A few weeks ago, Joel Baden and Candida Moss published a controversial essay in Slate titled “Praying for a Child.” Through the lens of a 2011 lawsuit involving a Catholic schoolteacher who was dismissed by her diocesan employer for using in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments, the article explores Catholic teaching on marriage, contraception, and artificial reproductive technologies, and how women struggling with infertility navigate the Catholic culture that grows out of these teachings.

Baden and Moss’s essay misfires in its central claim: Namely, that “in Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI described the 'transmission of human life' as a 'sacred duty.' In Catholic thought, it is incumbent upon us to create life, not to prevent or destroy it.” These assertions ground one of the two antinomies—the other being cultural stigmatization of childless marriages—of Catholicism that “make life impossible for infertile women,” as the article’s subtitle claims.

A Sacred Duty to Procreate?

The phrase “sacred duty” appears in neither the Latin nor English text of Humanae Vitae. The only time that the English “duty” appears in contexts relevant to Baden and Moss’s claim is in the opening paragraphs:

The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. It has always been a source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships.

The fulfillment of this duty has always posed problems to the conscience of married people … (HV 1).

By truncating this full citation in their article, Baden and Moss obscure the proper referent of “this duty.” While “this duty” indeed refers to the “most serious role” of “transmission of human life,” the full citation of Paul VI’s words is crucial because it signals that spouses collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator in transmitting human life, not that spouses alone are answerable to a sacred duty to transmit human life. Humanae Vitae teaches that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (11). But in no way does this statement entail the proposition, “Spouses have a sacred duty to transmit human life.” For if spouses indeed were possessed of this duty, then what the Church teaches about the immorality of artificial reproductive technologies would amount to a contradiction.

Now, what if the Catholic Church were to establish the transmission of human life, i.e. procreation, in the conjugal context as a moral duty? True, if spouses can conceive conjugally and opt not to do so for their entire marriage, they violate their vocational duty as spouses (if the intent to exclude children is formed after marrying) or else that intention is invalidating of their union (if it was adopted before the wedding). But if having children is a spousal moral duty simpliciter, spouses would have a simpliciter right to have children.

Do spouses have a right to have a child? This question invites clarification. On the one hand, spouses have a legitimate claim against anyone who would prevent them from trying to conceive a child via the marital act. On the other hand spouses emphatically do not have a claim against those who would prevent them from manufacturing children. The Church teaches that any technology or procedure whereby spouses seek to bring a child into being outside the context of conjugal relations is itself intrinsically unjust, to the spouses and to the child brought into being. In fact, the Church vigorously rejects a “right to have children,” i.e. a “right to transmit human life,” as being contrary to both the moral duties of the spouses and the moral rights of the child. This teaching is summarized succinctly in Donum Vitae:

[M]arriage does not confer upon the spouses the right to have a child, but only the right to perform those natural acts which are per se ordered to procreation. A true and proper right to a child would be contrary to the child's dignity and nature. The child is not an object to which one has a right, nor can he be considered as an object of ownership: rather, a child is a gift, "the supreme gift" and the most gratuitous gift of marriage, and is a living testimony of the mutual giving of his parents. For this reason, the child has the right, as already mentioned, to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents” (II.B.8, original emphasis).

What the Church Actually Teaches

What, then, does the Church teach concerning procreation and marriage? That spouses may not licitly intend to thwart or impede the procreative dimension of their conjugal union, which union, consisting in the joint goods of the rearing and raising of children and conjugal union and fidelity, is itself a basic (though complex) human good. So spouses are possessed of a moral duty, as Paul VI writes, to “collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator” in the “serious role” of transmitting human life. This free and responsible cooperation consists in measured vocational discernment regarding family size; in refusing to indulge a perceived “duty to transmit human life” through resorting to any means possible to conceive; and above all in never sterilizing and thereby undermining the performative dimension of the marital act (intercourse) via contraception. In any event, respecting the marital act as such is all that spouses can do in this respect; the fruition of the marital embrace in conception is not an end at which spouses can rationally aim, since it lies beyond the scope of their moral and performative abilities to ensure.

The Lord alone is “Giver of Life,” and spouses are called to genuine agency through their participation with the Lord in the transmission of human life. This is why the Church never refers to the spousal role in transmitting life as “creation”; spouses procreate. And in doing so they acknowledge that in fulfilling the Genesis command to “be fruitful and multiply,” the gift of life remains theirs to participate in creating (procreating). True procreation isn’t manufacture; it’s the marital act, chosen as such because it comprehensively unites spouses and actualizes and embodies their marital union. Conception isn’t an end to which the marital act is a means; it’s at best a hoped-for goal that supervenes upon the marital intercourse of spouses. One can violate this principle without recourse to technology, even: A ruler who has intercourse solely for the sake of producing a male heir to inherit his throne commits an act similar in moral structure to IVF.

If Baden and Moss understood this Catholic teaching correctly, they would not have written that the Church’s “logic” of procreation within marriage “is arrayed against women who seek to become pregnant through certain reproductive technologies such as IVF.” The Church’s teaching is fully consistent on this point, and its logic sound. The same cannot be said for Baden and Moss.