When Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae in which he stated that artificial contraception violated natural law, he explained that couples who have “serious” and “well-grounded reasons” to avoid the conception of a new human life could morally limit the marital act the infertile times of the wife’s natural cycles (HV §16).
As an engaged college student and in my early married life I encountered many debates over what constituted a “serious reason.” Some would argue that unless a family is living with a dirt floor and no food, there is never a moral reason to avoid the conception of a child. Others argued that one should not chart the woman’s cycle at all, that true openness to life and respect for natural law is when couples engage in the marital act whenever they feel a desire to express marital love and have babies as they come. Both of these ways seem less than human. The first fails to take into account that children require much more from parents than food and shelter. The second fails to acknowledge the reason God gave us over our natural impulses and that to be fully human we must use prudence to choose the best act in every circumstance.
When thinking about what we are called to be as reasoning human persons, it seems that the best approach to discerning when to be open to or limit having another child is through using virtue ethics. Every marital act is a human act, one that a couple should enter into guided by reason, choosing to make a gift of self to the other, and with full knowledge and openness to the natural end of a new human life. This means couples should be guided by prudence and love whenever they choose to enter into the marital act. Understanding virtue and seeking to exercise it can be crucial to a couple’s decision to enter into this act. It is more in accord with natural law and our human nature to use prudence both when determining when to have children and when to avoid conception then to not reason about it at all.
Read the rest at the National Catholic Register…