The Deacon's Bench

Just in time for Lent, the Archbishop of St. Louis will continue a tradition, by celebrating a special mass for couples who are struggling with infertility:

“Be fruitful,” God instructed Adam and Eve, “and multiply.”

They were the first words God spoke to his creation, and his creation has heeded them ever since. But over the years, God’s creation has become sophisticated enough to rewrite the original rules of being fruitful, and most of the new rules don’t sit well with leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

There is “great confusion among lay Catholics regarding the church’s teaching on human reproductive technologies,” Philadelphia’s Cardinal Justin Rigali said at the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Baltimore in November. “There is a need to help Catholics understand specific differences between the Catholic understanding and a secular understanding of human life.”

When Rigali was archbishop of St. Louis, he celebrated a Mass for infertile couples, as did his successor, Archbishop Raymond Burke. Tonight, St. Louis’s newest Catholic leader, Archbishop Robert Carlson, will continue the tradition.

Nancy Werner, the archdiocese’s chancellor, said Carlson was too busy to talk about infertility and Catholic social teaching. But by celebrating a Mass for infertile Catholics, Carlson is participating in a pastoral high-wire act that has becoming increasingly familiar to church leaders.

On one hand, bishops need to educate Catholics about the church’s moral stance on assisted reproductive technologies. On the other, they also need to minister to Catholic couples suffering through the heartache of infertility, many of whom believe their church seems intent on contributing to that heartache by putting up roadblocks to medically assisted pregnancy.

That balancing act is summed up in a document on reproductive medical advances called “Life-giving Love in an Age of Technology” that U.S. bishops approved at their fall meeting in Baltimore.

“The church has compassion for couples suffering from infertility and wants to be of real help to them,” according to the document. “At the same time, some ‘reproductive technologies’ are not morally legitimate ways to solve those problems.”

Church teaching says technology used to facilitate or support marital conjugation and conception is fine, but any other technology is not.

For instance, church teaching is compatible with tests and treatment for low sperm count or problems with ovulation, but not with artificial insemination by anyone other than the husband. Even using the husband’s sperm is forbidden if it is obtained in any way other than normal intercourse.

“Children have a right to be conceived by the act that expresses and embodies their parents’ self-giving love,” according to the U.S. bishops. “Morally responsible medicine can assist this act but should never substitute for it.”

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