Understanding the Church’s Teachings on Infertility & Conception of Human Life

Natural Family Planning

Last month’s USCCB webinar covered the topic of infertility from a medical perspective, and how Natural Family Planning in addition to Restorative Reproductive Medicine can help improve fertility with respect for human health and life. 

This month’s webinar, featuring theologian Perry Cahall, PhD, covered why that’s so important. 

To begin with, there are three main documents that outline the Catholic Church’s teachings on this issue, all of which are available to read online for free:

These documents outline the Church’s foundational view toward human life and the conception and preservation thereof, which is essentially that all human life must come only from the procreative act between husband and wife

Why is this so important? Because this is the order that God created in the beginning, which the Church reinforces in its teachings today, and it is foundational for our society and our future. Children who are created from the loving union of their father and mother, within the structure of marriage that sees to their responsible upbringing, grow to form a strong, unified, and morally upright culture that enjoys the blessings of God. 

Yet within recent decades we have seen attacks on this order and society from multiple vectors, one of which is the removal of the creation of children from the sacred marital union. This includes various developments in medical technology, from in vitro fertilization (IVF), surrogacy, and gene therapy, and extending all the way to human cloning. It is in response to the rapid advancements of these technological-medical procedures that the Church released documents further clarifying its position and the immorality of these developments. 

Why IVF is immoral and prohibited by the Church

Although we can easily see the horrors of human cloning and our present position of having millions of frozen human embryos throughout the world, these issues were not so apparent when IVF was first introduced and presented as an attractive option for couples who were struggling to have children. Despite these dangers, many couples still pursue the IVF route today, which the Catholic Church expressly prohibits. 

It's important to understand that the Church is not saying “no” for no reason. It is because “no” is meant to protect us from perilous moral situations that we may not be able to get out of once we are in them. For example, we are currently unable to resolve the situation with all these frozen embryos, and we are facing serious threats to their human rights, such as their being used for medical experiments. Additionally, the act of destroying the human embryos constitutes murder. One cannot be both pro-life and pro-abortion: Catholics must say “no” to IVF.

When infertility is God’s will

It is one of the more difficult spiritual teachings and trials to accept, but sometimes God gives a couple infertility because it is part of their spiritual growth and refinement. There are many spiritual gifts and lessons to be learned during a dry season, such as patience and perseverance, as well as increasing faith in God and discernment of His voice and guidance. These are strengths and skills which all parents need in order to be good parents and lead and model the next generation. If they are yet undeveloped in a couple, it can be that infertility is not a permanent status, but a “not yet” until we learn what God is trying to teach us. 

It's also important to hold the correct view of children as the crown jewel of marriage, but not to make an idol out of children. Often couples struggling with infertility are tempted to let their desire for children become an obsession and neglect their spouse in the process. It is important to remember that it is the loving union between husbands and wives that produces children. You must continue to love and care for your spouse, who is still your legitimate family even before children. Although children are the blessed fruit of marriage and the desire of married couples, a marriage without children is still a valid marriage and complete family. 

Some of the foundational stories in Genesis are about couples who struggled with infertility until God finally blessed them with a child: Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel. We can draw inspiration from them and their continuing closeness to God even during their trials so that we too may be blessed by staying close to God, as He knows what is best for us, to accept and do His will, rather than turning away from God to have our own way whatever the cost.

As we are now realizing, the cost is too much and we need to reconsider our course of action. Just because we can do something, such as IVF, doesn’t mean we should. Likewise, just because we can’t do something, such as conceive a child at this time, doesn’t mean we should see that as a challenge to do whatever it takes so that we can. Satan is testing and using our desires; it’s crucial that our desire for God be greater.

No matter how much a couple may desire to conceive a child, no amount of desire can change that desire into a right: a child is not a product that a couple (or single person) can do anything to acquire.

Rather, it is the child who has the right: to be born of the union of a mother and father who are known to him/her and are bound to each other by marriage.

We can have hope for the future and the continuation of human life by keeping the conception of human life within the human, loving union of man and woman as husband and wife.

Outside of this, there is a transhumanist agenda against God’s design and order, that puts our future at risk. 

The good news is that Jesus Christ has already won the war; our work now is to be on the winning side with Him.

Further reading

For additional resources, the USCCB has a webpage dedicated to this topic, including the article “Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology”. 

Fr. Mike Schmitz has a popular YouTube channel with hundreds of videos, including discussions on this topic:

Dr. Perry Cahall is Academic Dean at Pontifical College Josephinum and has written books on marriage and theology, available at Liturgy Training Publications.