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Married Couples Who Intentionally Chose Sterilization For Contraceptive Purposes And Lasting Repentance
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by Monsignor Charles M. Mangan
A common theme that has resounded for over three decades is that many--if not most--Catholic married couples in Western countries are currently demonstrating in practice their rejection of the Church's authoritative and binding teaching that proclaims that each occasion of sexual intercourse must be open to the transmission of human life. While one may dispute numbers and percentages of those Catholics involved, a fair judgment of the situation reveals that especially since the "Sexual Revolution" of the 1960s, a significant portion of Catholic married couples has used or is presently using some form of contraceptive.
As is increasingly well-known, there are some devices implanted, chemical formulae injected, and even other products taken orally that are routinely referred to as "contraceptives" but are in fact effective after conception has occurred, thereby making these abortion-inducing agents ("abortifacients"). Sadly, a large section of the public, cutting across boundaries of race, economic status, education and creed, are woefully ignorant about the abortifacient quality of Depo-Provera, RU-486, the Intrauterine Device, the "Morning-After Pill," Norplant, the "emergency contraceptive" and in some cases the common "Pill." Therefore, literally millions of persons throughout the world are "silently" aborting, thinking all the while that they are preventing conception when in fact they are unwittingly snuffing out the lives of preborn children.
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But all is not lost. True sorrow, resolute amendment of life and deep awareness of the Truth, inspired by the Holy Spirit Who is the Lord and Giver of Life and the Master of the Truth, are possible. By yielding to God's abundant grace, a married couple who are contracepting or aborting may humbly surrender to the Truth, acknowledge their sin and sincerely repent of their error. How? By stopping the process of contracepting or aborting. Authentic repentance demands the avoidance of any and every method of contraception and those forms that parade as contraceptives but are in reality abortifacients.
However, imagine a married couple who have done something permanent in order to prevent conception. The husband has undergone a vasectomy or the wife a tubal ligation. There immediately appears to be a substantial and ongoing problem. How can this couple show their genuine sorrow since the effect of the direct sterilization continues unabated? May they ever be really reconciled to their Creator, thereby shunning their sin and the prevailing ethos of the Culture of Death and assume their place in the Christian community as those who give good example to others and testify to the Truth, notwithstanding the not insignificant cost?
This essay offers guidance for married couples who deliberately selected sterilization to prevent conception. Although the teaching of the Catholic Church is the foundation for this article, the remarks herein are not limited to Catholic married couples who chose to be sterilized so as not to conceive but are germane to persons of all faiths and to those of no faith, because the doctrine of the Catholic Church is based on Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the Natural Law--the trio of sources expressing the One Truth that sustains and applies to everyone without exception.
It is hoped that all married couples who intentionally chose to be sterilized so as not to conceive but who seek forgiveness and a new beginning in Christ and those married couples in the same category but who have never thought much about the vital importance of rejecting the sin of direct sterilization and the subsequent urgent need of conversion will benefit from these brief reflections.
The Nature Of Sterilization
Germain G. Grisez and John F. Kippley--each a Catholic layman, husband and father--treat this issue and have provided excellent material for careful pondering.
As Grisez keenly and succinctly observes, sterilization intended as a means of birth control (often referred to as "direct," "deliberate" or "intentional" sterilization) is intrinsically evil, for it fails to promote the good of the human person because of its adamant refusal to accept the inherent procreative ("life-giving") dimension of the marital act as built into it by God. (The other inherent aspect of the marital act is the personalist [unitive]or "person-uniting" dimension.)
No benefit to the person as a whole can justify any procedure which brings about sterility and is chosen for that very purpose. In no way does sterility as such truly benefit anyone; it only facilitates sexual intercourse--the distinct act in and through which some benefit is expected--by excluding conception. Thus, the intention of choosing sterilization is contraceptive, and the sterilizing act is at best a bad means to a good ulterior end. Moreover, because sterilization involved bodily mutilation and is usually irreversible, it is, other things being equal, more seriously wrong than other methods of contraception.1
One here recalls the unfortunate circumstance of our era in which methods that actually kill an already conceived and developing child are cavalierly dismissed as "just another kind of birth control." Certainly, abortifacient means are more sinful than any contraception, including sterilization, because the former extinguishes a life now begun, while the latter prevents a life from being started. But, as Grisez insists, among the purely contraceptive methods, sterilization is the most morally repugnant.
Kippley explains the "types" of sin that are involved in direct sterilization. One kind is the contraceptive quality and intention of the act of sterilization, in which one deliberately wills not to conceive a child. Kippley writes: Once a person has voluntarily had himself or herself sterilized for birth control purposes, each act of sexual intercourse is seriously stained; it objectively contradicts the meaning of the marriage act for it is a permanent way of saying, "I take you for pleasure but not for the imagined worse of pregnancy."2
The second sin linked to intentional sterilization is that of mutilation (whether actual or attempted) of a healthy organ that has as its divinely-preordained purpose to participate and cooperate with God in the begetting of a new human life. The human body is to be loved and cherished. The "good" of human procreation as created by the Almighty is not respected when one purposely rejects the reproductive capacity of the human body and willingly alters the body with contraception in view.
Direct sterilization--indeed, all contraception--is grave matter, that is, it is intrinsically evil. (While this assertion may seem overly audacious today, it is to be recalled that before the dawn of the twentieth century, virtually everyone thought contraception of any stripe to be patently immoral--an utter abomination against God's Eternal Law. All Christian denominations, for example, subscribed to this tenet until 1930.) Intentional sterilization in itself always fulfills the first condition required for the commission of a mortal sin--that offense which cuts one off from the Sanctifying Grace that is the very life of God Himself. Mortal sin--a repudiation of the Lord and His wise commands--may be described as the ugly chains of haughty disobedience that one prefers to the spotless garment of the Lamb. One who chooses the shackles of mortal sin will never attain the refreshing freedom earmarked for the legitimate sons and daughters of God who have been redeemed by the Precious Blood of the Savior.
Repenting Sterilization: If Possible, How?
Because the Almighty is, unquestionably, all-merciful, those married couples who have chosen direct sterilization to escape conception--regardless if the reason was one of fear, lack of trust or dissent from the Church's doctrine--can turn back to Him, ask His pardon and be restored to a life replete with His joy and peace. The Sacrament of Penance ("Confession" or "Reconciliation") is indispensable and unsurpassed for those who purposely selected sterilization; it is necessary before the reception of the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist for those men and women who have knowingly (that is, were aware that intentional sterilization gravely offended God) and willingly (that is, totally) consented to the sin of direct sterilization. The supernatural rewards of the Sacrament of Penance and of the consequent eating and drinking of the Body and Blood of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ are vast and unlimited; they cannot be denied or circumscribed. The Sacraments, when received in the state of grace (that is, when one is free of mortal sin), conform one more closely to the Messiah and to His chaste Mother, Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin.
There are those who are convinced that the sin of direct sterilization presents no more difficulty than any other transgression regarding abiding repentance and true reconciliation to God. A Catholic couple in which one or both intentionally chose sterilization, so the argument goes, merely confess the sin of sterilization to the priest in the context of the Sacrament of Penance. Then, that metaphorical "bridge" spanning the abyss between one in mortal sin and the Creator has been crossed again. The wide gap has been closed; deep contentment within the soul once again reigns supreme.
Our two previously-cited authors disagree with this sentiment.
Grisez poses the quandary thus:
People with a legalistic mentality sometimes suppose there is an easy out for Catholic couples who accept the Church's teaching on contraception, yet want no more children and do not wish to abstain during the fertile period: let one spouse be sterilized and that spouse (or both) confess the sin; then the couple can engage in intercourse whenever they please without worrying about pregnancy or feeling guilty about contraception. The trouble with this supposed solution is that a sin is not simply a technical violation which can be repaired by going to confession. The choice of sterilization, like any sin, is a self-determination, an existential self-mutilation more profound than the physical self-mutilation of sterilization; and this self- determination lasts until the person repents. Consequently, unless those who have tried to solve their problems by means of sterilization are truly contrite--"I wish I had not done that, and if I had it to do over, I would never make that choice"--confession is fruitless for them.3
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Kippley frames the problem in this manner:
How can a person be sorry for the sin whose fruits he enjoys? Imagine the man who thinks, "I enjoy having sex whenever I feel like it without having to be concerned about possible preg- nancy. I'm glad I had the vasectomy (or my wife had a tubal ligation )." . . . How can such spouses be sorry for their sins of sterilization? How can such spouses not be committing, at least objectively, the sin of contraceptive sterilized intercourse? How can a previous confession of the sin of sterilization forgive the current sin of contraceptive intercourse?4
Repentance is possible after the sin of directly-intended sterilization. God's infinite strength does change hearts and dispose persons to the Truth who once were blind to the Transcendent. Deliberate sterilization is surely a "forgivable" sin. Those who have committed it need not be banned from Paradise and lost forever. "Like those who repent any other sin, they can be absolved and spiritually healed, so that they can live in grace again."5
What Is Required For Real Amendment
Both Grisez and Kippley, in harmony with Catholic doctrine detailing the Lord's tender forgiveness and the corresponding genuine amendment of life after sin to which He summons His beloved children, concur that the "resolution of the sterilization dilemma" calls for real repentance and change. One must--with God's overwhelming grace--eradicate any perduring contraceptive intent. "The person who regrets having been sterilized must develop a true sorrow for a) the initial sin of sterilization and b) subsequent sins of sterilized intercourse."6
And sorrow for any sin necessitates genuine action and internal transformation, namely that one "rights the wrong" in part by avoiding that sin in the future and "the near occasion" that leads to that sin. Listed below are three "behaviors," which although not definitively taught by the Magisterium as requirements are recommended by theologians who teach in harmony with the Magisterium, that evidence an abiding sorrow for the sin of direct sterilization and the connected attempt to correct the evil that was caused.
1. Complete abstinence until the wife is past menopause. Some quarters would dismiss this option without delay, claiming that it is unworkable and would have disastrous implications for the married couple. Although not strictly obligatory (given what follows), it does remain a possibility.
2. A surgical reversal of the sterilization. It may appear at first glance that a surgical reversal of vasectomy and tubal ligation, which today is often an "out-patient" procedure and increasingly less expensive, is in fact the only option for the married couple who were intentionally sterilized so as to prevent conception and now wish to be "made just" in God's sight. "They purposely sterilized themselves, let them now fix precisely what they have done," is one way of putting it.
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Grisez inquires whether directly sterilized married couples either ought to "abstain entirely from marital intercourse or try to have the sterilization reversed?"7 While Church teaching does not deal explicitly with this question, general principles point to a negative answer, at least for most cases . . . . there usually are good reasons not to try to have the operation reversed: doing so involves costs and other burdens, the attempt often fails to restore fertility . . . .8
Kippley offers this analysis:
If reversal surgery were as simple and inexpensive as vasectomies and tubal ligations, then it would be morally required for all as part of their repentance. This is the common teaching of respected moral theologians. However, it is also a principle of moral theology that extraordinary burdens are not normally required as part of repentance. For example, many poor people have been seduced by public health workers into being sterilized--sometimes for no cost and sometimes even paid to be sterilized. For such couples, the cost of reversal surgery would be a very severe burden if not simply impossible, and the reversal surgery would not be morally required. In another case, reversal surgery might constitude a grave risk to health or life because of heart conditions, reaction to anesthesia, etc. Such cases would also constitute an extraordinary burden and would eliminate the moral obligation to have reversal surgery.9
Kippley holds that if a married couple who intentionally chose to be sterilized for the motive of contraception enjoy good health and the monetary resources that could withstand the financial strain of reversal surgery, then "there is a general moral obligation to have reversal surgery, but I would hesitate to call it a serious obligation (i.e., the grave matter of mortal sin) provided they practice periodic abstinence as noted below."10 He further contends: "Perhaps the couple who are trying hard to do the right thing but have a general reclutance to undergo surgery might gain insight by asking this question: 'If our existing family were wiped out and we wanted children, would we have reversal surgery in the effort to achieve pregnancy?'"11
It seems that an honest investigation of the possibility of reversal surgery, which includes a discussion with competent medical personnel regarding the physical implications and another with a priest concerning the moral ramifications, is the very least that would be expected, given the seriousness of the matter.
Thanks to the continual advances in medical technology and praxis, the surgical reversal of sterilization is sometimes not as perplexing as it once was. A higher success rate for the reversal and the possibility of performing this surgery at more medical centers means that the reversal surgery itself is surely not as remote as before in terms of availability and a reasonable likelihood of success. One anticipates the day when the reversal procedure will be considered as commonplace as sterilization--due to its efficacy, its inexpensive cost and its universal accessibility.
3. Periodic abstinence from the marital privilege. The Church stresses that a married couple who possess a just (some theologians maintain "serious") rationale to postpone a pregnancy may limit marital intercourse to the wife's infertile days during her cycle. Kippley submits that there is a specific link between this ecclesiastical declaration rooted in the Natural Law and the plight of intentionally sterilized couples.
The current knowledge about a woman's alternating phases of fertility and infertility makes it possible for a repentant sterilized couple to restrict intercourse to those times when she is naturally infertile. In this way, they will not be taking advantage of their sterilized state, enjoying the fruits of their sin. Their behavior will be consistent with their present desire that they would not have had the sterilization in the first place . . . .12
By limiting intercourse to the infertile days of the wife, the married couple who purposely chose to be sterilized in order to avoid pregnancy are conducting themselves similarly to a non-sterilized couple who are employing Natural Family Planning (N.F.P.). In both instances, the couples engage in the marital privilege during that time when pregnancy is unlikely.
Hence, if a married couple who selected sterilization as a permanent contraceptive cannot have the sterilization surgically reversed, then they show their love for God, their commitment to each other rooted in generous sacrifice, their lament for their sin, and their accompanying good will by saving the marital embrace for the infertile period, thereby acting as if indeed they were still fertile. It is then clear that this purposely sterilized but now repentant couple respect, appreciate and are grateful for the God-given fertility-dimension of intercourse and want that affectionate act of "self-donation" to be pleasing to their benevolent Creator.
Shepherds of Souls
A word to confessors and spiritual directors. May the foregoing comments be valuable in your challenging work to spread far and wide the entire Holy Gospel of Christ, even those sections that are roundly repudiated in our era.
Married couples who chose to be sterilized to prohibit conception may need assistance in concluding that what they have done is immoral. Why? Because the "modern climate" of much of society is not conducive to fostering an understanding of the nature and beauty of the human body, much less the marital privilege. True, the Natural Law ensures that one may come to the realization--even without the gift of faith--that the deliberate frustration of one of the "ends" of intercourse, namely procreation, is gravely evil; however, given the falsities in our world that counter the Truth at every turn, one need not be surprised that other voices attempt--in the end, unsuccessfully--day and night to submerge the Truth.
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Kindness, clarity and a desire "to obey God rather than man" will do much for spiritual directors and confessors as they strive to adore the Living Lord and save souls, including their own.
One must be attentive when encouraging the use of N.F.P., especially to those couples that intentionally chose sterilization as a preventative against pregnancy, that N.F.P. does not come across as being "odious" or "burdensome." N.F.P. is to be a joyful exercise in heeding God's commands and sharing love with one's spouse. It is not to be seen as a continual punishment for one's sin that already has been confessed and forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance. As it always should be, N.F.P. is the vehicle by which one expresses his love for the Lord and for his spouse while simultaneously upholding God's immutable Law. And here it is to be recalled that postponing pregnancy for a significant reason and, therefore, having recourse to the infertile days of the cycle is to be the "exception." As one familiar with the contemporary scene quipped, "the option is to be for children." God expects His married sons and daughters to be generous in bringing forth new life, in such wise preparing souls for the Everlasting Kingdom.
Since the massive prevalence of intentional sterilization, not to mention other contraceptives, has never been witnessed on the grand scale that we experience in our time, we do not yet know what, if any, guilt and sorrow for the sin of direct sterilization will be manifested by the transgressors as they age and draw nearer to their Particular Judgment. Perhaps in the twenty-first century, a resurgence in comprehension of the sin of deliberate sterilization will surface specifically in the West, thereby meaning that more than ever, both men and women will seek forgiveness for their error from Emmanuel--"God-with-us." Let us pray!
Meanwhile, those charged with the care of souls should now preach and teach--both in public and private settings--the reasonableness of the Church's teaching on the procreative dimension of the marital embrace, the splendor of God's forgiveness to all when they fall and the real chance of being made whole in the Lord once again.
Undoubtedly, a sterilized married couple who chose the aforementioned procedure with a contraceptive purpose and who are now contrite will be forgiven by God of their sin. On what condition? That they implore His unceasing compassion, cast aside that contraceptive intent and display their love for each other in marital intercourse as God planned. To that end, the couple should, if possible, seek a reversal of the sterilization. If that cannot be accomplished, then the couple could consign the marital privilege to the normally infertile time. Then, they will illustrate their fervent desire to obey God and readily heed His life-bestowing--and life-changing--Law.
1. Germain G. Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus: Living a Christian Life Volume II (Quincy, Illinois: Franciscan Press, 1993), 544.
2. John F. Kippley, Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality (Cincinnati, Ohio: The Couple to Couple League International, 1991), 208-209.
3. Grisez, 544-545.
4. Kippley, 209-210.
5. Grisez, 545.
6. Kippley, 210.
7. Grisez, 545.
9. Kippley, 211.
11. Kippley, 211-212.
12. Kippley, 212.
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