Contraception and the Language of the Body — Part 3 of 6

We continue our series [Part one, Part two] commemorating the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. Pope Paul VI released this oh-so-controversial encyclical on July 25, 1968, re-affirming the constant teaching of the Church on the immorality of contraception. To this day it remains a “thorn in the side” of many. It was once a thorn in my side as well. John Paul II’s “theology of the body” helped remove that thorn and show me the glorious fragrance of the rose.

Last time we observed that contracepted intercourse marks a determined “closing off” of the sexual act to the Holy Spirit, to the “Lord and Giver of Life.” In this way, as John Paul II expressed it, contraception falsifies “the language of the body.”

We all know that the body has a “language.” A wave of the hand says “hello” or “goodbye.” A shrug of the shoulders says, “I don’t know.” A raised fist expresses anger. What is sexual intercourse meant to express? What is its true language, its true meaning?

pills2.jpgAccording to Scripture, the sexual embrace is meant to express divine love. Precisely here, in the consummation of their sacrament, spouses are meant to participate in the “great mystery” of divine love. Whether spouses realize this or not, this is the sacramental power of their love. It’s meant to be an image and a real participation in Christ’s love for the Church (see Eph 5:31-32).

As John Paul II candidly expressed, “Through gestures and reactions, through the whole … dynamism of tension and enjoyment — whose direct source is the body in its masculinity and femininity, the body in its action and interaction — through all this man, the person, ‘speaks.’ … Precisely on the level of this ‘language of the body’ … man and woman reciprocally express themselves in the fullest and most profound way made possible for them by … their masculinity and femininity” (TOB 123:4).

But if sexual love is meant to express Christ’s love, we must properly understand the “language” of this love. Christ gives his body freely (“No one takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own accord” -Jn 10:18). He gives his body totally — without reservation, condition, or selfish calculation (“He loved them to the last” -Jn 13:1). He gives his body faithfully (“I am with you always” -Mt 28:20). And he gives his body fruitfully (“I came that they may have life” -Jn 10:10).

If men and women are to avoid the pitfalls of counterfeit love, their union must express the same free, total, faithful, fruitful love that Christ expresses. Of course, as fallen human beings, we’ll never express Christ’s love perfectly. Even so, we must commit ourselves to the life-long journey of learning how to express this love and, at a minimum, never willfully act against it. The name for this commitment is marriage.

This is precisely what a bride and groom consent to 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?” The bride and groom each say “yes.”

In turn, spouses are meant to express this same “yes” with the “language of their bodies” whenever they become one flesh. “In fact, the words themselves, ‘I take you as my wife/as my husband,'” John Paul II says, “can only be fulfilled by conjugal intercourse.” With conjugal intercourse “we pass to the reality that corresponds to these words” (TOB 103:3).

Intercourse, then, is where the words of the wedding vows become flesh. It’s where men and women are meant to incarnate divine love. It’s a fine thing when a couple returns to the church to renew their vows on a special anniversary, but this shouldn’t undermine the fact that every time a husband and wife have intercourse they’re meant to renew their wedding vows with the “language of their bodies.”

How healthy would a marriage be if spouses were regularly unfaithful to their vows? On the other hand, how healthy would a marriage be if spouses regularly renewed their vows with an ever-increasing commitment to them? If you’d prefer the latter type of marriage, you have just accepted the teaching of Humanae Vitae. In the next column, I’ll unfold why.

[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 (

Christopher West


Christopher West is a Catholic author and speaker, best known for his work on Pope John Paul II’s series of audience addresses entitled the Theology of the Body.

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  • Bruce Roeder

    Beautifully expressed.

    Thank you.

  • noelfitz

    I am tired of articles about contraception. In the west the battle is lost. Most Catholics believe in contraception. They have made up their own minds, irrespective of the teaching of the Church.

    Tell me about faith, hope and love and building up fellowship and the Church.

    God bless,

  • rmd13

    In response to Noelfizt:

    You may be tired of contraception articles but I have a college student who is enthralled with these articles. She is willing to take a stand by talking about it with her friends, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. The way to win what is “lost” is NOT to acquiesce. There is always HOPE.

  • momof11


    Excuse me? The teachings of the church about contraception are about building up the church. If they are ignored, society decays. If most Catholics in the west “believe in” contraception, then we must need more articles and preaching about this not less!

  • janinej

    Give me a break! Is sexual intercourse per se the “highest form of human expression”?? How is it any different objectively than what the animals do?
    P.S. NFP is contraception also! Yes?

  • noelfitz

    Rmd13 and Momof11, thank you for your replies. I appreciate them.

    I have tried to get discussions going in the ‘Faith & Life’ round-table, as we had in the past, with limited success.

    The only way I can get a debate going is by ‘piggy-backing’ on others articles. However the thread soon disappears into the outer space of cyperland and is never responded to again.

    Is there any way we can get discussions in the ‘Faith and Life’ round-table? Can we get signatures automatically added to posts, previews of posts, as well as italics and quotes etc. in our posts?

    The Theology of the Body section does not allow responses to posts. Can this be changed?

    God bless,

  • ekbell

    To look at human sexual intercourse as if studying a species separate from oneself is not the best way to find what it means to us humans.

    To deny that it can be the ultimate expression of eros is to deny the common thought and felt reality of the vast majority of humans.

    Language whether of the body or speech is something best known from within.

    PS there are a few distinct differences between NFP and artifical birth control…. this is not to say that NFP can never be misused but in truth the saying that the ends are not the means is a valid one. It seems to be a common failing in our society to assume that it does not matter how a goal is achieved as long as you meant well.

  • sabr


    Have you read HV? Section 18 specifically deals with your argument. In part, “But this is no reason for the Church to abandon the duty entrusted to her of preaching the whole moral law firmly and humbly…it would never be right for her to declare as morally permissible that which is truly not so.”


    NFP is not contraception.
    – HV 16 specifically deals with this question.
    – If NFP was contraception, Planned Parenthood would teach it pre-teens. Let me know when that happens. I can assure you I’ll see the second coming before that day comes.
    – As someone who used contraception in the past and saw the light after reading HV, my personal experience tells me they are not the same.
    – NFP can be used with a contraceptive mentality, and in that case would be just as morally impermissible. When “used” correctly, NFP is really a worldview about sexuality, marriage, and responsible parenthood that is always open to new life. Contraception is a tool to have sex whenever you want, with whomever you want, with the expressed aim of always being closed to new life.
    – The funny thing is, people who are contracepting and arguing against NFP always go to that gun first “NFP is contraception. They have the same end.” If I then say, “OK, well then why don’t you switch to it?” they will backpedal faster than you can possibly believe.

    I could go on and on, but I’ll stop there. If you truly want to understand more, read Christopher West’s “Good News About Sex and Marriage”, read the TOB channel here on CE, or listen to a talk by Janet Smith from One More Soul. It could truly change your life.

    If you’re wondering, I’m almost 32, married 11 years and the proud father of 6 (10, 8, 6, 6, 3, one on the way). And before you say, “Oh, you’re the poster boy for why it doesn’t work” I’ll say that I want it this way and if you are using NFP properly, it is impossible for it to ever “not work”. Because even if you have an unexpected pregnancy, you were using NFP because you are always “open” to the blessings of a new child. I’ll add, also, that my twins were conceived while we were using contraception. We have no history of twins in my wife’s line. Shows you have much “control” we had using birth control.

    What greater thing can a man do with his life than cooperate with God in the creation and upbringing of an immortal soul?

  • janinej

    It’s called “rational thought”. I highly recommend it. It’s the best and only way to penetrate the “felt reality” prison of subjective mind. The truth is, “eros” is not the highest human experience. Sex, like it or not, is amoung the functions that we share with all the animals. I think it is offensive to speak of Christ as a sexual analogy. Don’t give me “everybody knows”. Everyone used to know that the highest human activities are prayer and contemplation. Can you feel it?

    It’s just silly to say that NFP is not contraception. I refer you to the NFP’s promotional literature which proudly assures the reader that this method is 90% plus effective. Did you think they meant effective in the production of an “immortal soul”? They’re talking about preventing conception– Contraception. I think you agree. The contraceptive mentality is equally immoral, whether artifially or “naturally” applied. So if you were using it as a form of communication or to become more aware of each other, or whatever other “felt needs” you may be so highly expressing, those reasons are secondary. The primary purpose is to prevent life.

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  • sabr


    The ends do not justify the means, and the ends certainly do not make the means morally or even rationally equal. By the definition you use, total abstinence or even suicide are “contraception”.

    Perhaps we’re not being clear enough in the language of our discourse. If “contraception” is defined as “any means to avoid or prevent the conception of a child” then we take an absurdly wide definition that falls into the trap I mentioned above. If “contraception” is defined as “a chemical or physical agent designed to prevent the proper workings of a healthy reproductive system”, which is what I intended it to mean, then it is quite clear that NFP is not contraception. Contraception, which I’ll call artificial birth control (ABC) for clarity, is aimed at “preventing life” either before conception or as an abortifacient. NFP may be used with the intention of avoiding pregnancy, but it expressly does not attempt to “prevent life” by allowing the user to have sex with the aid of some ABC thereby separating the procreative and unitive parts of intercourse.

    It appears that the last part of this series will deal with this question. Perhaps Mr. West will respond to your point in a clearer manner than me.

  • momof11

    NFP is not contraception although it can be used with a contraceptive mentality. Point in fact, many couples use NFP to help them to achieve pregnancy in the face of fertility problems. Also many who begin using NFP with a “contraceptive mentality” come to realize that mentality for what it is and change their thought. To me, rational thought is what takes the marital act to a different level than animal copulation. As human beings with rational thought we are able to discover the meaning behind the experiences we have in life. There are realities in some peoples lives which would make it unwise for them to have another pregnancy, either temporarily or for the remainder of their years. Persons who are married have not been called to live a life of celibacy, nor does the Church expect that of them, as she realizes that there are many aspects to the marital act.

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  • ekbell

    janinej, it is my rational thought that tells me that language is best learned from experience. I also consider it rational to ask the person who does something what they mean by it.

    I do not accept the argument that the value of an activity is lessened by being shared by the animals (see discussion on eating down below). I don’t remember stating that eros was the greatest human activity although I will freely state that Love as defined by Paul is.

    (part of rational argument, a part that I admit I sometimes fail at myself, is to refrain from arguing against claims that were never made by the person you are currently addressing.)

    I think it is offensive to speak of Christ as a sexual analogy. Don’t give me “everybody knows”. Everyone used to know that the highest human activities are prayer and contemplation.

    I thought that everyone used to know that the greatest human activity was to love (and serve) God and that prayer and contemplation were part of this, much as when we love another human we want and should think of them and talk to them.

    If it is offensive to use the analogy of marital love to speak of Christ then the Bible both old testament (Isreal is frequently referred to as God’s spouse) and new (where the Church is referred to as Christ’s bride) is offensive. The mystics who often used this analogy must also be offensive.

    The fact that like other animals we must eat does not mean that we need to eat like animals in fact we often put much ritual and meaning until our meals.
    Nor did it stop Christ from giving us one of the greatest of gifts in the form of eating.

    Why must the other functions we share with the animals be automatically considered to be merely animalistic? We were created in the image of God with bodies , told to be fruitful and multiply, and God saw that this was good.

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