness to children that sexual intimacy may bring is to pervert the meaning of the divine gift of sexual intimacy and to lessen one’s dignity in participating in the marital act.

It is appreciated that one usually has a natural inclination towards sexual union with one’s mate.  That being true, one should not be operating only on the basis of instinct. Reason should also be part of one’s decision to enter into sexual intercourse.  It is man’s reason that allows him to exercise discernment as to whether or not this is the appropriate time to have a child.  If for some specific reason it is not desirable to conceive at the present time, a husband and wife can exchange tenderness in some manner that does not involve sexual intimacy and thus avoid pregnancy.  In this way, the dignity of man and woman united in marriage is preserved.  It is the exercise of the intellect and free will that brings self-control into such a delicate matter as conjugal relations and in this way, the spouses avoid using one another as objects of pleasure but rather exercise self-control and love in a true and meaningful way.  Acting responsibly about sexual behavior to avoid pregnancy naturally is one of the purposes of ‘Natural Family Planning’ (NFP). NFP is also used by couples who are having problems conceiving and are trying to have a baby. 

Recognizing that children are a blessing to family life, there may be times when it is not advisable for a couple to have another child.  This can be for medical, emotional, financial, and other reasons.  To avoid pregnancy, a couple should abstain from marital intercourse during a woman’s fertile period which is on average 5 days in a month.  Specific days of fertility vary from month to month.  Natural Family Planning (NFP) is the approach recommended to track fertility so that abstinence can be planned.  Contraceptive sex is not just a rejection of the possibility of parenthood, it is, in a certain sense, the rejection of an integral part of the other person which includes sexual fruitfulness.  Marriage is intended to always be freely entered into, totally self-giving, faithful, and fruitful.  A sexual relationship that rejects the possibility of parenthood may bring physical or emotional pleasure, but it will not be the fullest expression of value of the other person.  The fundamental character of the sexual relationship changes when artificial birth control is used.  Instead of the spouses being co-creators in love, they are rather partners in a pleasurable experience.  Such momentary pleasure does not bring long term happiness which depends on the exercise of virtue.  The marital bond is not strengthened in such cases but, rather, is diminished.  

Contraception and sterilization are objectively disordered actions because they fail to honor the natural mechanism of reproduction available to healthy married couples.³  These truncate the true meaning of self-donation of the spouses, and they diminish the value of children to the spouses, the family, and society as a whole.  They also negate the value of children by excluding them from the marriage covenant. Children are rather treated as commodities that are accepted when convenient but avoided when considered undesirable.  These children, intended by God to be the gift of a fruitful marriage, are the future of society.

The Embryo is ‘One of Us’

To understand Christian thinking about abortion, it is necessary to first recognize that every adult human being living today was once a single cell zygote formed by fusion of gametes (a sperm and an egg) of a man and a woman.  This fusion used to occur only as a result of sexual intercourse at a time when the woman was at her fertile point in her monthly cycle.  Today the fusion of gametes also happens in the laboratory setting in procedures most commonly known as in vitro fertilization (IVF). (IVF has many inherent moral issues that are covered in another article.  This technology, in light of accompanying moral problems, should not be used.)  No matter how fusion takes place, when a zygote is formed, a new human being is created with unique characteristics, distinguishable from his or her parents.  This individual is undeniably a member of the human race and should be treated as “one of us”.

Given a supportive environment and absent from any pathology, the zygote will continue to grow and divide and become a recognizable human being without any external interventions.  His or her growth is self-propelled, and the organization of the tiny human being can be seen through the use of ultrasound within a few short weeks.  This mystery of life is so extraordinary that no one can rightly judge its existence as a matter of chance.  Science tells us that the development of the zygote into an embryo, then into a fetus, and ultimately into an infant is a natural continuous growth process that will not end until the human being is fully mature.

All moral assessment for beginning-of-life matters is based on the fact that there is no graduation in moral value of the human being from the moment of conception until natural death.  The smallest human being should be treated as a person with inalienable rights from the moment of conception.  Any attempt to destroy the very smallest among us is an objective act of killing and carries great moral responsibility. To destroy a vulnerable human being in utero is an action that not only destroys life that is made in the image of God; it also harms the woman carrying the child whether she knows that what is being done is wrong or not.  The Christian perspective is to give care to the most vulnerable and weakest of our society and the unborn at every stage of development certainly fits this description of vulnerability.

Abortifacient Contraception & Abortion

“Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion, which in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo.”   Abortion can be completed surgically or by the use of pharmacological agents. Abortion can also be accomplished by use of abortifacients which vary in type, including devices and chemicals that prevent implantation of the fertilized embryo and may destroy the embryo.  Abortifacients can interfere with tubal transport, modify the state of the endometrium (lining of the uterus), or affect other mechanisms that prevent the embryo from completing its natural implantation cycle required for life sustenance.  

There are many types of abortifacients. RU-486 known as an ‘emergency contraception’ is an abortifacient.  The IUD is a device inserted into the uterus by a clinical provider.  The IUD interferes with implantation of the embryo.  These devices may be inserted for a 10-year period and are commonly used in western countries, China, and other areas promoting contraception and abortion because of their effectiveness in preventing a viable pregnancy.  Chemical substances, including oral contraceptives, such as Ovral, Ella, and Plan B, usually work to block ovulation and thus prevent pregnancy rather than cause abortion. However, depending upon a variety of circumstances ‘breakthrough ovulation’ may occur and these pregnancies will often result in abortion due to the uterine lining being hostile to implantation.   

There is no condition that will justify an abortion as defined above.  The reason this cannot be justified is because as soon as fertilization is complete and a zygote is formed, there is a new human being.  Each human being should be treated as a person from the moment of conception and therefore has rights as a person that must be recognized, including the right to life.  Destruction of a new human being is a form of unjust killing.

A woman may not morally participate in any action or use of substances that will result in an abortion regardless of whether or not her physician or medical provider approves such an action.  A medical provider should not provide materials or substances to patients that result in abortion or an abortifacient action and may not morally participate in or conduct a surgical abortion or a partial birth abortion.  No one should refer or assist a woman to use an abortifacient or procure an abortion.

Sterilization

Sterilization causes a person who is engaging in intercourse to be sterile either permanently (such as when a vasectomy or a tubal ligation has been performed) or temporarily (such as when a contraceptive substance or device is used).  Direct sterilization which is done for the purpose of making procreation impossible is not moral, whether it is done as a permanent procedure or a temporary intervention. Indirect sterilization defined as a procedure that is done for the purpose of treating a disease while recognizing the secondary effect of sterility may be morally permitted if there is no other way to treat a serious pathology. 

Mercy Given and Mercy Received

Women have, by their nature, the beautiful God-given capacity to give life and nurture life in utero.  The gift of mercy given by God includes the invitation to woman to live a self-giving perfection that when applied not only to one’s own children but to the community and the broader world scene has the capacity to heal the world of its selfishness and hate.  The challenge all women and men face is the challenge to overcome the incipient nature of biological and cultural materialism that places little value on self-giving love needed to welcome children and create stable families.  

A godless culture that mocks and ridicules principles of Christianity and all efforts to uphold the dignity of marriage and the complementarity of the sexes will not appreciate the goal of living in accord with God’s design for the human person because it rejects the value of conjugal fruitfulness.  Honesty and a relentless search for the truth of one’s being will, however, lead one to appreciate the giftedness written in the structure of the human body and the beauty of the human soul expressed in love given radically and unselfishly.  

For those times when we have all failed to live up to the ideal, we have God’s unfathomable Mercy to fall back on.  Seeking His love and reconciliation we never run out of opportunities to begin again, to start down the path of renewal and surrender, to arrive at self-transcendence that the truth lived in love provides.  There is no sin or error in judgment that God will not forgive if we ask Him for forgiveness.  He will forgive abortion, use of abortifacients, use of contraception, and other unchaste actions.  We only need to ask Him for forgiveness and strive again to live one’s Christian vocation of marriage in obedience to the truth shown us in Scripture and the teachings of the Church.

Our lives are blessed the more we live with eternal life in focus.  Prayer and sacrifice can then become the bedrock of strong family life and strong community.  Women become capable of spiritual motherhood for many, no matter how many biological children they have.  Men, in addition to supporting their wives, are called to become leaders and mentors for their own children and the children beyond their natural offspring – helping those whose own family units have failed to stand the test of time. 

Mercy is what helps us look honestly at who we are and the choices we have made and are considering making.  Mercy is the gift of God that helps us start again and believe that we can still become all we were created to be by God who loves us unconditionally.  We should always remember that God is most glorified by a person fully alive, living the fullness of the gift of life.

Dr. Lucy A Knouse
Esther Associates, LLC 

 

¹ Conscience can become confused or distorted if one blindly follows prevailing currents without a proper reference point grounded in truth about one’s nature and one’s right relation to God.  If one is not following the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, there will be problems discerning truth.  Avoid relying only on self to make life changes.  We tend towards defining truth to suit our own selfish interests.  It’s part of our broken human condition.  We need redemption in all areas of life, particularly in intimate relationships.  Pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, pray for grace, seek instruction from Church teaching and, if possible, find a good spiritual director to help you discern what changes God is asking you to make.

² God is the source of man’s freedom.  Freedom comes with the use of reason, an attribute of the soul which distinguishes man from lower forms of living beings.  God made us capable of acting on our own judgment so that we would be able to search out and choose what is truly good.  When man loses the understanding of his true human greatness, he can become fixated on freedom to do whatever he wants to do (aka, freedom of choice).  Freedom itself can become an obsession but it is not man’s true goal.  Man’s goal is to discover and do what is most virtuous and that which will bring the greatest good for oneself and others in service of God.  From this one finds true and lasting happiness.

³While contraception has been touted as a means to reduce the rate of abortion that has not been shown to be the case.  Rather, it has been shown that persons who use contraption are prone to seek abortion when contraction fails.

Bibliography: 

Joseph W. Goldzieher, Hormonal Contraception Pills, Injections and Implants (Dallas, RX:  Essential Medical Information Systems, 1989), 34-36, 82.

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERDs), 5th ed. (Washington, D.C.: USCCB, 2009), N. 45, 53 and 70.

 

Sri, Edward, Men, Women and the Mystery of Love:  Practical Insights from John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility. Servant Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2007. p. 139-143.

Dr. Knouse is a professional Catholic bioethicist who focuses on developing education materials and delivering instruction to clergy, teachers, students, and adult audiences on various topics related to beginning-of-life and end-of-life ethics.  She is able to draw from her extensive health care experience to bring a broad perspective to current issues while giving guidance that is actionable for her audiences.  Dr. Knouse also works with families in crisis during critical medical events to aid them in understanding the ethical implications of proposed medical interventions for loved ones who are dealing with an unanticipated health crisis.  

Dr. Knouse is passionate about helping those interested in practicing their Christian faith in those areas that pertain to the Gospel of Life.  She has a doctorate and a license in bioethics from Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome as well as a Master’s of Science in Health.  Through Esther Associates LLC, Dr Knouse provides consulting services as well as educational services in the fields of bioethics and health care.