Have you felt understood and supported by the Church with your infertility? Do you feel the leadership and other members of the Church see and validate your suffering? Or have you felt abandoned by the Church in your fertility journey? Perhaps the Church feels like home and a safe space in the turbulence of the world; perhaps it has felt unsafe or oblivious to your emotional pain. If the Church has been solely a source of consolation in your suffering, I’m so grateful for that. If the weakness of the human dimension of the Church has been a source of additional isolation or suffering for you, I am sorry that has happened to you. I see you.
I love the Church and I find great consolation in my faith, the Sacraments, the Sacrifice of the Mass, and our loving Lord. However, to be completely honest, my overall experience of the Church’s response to infertility on parish and regional levels has, sadly, been marked by silence and limited inclusion and pastoral care. It’s rare that I see the topic of infertility addressed verbally, in bulletins, or on websites, although many couples have experienced this cross. Despite many scriptural readings involving infertility, I have not heard a homily offering acknowledgment of that struggle for Catholics in the pews. I see many lay-led parish ministries and outreaches focused on children, young adults/singles, and “families” (meaning those with kids), but where does an adult married couple without kids belong in such parish groupings? It is also isolating when the Church celebrates parenthood without much sensitivity to those who are childless; Mother’s and Father’s Day are prime examples. The accumulation of these and other experiences can and does easily lead to a feeling that “I don’t belong” or “the Church does not care about my suffering.”
I’ve personally felt invisible, misunderstood, and even dismissed in my struggle with infertility by individuals and the Church collectively; as a therapist, I know many of my clients have felt the same. That perception of isolation is real, even if well-meaning people are not trying to hurt us or if it is hard for us to admit. It’s ok to admit that the Church can feel like an unsafe place where you feel isolated and perhaps hurt. While the Church is the Body of Christ and therefore divine, it also has an imperfect human element which has the capacity to both build up and to injure. Although I am not surprised by the problem of missing attentiveness to the struggle of infertility in the Church (since it’s an extension of the issue that exists everywhere), it can be more painful than when we encounter it elsewhere because the pain is happening within our home and refuge.
Amid my overall perception of silence, I also see progress and glimmers of hope. First and foremost, Springs in the Desert is an incredible leader among infertility ministries in offering emotional and spiritual support for Catholics with infertility; I am proud to partner with them. Several dioceses, including the Marriage and Family Life office of my own Diocese of Columbus, show a growing openness and interest to support and partner with infertility support ministries,. Last year, I was thrilled to partner with both my Diocese and Springs in the Desert to host a retreat in my area. Other Dioceses across the country are doing the same. I’ve also started to see Springs in the Desert’s information circulate at some parishes in my local area. I am grateful for all of those who have become aware of our needs and are partnering with us.
As a professional counselor, I have seen the Church become more aware of her own members’ need for emotional and mental support through counseling. The fact that I work for a counseling practice that brings mental health counseling to a dozen or more churches in Central Ohio is monumental and it allows me to bring infertility and loss-focused therapy to several local parishes. I’ve seen growing pastoral care for pregnancy loss, a related issue to infertility. Although it seems that support within the Church for counseling and pregnancy loss is further along than that for infertility, changes in these areas give me hope for continued progress in infertility outreach and awareness.
Acknowledging both existing progress and the continued need for improvement, I offer some specific improvements that leaders within the Church may consider for improving support for Catholics with infertility:
- Increase general discussion and dialogue about infertility, its prevalence, and its effects, and share resources such as Springs in the Desert widely and frequently.
- Increase efforts to receive feedback from couples on how the local church may better support them in their infertility journey.
- More intentionally include adults who do not have kids (or who are not married) into parish life at the parish and regional level, addressing the gap between young adult ministries and family ministries.
- Provide more active pastoral assurance of God’s persistent and unyielding love for married couples with infertility.
- Exercise greater sensitivity at mass on Mother’s and Father’s Day each year (Springs in the Desert has posted specific ideas on how to do this).
- Educate engaged couples on the possibility and prevalence of infertility during fertility awareness training (NFP) and other components of marriage preparation.
Ultimately, we need more awareness and dialogue to help Catholics with infertility feel heard, validated, and supported within the Church. We also need the Church to create more creative solutions to include Catholics who feel “on the margins” of our church. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but I believe that additional innovation is possible. If you are not personally affected by infertility but are open to learning about what it is like and how you may support this community, I invite you to walk with us. If you experience infertility and feel called to share your story and help advocate for or bring about more organized infertility support in your area, please do so. However, if you feel overwhelmed and as if your “cup is empty,” do not feel obliged to advocate; focus instead on taking care of yourself. As my wife has said, people who are drowning are not able to teach others how to swim.
Despite the fluctuating strengths and weaknesses of the human dimension of the Church, God and the heavenly Body of Christ, the Church, are steadfastly perfect and trustworthy. The divine element of the Church is ever aware of, attentive to, and caring for your suffering. It may not always feel like it, but God knows your pain intimately and He is constantly accompanying you. Just like how He heard the cries of the men and women in Scripture with infertility, He also sees you and is actively pursuing you right now. Although not all our stories will include a miraculous conception, God is there carrying our cross with us. He has not abandoned us, and He never will. I hope that you recognize the love of God and His heavenly bride, the Church, for you and may it be a consolation in your suffering.
Edward Luersman, MA, LPC lives in Central Ohio with his wife Kate and is a Licensed Professional Counselor with Spirit of Peace Clinical Counseling. As a Catholic and counselor, his clinical focus is supporting individuals and couples in Ohio with grief, infertility, or miscarriage through online and in-person counseling. You may find him online at griefcounselingohio.com.