Out of all four elements of marital love, I think it is the “fruitful” aspect that is the most difficult for people to accept, understand, and live out. Being fruitful in marriage means joyfully cooperating with God’s will for children, and openness to life in shared love. This requires a lot from both spouses: total openness in their relationship, teamwork, willingness to follow God’s plan for love and sexuality, living chastely, and accepting life when it comes. Spouses are called to acknowledge that children aren’t merely an addition to their marital love, but rather, are born from the heart of the mutual self-gift between the spouses. To love entirely, means withholding nothing. Not even fertility.
When this essential element of marital love is entirely removed or barred, the full gift of marital love is diminished. This is a hard reality in today’s culture to swallow. The mentality today is that openness to children is unnecessary, and limiting children or having none at all is ideal and good for the sake of personal freedom and spousal love. Contraception (as well as abortion) are widely understood to be acceptable forms of limiting the reproduction of children, and on a whole, the modern world struggles to understand the Church’s teachings on contraception and procreation.
The primary reason this teaching faces so much opposition today, is that our modern world misinterprets the true definition of “freedom,” and also misunderstands the inherent purpose of sex.
Is sex merely about pleasure, and having the freedom to do whatever we want and like with our own bodies?
As I mentioned in previous posts, the sexual act is meant to go much deeper than personal fulfillment and pleasure; it is meant to make the marital vows known in the flesh. The beauty of the sexual act is that it is the physical expression of the indissoluble, unbreakable bond between man and wife, and is the means by which they express to one another, “I am entirely yours.” The true definition of freedom, then, lies not in “doing what we want,” but in doing what we “ought.” In marital love, this means always offering an entire gift of self; a gift of full mind, heart, and body.
The Rejection of Fertility
People, more often than not, are way more accepting of the other three elements of marital love. It is in this particular element that people struggle the most.
Why is this?
Well, I think reasons are vast in number. However, the primary reason usually boils down to this: Parenthood is hard. It requires selflessness, and a total change in life-style. It effects work, daily priorities, and relationship dynamics. It includes many sleepless nights, bodily changes, and years of self-denial. Since it requires all of these things, people choose rather to live their love out, without the “burden” of children.
However, being open to life in marriage is ultimately the consent to love as God loves. For all eternity, the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father. Their love is so great, that it literally embodies a third person: The Holy Spirit. Then God, in his infinite love for his people, pours out his Spirit in love through Christ to his children, so that they, too, can go forth and bear great fruits.
Thus, sex is a unique reflection of the Holy Trinity, and of Christ’s love for the Church because it is the means by which a man and a wife can be simultaneously unified and procreative in their bodies. So, when it comes to the bodily expression of love, we are called to ask ourselves: Is this act truly an expression of God’s love?
Free, authentic love, is a love given entirely. Saying yes to the possibility of children is a profound expression of this totality in marital love. It doesn’t just look towards the present “we,” but allows the mutual self-gift to overflow, pouring itself out into a third person. In this way, as Edward Sri says in his book Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love,
“Not only do husband and wife merely stand face-to-face, enthralled with each other and enjoying the good of their own relationship, but they also stand shoulder to shoulder, looking outwards together at the potential new life that may come from their love.”
Fruitfulness in marriage pours out in many different ways, but the primary way is through the mutual acceptance of new life. This is ultimately what God meant when he said, “Be fruitful and multiply.”
In Part II, I am going to be talking about the Church’s plan for fertility, whether or not all are called to have big families by necessity, what it means when procreation is entirely excluded from a marriage, and about the marital call for living chastely! Please check back in for Part II tomorrow!