Over the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the sacrament of marriage while teaching a course to undergraduates on precisely this topic. As I teach this course, I’m always amazed by the gift of sacramental marriage in ecclesial life. The couple’s consent binds them not simply to one another but to one another through Christ. The couple becomes in the sacrament of marriage an icon of Christ and the Church, mediating Eucharistic love to the world. The couple does so through family life, the charism of mundaneness that renews every aspect of the created order.
It is precisely in this context that I have come to recognize that couples struggling with infertility have a particular charism within the sacrament of marriage itself.
When I tell people that my spouse and I cannot have children (at least thus far), there is always one of two reactions. The first is a question: Have you heard about the Creighton Model of treating infertility? We say yes. The second reaction is a well-intentioned (though deeply idiotic) word of comfort when they learn that we have adopted a child: “Well, I hope you can have one of your own one day.”
Both of these reactions fundamentally see infertility as a curse alone. They reduce fruitfulness within the sacrament of marriage to the act of procreation. And therefore, they see the fruitfulness of the nuptial mystery solely in the birth of children. If a marriage cannot produce progeny, then something must be done. Either through medical treatment or divine intervention.
I’m not objecting to the gift of medical treatment for infertility, especially the Creighton Model. My wife and I have participated in treatment for infertility and could participate again one day. But the problem with such an approach is the failure to recognize that even with medical treatment, the couple themselves cannot determine the end to which their relationship is directed. In bestowing consent to one another, they offered their wills not simply to one another. Instead, their self-giving love (which is right and just unto itself) is now lifted up into the language of God’s own gift-giving revealed in the Trinity.
It is precisely the charism of the infertile couple in the Church to remind us that the fundamental end of marriage is not reproduction at all costs. Rather, it is the giving over of the entire life of the couple to God. As Cardinal Ouellet notes in his Mystery and Sacrament of Love: A Theology of Marriage and the Family for the New Evangelization:
Because they belong to Christ and to the Church, the couple and the family seek to live their relationships in availability to Christ, the Head and Bridegroom. It is ultimately he who chooses the measure of the simultaneously supernatural and natural fruitfulness granted to the couple. It is not the couple’s task to determine what the particular mission of their family should be. In an authentically Marian attitude, they allow Christ to determine their relationship with him, their relationship to one another in him, and their relationship as parents to the spiritual and bodily children they receive from the Creator Spirit, the Sanctifier. (184)
The infertile couple serve as a sacramental sign to the Church and the world alike that the mission of marriage is not self-determined. Rare is the couple that would choose to be infertile. But such infertility is like the cross, a strange gift, a strange charism. Through this infertility, the couple is to love unto the end, to transform even this diminishment into an occasion of Eucharistic love. For in Christ’s Cross and Resurrection, every dimension of human life can become a new occasion for fruitfulness.
For the fecundity of marriage is not first and foremost experienced in the birth of children per se. Rather, such fecundity “can be seen as an overflowing source of trinitarian life, a specific participation in the very fruitfulness of God in Christ. From the moment of the consecration of marriage, this participation is no longer received by two individuals, but by a new community: by an ‘I-thou’ that has become a ‘subjective and objective we'” (Ouellet, 97).
The couple need not wait to have children to belong to a family. Rather, their love is necessarily familial insofar as they participate in a love that is fertile in Christ. Children are a gift within this new community, a sign of the fecundity of love that the couple gives to one another. At the same time, not having children does not mean that this sign of love is absent. In the woundedness of the infertility, God’s fruitfulness is there.
The infertile give their suffering unto God. They lift it up to the Father in Eucharistic love, asking that it may be transformed. For some, they give their suffering over to become adopting or foster parents. For some, they bestow their diminishment upon the Eucharistic altar, discovering there a new mission in the world to love those on the margins. The infertile couple fulfill the mission of marital love whether they have children or not.
The infertile have a particular charism in sacramental marriage, because they remind the Church that the goal of marriage is not the production of a happy family alone. Procreation itself can become an idol if it is treated as a measure of our own success as a sexual being, as a couple in love, as a form of “Catholic identity.” Fecundity reduced solely to the natural level is a form of righteous paganism, one that would fail to recognize the nuptial love of Mary and Joseph.
The radical mission of all marriages is to give the entirety of oneself away through nuptial consent to the Trinitarian love of God. The infertile couple serves as a sacramental sign in our midst that such Trinitarian love typically goes through the cross.
And rather than treat the infertile as piteous, we should acknowledge their suffering and pray with them that their diminishment may become Eucharistic. We should acknowledge that with their suffering comes a wisdom that married couples who have children need. It is the wisdom of the cross, for the gift of children is always also a cross. It is also an occasion of diminishment. For the children that are born into the world, our progeny, are never “ours” to begin with. Some of them will die. Some of them will reject our love.
But the fruitfulness of nuptial love isn’t about our success, the replication of our own self-identity through the ages. It is instead a radical uniting of natural love to the supernatural love revealed upon the cross. It is the transformation of every dimension of human life, as lived within the family, into an occasion for self-gift. For every marriage, whether it is blessed with children or not, is a participation in the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In this sense, it is time to recognize in our midst the charism of infertility for the Church and the world alike.