Beyond Procreation: Rereading Aquinas in the Context of Involuntary Childlessness in West and Central Africa
Using the work of Thomas Aquinas, the article from which this blog is extracted examines ways to construct an ethical framework for Christian communities in West Africa to address involuntary childlessness. Although Aquinas was a thirteenth-century Western theologian with an androcentric approach, his writing offers valuable insights that can help in the discernment of appropriate practices for individuals and communities in West Africa confronted with the issue of involuntary childlessness. These insights make clear that childlessness is not an impediment to marriage, and that a childless marriage can flourish if it is centered around love and has the support of the community.
Procreation appears to be the main goal of marriage for Aquinas. However, procreation is not limited to biological reproduction; nurturing and caring for children are also very important. In the fourth book of his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, subquestion 1 of distinction 27, Aquinas affirms marriage’s unitive function: marriage is a union. It is the highest form of union, because it is a union of souls and bodies. He states that marriage is not only ordained to procreation but also to a single domestic life. In subquestion 2, he considers three aspects of marriage: the essence (a union), the cause (the act of getting married), and the effect of marriage (procreation).
In distinction 31, Aquinas reviews the goods of marriage, namely, procreation, fidelity, and indissolubility. Procreation is located at the first level of intentionality, and the spouses’ fidelity is part of the integrity of marriage. Aquinas suggests that indissolubility is more important than the two other goods of marriage because it belongs to marriage as a sign of grace, while the others belong to marriage as a sign of nature. He maintains that indissolubility is essential to marriage, while procreation and faith are just actualizations of the marital bond that presuppose indissolubility. A marriage could exist without fidelity or offspring, but not without indissolubility.
The indissolubility of marriage sheds light on the nature of the relationship: a friendship between the spouses that goes beyond sexual intercourse. “For [the spouses] are united not only in the act of fleshly union, which produces a certain gentle association . . . but also in the partnership of the whole range of domestic activity.” Indissolubility is absolute; only death ends it. The inability to conceive children does not destroy the ability to love and to be in a loving relationship. If this were the case, the marriages of the elderly would be illicit.
Aquinas offers a rich understanding of marriage that can help the church in West and Central Africa. Infertility is not a ground for divorce or for a second wife; marriage is about friendship between the spouses. These are the real ingredients that can make marriage last forever.
There is a need for more robust pastoral care around infertility. The magisterium has hinted about what infertile couples might do for the community, but not about how the community should charitably care for the infertile. An examination of the extent, intensity, and effect of love indicates how inclusive genuine and healing love in the context of infertility can be. After all, the infertile deserve to be happy, too.
Read more in Horizons, the journal of the College Theology Society.