I have a question about Catholic teaching and conception that I’ve
been wondering about. I often read about married Catholics who don’t
use artificial birth control saying that God will decide how many
children they will have and when they will have them. Taking this
premise that God is the ultimate authority when it comes to married,
non birth control using couples conceiving children, how does the
Church reconcile this teaching with the biological reality that
conception can take place in any less sanctified or loving sexual
Thanks for this question!
First of all, I love that you said, “The biological reality [is] that conception can take place in any…sexual encounter.”
Translation: Sex makes babies!
It may seem obvious, but the fact is that the Church’s teaching with regards to marriage and the marital act is just about the last remaining place where you’ll hear this “biological reality” proclaimed today. Elsewhere in our culture we are told that sex can be merely used for pleasure, or simply to unite two people in love while attempting to strip their very act of love from its God-given potential to create new life. The Church holds fast that to do so is to turn the marital act into something less than God created it for, and thus hurts married life.
2363 The spouses’ union 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.
I’ve written elsewhere on this blog in more detail about why the Church teaches what it does about contraception. My aim here isn’t to re-hash that, but if you’re interested, check out these posts:
- When I Get Married, I Want 17 Kids
- Ask Mary: “I Really, Really, Really, Don’t Want Kids.”
- “Church-Approved Birth Control”
How Do We Determine God’s Will?
As you said, often times when we Catholics are asked why we don’t use contraception, we say it’s because we want God to be in charge of how many kids we have and when we will have them. While this answer is 100% correct and truly gets right to the heart of the matter, I think that when it’s stated so plainly it can sound to some as if our method of determining God’s will for our family is to just close our eyes and see how many babies pop out.
In reality, we can come to know God’s will (for any facet of our life) through prayer, discernment, and use of our God-given faculty of reason. Part of the beauty of having a relationship with the Living God is that we don’t have to simply “wait and see;” we can actually talk to God and ask Him to reveal His will to us!
One very practical way to discover God’s will for us in a general sense is to consult what He has revealed to us in Scripture and in the Teaching of His Church. With regards to birth control, Scripture and the Church have revealed that God’s Will can never be for it because the act of contraception imposes something on the married act to seek to remove its life-giving potential.
Now, with regards to the marital act itself, the Church teaches first of all that it is created for marriage—the indissoluble life long union of one man and one woman. The Church has always taught that sex, marriage, and babies go hand in hand— not because some pope made it up hundreds of years ago, but because that’s the way God designed it!
So in a sense the Church doesn’t have to “reconcile” anything here, really. It’s the rest of us that need to reconcile ourselves with God’s design for sex and marriage! God created sex for marriage and by it gave man and woman the ability to participate in His creative power. What an incredible gift!
If we decide we want to pretend that sex is for other things, that’s our choice, but it won’t change God’s design for sex. The “biological reality” will still run its course, and conception can still occur, because sex and babies—by God’s design— belong together.
The beauty and the mystery of God’s grace is that He can take even something He did not will—like a sinful act—and use it to bring about great good. Just look at the Cross!
If you get nothing else from this post, hear this:
We can’t outsmart God. We can’t overwhelm God. He knows our decisions, our choices—good and bad—before we even make them. From the beginning of time He knew and He planned each and every soul that would ever come into existence. No life is a mistake. No life is unplanned. Each person—no matter the circumstances of his or her conception—is willed by God and loved by God. God wants you here, no matter how you came to be here.
In short, the answer to your question is somewhere in the middle of God’s grace and earnestly seeking God’s will for your life. I think the Psalmist’s answer to this question is much more eloquent and meaningful than my attempt:
LORD, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and stand;
you understand my thoughts from afar.
You sift through my travels and my rest;
With all my ways you are familiar.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
LORD, you know it all.
Behind and before you encircle me
and rest your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
far too lofty for me to reach.
Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.
If I take the wings of dawn
and dwell beyond the sea,
Even there your hand guides me,
your right hand holds me fast.
God is in control! And we are never too far from His grace.