For several columns now we’ve been reflecting on the Church’s teaching on contraception in commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s letter Humanae Vitae [Part one, Part two, Part three, Part four]. We’ve observed that sexual intercourse is meant to incarnate the marriage commitment itself, and that an integral part of that commitment is openness to children.
So, does fidelity to the wedding vows 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 are considered “to exercise responsible parenthood 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” (HV 10). Notice that large families should result from prudent reflection, not “chance.” Notice too that couples must have “serious reasons” to avoid pregnancy and must respect the moral law.
Assuming a couple have a serious reason to avoid a child (this could be financial, physical, psychological, etc.), what could they do that would not violate the consummate expression of their sacrament? In other words, what could they do to avoid conceiving a child that would not render them unfaithful to their wedding vows? You’re doing it right now (I presume). They could abstain from sex. There is nothing wrong with abstaining from sex when there’s a good reason to do so. The Church has always recognized 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 embraced during a time of natural infertility? Take, for example, a couple past childbearing years. They know their union will not result in a child. Are they violating their vows if they engage in intercourse with this knowledge? Are they contracepting? No. Contraception, by definition, is the choice to engage in an act of intercourse, but then do something else to render it sterile. This can be done by using various devices, hormones, surgical procedures, and the age-old method of withdrawal.
Couples who use natural family planning (NFP) when they have a just reason to avoid pregnancy never render their sexual acts sterile; they never contracept. They track their fertility, abstain when they are fertile and, if they so desire, embrace when they are naturally infertile. Readers unfamiliar with modern NFP methods should note that they are 98-99% effective at avoiding pregnancy when used properly. Furthermore, any woman, regardless of the regularity of her cycles, can use NFP successfully. This is not your grandmother’s “rhythm method.”
To some people this seems like splitting hairs. “What’s the big difference,” they ask, “between rendering the union sterile yourself and just waiting until it’s naturally infertile? The end result is the same: both couples avoid children.” To which I respond, what’s the big difference between killing Grandma and just waiting until she dies naturally? End result’s the same thing: dead Grandma. Yes, but one is a serious sin called murder, and the other is an act of God.
If a person can tell the difference between euthanasia and natural death, he can tell the difference between contraception and NFP. It’s the same difference. I’m not equating contraception and murder. That’s not the analogy. Rather, Grandma’s natural death and a woman’s natural period of infertility are both acts of God. But in killing Grandma or in rendering sex sterile, we take the powers of life into our own hands — just like the deceiver originally tempted us to do — and make ourselves like God (see Gn 3:5).
This is why Pope John Paul II concludes that contraception “is to be judged so profoundly unlawful as never to be, for any reason, justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life, situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God” (address Oct. 10, 1983).
If you have resisted the Church’s teaching on contraception, maybe it’s time to give it some more thought.
[Editor's note: Please enjoy regular features from this and other enlightening authors discussing Catholic teaching on sexuality in CE's Theology of the Body channel.]
This column first appeared as part of Christopher West’s Body Language series for the Catholic press (www.christopherwest.com).