This is the fourth in a six-part series on Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s profound and heroic 1968 encyclical. The series’ introduction is here. The question of “responsible parenthood” as the Church defines it is taken up here. Questions about the unitive and procreative meanings of sex and why they should not be separated are discussed here.
Two decisions of responsible parenthood
The aim of this essay is to clarify the “question of conscience” spouses need to answer when it comes to responsible parenthood. I will argue that it is a true question of conscience for a couple to decide not to have a child now. On the other hand, I will assert that the choice of what means to choose to use to not have this child, while a serious moral question, is not really a question of conscience. Rightly seen, there is nothing to decide beyond whether the couple will obey the moral law or not.
Responsible parenthood means the on-going judgment of the spouses about whether they should have a child. One reason this judgment, if made, is on-going is that it can change many times during the wife’s fertile years, depending on circumstances. For example, the couple might decide to delay another pregnancy for a full year after the birth of a baby. After that year, they may decide there is no longer a serious reason. Another reason the judgment is on-going is that if the decision is not to have a child, and the means chosen are moral, the will to stick to this decision must be continual, since the couple will want to perform the marital act anyway. They will need to practice the virtue of temperance in regard to this passion and the pleasure of satisfying it.
If a couple wishes to limit their family size, according to Humanae Vitae, they must fulfill two criteria. First, responsible parenthood requires they must take into account God’s plan for marriage and the family. Second, they must consider their duties toward themselves, each other, their family, and society. Another way of putting this is that (1) what they do to space their children must be moral and (2) they must have “just reasons” to act accordingly.
Conscience comes into the decision to limit family size because the decision is moral. Conscience is a person’s judgment of reason. It is one’s reason sitting in judgment over one’s acts, concluding that they are either morally right or morally wrong.
Reason makes its judgment according to the moral law. Reason does not decide what the moral law is. Reason discovers it and agrees with it.
To illustrate—when it comes to directly killing an innocent person, conscience does not decide whether it is right or wrong to kill an innocent person. If one’s reason is not warped, it simply sees that the moral law prohibits this. It is always wrong. What is the role of conscience then? Legitimate questions and decisions of conscience are of the following kind:
• Am I planning to kill an innocent person? If yes, then I am planning a wrong action.
• Am I in the process of killing an innocent person? If yes, then I am doing wrong.
• Have I killed an innocent person? If yes, then I have done wrong.
Dissident Catholic theologians began distorting the idea of conscience in the 1960s. Their aim was to twist the understanding of conscience to justify intrinsically evil acts. They claimed that in the case of contraception it could be justifiable, good, or even obligatory for a couple to perform certain acts, even though the Magisterium of the Church had defined them as evil in themselves.
This is wickedly ironic because when it comes to responsible parenthood, it is not really a question of conscience whether contraception or natural family planning are right or wrong. As means to prevent having another child, contraception and similar acts are objectively wrong, while natural family planning or periodic continence is morally licit. The only question is whether the couple will recognize and obey the moral law.
The Legitimate Question of Conscience
The normal situation for married couples should be to have sex when they want to and to let God and their fertility decide if they will have a child. The couple need not think about responsible parenthood. However, if they think they should not have a child now, their decision is a question of conscience. They need a good reason for setting aside the default position of married couples.
The criterion for making a good judgment of conscience in regard to having another child has variously been translated into English as having a reason that is serious, just, grave, or sufficient. The Church does not provide examples of a good reason. Neither can a couple get an answer to the question of what is a good reason from a priest. It is up to the couple and they must answer for their decision to God.
Trivial and selfish reasons are ruled out, but important personal, family, financial, health, and other reasons may come into play.
If a couple has a serious reason not to have a child, must they act on it? No. A couple may have an objectively serious reason for not having another child right now, and they may choose to not act on it, because limiting family size is not obligatory. As mentioned above, the default for married couples is simply having sex when they both want to and letting God and their fertility decide if they will have a child.
The essence of the moral means to not have a child is continence, that is, not having sex. This continence might be total if the couple believes that the danger a pregnancy imposes is so grave that they must have a one hundred percent certainty the wife will not become pregnant. Fortunately, for most couples in most circumstances, periodic continence is sufficient. Periodic continence means the couple does not have sexual relations when the wife could become pregnant and they are free to have sexual relations when she cannot.
What is Next?
Next time, I will discuss why natural family planning and artificial birth control may look very similar but are in fact profoundly different. Briefly, the most critical difference is this. With artificial birth control, the couple has sexual relations and they do something to make the act infertile. In natural family planning, the couple doesn’t do anything.
A married couple does not have an obligation to have sex all the time. Periodic continence and contraception are different because not doing something you don’t have to do is very different from doing something you ought not to do.