The Family-Planning Dilemma
John and Mary have just gotten married. They are excited about settling
down and starting their new life together. They want to raise a family
eventually, but are not in a financial position to begin right away. They
figure that they will be ready to have children in about two years.
Alan and Jane have been married 10 years. They have two children. Alan has
just lost his job and Jane is still at home with their younger daughter. They
feel they cannot afford a third child.
Mark and Michelle are married and have one child. Michelle has been told by
her doctor that for medical reasons she should not get pregnant for at least two
years. They eventually want another child but will follow the doctor's advice in
These three couples are Catholics. What does the Catholic religion require of
them in this situation? How can they avoid pregnancy and also avoid sin? What
does the Church really teach about birth control?
To begin to understand this teaching, we must first clear up a
misunderstanding. Some people think that the Church is against all forms of
"planning" a family. They have heard that the Church teaches that a couple must
either keep having children - despite financial or medical problems - or else
abstain from all sex. Framing the problem in these terms, they dismiss the
"Church's teaching" as absurd.
But that is not the Church's teaching. A couple has a right and duty to plan
their family. There is a way for these couples to work out their problem and
still be good Catholics. The Church asks them to understand, however, the
hows and whys of planning their families. Some kinds of "planning"
are cooperation with God; other kinds of "planning" are rebellion against God
and against marriage itself. We can shed some light on the birth-control
question if we look at the meaning of marriage, and then at the role of God, and
finally at a practical solution.
The Marriage Covenant
The three questions we raised at the beginning involve MARRIED couples.
Marriage is a covenant
between two persons. A covenant is more than a mere contract. It involves two
themselves to each other completely. Marriage is marriage only if it is
TOTAL. There are no reservations in the giving, no conditions, no holding back.
Each spouse says to the other, "I give you all that I am, in body and soul, for
the present and all the future."
The physical act which expresses this attitude is sexual intercourse. We
express with our bodies what we say in our minds, hearts, and emotions; nothing
is held back; we go "all the way." One of the gifts the husband and wife give
each other is their fertility, the unique power to become parents through one
another. When the husband gives his seed to his wife, he is giving the SEED of
himself, and therefore giving HIMSELF. He gives her what he gives to nobody
else. Sexuality has its deepest meaning in this total self-giving, a self-giving
that can lead to new life.
Yet what if this sexual act is deprived of its power to give new life? What
if I want to "give myself" to my spouse, but I don't want to give my fertility?
Is a couple allowed to use a contraceptive device, either physical ( like a
condom or diaphragm ) or chemical ( like the pill ), in order to "hold back"
The answer will be clear if we ask whether that act of intercourse is still a
total self-giving. It is obviously not, because now a step has been taken to
hold something back. Sex with contraception is sex with serious reservation. But
a marriage covenant means total self-giving. Every act of intercourse is
a RENEWAL of the marriage covenant! The physical act is meant to "tell the
truth" about the total self-giving going on in the spouses' lives. Contraception
contradicts this. The act says one thing, "I give myself totally," but really
means another, "I hold back on my willingness to conceive a child." Therefore
the use of a contraceptive pill or device in an act of marital intercourse is
The Giver of Life
We can see this from another angle when we ask, "Who is God?" That question
might not seem to have anything to do with contraception, but it really has
everything to do with it.
Let's start with a couple who WANTS to have a child. Who ultimately,
decides whether they will have that child or not? God does. All the couple does
is set up the conditions, through intercourse, in which a child might
be conceived. But God alone makes the final decision.
So it is with the couple who does not want a child. The husband and
wife are not
the ultimate decision makers about whether a new life will come about. God is
the Creator. Parents are "co-creators," but always with God and in
obedience to God. If they perform the act of intercourse but then deprive it
of fertility by their own action, they are looking at God and saying, "YOU SHALL
NOT CREATE!" They are assuming for themselves the right to close the door on new
human life. This is why Pope John Paul II has said that the act of contraception
does "not recognize God as God" ( L'Osservatore Romano, Oct. 10, 1983,
p.7). Quite a serious thing!
What's the Solution?
So contraception is always wrong. But that still leaves us hanging in regard
to the three couples we saw at the beginning. They cannot use contraception, and
yet they have reasons not to become pregnant at the present time. What do they
God has provided an answer in the fact that a couple can now determine with
precision when ovulation occurs, even if the woman has a highly irregular cycle.
We are not
speaking here of the "calendar rhythm" method, but of a modern, improved set of
methods which rely on several observable phenomena to determine the days in
which a pregnancy could occur. These methods are grouped under the name "Natural
Family Planning (NFP)." If a couple has serious objective reasons for avoiding
pregnancy, they abstain during those days when pregnancy could occur. When used
correctly this method is as completely reliable as artificial methods. In fact,
Natural Family Planning is more than a "method." It is based on the virtues
of sexual self-control, communication, shared responsibility, and obedience to
God. By observing NFP, the couple is not distorting the meaning of the sexual
act. Rather, they respectfully abstain from it at times in order to plan their
family. The proper use of NFP is in line with God's law and the Catholic
religion. The philosophy and practice of NFP can be learned in a few sessions,
offered in various locations.
Our three couples, and so many like them, do have a solution. Yet the
solution calls for respect and obedience to the design of God for marriage,
love, and the procreation of new life. The Church is ready to help all such
couples to know and do what is right.
Fr. Frank A. Pavone