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 the meantime.
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 persons giving 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" their fertility?
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 never right.
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 do?
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