[Note: Please also check out an update to this article, a Q&A]
A few summers ago, our family was invited to a backyard barbecue. We had just moved back to our hometown from Chicagoland, and used the social occasion as an opportunity to get reacquainted with some old friends from high school.
One couple — who my wife and I knew from high school — came with their young children, and we also recognized them as members of our Catholic parish.
You know how it often is with barbecues: the “guy group” congregates together — this time we stood around the backyard with our beers — while “the wives” were inside chatting in the living room. Not all the men at the barbecue were Catholic; there were a few nominals, and me, and some men from other Christian traditions.
As we were comparing notes (how many kids, how old, our occupations, sports, etc.), the father of this family announced — as sort of a non sequitur — that he recently underwent a vasectomy.
There were some highly uncomfortable pauses in the conversation that followed, although “vasectomy guy” seemed really enthused about the whole thing. I found his sharing this personal information to casual acquaintances sort of peculiar, and his apparent happiness over rendering himself sterile rather incredible.
I resisted the bait (“I just got fixed!” –> “Oh, were you broken?”) because I couldn’t imagine a snide comment from me helping anything. We all just stood there (I did my best not to wince) — ostensibly trying to come up with something (diplomatic) to say.
I felt sort of scandalized by the whole thing, but I remained silent because (a) the deed was already done, (b) my opinion wasn’t asked, and (c) this fellow already seemed aware that getting a vasectomy isn’t okay according to Church teachings (he as much as said he knew what the Church would say, and it did not matter to him). What could I add, besides judgment and belaboring an already uncomfortable topic not entirely appropriate for a barbecue where children were running around?
Whenever I see vasectomy guy’s family at church (mom and kids regularly attend, but apart from Easter or Christmas, he never attends), I try to say a prayer that next Sunday he might attend too, and I’m reminded of the encounter at the barbecue and the casualness with which he approached sex with his wife (he said some things), his attitudes toward fatherhood, and his lack of faithfulness to Church teachings. It’s not a pleasant reminder of the type of rebuilding that is necessary in Catholic families and culture if we are to avoid getting caught in the current of the new age.
The Church teaches that it is reasonable for married couples to try to regulate births; in fact, the Catechism says that it is one of the “aspects of responsible fatherhood and motherhood.” (CCC 2299). However, a “legitimate intention” to regulate births does not “…justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).” (Id.).
The Church also warns that artificial contraception carries a number of unintended (but nonetheless actual) effects, including that a husband “…may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” (Humanae vitae, Para. 17). In the context of tubal ligation or vasectomy, the nature of the artificial contraception is no longer transitory — you can’t simply stop taking a pill and have your normal fertility restored — which potentially amplifies the gravity of the situation.
Unlike artificial contraception, sterilization is a much more permanent and intentional action. It pushes the “not right now” of artificial contraception over the line into “not ever” or “not ever again”. What becomes of sex between husband and wife after deciding to undergo sterilization because of a preference to have no (or no additional) children?
The Church teaches that in marriage “the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion.” (CCC 2360). Sex between husband and wife “is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such.” (CCC 2361). It fosters “self-giving” and “…enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude.” (CCC 2362). Husband and wife “…accept what the Creator has intended for them.” (Id.). To take an action which closes off our natural fertility is to not accept, but rather reject the Creator’s intention.
Thus, the Church teaches that sex “…achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple’s spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family.” (CCC 2363). In other words, husband and wife are called to accept in one another who and what they are, and to accept (with gratitude!) the state of their fertility as an immense gift of God, and not a burden to be carried or laid down at some point.
Certain medical procedures (like hysterectomy or the removal of ovaries or testicles) have the effect of rendering one infertile, but so long as they are not undertaken to achieve infertility, they are not contrary to Church teaching, because the purpose of the treatment is to preserve health or life (both the means and ends of any medical procedure must not violate the moral law).
However, when couples decide to become infertile so that they no longer need worry about becoming pregnant, they replace something that “concerns the innermost being of the human person” and fosters “self-giving” with a purely physical action premised upon making one another “mere instruments for the satisfaction” of desire.
In the context of human relationships, marriage is special: in sacramental marriage, the love of husband and wife is intended to reflect the love of Christ for His bride the Church. Such love carries a natural capacity to transmit life while at the same time it involves offering the totality of self to the beloved. In sterilization we remove both of these aspects, neutering not just sex, but the love found in marriage itself.
So Catholic husbands, love your wives!