In my experience sharing Catholic teaching on marital love and sexuality around the world, one thing is certain: Confusion reigns regarding Church teaching on responsible parenthood. Perhaps the main problem is the failure to grasp the profound distinction between contraception and periodic abstinence (or “Natural Family Planning“). While contraception is never compatible with an authentic vision of responsible parenthood, the Church teaches that NFP—given the proper disposition of the spouses—can be.
Failure to distinguish between contraception and NFP occurs not only among those bent on justifying contraception, it occurs also among those who think that any attempt to avoid or space children is a sign of weak faith or lack of trust in God. There are other people who accept the licitness of NFP but argue about what constitutes a serious enough reason for using it.
A tome would be needed to spell out all the valid points and counterpoints necessary for an exhaustive treatment of the issues. The goal of this article is simply to outline some of the common questions pertaining to responsible parenthood, with the hope of bringing some balance to the discussion. We’ll begin by outlining the inner logic of the Church’s sexual ethic.
John Paul wrote in Familiaris Consortio that “the difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle . . . is much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one that involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and human sexuality” (FC 32). In brief, these “two irreconcilable concepts” revolve around an “incarnate” versus a “dis-incarnate” view of love.
“Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). These words of Christ sum up the meaning of life. Yet how did Christ love us? “This is my body which is given for you” (Luke 22:19). God’s love—an eternal, spiritual reality—is made flesh in Jesus Christ. In other words, Christ’s love is an incarnate reality, and we’re called to love in the very same way: with the unreserved gift of our bodies.
In fact, the spiritual call to love as Christ loves is stamped right in our bodies as male and female, in what John Paul II calls “the nuptial meaning of the body,” the body’s “capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the person becomes a gift and—by means of this gift—fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence” (Theology of the Body, Pauline Books, p. 63).
Man and woman express this bodily gift in numerous ways, but, as the Holy Father states, this gift “becomes most evident when spouses . . . bring about that encounter that makes them ‘one flesh’” (Letter to Families, 12). Paul describes this union in one flesh as “a great mystery” that in some way images, proclaims, and foreshadows the union of Christ and the Church (cf. Eph. 5:31–32).
No higher dignity and honor could be bestowed on our sexuality. God created us male and female and called us to “be fruitful and multiply” as a sign of his own mystery of life-giving love in the world. Yet, if we are to embrace this grand, sacramental vision of our sexuality, we must also embrace the responsibility that comes with it.
Ethics of the Sign
John Paul II says that we can speak of moral good and evil in the sexual relationship “according to whether . . . it has the character of the truthful sign” (Theology of the Body, pp. 141–142). In short, we need ask only the following question: Is this given behavior an authentic sign of divine love? Sexual union has a “prophetic language” because it proclaims God’s own mystery. But, the Pope adds, we must be careful to distinguish between true and false prophets (cf. Theology of the Body, p. 365). If we can speak the truth with the body, we can also speak against the truth.
In order to be “true to the sign,” spouses must speak as Christ speaks. Christ gives his body freely (“No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” [John 10:18]). He gives his body without reservation (“He loved them to the end” [John 13:1]). He gives his body faithfully (“I am with you always” [Matt. 28:20]). And he gives his body fruitfully (“I came that they may have life” [John 10:10]).
This is the love a couple commits to in marriage. Standing at the altar, the priest or deacon asks them, “Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage? Do you promise to be faithful until death? Do you promise to receive children lovingly from God?” Then, having committed to loving as Christ loves, the couple is meant to incarnate that love in sexual intercourse. In other words, sexual union is meant to be where the words of the wedding vows “become flesh.”
How healthy would a marriage be if spouses, rather than incarnating their vows, were regularly unfaithful to them, regularly speaking against them? Herein lies the essential evil of contracepted intercourse. The desire to avoid a pregnancy (when there is sufficient reason to do so) is not what makes the spouses’ behavior immoral. What makes contraceptive sex immoral is the specific choice to render sterile a potentially fertile union. This changes the sign of divine love into a countersign.
Divine love is generous; it generates. To put it plainly, this is why God gave us genitals: to enable spouses to image in their bodies (to “incarnate”) an earthly version of his own free, total, faithful, fruitful love. When spouses contracept—that is, when they willfully defraud their union of its procreative potential—they become false prophets. Their sexual act still “speaks,” but it denies the life-giving love of God.
“To think that constraining the free flow of body fluids impedes me from loving my wife is ludicrous.” This sentiment—angrily expressed in a letter I received—typifies the “dis-incarnate” view of love used to justify contraception. For this man, love is not revealed in the body (and its fluids), but is something purely spiritual.
St. John’s admonition comes to mind: Beware of those false prophets who deny the Incarnation (cf. 1 John 4:1–3). Taken to its logical conclusions, contraception implies the acceptance of a worldview that is antithetical to the mystery of incarnate love—that is, to the mystery of Christ.
Applying the same “dis-incarnate” view of love to Christ, what are we to make of Christ’s blood that was shed for us on the cross and given as drink in the Eucharist? Is this “free flow of body fluids” not the definitive accomplishment of Christ’s spiritual love for his Bride? If Christ had withheld his blood in a mock crucifixion, would this have sufficed? “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). Similarly, without the giving of the seed, there is no conjugal act.
The spirit is expressed in and through the body (and, yes, the body’s fluids). It can be no other way for us as incarnate persons. John Paul II explains: “As an incarnate spirit (that is, a soul that expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit), man is called to love in his unified totality. Love includes the human body, and the body is made a sharer in spiritual love” (FC 11).
If contraceptive intercourse claims to express love for the other person, it can only be a dis-embodied person. It is not a love for the other person in the God-ordained unity of body and soul. In this way, by attacking the procreative potential of the sexual act, contraceptive intercourse “ceases also to be an act of love” (Theology of the Body, p. 398).
Maintaining Respect for Incarnate Love
So, does respect for “incarnate love” imply that couples are to leave the number of children they have entirely to chance? No. In calling couples to a responsible love, the Church calls them also to a responsible parenthood.
Pope Paul VI stated clearly that those who “prudently and generously decide to have a large family, or who, for serious reasons and with due respect to the moral law, choose to have no more children for the time being or even for an indeterminate period” exercise responsible parenthood (Humanae Vitae 10). Notice that large families should result from prudent reflection, not “chance,” and that a couple must have serious reasons to avoid pregnancy and must respect the moral law.
Assuming a couple has a serious reason to avoid a child, what could they do that would not violate the “ethics of the sign”? In other words, what could they do to avoid a child that would not render them unfaithful to their wedding vows? I’m sure everyone reading this article is doing it right at this instant. They could abstain from sex. The Church has always taught, teaches now, and will always teach that the only method of “birth control” that respects the language of divine love is self-control.
A further question arises: Would a couple be doing anything to falsify their sexual union if they have sexual intercourse knowing they were naturally infertile? Take a couple past childbearing years. They know their union will not result in a child. Are they violating “the sign” if they engage in intercourse with this knowledge? Are they contracepting?
No. Neither are couples who use NFP to avoid a child. They track their fertility, abstain when they are fertile and, if they so desire, make love when they are naturally infertile. (I should add that modern methods of NFP are 98 to 99 percent effective at avoiding pregnancy when used properly. This is not your grandmother’s “rhythm method.”)
People will often retort, “C’mon! That’s splitting hairs! What’s the big difference between rendering the union sterile yourself and just waiting until it’s naturally infertile? End result’s the same thing.” To which I respond: What’s the big difference between a miscarriage and an abortion? End result’s the same thing. One is an act of God. In the other, man takes the powers of life into his own hands and tries to make himself like God (cf. Gen. 3:5).
The difference is cosmic. NFP enables a couple to maintain respect for incarnate love. Such respect is the very raison d’etre of NFP. Contraception “dis-incarnates” love and, by doing so, “strikes at God’s creation itself at the level of the deepest interaction of nature and person” (FC 32).
Trusting in Providence
So what constitutes a “serious reason” for avoiding a child? Here’s where the discussion typically gets heated. Correct thinking on the issue of responsible parenthood, like all issues, is a matter of maintaining important distinctions and carefully balancing various truths. Failure to do so leads to errors on both extremes.
An example of one such error is the hyper-pious notion that if couples really trusted in providence, they would never seek to avoid a child. This simply is not the teaching of the Church. In some cases, “increase in the size of the family would be incompatible with parental duty” (Karol Wojtyla [John Paul II], Love and Responsibility, Ignatius Press, 243). Therefore, avoiding children “in certain circumstances may be permissible or even obligatory” (Karol Wojtyla, Person & Community: Selected Essays, Peter Lang Publishing, p. 293).
We are certainly to trust in God’s providence. But this important truth must be balanced with another important truth to avoid the error of “providentialism.” When the devil tempted Christ to jump from the Temple, he was correct to say that God would provide for him. The devil was even quoting Scripture! But Christ responded with another truth from Scripture: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (Luke 4:12).
A couple struggling to provide for their existing children should likewise not put God to the test. Today, knowledge of the fertility cycle is part of God’s providence. Thus, couples who make responsible use of that knowledge to avoid pregnancy are trusting in God’s providence. They, no less than a couple “who prudently and generously decide to have a large family” (HV 10), are practicing responsible parenthood.
The Enemy of Selfishness
It’s certainly true that, like all good things, NFP can be abused. Selfishness, as the enemy of love, is also the enemy of responsible parenthood. It’s clear from the Church’s teaching that frivolous reasons for avoiding children will not do. But neither are spouses required to have a “life and death” situation before they make use of NFP.
In determining family size, Vatican II teaches that parents must “thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those that the future may bring. . . . [They must] reckon with both the material and spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself” (Gaudium et Spes 50). In terms of limiting family size, Humanae Vitae teaches that “reasonable grounds for spacing births” might arise “from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances” (HV 16).
The Church’s guidance is purposefully broad. Following the Church’s lead, I do not intend to spell things out more than this. It is the duty of each and every couple to apply these basic principles to their own particular situations. Moral dilemmas are much easier when others draw the line for us, but, as Vatican II says, “the parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in sight of God” (GS 50). John Paul II adds that this point is “of particular importance to determine . . . the moral character of ‘responsible parenthood’” (Theology of the Body, 393).
Therefore, the surprisingly widespread idea that a couple must obtain “permission” from a priest to avoid pregnancy is not only false but reveals serious confusion about the nature of moral responsibility. If a couple is uncertain of their motivations, it is certainly advisable to seek wise counsel. But the Church places responsibility for the decision squarely on the couple’s shoulders. If spouses choose to limit family size, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches only that it “is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood” (CCC 2368).
On this point, there is another more subtle and little discussed form of selfishness that conflicts with responsible parenthood. I once counseled a couple that had several children very close together. The parents rightly recognized each child as a divine blessing and did all they could to love and care for them. The mother, emotionally drained since the third child, had desired a larger space between babies. It came to light that the reason they did not space their children was that the husband selfishly wouldn’t (or couldn’t) abstain.
Here, when looked at more closely, what on the surface might pass as a generous response to Church teaching actually demonstrates a failure to live Church teaching. The point is that, in order for parenthood to be responsible, the decision to avoid sexual union during the fertile time or the decision to engage in sexual union during the fertile time must not be motivated by selfishness.
Killing versus Dying: An Analogy
The following analogy summarizes not only the important moral distinction between contraception and NFP but also the necessary moral attitude that must accompany the responsible use of NFP.
Our natural attitude toward others should be one that desires their life and good health. Still, circumstances could lead us to have a righteous desire for God to call someone to the next life. Suppose an elderly relative was suffering greatly with age and disease. You could have a noble desire for his passing. Similarly, a couple’s natural attitude should be one of desiring children. Circumstances, however, could lead a couple to have a noble desire to avoid a pregnancy.
In the case of the elderly relative, it is one thing to suffer with him while waiting patiently for his natural death. In this situation, there would be nothing blameworthy even to be grateful for his death when it occurred. But it would be quite another thing to take the powers of life into your own hands and kill him because you cannot bear his sufferings.
Similarly, for the couple with a noble desire to avoid pregnancy, there is nothing blameworthy in waiting patiently for the natural time of infertility, and even rejoicing that God has granted a time of infertility. But it would be quite another thing for the couple to take the powers of life into their own hands and render themselves sterile because they cannot bear the suffering of abstinence.
It is also possible that your desire for your relative’s death might be unrighteous. You may have some sort of hatred toward him that would lead you to wish him dead. You may not kill him yourself; indeed he may die of a natural cause. Nonetheless your rejoicing in his death would be blameworthy. This is akin to a couple who uses NFP with an unrighteous desire to avoid a pregnancy. Their rejoicing in the infertile time would also be blameworthy because it is motivated by a selfish, anti-child mentality.
I have outlined the basic logic of the Catholic sexual ethic with the hope of bringing some balance to the discussion of responsible parenthood.
In contrast to the world’s “disincarnate” view of love, the Church teaches that matter matters. What we do with our bodies expresses our deepest held convictions about ourselves, God, the meaning of love, and the ordering of the universe. When the Church’s sacramental view of the body is taken seriously, we understand that sexual union is not only a biological process, but a profound theological process: “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:32).
The Church’s well-balanced teaching on responsible parenthood is a divine gift given to protect the supreme value of this sign. Imbalances on both extremes must be avoided if we are to ensure fidelity to the sign of marital love and an ever-clearer proclamation of the divine mystery in the world.