This is a translation of the ecumenical council speech (Oct. 30) on schema 13, article 21, “Dignity of Marriage and the Family,” by Bernard Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht, the Netherlands.
All priests having the care of souls are beset with the anxieties and tremendous difficulties involved in the matrimonial life of so many of the faithful of good will who desire generously to follow the moral obligations of their state. Not rarely these difficulties give occasion for some alienation from the Church. The spiritual struggle can furthermore become so debilitating that it can no longer be tolerated without detriment to human values, and most of all, that highest value of matrimony (bonum fidei) fidelity which is placed in danger.
It is clearly evident that the Church, guardian of divine law, can never change that law because of human difficulties, no matter how great, adapting it to human incapacity. It is further evident that sociological analyses of these difficulties cannot lessen anything which pertains to the moral character of human acts. The Church cannot indulge in situation ethics, by which the absolute norm of morality is considered to lose its force in certain determined circumstances. Further, the Church always professes that sacrifice and self-denial pertain to the essence of the Christian life. However, not only the Cross but also the Resurrection pertains to the essence of Christian life, and God is not pleased with the straits of men.
This being so, the difficulties of married life are often of such a nature that in fact a difficult conflict of conscience arises between two matrimonial values, that is, between the value of procreation and that of the human and Christian education of offspring, which is possible only when conjugal love is present between the parents, a love which is normally supported and increased by carnal relations. This conflict is not one between two separate values. For without conjugal love and fidelity renewed through the “cult of love” (as the schema rightly says) the very motive of procreation is virtually endangered.
The precise question then is this: a moral conflict arises in performing one and the same act. If in this act the spouses wish to preserve biological finality, then the human duty of providing for the human and Christian education of present and future offspring is harmed. If on the other hand they wish to preserve fidelity and assure their children’s education, then aside from periodic continence, which is practiced by many spouses with great Christian virtue but often not without grave inconvenience, or aside from complete continence which indeed, not to mention other things, demands of the spouses greater moral strength than normally is presumed to be present, only one solution can remain and that is performing the act of the marriage contract while excluding (the possibility of) children at least in this concrete case.
It is evident that if the act is performed while excluding the possibility of children by the use of means which are certainly intrinsically evil, the Church can never allow the sacrifice of a particular value at the expense, so to speak, of the whole of matrimony.
However, with renewed anthropological knowledge, especially arising from knowledge of the essential distinction between merely biological sexuality and human sexuality, an honest doubt in fact arises among many married couples, among men dedicated to science and among theologians, relative at least to the argument put forth to demonstrate that in such conflicts arising among married faithful of good will complete or periodic abstinence is the only solution altogether efficacious, moral and Christian.
The situation or condition of the problem is of too much importance for the Church to solve this real conflict by decree precipitously and perhaps prematurely. The Church must be solicitous also concerning human problems and must sensibly and diligently investigate so that all the Christian faithful can know that, whatever response must be forthcoming, she has investigated the matter with great charity and with all the means the various fields of science can offer. For this reason, we must rejoice over the establishment of the commission of chosen experts which is examining this matter.
Only if real certitude eventually arises concerning knowledge of the authentic content of divine law, however, can and must the Church bind or loose the consciences of her faithful.
Finally, because of the very swift progress of science — especially medicine and the other sciences concerned with human life — which scientific progress daily creates new ethical and moral problems, the question can be asked whether the Church of today does not indeed need some permanent commission of experts in the fields of philosophy and theology as well as in the sciences, which would accompany the evolution of these sciences immediately and in an up-to-date manner with the insight of pastoral concern, lest the Church ever be too late in investigation and in effort to solve new problems.