Two recent news events converged in such a way that this is a necessary explication of something rarely understood in Catholic teaching. The two stories are at opposite ends of the spectrum, and so they miss the nuanced middle that often encompasses the “both/and” of good theology.
The first story is about a popular Catholic layman who makes and distributes videos commenting on the latest scandal or earth-shattering news item that affects the Catholic faith and society. This fellow has apparently either endorsed directly or allowed to be endorsed on his site the idea that the use of Natural Family Planning (NFP) by Catholic couples is sinful, unless the reasons for its use are very grave. This school of thought looks upon any couple using NFP as violating the spirit of the Church’s teaching because they are selfish. If a couple does not have a large number of children, then they must be using NFP as contraception, and therefore are guilty of sin.
While one could suppose in a given situation that a certain couple is selfish in their intentions of using this Church approved method of spacing children or avoiding conception, that determination is not for anyone else to make except the couple. While a couple may seek counsel from a wise pastor or spiritual director about their inner motivations, if they are open to life when they engage in the marital act, there is no sexual sin involved. God may tell them at the last day that they should have had more children, but that judgment is literally up to God.
The other story is about a popular governor who proclaimed quite loudly (as most of the things he says are quite loudly declaimed) that he used contraception, and then went on to ask, “Does that make me a bad Catholic?” I am not sure what his motivation for stating such a thing was, and his wife should be embarrassed by the public admission. The simple answer is that, yes, using contraception in a marriage is a sinful act, one that requires one to repent, and would prima facie prevent one from receiving Holy Communion. Thus, such a person would be a bad Catholic, that is, not a practicing Catholic. While it is possible for a married couple to use contraception in a moment of weakness, and thus need to seek forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance, the idea that one would brag about it as a lifestyle choice and, apparently, a regular part of his marital life? That not only would prevent such a person from participating in the Sacraments because of the use of contraception until true penitence is shown, but also involves the sin of scandal. This person has publicly admitted to a sinful lifestyle, without regrets. His attitude about it may lead others to think that they, too, can use it and be good Catholics, and thus he has contributed to the sin of another, or even many others. “Look, honey, the governor used it! Why can’t we?”
What the Church teaches about the marital act is that it has two aspects that are inseparable: unity and openness to life. The spouses engage in the marital love embrace as a sign of their mutual commitment. Hence, the act must be one of love and never one of force. It is the consummation of a bond that has the added element of a graced encounter with the Lord, Who binds the two together for their mutual benefit and growth in life and holiness. God created sex for this reason, for the mutual benefit of husband and wife. Even the pleasure is part of His plan and is so intimate between spouses that they should joyfully engage in this complete renewal of their vows, now made flesh between them.
As a physical act, it has certain dimensions that require (we must say today) a man and a woman. The very orientation of the physical act is towards “something”, or rather, some one. There is a reason that, apart from a little blue pill, some things stop happening once the act reaches a certain conclusion. The man shares with and within his wife something of his very self. While the Biblical understanding of the science behind conception is incomplete, the substance of Biblical teaching is that the seed of the man is not something extraneous to him, but of his very self. Genetics only confirms this even further, as does the understanding of how the actual act of conception takes place, whereby what is “of the man” meets what is “of the woman” to form from the two one new, unrepeatable new person with his or her own genetic make up, his or her own body capable of growth as an individual.
So serious is the possibility of this new creation that the act whereby a new human being comes into existence requires protection (from harm!) and a sense of sacred awe. For one to turn the act into a mere physical act of satisfaction is itself contra naturam (against nature). As important as the pleasurable feelings and emotions are as the act is taking place, they are a part of something above and beyond the individual or even the couple. As with creation in general, the human person is a steward of creation, not its overlord.
In contracepting, the couple is adding an additional act into the marital act that by its intention is to render it sterile, even if temporarily. This is why it has been called “artificial contraception”. An “artifice” is used, be it a pill, a device or some other action, to take away, on purpose, the life-giving aspect of the marital act. While the couple may be in love, choose to engage in the act as is their right, and enjoy each other in unity, they have, unfortunately, introduced something additional that takes away a crucial element of what they are doing, and, to use St. John Paul II’s terminology, they speak a different word by contracepting that contradicts the word they are saying with their bodies, “I am yours; you are mine.” They deliberately insert a barrier of non-acceptance in what should be an act, by each spouse, of total acceptance and complete giving.
But what do we make of the Church “allowing” the use of NFP? Why and how is it different than taking a pill or putting on a device? Isn’t the intention the same and have the same effect? Again, while the generosity of a given couple is something they really do need to pray about and discuss, a couple that learns and properly uses NFP is not violating the marital act in any way. Perhaps they are guilty of selfishness in some way; that is not for another to say. What can be said is that when they decide to engage in the marital act itself, they remain open to the possibility of life, and do not add a separate act into their embrace that of its very nature is against one of the two goods of marriage.
The respect that is demanded of the husband for the nature of his wife’s body is part and parcel of his responsibility as a husband and a man, just as she must respect his body and what he is capable of doing along with her in the procreation of new life. The conversation and communication that must take place between husband and wife, on a whole multitude of subjects, including their openness and preparedness for a new life, is what makes a marriage strong and healthy in the first place. Should they reasonably decide that at a certain time or season or situation having a baby is not best for them and their other children, they abstain during known fertile times while respecting the dignity of what their marital love means beyond themselves. NFP simply enables them to know, with some degree of certitude, that a woman most likely will not conceive during a particular time during her cycle. Engaging in relations during those times is their right as husband and wife, shows their love for each other, yet still remains open to the possibility of life without violating the inner structure, we might say, of how procreation happens.
The Church offers this clear teaching, and has done so since the beginning, as she offers all of her moral guidance: to help people find and discover what is God’s will for them and enable them to have a fully formed and correct conscience. The two hazards of today, as evidenced by the stories to which I alluded above, attack the Church’s teaching from two different angles. The governor’s broadcast of his ignorance of the Church’s teaching is an assault on conscience since it seeks to justify bad behavior on his part and thus contributes to the weakening of consciences that has proliferated in the Church and society for decades. The popular preacher man’s attitude, unfortunately held by many among the more “traditionally minded” set of Catholics, is an angry assault on the consciences of others who have their own set of legitimate needs and desires, and certainly do not need yet another harsh word spoken to them by this new generation of Pharisees.
God made man for love and for life. He created marriage as a sign of His own covenantal love for humanity, and more specifically, His Church. Respecting marriage in all of its complexity and in its possibilities is a central obligation of the Church and society. Marriage is a difficult path for most couples. The last thing married couples need today is conscience warping self-aggrandizement from any angle. The future of humanity and the good of souls is at stake.