Wow! I really do feel for you – because that is a challenging cross for you and your husband to carry. I intend to give you an honest answer . . . one that I hope will help you to understand the why behind the what of the Church’s teachings. Please be prepared for this answer to be somewhat “complex” – in its own simple way – in my attempt to lay for you a foundation of understanding where the Church’s teachings come from, why they are true, and how they ultimately set us free.
The Church does not just teach Natural Family Planning (NFP) because it seems like a “holier” way than contraception. And the Church is not at all “outdated” in her thinking. The reality is that Church teaches that contraception – or any act of sterilization or abortifacient device or pill – is intrinsically evil, because these things go directly against the meaning of human sexuality and are beneath the dignity of human beings.
God, the creator of all, had a purpose and a plan for us and for this reason He gave us laws so that we would stay within that plan. When we step outside of God’s plan, we suffer and we cause others to suffer as well.
What is the meaning and purpose of human sexuality and what is God’s plan for marriage?
I will draw much of my explanation from the teachings of Pope John Paul II in his work, The Theology of the Body, as explained by Christopher West through his conference work on the Theology of the Body and his book entitled The Good News about Sex and Marriage: Honest Answers to your Questions on Catholic Teachings.
Just as an aside, I highly recommend Chris West’s book. I believe no Catholic home should be without it. I do not recommend it as a “coffee table” book to be left lying around for small children to read. But it is a unique work in that it offers easy to understand, clear and honest answers to the Church’s teachings about marriage and the meaning of human sexuality. It is a fabulous resource. You might also want to check out his other many great resources at: www.giftfoundation.org. I can not recommend these resources highly enough.
So, I continue: What is the meaning of human sexuality and what is God’s plan for marriage?
We need to take a look at Genesis, where we read:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” . . . so God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Genesis 1:26-27)
There is something profoundly connected in the fact that “God created man in His own image” and that “He created them male and female”. There is something in our being male and female that reflects something of the nature of God.
To understand this we need to examine what we do know about God’s nature. If there were one word we could use to describe God, what would it be? LOVE. God is LOVE.
And if God is love, then that in itself reveals to us something of the nature of God as we reflect upon the nature of love. Love is an exchange. Love must be given and received. Love cannot be self-contained . . . it wants to give itself away, freely and totally and faithfully.
Therefore, God must be a communion of persons. So while God is One and there is only One God – within God there is a community of persons in order for this eternal exchange of love to exists – by which we say, God is Love.
God the Father, from all eternity, initiates the love for the Son. And the Son, from all eternity, receives the love of the Father and returns it to the Father. And the Love between the Father and the Son become so real that it becomes another person: The Holy Spirit.
You see, God’s love is not just free and total and faithful . . . God’s love is fruitful – it gives life!
Where in our human experience do we see this kind of love reflected?
The husband initiates the love and gives it to his wife. The wife receives the love of her husband and returns it. And this love, between the man and the woman, becomes so real that sometimes (as Scott Hahn says) nine months later we have to give it a name!
The love of a man and a woman – expressed in the marital embrace – reflects the very inner life of the Trinity. Is this not awesome? Stamped into our beings, as male and female – created in His image and likeness – God gave us an inner glimpse of His very own nature and life.
In the Theology of the Body, John Paul II explains that there is a nuptial meaning to the body. The body, itself, is a theology – for it teaches us about God. And this is the most meaningful way that we see the nuptial expression of the body, through the life-giving love of a husband and wife.
Our body was designed with a purpose. And it was not by accident that God created men and women and that men and women are different. We were made for each other. And God’s plan for marriage – the union of man and woman – goes right back to the beginning with Adam and Eve: one man and one woman in a life-giving exchange of love.
What was God’s first commandment to Adam and Eve? “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the world and subdue it!” (Genesis 1:28) God wanted Adam and Eve to give themselves to each other in this life-giving exchange of love. And He still wants that of us today in marriage.
God wants us to know, taste and see His goodness. The gift of human sexuality was designed so that we would be able to do just that: to know, taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
It was designed to be a foretaste of heavenly joys and pleasures . . . and so God made it pleasurable. But the meaning of sex is not to be found in pleasure! Rather, the true pleasure of sex is to be found in its meaning!!!
Our society has duped us, though. It has tried to convince us that there is no meaning to sex apart from the pleasure. And contraception allows us to “enjoy” sex without any responsibility. It has convinced many people – good Christian, God-fearing people – that there is no difference between contraception and Natural Family Planning. But there is!
Contraception and sterilized acts of intercourse go against the very meaning of human sexuality and purpose. To understand how our love – expressed in the marital embrace – reflects God’s love, we first have to understand God’s love. To do this, we must look to the cross.
The cross teaches us that God’s love is free. Jesus went to the cross of His own accord. He carried the cross. He laid down His life for us. It wasn’t the nails that held Him there, it was His love. And it was free.
God’s love is total. Jesus poured it all out for us on the cross, every last drop! He held nothing back, but gave His all – for us.
God’s love is faithful. Jesus' love is unfaltering. He knew God’s plan. He lived it. He carried it out and He never lost sight of it. Even when in the Garden of Gethsemane He dreaded it, He still embraced it. He accepted it and went all the way with it. He never strayed off course or tried to take an easy way out. He was faithful – even when it was the hardest and hurt the most. He remains faithful to the end.
God’s love is fruitful. Only through suffering and dying for us on the cross could Jesus win for us eternal life. His love is fruitful – it bears life!!!
Where do we see this pattern of God’s love which is free, total, faithful and fruitful, reflected the most? In marriage. In fact, this is what the marriage vows entail. We state in our vows that we have come, “freely and without reservation”, we vow to be “faithful” and we vow to be open to receiving children “lovingly from God”.
The reality of these vows is lived out each time a husband and a wife share in the marital embrace. What they are doing is renewing the vows they made at the altar. In and through the language of their bodies, they are expressing to each other that they are making a gift of themselves to the other and that this gift is free, total, faithful and fruitful.
If a couple were to contracept that union, they would be lying with their bodies! They would be going against their marriage vows. We understand the concept of going against marriage vows clearly enough when we see one of the spouses committing an act of adultery. This goes against the marriage vows because it denies the aspect of those vows which promises to be faithful. It is by this same logic and for this same reason that we can not accept contraception.
In the case of contraception the devastation to marriage is not as immediate and obvious as in the case of adultery. But it is there. To demonstrate this we can just look at the statistics. Currently, approximately 50% of marriages end in divorce. But in the case of couples who follow the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage, there is a less than 5% divorce rate. Clearly, contraception damages marriages.
What a contracepted union says, implicitly, is that I want you and I will give myself to you – but I don’t really want all of you (your fertility) and I’m not willing to give all of myself to you (my fertility).
Because this goes against the nature of how we were created, this action destroys. It devastates marriages. And it is completely beneath our dignity as men and women, male and female, created in the image and likeness of God.
But we retain our dignity as men and women, male and female – created in the image and likeness of God – when the expression of our love in the marital embrace is treated for what it is: sacred and holy. We do this when we ensure that each time we participate in the marital embrace, as a husband and wife, that we are giving ourselves to the other freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully.
This is why a husband and wife cannot engage in contraception and be right with God or with each other. Contraception is a lie. It destroys marriages. The Church, by her laws, is protecting couples from this deadly deception.
But it is important that our hearts be in conformity with the law. When we understand God’s plan and design, then we will understand the law. When our hearts are in conformity with the law, then we will be free to live the law, without feeling burdened by it. In fact, to go against the law, once we have embraced it with our lives, would be truly revolting to us.
So, after much explanation and background, you can see what the answer will be to your question. Even for “good” reasons, the Church will never accept the use of contraception in marriage. The ends does not justify the means. No matter what! And praise be to God for granting the wisdom to Holy Mother Church to hold fast to these truths, even through the terrible storms which rage against her and the pressures put on her to change.
I understand, though, how challenging this is for a couple in your situation. Certainly there is cause for concern. You have, what we call in the Church, grave circumstances by which you can practice Natural Family Planning in good conscience. Though the situation is difficult I really urge you to place yourself and your marriage into God’s hands. Trust that He, the author of all creation, can provide for your every need.
When using NFP (Natural Family Planning) in such a grave circumstance, it is important to be very diligent with the rules. When it is practiced as it is intended to be, NFP is 99% effective in preventing pregnancies. However, you must be motivated – and it sounds like, in your case, you are.
And the blessing is that you can reap the many benefits of NFP along the way:
open communication with your husband
an on-going dialogue of the goals, meaning and purpose of your marriage
self-control, self-discipline, self-sacrifice – which will spill over into every area of your lives
formation of a deep trust in God
. . . to name but a few.
We speak of the 99% effectiveness, but what about that other 1%? That’s where trust in God comes! God’s plans for us are perfect. His ways are so beyond our own that we can scarcely comprehend them. In practicing NFP, even though our goal is to avoid a pregnancy, there is still an openness to life – because we have not closed ourselves off, artificially, to life. Because of this, we leave God that opportunity – that open door – to come in and bless us, if it is His will, with a child, even if we have minimized those opportunities.
So what if a child were to be conceived and you are on medication? Again, you have to come back to trusting that God has a perfect plan for that new little life within you and for yours. There is not one soul that comes into being that has not first been chosen and loved by God. There is never a life that “slips by Him”. Each life has a purpose to fulfill according to God's plan.
God knows you are on medication. He knows that you are trying to be faithful to His laws. He knows that you are doing your best, as a couple, to live the gift of your sexuality according to His design. So trust and remember what He tells us: "For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope." (Jeremiah 29:11)
And, just as an aside, people mistakenly think that if they “back-up” NFP with contraception that they will somehow be better “protected” from pregnancy. This is a false notion.
First of all, if you were to use a barrier method you must remember that they are very unreliable. And if you were to use it in conjunction with NFP (as in, when you are possibly fertile) then you would be using an ineffective method when it is the most likely to be ineffective.
If you were to use a means such as “the pill”, aside from the fact that it is abortifacient, in other words – can procure an abortion in case of failing to prevent a conception – then bear in mind that “the pill” really only has a 97% efficacy rating – even after the possibility of having spontaneously aborted the baby. And that’s not even addressing all of the evils of “the pill” physically, emotionally and spiritually.
If you were to use a method such as an IUD, there are terrible side effects to you as a woman (not the least of which is potentially dying from it), apart from the fact that it is strictly an abortive method of birth control.
If you were to consider sterilization, again there are side effects to either you or your husband (whoever were to get it done). Among these, there is an increase chance of prostate cancer for him and there are all sorts of hormone-related problems for you, the woman. Once again, that is not addressing the intrinsic evil of what you are doing to your bodies and what you are doing to your marriage. And be reminded that couples have been known to conceive even after having been sterilized!
So, since there is no fool-proof method of preventing pregnancy, apart from complete and total abstinence, I suggest you stay within the prescribed teachings of the Church. There are reliable methods of NFP being researched and taught. Pope Paul VI Institute for the Family, in Omaha, Nebraska, is dedicated to research and medical support for couples living the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. You can contact them for information if you are needing specific advice, help and direction in your situation. Their website is http://www.popepaulvi.com.
In the end, be open to life, in that you would accept a child lovingly from God if that were to be His will – as you stated in your marriage vows. Commit yourself to the sacredness of your marriage and sexuality, and the dignity of who you are as man and woman, and always be ready to give yourselves to each other freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully. And trust in God’s love and providence in your life.
I hope this very long explanation addresses your question in a way that helps you to see and understand the why behind the Church’s what in her teachings on life and love. I love the Church’s teachings. I believe whole-heartedly in her wisdom and her authority to teach the truth without error. And I would gladly lay down my life to defend these truths!
Our world is so steeped in darkness and the attack against the family is so strong. But it starts here – with marriage! Satan knows the awesomeness and meaning of our being created in the image and likeness of God, male and female. He knows the truth of our sexuality. He has attacked it precisely because he does not want us to know or understand or reflect God’s nature in our lives and in our love.
Once we begin to embrace and live out the truth of the Church’s teachings on life and love, we will see the world change. I truly believe that we change the world one heart at a time – beginning with our own. When our hearts are in conformity with God’s laws we truly become a light in the darkness of the world and others will be drawn to the light of His truth, lived out in our lives.
I know the truth is sometimes hard to live – but it is the only way to freedom! I will continue to keep you, your husband and your situation in my prayers. Please keep me, my family and this ministry in your prayers as well. Thank you.
In His Most Holy Name,