THE TWO MEANINGS OF THE MARITAL ACT
With this background, we can now better understand Humanae Vitae’s central teaching: that each and every conjugal act must be “open” to new life. This teaching does not mean that spouses must always have the express purpose of conceiving a child when they come together. Nor does it imply a lack of “openness” when, through no action of their own, conception cannot occur, such as during an infertile period of a woman’s cycle. Nor does it mean that spouses cannot, for serious reasons, consciously limit their marital acts to such times of infertility, as through natural family planning.
If openness to life does not mean any of these things, what does it mean? The answer becomes clear when we consider what Paul VI writes in section 12 of his encyclical: The conjugal act possesses two meanings — the unitive meaning and procreative meaning — which must never be separated.
In teaching that these two meanings must never be separated, he is telling us that we must never purposefully do anything that would break apart the wholeness of the marital act.
In our day and age, the relationship between married love and children has become uncertain. Modern contraceptives suggest that sex may be had without children, just as new reproductive technologies suggest that children may be had without sex. In this way, contemporary society tends to fragment the full meaning of married love into pieces. But just as a living, breathing organism cannot survive dissection and dismemberment, love cannot fully live and breathe when its inner meanings are separated.
AN EXPRESSION OF LIFE-GIVING LOVE
Finally, we can better see how the marital act is an embodiment and expression of marital love, and must, therefore, embody and express all of the characteristics of marital love. First, it must embody and express the oneness and total, exclusive mutual belonging of the spouses. This is the unitive meaning. But it must also embody and express openness — an openness that turns the spouses’ love outward and beyond themselves. This is the procreative meaning.
For love to be genuine, it must also be whole. We cannot pick and choose among the parts or aspects of love and continue to call it love. If the spouses attempt to suppress one of the inner meanings of the marital act, then they are also suppressing that act’s ability to embody and express the full meaning of conjugal love. In other words, by suppressing either of the unitive or procreative meanings, they alter and deform the act itself. They deprive it of its ability to express their marital love. They take away its life and breath.
Far from being a negative pronouncement on sexuality, the Church’s teaching is her response to Christ’s demand that love be protected and nurtured in its wholeness and integrity. This is also what makes the teaching so attractive.
DAVID S. CRAWFORD is associate dean and associate professor of moral theology and family law at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He is a member of Potomac Council 433 in WashingtonBACK TO LIST