In our society there is a strong culture of self-entitlement when it comes to sex. Society tells us that sex is about our individual personal fulfilment and that sexual satisfaction is our right. Rather than helping couples develop deeply intimate and meaningful intimacy, these attitudes lead them into selfish and often disordered sex lives.
Scripture reveals that God’s vision for married love is one of life-long, mutual self-donation; a passionate and other-centred self-gift that draws the couple into the sacred presence of the Divine. Yet not many people appreciate that this vision for married love forms the foundation of all the Church’s teachings about sex and when taken out of context these teachings can seem inconsistent or disconnected with reality.
For example, many Catholics believe (mistakenly) that the Church insists that they must have large families or that the use of contraception is wrong simply because it is artificial. Neither of these beliefs is accurate, though they do raise two important issues: how many children and how to plan for them.
1) How many children should a couple have?
Children are a great blessing to a marriage. Raising a child is also a tremendous responsibility drawing on the emotional, physical, spiritual and economic resources of the parents. Thus procreation is not only about conceiving and giving birth to a child, it is also about forming and parenting that child into independent adulthood; there is both a biological and spiritual aspect to the role of parenting.
For this reason, the Church encourages couples to plan their families responsibly with consideration given to their commitment to God, to each other, to their family and to society. This planning should be a prayerful discernment by husband and wife together in a spirit of mutual respect and generosity. Couples are urged to always be open to the gift of children throughout their marriage, even if their circumstances and prayerful discernment oblige them to avoid conception for a period of time. The Church calls this discernment process ‘responsible parenthood’
As every married couple is unique, each must prayerfully discern for themselves how many children God calls them to have and when to have them. A decision to postpone or limit family size should never be for trivial reasons. Such reasons for a particular couple may relate to the psychological or physical health of one of the spouses, to the difficulty of a family’s social circumstances, or to arduous financial burdens.
However, it is worth remembering that…”it is certainly less serious to deny children certain comforts or material advantages than to deprive them of the presence of brothers and sisters who could help them to grow in humanity and to realise the beauty of life in all its ages and in all its variety.”11 Couples who are unable to have their own children will need to apply the same principles of discernment to the issue of adoption, fostering or other life-giving ministries.
2) By what means can a couple manage their fertility when necessary?
About the only thing a man can do that a woman cannot is be a father. Likewise, being a mother is a unique experience to women. But neither can be a father or a mother without the assistance of the other: a husband’s paternity is a gift that is given to him by his wife, a wife’s maternity is a gift that can only be given through the loving embrace of her husband. Thus our capacity for biological parenthood is indelibly linked to sexual union. Yet marital sex is about more than just procreation.
There are two inherent meanings or purposes in marital sex: the unitive (or bonding) and the procreative (or life-giving). These two aspects of intercourse are inseparable; they are interconnected one with the other. That is to say that if the procreative aspect is removed or set aside, the unitive meaning is also diminished. When a couple use contraception, this is exactly what happens. They not only eliminate the procreative dimension of their love making, they also impede the expression and fulfilment of their interpersonal unity. They deny each other and their marriage the gift of their fertility and in doing so they withhold an intrinsic part of themselves in their love making. Instead of their lovemaking being an expression of their total self-gift to each other, it becomes a conditional and impaired self-gift. Instead of their lovemaking being an expression of the total acceptance of each other, it becomes tainted with an element of rejection as they suppress or disable the fertility of one or both.
The Church holds sexual love and the generation of new life in such high esteem that it would never condone the degrading of it through the use of contraception or artificial reproduction. Thus the Church does not object to contraception because it is artificial. Rather, it objects because it knows that when spouses deliberately impede their procreative capacity they compromise the sacred meaning of sexual intercourse as a total gift of self between husband and wife.
What’s The Moral Difference
Some people ask, “If natural fertility methods are so effective, what is the moral difference between them and contraception? After all, the result is the same – pregnancy is avoided.”
As in any moral decision, couples need to consider not just the ‘end’, but also the ‘means’ by which that end is achieved. For some methods of contraception including some forms of the ‘pill’ and IUDs, the end can often directly involve the destruction of a human life through an early abortion.
With respect to some other forms of contraception (e.g. condoms), although the intended outcome of avoiding pregnancy (the end) is the same as for natural fertility methods, there is an important difference in the means. Couples who use a natural fertility method do not in any way alter their fertility, but accept it in its natural rhythms. These couples do not make a conscious choice against their fertility when they choose to use the naturally infertile phases for intercourse, because these acts of love are infertile by God’s design. The sacred meaning of sexual intercourse as a total gift of self is preserved; they can freely and wholeheartedly enter into sexual intercourse at these infertile times knowing that they hold nothing back from each other and accept each other fully.
On the other hand, when a couple chooses contraception to avoid a pregnancy, their potential as a couple to fully express their total self-giving is impeded. By intentionally excluding their fertility from their love making, even by mutual agreement and for seemingly good reasons, they withhold a vital part of themselves and thus undermine the sacred meaning of their specific exchange.
The Church is not indifferent to the difficulties many couples face in attempting to live out this vision. It draws close to couples in difficulty, and calls them to find a solution to their challenges through a full respect for the truth of their love12.
“When we were engaged, we were fortunate to have known a number couples, including our parents, who encouraged us to find out about natural methods. We didn’t really understand why the Church accepted it and not other methods of birth control, but we trusted the Church, and those close to us – trusted that they had our interests at heart when they invited us to learn it. After fourteen years, we’re convinced of the truth in the Church’s teaching, and are thankful to those who challenged us to live this truth in the most important part of our married life.” – Ben
Francine & Byron Pirola are the founders and principal authors of the SmartLoving series. They are passionate about living Catholic marriage to the full and helping couples reach their marital potential. They have been married since 1988 and have five children.
Their articles may be reproduced for non commercial purposes with appropriate acknowledgement and back links.