The issue of what is required of the repentant sterilized couple can be clouded by all sorts of analogies, but the question remains. Is abstinence during the fertile-time a moral “ought” or simply a suggested pious practice? If we want analogies, consider the couple in an invalid marriage. By the teaching of the Lord Jesus, they are living in adultery. Imagine that the man sincerely regrets leaving his true wife for his current legal spouse. Without getting into all sorts of additional details, the question before him is whether he is morally obliged to live as brother and sister or if such abstinence would just be a pious suggestion.
With regard to contraceptive sterilization, does repentance involve saying to oneself, “If I had it to do over again, I would not do it.” To put it the other way, if a person says, “I regret what I did but I would do it over again,” is such a person repentant? Regretful is not the same as repentant.
If a person/couple is truly repentant and would not do it over again, then the repentant sterilized person or couple is saying that they wish they were still fertile, and that means that they would be practicing periodic abstinence. That is the moral norm. I’m not saying it is easy to live out the moral norm. It is frequently a daily cross, but that’s simply the price of Christian discipleship. Periodic abstinence is no different for the sterilized couple than it is for the couple of normal fertility who think they have a sufficiently serious reason to seek to avoid pregnancy.
The widespread no-abstinence-required “pastoral approach” has reduced the moral norm to an optional pious practice, and the entire teaching of Humanae Vitae has been undermined.
Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality
A Catholic doctor’s response to this issue:
Dear John, Great chapter [in Sex and the Marriage Covenant] and your thoughts are definitely from one who has been in the thick of things. I think your thoughts on the role of true conversion of heart following a sterilization are an excellent example of how the laity can help enlighten clergy who, while observing the rigors of chastity, don’t live out our exact example of marital love. For those who may not read the chapter, you state ,
“…I remain convinced that it is necessary for the repentant sterilized couple to refrain from sexual relations during the fertile time even if they cannot reverse the sterilization. First of all…I think it is psychologically impossible for a couple to enjoy sterilized sexual relations during the fertile time without reaffirming a contraceptive will. That refusal to practice the normal periodic abstinence of normally fertile couples (who have sufficiently serious reasons to avoid pregnancy) is a sign of “a perduring contraceptive intention”…It must be remembered that the whole purpose of sexual sterilization is to enable the sterilized couple to have dishonest intercourse – permanently contraceptive sex – at the normally fertile time. That purpose is pursued each and every time a sterilized couple have relations at the normally fertile time. In my opinion, the requirement that the sterilized couple refrain from relations during the normally fertile time is no different from that of Jesus to the woman caught in adultery: “Go and sin no more”.
I find your thoughts very true. Moreover, as you state elsewhere in the chapter, although couples may be forgiven their sin of sterilization and given a penance by the Priest, there is an ontological need, which you call metanoia, which calls the couple to live out their conversion with a desire to abstain during the fertile period. They may not realize this yearning for quite some time, and for those whom are “forgiven” and who don’t change their behaviour, they may never discover those hidden truths. For those of us who are not sterilized, and who practice NFP, we realize that the more we obey God’s Law on marital love, the more our hearts are conformed to pleasing Him. In other words, to deprive the couple of the opportunity to live out their penance in this way would actually probably hinder their appreciation of the very lesson they need to learn. But, I realize that some would consider this an “undue burden” on the couple.
Dr. Rebecca Peck, MD, CCD, ABFM, Marquette NFP Instructor