Is every Catholic couple supposed to have twelve children?
Are Catholic women expected to be constantly pregnant?
Are Catholic couples allowed to have sex if they don’t want to have a child that very instant?

Catholic teaching says that sex is supposed to be “open to life,” meaning that when it comes to sex, the procreative and pleasurable aspects of sex should be one and the same thing. Intentionally severing either aspect misses the point of what sex is supposed to be. But “open to life” can sound...well, see the questions above.

So what does “open to life” mean for couples in real life?

I asked a few couples to describe how they understand the phrase “open to life” and how this attitude is about more than just how many children they have, or when and how they have sex. They shared with me that “openness to life” informs the fabric of their relationship, and changes the way they interact with each other and with their community. In fact, it’s a mindset that can benefit any of us who value community and relationship in all its forms - no matter our relationship status.

Josh and Stacey 

Josh shared the following story:

I broke out in hives when we learned we were pregnant for the first time. We were in the middle of a year of volunteer service in Alaska and had delayed pregnancy since getting married nearly two years prior. I had just returned to our house from an early morning outing fishing for salmon when Stacey pulled me into the bathroom. She showed me the positive pregnancy test. This was going to change everything. 

We had just signed on to two additional years of service teaching in South Africa, so those plans were scrapped and I started to look for a job in a town near where one of our families lived. That’s when I broke out in hives. I was freaking the hell out.

We had a come-to-Jesus moment, the two of us. We sat down and talked and came to the conclusion that if God was part of the arrival of this new life, then God would take care of us as we welcomed this new person into the world.

I landed a job 45 minutes from Stacey’s hometown and our family started to grow. We’ve been married more than 20 years now and have had four more pregnancies — some planned and some surprises, but all undeniable gifts.

To us, being open to life means seeing our marriage within a larger framework — that it’s not just ours alone to plan and take care of. We do our best, but we also know that we’ve placed our lives in the hands of a loving God.

That child who surprised me after that early morning fishing trip? He’s in college now and has two siblings in high school.

Chuck and Liz 

In our 6 years of marriage, it has been constantly reinforced that, at its core, openness to life involves trusting God to take care of us, no matter what. 

In marriage, we are called to trust and to openness in so many situations — from the bathroom floor, crying after our first miscarriage, through the fog of early parenting, into the thousand small moments of delight and love and sacrifice that make up family life.

We are asked to cast aside the fear and pride that convince us we know what is best in all the details of our lives.

Megan and Hank 

Openness to life for us is an everyday opportunity to share the love that is between us with others. Yes, that means we have had four children in our nine years of marriage.

But it also means praying with them and teaching them our faith. It means bringing them with us to Mass, and being patient with them when they struggle with being still for an hour. 

And even beyond our own family, our kids participate in this openness with us as we open our hearts and our home to our community.

***
We often feel a lot of pressure to have everything under control. But for these couples, being open to life means letting go of that control just a little bit, embracing surprises, and opening their hearts to the community outside their homes.

Renée Roden

Editor of Special Projects, 2021-present

Renée Roden is a proud Midwesterner-New Yorker hybrid. She has degrees in theology from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s in journalism from Columbia University. Her favorite authors are Hans Urs von Balthasar, Annie Dillard, and Rebecca Solnit. A great morning is reading the London Review of Books with a cup of coffee.

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