ASK FATHER: Would using birth control to delay children invalidate marriage?

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

Would the use of birth control to delay children for a time invalidate marriage? Likewise, would the intention to divorce IF the spouse committed adultery invalidate the marriage?

Two questions… I normally don’t take twofers, but I’ll make an exception.

The use of artificial birth control, – even for a time, would be gravely sinful. It would give rise to legitimate questions about the intentions of the parties with regards to marriage: are they truly intent on sharing in a partnership of the WHOLE of life, if they chose to withhold this natural activity? If they’re using a barrier method of birth control, are they truly intent to share human intimacy with each other? If they’re using abortifacient methods, how do they understand the good of the spouse? Have they enticed their spouse into sin, or do they willingly cooperate with their spouses sinful intention?

The use of artificial contraception, sinful as it is, would not automatically invalidate matrimonial consent in and of itself.  It would give rise to serious questions.

Marriage is intended to be open to life. In the marriage rite one says to one’s partner (and to the whole Church), “I give you my whole self. I am open to give you not only my life, but my potential children as well.” To withhold part of one’s life is to make that profession of marriage consent a lie.

Couples who marry can agree, mutually, to use natural means of avoiding childbirth for a time, for a legitimate reason. For example, a married couple who are studying overseas in a three-year program might choose to wait until they return home to have children.  Or, a couple who just had a child who has special needs might want to wait a bit before giving the child a sibling.

I caution couples to avoid the mistaken notion that, after getting married, they should wait a few years before having children so they can, “have some time to just get to know each other.” That can easily play in to selfishness.

Think about it.  Here are a couple scenarios.

Within the first few years of marriage even the most “in love” couples will have moments where they don’t particularly care for each other. Perhaps they have a vicious argument. The husband, at work, dreads going home to face his wife and to merely dive back into the argument. He can hardly stand to look at her. So, he goes out for a beer with his work colleagues. Then a second. Then a third. It becomes easy to avoid each other, the argument never gets resolved, and Satan has his way – he has driven a couple apart from each other.  [CUT TO BLACK – ABRUPT MINOR CHORD]

A second scenario. The husband is at work and dreads going home to face his wife, but he knows that she is home with his infant son. He may not want to see his wife, but he is still in love with, and fascinated by his baby boy. So he goes home, perhaps grudgingly, but he goes home. He avoids his wife, but goes into the room where his baby is sleeping. He picks up this child and the emotional and psychological feelings of love – the ineffable parental bond – fill his heart. As he looks at the child whom he loves, the baby wakes up and smiles. He has his mothers dimples. He is reminded of the commitment of love he has for his wife. He takes the child into the living room and holds him out to his mother. He has his fathers eyes. The two resolve to sit down and work on their disagreement.  [THE MUSIC SWELLS]

A little florid?  Sure.  But don’t kid yourselves.  This is how life works.  It is how the Enemy of the Soul works and it is now we are hard wired to work.

As to the second part of the question, for Latin Church Catholics marriage is invalid if one or both spouses enter into marriage while placing a condition concerning the future (e.g., “I marry you as long as you become the King of England,” or “I marry you as long as you stop smoking,” or “I marry you as long as you remain faithful to me.”) One should certainly expect certain things of one’s spouse, and one of those things has to be fidelity, right?  But there is a categorical difference between conditional consent (“If you cheat on me, that makes our marriage invalid and I’m therefore free to marry another.”) and legitimate expectations (“If you ever cheat on me, I’m moving out and might even consider divorce.”)

In looking at specific situations, rather than merely at hypotheticals, it is best to entrust these questions to the legitimately authorized Church authorities at the diocesan tribunal.  They can make the determination. They are trained to examine the necessary details and contingent circumstances.

Armchair diagnoses of specific marriages – especially by the untrained layman – without having all the facts and testimony at hand is generally unhelpful.

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14 Responses to ASK FATHER: Would using birth control to delay children invalidate marriage?

  1. Amerikaner says:

    Sometimes, I think, some folks think these types of things make a marriage invalid later on in life. If valid at the beginning, then always valid even if there is adultury, etc.

  2. frjim4321 says:

    Intention against children and intention against permanence would be diriment impediments if they were absolute but not necessarily if they are conditional.

  3. GloriaDei says:

    Another FR. Z home run!

  4. TWF says:

    Every statistic suggests that the vast majority of Catholic couples use artificial birth control at some point (at least CAtholics in the Western world). Perhaps the Pope was on to something when he suggested most marriages are invalid… I jest. I think it’s pretty clear that the vast majority of couples who use birth control for a time fully intend to have kids and enter into marriage hoping to have kids… Just not right away. Of course there are exceptions- people who never intend to have children.

  5. hwriggles4 says:

    Good explanation Fr. Z. I’ve known medical students and law students who married during school and postponed pregnancy. The sad thing was there were priests in the 70s and 80s who gave couples dispensations to use ABC, and I’ve heard stories about couples who attended Engaged Encounter Weekends where other couples (and some permanent deacons) told couples ABC was fine. Other couples were told by those within the Church during that time that after having three, four, or more kids, one party could get sterilized, saying “you did your duty.” I’ve actually heard Catholic women from that time period saying things like, “yes, I’m a good Catholic – I have three children, and my husband had a vasectomy.”

    Today, I’m glad that more dioceses and more priests are requiring NFP for marriage preparation. My brother got married three years ago and he and his wife were required to attend classes. I had an old roommate who got married in 2005 and he and his wife (and a few other good Catholic friends who got married between 1999 and 2005) voluntarily attended NFP classes, but had to look for a class, and the Engaged Encounter Weekend they attended only spent about 15-20 minutes on what the Church’s teaching was on contraception.

    As far as NFP, there’s still some Catholics (mostly from my mother’s generation who married between 1954 and 1972), who still think NFP is the old fashioned “rhythm” method. Nothing can be far from the truth. The “rhythm” method was derived in the earlier part of the 20th century, and it was about 80% effective (on the average) in preventing pregnancy. However, I’m told that most women had to have a “regular cycle” to know when they were fertile and when they weren’t.

  6. HeatherPA says:

    Pope Pius XI wrote a wonderful encyclical “On Christian Marriage” that breaks down marriage and the propagation of children, NFP et al. really well.

  7. Mike says:

    Your advice generally agrees with a friend of mine who happens to be a father of ten now adult children. Go figure! ;)

  8. Supertradmum says:

    TWF, I wrote in an email the same thing, agreeing with the Pope on the vast majority of Catholics actually going into marriage with the intention of using artificial birth-control, thus interfering with the possible validity. People do not want to admit this, but outside of a handful of friends, I can say for sure that most of the Catholics I know and have known in my adult life, had used artificial birth-control. This was my experience of meeting with such Catholics in America, in Great Britain, and in Malta. And, this acceptance of birth-control is not new. People now in their sixties decided to do so. Many people with whom I graduated from high school and university have only two children.

    Until priests begin to address this from the pulpit, nothing will change.

  9. Ave Crux says:

    FATHER: QUESTION IN THIS REGARD…

    It has been argued elsewhere in online forums that (as one individual opines) since the majority of young people he talks to indicate they would divorce a future spouse if they were ever unfaithful during the marriage, this PROVES what Pope Francis said about the vast majority of marriages being invalid. i.e. the cultural climate is such that any intention to divorce for infidelity is prevalent and would invalidate any marriage where this was the intention.

    He also asserted that the vast majority of those who are of marrying age no longer hold the indissolubility of marriage to be true (“They don’t buy it” — in his words).

    I argued this was not true. That one would need specifically to intend against the vows while speaking them. It seems this is different than any hypothetical musings they may have about the future and their projected response.

    It also seems that simply surveying young people before they are actually in a committed relationship on the verge of being married is not a valid sampling, since they are not receiving graces which God sends to prepare them for marriage.

    Could you clarify whether such considerations would invalidate one’s marriage vows? He used this as proof of why the majority of marriages are no longer valid.

    Thank you for any clarifications, Father.

  10. Gerard Plourde says:

    An excellent post on two difficult subjects. Further, your observation that the resolution of these questions is best left to “legitimately authorized Church authorities” (canon lawyers and the Tribunal) is directly on target.

    Also, a note of caution when theorizing that the number of children a couple has is a sure sign of the use of contraceptives. Seven years and a number of miscarriages separate our two children.

  11. robtbrown says:

    SUPERTRADMUM says,

    TWF, I wrote in an email the same thing, agreeing with the Pope on the vast majority of Catholics actually going into marriage with the intention of using artificial birth-control, thus interfering with the possible validity. People do not want to admit this, but outside of a handful of friends, I can say for sure that most of the Catholics I know and have known in my adult life, had used artificial birth-control.

    FrJimr4321 is correct. If somoneone marries and does not want children, that is a diriment impediment, i.e. a factor that invalidates a marriage. Thus, contraception in itself is not a diriment impediment as long as there is the intention to some day have children.

  12. Imrahil says:

    Ad 1 what Fr Jim said. The use of artificial birth control is sinful, but if the couple intends to have real sex later on in life, not invalidating.

    Though it is possibly a case for Papal Dissolution of a Valid Not Consummated Marriage, should they really have never consummated their marriage (which, namely, is only the case if there was no a. b. c.)

    If one of the couple intends to withhold himself from his spouse unless she agree to use a. b. c., the case might be different.

    Ad 2: if the intention is to divorce and consider the marriage really ended, the marriage is invalid. If the intention is to divorce and remarry or to divorce and find some other partner (along the lines of “despite it’s sinful to do so”), there is a good case for its being invalid, though we might also see some case for a merely sinful attitude not invalidating the marriage. (Just as one who intends to consider himself free to commit adultery contracts a marriage invalidly, while one who self-knowingly cannot exclude that he would submit to the temptation of committing adutlery in the future, knowing and accepting it to be a sin, might i.m.h.o. possibly marry validly.)

    If the intention is to divorce and be true to his status as a divorced married person, it would need to be said that “sending one’s spouse off” was considered a legitimate form of punishment (of punishment!) for an infidel spouse in the old days, so the marriage is valid.

    Though we might say that among loving Catholic couples that (other than modern men) know that men are subject to the effects of Original Sin and are likely to, from time to time, fail to counteract them, this punishment has ever been considered a punishment to threaten with, not to execute (so to speak), and the modern tendency that thinks marriage infidelity “needs” to be answered by sort-of automatic divorce is, in fact, abhorrible in just the same way (though I guess not to the same degree) as the outdated tendency that it “needed” by a duel-to-the-death of the men involved.

  13. Ben Kenobi says:

    What is this? Clarity? Precision? Surely I’m in the wrong rrom?

    Thank you very much, Fr. Z! Keep up the good work!

  14. Pingback: Une question au prêtre : recourir au contrôle des naissances pour retarder l’arrivée d’un enfant rendrait-il le mariage nul ? – Espérance Nouvelle