Gaudium et Spes 51 explores the “but” part of “This is the ideal, but …”
This council realizes that certain modern conditions often keep couples from arranging their married lives harmoniously, and that they find themselves in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased. As a result, the faithful exercise of love and the full intimacy of their lives is hard to maintain. But where the intimacy of married life is broken off, its faithfulness can sometimes be imperiled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined, for then the upbringing of the children and the courage to accept new ones are both endangered.
The council bishops seem aware they are treading on sensitive ground here. One challenge is that the intersection of marriage and theology have not been well-explored territory. The quality of individual marriages seems the focus here, not marital practices that others have found helpful in other circumstances. It’s easy to see how GS 51 was providing hope from what many pre-conciliar Catholics saw as harsh moral treatments.
To these problems there are those who presume to offer dishonorable solutions indeed; they do not recoil even from the taking of life. But the Church issues the reminder that a true contradiction cannot exist between the divine laws pertaining to the transmission of life and those pertaining to authentic conjugal love.
From our “disadvantaged” view, we indeed have a contradiction in the practice of many marriages regarding the official position on contraception. I don’t have any golden answers for those caught in the contradiction. My own experience was to be open always to procreation, but then again, we were a much older couple. Some unanswered questions persist, including:
- If Catholic couples are to be open to procreation, are married couples beyond childbearing age (especially those who wed later in life) then morally obliged to have a public expression of generativity in some way?
- Is generativity a quality for the entire life of a marriage, or must it be applied in a fundamentalist way at each opportunity for procreation?
- Given the large numbers of children awaiting adoption, can this be interpreted as a generative opportunity for Catholic married couples? In other words, do these homeless children place a moral obligation on Church couples as a whole? If not, why not?
For God, the Lord of life, has conferred on (people) the surpassing ministry of safeguarding life in a manner which is worthy of (humankind). Therefore from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes. The sexual characteristics of (human beings) and the human faculty of reproduction wonderfully exceed the dispositions of lower forms of life. Hence the acts themselves which are proper to conjugal love and which are exercised in accord with genuine human dignity must be honored with great reverence. Hence when there is question of harmonizing conjugal love with the responsible transmission of life, the moral aspects of any procedure does not depend solely on sincere intentions or on an evaluation of motives, but must be determined by objective standards. These, based on the nature of the human person and his acts, preserve the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love. Such a goal cannot be achieved unless the virtue of conjugal chastity is sincerely practiced. Relying on these principles, (sons and daughters) of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.(14. Cf. Pius XI, encyclical letter Casti Connubii: AAS 22 (1930): Denz.-Schoen. 3716-3718, Pius XII, Allocutio Conventui Unionis Italicae inter Obstetrices, Oct. 29, 1951: AAS 43 (1951), pp. 835-854, Paul VI, address to a group of cardinals, June 23 1964: AAS 56 (1964), pp. 581-589. Certain questions which need further and more careful investigation have been handed over, at the command of the Supreme Pontiff, to a commission for the study of population, family, and births, in order that, after it fulfills its function, the Supreme Pontiff may pass judgment. With the doctrine of the magisterium in this state, this holy synod does not intend to propose immediately concrete solutions.)
All should be persuaded that human life and the task of transmitting it are not realities bound up with this world alone. Hence they cannot be measured or perceived only in terms of it, but always have a bearing on the eternal destiny of (human beings).