The continuing controversy over the HHS mandate has kept the issue of birth control in the national spotlight and raised questions in the minds of many people, including many Catholics, about why the Church opposes contraception in the first place. What does faith have to do with family planning? Many people sincerely wonder. Does God really care how many kids we have and what method of birth control we use? To begin to understand where the Church is coming from on this issue, we first need to see the “big picture,” from the perspective of both history and theology. National NFP Awareness Week is a good time to do so.
For the vast majority of Christian history, all of the major Christian denominations, not just the Catholic Church, taught that contraception was seriously wrong. This opposition was not limited to the clergy, but was widely accepted by the Christian faithful. In fact, when Anthony Comstock, a devout New England Protestant, proposed to Congress in 1873 a federal statute that would criminalize the possession, distribution and dissemination of information about contraceptives, it passed with little debate.
The first break in the constant teaching of the Christian churches came in 1930, when the Anglican Church decided at its Lambeth Conference to permit the use of contraception among married couples for serious reasons. In the same year, Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical “Casti Connubii,” which reaffirmed the clear and consistent Christian doctrine on the sanctity of marriage and the immorality of contraception. Fast forward to 1960, when the “Pill” gained FDA approval, and its proponents promised that marriages would be more fulfilling if children were fewer.
Eight years later, with the sexual revolution in full swing, Pope Paul VI issued his prophetic encyclical, “Humanae vitae.” In the context of a succinct but profound theology of spousal love and responsible parenthood, the Holy Father reaffirmed the moral norm prohibiting contraception and instead promoted natural methods of fertility regulation as the path to happiness and holiness in marriage.
A decade later, at the beginning of his own pontificate, St. John Paul II strongly reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on this matter and deepened it further through his beautiful “theology of the body.”
Central to this teaching is the conviction that sexual intercourse is intended by God to be the most intimate sign of the mutual gift of self that a man and woman make to one another in marriage. It is designed to be, not a monologue, but a dialogue in which a husband and wife “say” to each other through the language of the body what they said aloud publicly on the altar on their wedding day: I accept you completely as the gift that God created you to be, and I give myself to you completely in return. And this mutual gift of self that is expressed in sexual union is not meant to end with the couple, but rather, makes them capable of the greatest possible gift: becoming co-creators with God in giving life to a new human person. The procreative potential of sex, far from simply serving to propagate the species, is for man and woman something sacramental, meant to mirror and make present God Himself.
As the first Letter of John tells us, God is love. He lives in Himself a mystery of personal, loving communion that we call the Holy Trinity. In this communion of persons, God the Father is the lover, God the Son is the beloved, and the love between them is so real that it is actually another person — the Holy Spirit.
In a similar way, through the blessing of procreation, God graces the love between husband and wife with the gift of a child who is literally the two of them in one flesh, a personification of their love and a permanent sign of their unity. And what is more, this new human being bears not only the image and likeness of his or her parents, but above all, the very image and likeness of God. So we see that the love-giving and life-giving meanings of sex are intimately linked, like two sides of the same coin, because they reflect the inner life of God who is love.
Perhaps we can now understand on a deeper level that the question of family planning is not peripheral to our faith. On the contrary, how we handle our mutual fertility in marriage is a central and serious issue in our walk with God.
Every Sunday when we recite the creed at Mass, we profess our belief in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. There is only one act that puts us in communion with God as the Lord and giver of life, and that act is the marital embrace. How beautiful that He who is the bond of love between the Father and the Son should be the one who can make our love for each other in marriage so real that it actually becomes another person, the two of us in one flesh. When it comes to marriage, sexuality and procreation, therefore, we are standing on holy ground. God is present here in a mysterious but real way, and like Moses who approached the burning bush on Mount Horeb, we remove the sandals from our feet in profound reverence.
Natural family planning (NFP) is an umbrella term for methods of fertility regulation that respect the inseparable connection, willed by God, between the love-giving and life-giving purposes of sex.
By learning to observe and interpret the biomarkers of fertility in a woman’s body, married couples can identify the days on which conception is most likely should they desire to conceive a child, and they can refrain from sexual relations on the days when conception is possible should they desire to avoid a pregnancy.
International studies have confirmed that when a couple is properly taught and the method is used correctly, NFP has an effectiveness rate of 98-99 percent.
St. John Paul II, that great champion of human love, knew that the Church’s teaching on sexuality and procreation is central to the holiness and the happiness of married couples. Years ago, in an address to young people, he spoke from the heart: “Do not be afraid of the love that places clear demands on people. These demands — as you find them in the constant teaching of the Church — are precisely capable of making your love a true love.”
There is no doubt that following the Church’s teaching on this matter can be difficult, even heroic, at times, and what G.K. Chesterton once said of Christianity is perhaps especially true of this teaching: it is not that it has been tried and found wanting — it has been found difficult and has not been tried.
But there is also no doubt that following the teaching of the Church fosters the spiritual growth of spouses and strengthens their relationship with God. As one husband and father of five, married 35 years reflected: “We see practicing NFP as another one of those opportunities that God gives us to grow in our trust in Him. Early in our married life, we accepted the Church’s invitation to tithe. God has never failed us as we professed our trust in Him in this area of our family finances. Putting our trust in God with respect to our family size and sexual intimacy as husband and wife has also been a blessing. … God has gently coaxed us with His gifts to let go of our lives little by little, and to put our trust in Him. Our NFP experiences … have been gifts that have helped us to grow in our trust in our Triune God. Our cup has overflowed with His generosity.”
To find out more about NFP, go to www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/natural-family-planning/, or to locate a class near you, go to www.diocesefwsb.org/Natural-Family-Planning.
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