It is no secret that “artificial contraception” – which includes hormonal contraception, barrier contraception, and chemical contraception – has become widely accepted inside and outside of the Church, despite the Church’s constant official teaching that contraception is immoral. Many people think that the Church’s official teaching is “old fashioned” in its insistence that artificial contraception be avoided. The assumption is that the Church is against contraception because it distrusts modern technology, because it can’t stand the idea that people might enjoy the pleasures of sex, or because it feels some power-hungry urge to control people in unreasonable ways. None of these assumptions is true.
The fact is, the Church is defending God’s beautiful plan for sexuality and marriage, and in disregarding the Church, Catholics and society at large have missed out on the fullness of that beauty. It’s time for us to rediscover and reclaim the full beauty of the gift of sexuality, especially as it is fully expressed in marriage and family life. What is the full meaning of sexual union? What does marriage and family life call us to? How can we more fully live it? These are questions we need to start asking. These are questions that God has answered for us. And the answers are exciting!
What is the full meaning of sexual union?
For too long we’ve settled for a cotton candy understanding of sex. We’ve swallowed the lie that sex means nothing more than recreation. This lie wraps sex in a cocoon of selfishness. But sex means so much more than that. Sex is an act of loving bonding that turns our hearts toward another.
But it’s even more than that. The reproductive power of sex gives it an even deeper, more beautiful meaning. You see, the act of sex doesn’t just communicate “I love you.” That would be beautiful enough. But it exercises something even more: “I love you so much I want to spend the rest of my life with you and raise a family together.”
Compared to the cotton candy we’ve been settling for, God’s full truth is a gourmet dinner.
What Does Marriage and Family Life Call Us To?
The beauty of sex is only one course in this gourmet meal. Marriage and family life has been presented to us in the same way as sex. It has been reduced to an act of self-fulfillment. It’s something to make us happy. All too often the bond of marriage only lasts for as long as we feel “happy” and “fulfilled.” This is the cotton candy version of marriage and family life.
But God’s plan for marriage and family life is far greater. Marriage is a vocation and a sacrament. A vocation is a calling. Specifically it is God’s call to us to love as Jesus loves – by making a complete gift of self. Marriage and family life is the “school of love” that we are called to – to teach us how to love completely. As a sacrament, marriage is the sacred sign of this love that Jesus has for us. A sacramental sign brings about what it signifies. Marriage brings God’s love into the world by creating an environment of love between a husband and a wife and bringing new life into that environment of love. The parents then bring their children to the love of God – and so God’s love is brought into the world.
Now that’s a gourmet meal.
How Can We More Fully Live God’s Plan for Sex, Marriage and Family?
The key to experiencing the fullness of God’s plan for sex and marriage is to give ourselves over generously to selfless love. In each area of our marriage we should ask ourselves, “Is this choice leading me toward selfishness or toward selfless love?”
A prime area where married couple practice selfless love is in accepting new life into their marital home. In his encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), Pope Paul VI reminds us that God calls married couples to balance generosity in welcoming new life with the responsibilities they have to care for their family. This responsible generosity and generous responsibility calls married couples to constantly ask the question, “Can we afford (financially, emotionally, psychologically, etc.) to invite another person to the family table?” And that question should always be an exercise of selfless love. Sometimes the answer will be an easy “yes.” Sometimes it will be a sacrificial “yes.” And sometimes it will be a selfless and honest “no.”
When the answer is no, Pope Paul VI reminds us that even then married couples are called to exercise selfless love. And part of that call is to make sure that every sexual act expresses selfless love and the full expression of the marital vows – including openness to life. That’s where contraception falls short.
Specifically, contraception changes the very nature of the sexual act.
- Barrier contraception interferes with the act itself, erecting a physical barrier between the lovers so that they cannot truly unite in the way God intended.
- Chemical contraception shuts down the healthy fertility system, attempting to remove procreation from the sexual act altogether.
In contrast, Natural Family Planning (NFP) does not change the nature of the sexual act. Instead it cooperates with the way God created human fertility – where the man has constant fertility and the woman’s fertility cycles – to help a couple either achieve or avoid conception by timing intercourse according to whether the couple is fertile or infertile. No barrier is put between the couple. The healthy fertility system is kept whole and intact.
But perhaps equally important is the fact that Natural Family Planning can become an integral part of a married couple’s quest to grow in selfless love. NFP is not easy. It requires the man and the woman to both learn the details of the fertility cycle and to learn the NFP method. It requires ongoing attention and effort to observe the fertile signs and to chart them. It requires periodic abstinence, especially during the couple’s fertile period when they are trying to avoid pregnancy. And it requires constant communication between the husband and wife to check and double check that they’re exercising both generosity and responsibility.
But all of these challenges are also opportunities. Couples who practice NFP are encouraged to use their periods of abstinence to love each other in non-sexual ways. Not only does the communication that Natural Family Planning requires increase communication in the general, but the rhythm of NFP encourages husbands and wives to watch out for each other’s needs.
We do have to be careful even in the use of Natural Family Planning. NFP can be used selfishly. That’s why generous responsibility in growing the family needs to come first. But when the honest decision has been made to limit or space pregnancy, NFP continues the exercise of selfless love. Natural Family Planning helps us reclaim God’s beautiful plan for sex, marriage and family life. Want to learn more? Contact the Office for Marriage and Family Life at [email protected] or visit our website at [email protected].