Marriage and Procreation

This post continues the response to the question, what has changed regarding christians' and the Church's view of marriage and marital relations, a question raised in a comment on the post Married Saints and Continence.

Traditional View (Systematized by St. Augustine)

St. Augustine understands sexual intercourse to be so ordered to children, the "one honorable fruit" of intercourse, that even a spouse who desires sexual intercourse more than necessary for procreation, unless they do so for the sake of their spouse and their relationship with their spouse who desires such intercourse, is guilty of a venial sin, inasmuch as they are unduly attached to the pleasure of sexual intercourse or something similar, as manifested by their use of sex apart from the end for which it is given.

This continence is more meritorious; it is no sin to render the marital debt, while to demand it beyond what is necessary for begetting children is a venial sin." (St. Augustine, On the Good of Marriage, n. 6)

These goods that are necessary for the sake of something else, if someone uses them for some other purpose than that for which they were instituted, he sins, in some cases venially, in other cases mortally (ibid, n. 9).

St. Thomas basically takes the same position, though he notes that one spouse ought to have marital intercourse not only when the other spouse explicitly expresses a desire for it, but implicitly shows that he or she wants it. (In IV Sent., dist. 32, q. 1, a. 2, qa. 1) Moreover, he says that intercourse which happens to be sterile (as opposed to intercourse intentionally sterile) is not a sin, and this includes not only cases where the spouses do not know that the intercourse is sterile, but also the cases where they know it (Summa Contra Gentiles 3, 122). This may possibly show that the procreative intention for St. Thomas need only be a fundamental and habitual intention, not an actual intention in the sense of actually expecting, with at least some small probability, a child from the particular act of intercourse. (It is not certain, as it is also possible that when he describes this act as not a sin, he means that one can consent to the act [as when one's spouse desires intercourse]).

Changes definitively made through recent Church teaching

The position systematized by St. Augustine can be, with variations, roughly described as the majority view in the West until some time after St. Alphonsus Liguori. Nonetheless it was not a universal position.

In magisterial documents in the 20th century, the Catholic Church has, in an authoritative way, somewhat qualified the manner in which the principal end of the marital act has to be in the intention of the spouses. The marital act must remain intrinsically directed towards procreation, and this intrinsic order of the act to procreation must be respected by those who choose to engage in martial intercourse, but the marital act need not lead concretely lead (even in terms of probability) to the procreation of children. Having marital intercourse for the sake of the relationship between the spouses can be morally good, even if children are impossible, and neither of the spouses expects or intends to have children through that act of marital intercourse.

Each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. (Humanae Vitae, n. 11)

If there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained…. When the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love. (Ibid., n. 16)

Common Change of Viewpoint

The common view, in contrast to the position of the Church, is now that sexual or marital intercourse, or at least individual acts, need not be ordered in any significant way to procreation. This is the complete opposite of the traditional position systematized by St. Augustine. This view has a number of consequences. One of these is that it leads quite naturally to the abandonment of any general moral objection to homosexual unions, even if it still allows for various sound political and religious reasons to not recognize them as marriages.

Detachment and Discernment

In order to discern, we have to be detached. Why? First of all, having a pure heart, or a heart detached from temporal and limited goods, enables us to have the spiritual vision by which we can see God's will. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." While this primarily pertains to future happiness with God–"they shall see God"–it begins also now, in the living knowledge that springs from divine love. A heart attached to temporal goods hinders this perception of divine light. St. Alphonsus says that if we want to know what state of life God wants us in, we have to pray for God to show us. But he goes on to say:

To have this light [from God], you must pray to him with indifference. He who prays to God to enlighten him in regard to a state of life, but without indifference, and who, instead of conforming to the divine will, would sooner have God conform to his will, is like a pilot that pretends to wish his ship to advance, but in reality does not want it to: he throws his anchor into the sea, and then unfurls his sails. God neither gives light nor speaks his word to such persons.

If we are set upon what we want to do, even before we begin the process of discernment, then (in most cases) we will be inclined to judge accordingly, and see our own attachment to what we want to do as an indication of God's will. (A few persons may from the outset understand vocation as something essentially contrary to what one wants, and so be inclined to take their desire or attachment as a sign that it is not God's will. This happens for the lesser part, and it is also unhelpful.)

Moreover, if we are attached to some way of living, we may fail to carry out what we perceive to be the will of God, and then discernment is in vain. "Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize?" (1 Cor 9:24) It is not enough to find God's will, but we have to do it, and that means denying our own will, in the sense of taking God's will over our own. "Any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mat 16:24).

Why not marrying may seem selfish

"It is inconceivable, unfathomable, that it would be Our Lord's will that a young adult, who is dedicated to getting closer to Him and is perfectly able to accept the marriage/family vocation, rejects this vocation and chooses to remain 'single.' "

I did not invent this statement. It is a statement someone actually wrote. I do not agree with this position. Please note: I do not agree with this position. However, I think it is always important to do one's best to understand everyone, including those people with whom we disagree. Hence, I would like to make some remarks on why it might seem selfish for someone not to marry, and yet without becoming a priest or religious. Before getting upset and posting a comment along the lines of: "How can you dare say that single persons are selfish?", please take the time and to care to actually read what I say in this post, and to pay attention to what the actual purpose of this post is.

One person may marry because they think they will be happier in marriage. Another may refrain from marriage because they think they will be happier without marriage. What's the difference between the two cases?

Though in a sense the motivation is the same, there is a difference between these two. What if we described the two situations in this way: some resolve to love because they think it will make them happier; others resolve not to love because they think in this way they will be happier, that love would not make them happy.

I'm not saying that this is the reality of the motivation of all those who remain single by choice. But I would say that as long as it is purely negative, that is, as long as they are single simply because they don't want to marry, and don't intend to use the freedom offered by the single life to love God and/or their neighbor, they are not embracing the single life as a vocation, and are being selfish.

And yes, those who marry without intending to love their spouse through their marriage are also being selfish, and even more so than those who don't marry at all.

When someone doesn't marry, and becomes a priest or religious, then people see that there is some other mode of love that they are devoting themselves to; if they don't see this in another person who remains single, they may see him as selfish. Of course we cannot judge the heart, but if is true than the person remaining single isn't giving themselves in love to any one, he or she is in fact selfish, and that appearance is correct.

Much more could be said about the question of happiness. Everyone seeks to be happy, and no one seeks to be unhappy. St. Augustine and many others have pointed this out many times. The difference is precisely in how we seek to attain that happiness: do we seek to attain it in God, through giving ourselves in love, or do we seek to attain it in a good lifestyle, through piling up things, time, etc., for ourselves? The first way is good, the second way is not.

See also the post "Single vocation?" on whether there is a single vocation.

More articles on the single vocation