I spoke to a woman recently who I respect very much and who takes her faith very seriously. She mentioned that she is on artificial birth control. Her husband is not a Catholic and for him, Natural Family Planning (NFP) was simply not an option. Nor was he willing to have another child. This woman worked with her husband and decided that for them, artificial birth control was the best option. When she told me, she shrugged kind of sheepishly and said “I want to be faithful to the Church’s teachings 100% but in this area . . . I just can’t. I guess I shouldn’t be receiving communion, but I don’t want to be separated from the sacraments for this.”
Situations like my friend’s are not at all uncommon. People in mixed marriages where one spouse does not agree to practicing NFP, situations where NFP simply doesn’t work and a couple finds themselves pregnant again and again (read this post and the comments), and situations where another pregnancy is simply too great of a health risk can all lead an individual or couple to decide that artificial birth control (or even sterilization) are much more reasonable options. While I am a huge advocate of NFP and believe that it can be a very life-giving method of responsible family-planning, I have become disturbed recently by how few resources there are to help women (and men) who don’t find NFP a reasonable choice, or who in good conscience decide artificial birth control is best for them.
I intend this post to be the beginning of a conversation here on the blog for those women and men who struggle with this particular teaching. For what it is worth, I agree with the teaching on birth control and don’t want it to change. I like NFP and I like having children. But I know that my experience is not the norm and I want to be sensitive to the real struggles of Catholics who want to be faithful but do practice some form of artificial contraception or sterilization. My goal here is not to challenge the moral teaching itself, but instead to provide resources for those people who find it difficult or even impossible to obey and to encourage the formation of appropriate pastoral responses for such people.
First, of all, we should not that there are different levels teaching within the Church. The highest level are those divinely revealed truths that are taught by both the universal and ordinary magisterium as infallible. These include the Trinity, the Incarnation, the two big Marian doctrines (Immaculate Conception and Assumption). These teachings require the obedience of faith. Next we have definitive but non-revealed truths which are infallibly proposed though not revealed in themselves. Certain moral principles are here because they are “required to safeguard the integrity of the deposit of the faith, to explain it rightly, and to define it effectively.” We might place natural law in this category, as well as human dignity. These teachings require firm assent. Opposing such teachings is called error. Then there are authoritative but not irreformable teachings that are not infallible but do require respect and obedience. The point of these teachings is to make explicit the content of divine revelation or to aid a better understanding of Revelation. To go against such teachings is called “dissent.” The teachings on birth control go here. (There are other levels of authority too, in decreasing authority, that include disciplinary rules, theological opinions, and certain devotions like wearing a Miraculous Medal or praying the rosary).
Different people could argue about which teaching goes in each category. I would tend to place more abstract moral principles in the second level, like respect for human dignity, care for the poor, care for creation. In the third level, I would place more specific articulations of those teachings like “abortion is a grave sin” or “war should be conducted according to just war principles.” In doing so, I in no way intend to diminish the importance of more specific articulations of moral principles but rather point out their contingency. The teaching on abortion, for example, depends on how we define abortion and when we say life begins. These contingencies can lead to change or development over time in how we articulate the moral teaching specifically. It is well known, for example, that the teaching on abortion has developed so as to include the protection of the life of the fetus at the earliest levels. This was not always the case.
The point in bringing up this kind of complex point is to illustrate that while the teaching on birth control is incredibly important and authoritative, in fact, it demands our obedience, it is not of the highest level of authority. Nor is it a teaching immune to development. How we articulate the teaching depends on how we define artificial with regards to contraception, as well as what we define as specifically contrary to the unitive and procreative dimension of sex.
Furthermore, it is not sacrilege or heresy or even error to disagree with this third level of authoritative teachings. It has a specific name. DISSENT. Dissent was a major concern after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae. Several bishop conferences, including our own here in the US (“Human Life in Our Day”) promulgated their own statements emphasizing that Catholics of good faith may dissent. Our own bishops laid out the norms for licit dissent, stipulating that one may dissent from a particular teaching only if reasons are serious and well founded, and if the the teaching authority of the Church is not undermined nor a cause for scandal. I am going to get a bit controversial here and say that someone who dissents privately but does not take a public stance declaring the Church wrong should not be separated from the sacraments by either their own initiative or someone else’s. Public dissent, particularly that tends to undermine the very authority of the Church to make rules with regards to morals is a different issue that I don’t intend to address here. But an individual Catholic who has tried and failed to find harmony in faith and actions with regards to the Church’s teachings on artificial contraception should still be able to receive communion and participate in the other sacraments of the Church.
Ad impossibilia nemo tenetur
The next thing that we should note about the teaching on artificial contraception is that nobody is required to do the impossible. This is a well-established Catholic legal principle. If, for example, you get deathly ill on Sunday, you are, of course, not required to fulfill your obligation to attend Mass. I think this principle gets neglected in the discussion of birth control. There are certain easy cases: a person marries someone who underwent sterilization prior to their marriage or who got an IUD and refuses to remove it. In these cases, it is simply impossible to have non-contraceptive sex (though there is the possibility of total abstinence. I don’t intend to entertain that option here. Let’s just agree to call such a choice “heroic.”).
But there are other cases that might make it impossible to practice non-contraceptive sex. I think a great case is a man who marries a woman who is not a believer (or who loses her faith) and refuses to use NFP. Or a couple where one member is HIV-positive. Or let’s say you have a couple who has struggled and failed to practice NFP. The woman conceives around 3 or 4 months postpartum and has found it impossible to chart during that postpartum window. In six years, the couple has had five kids. The marriage is under serious stress. Finances are stretched to their limits. The wife’s physical and emotional health is under serious threat. Could we say that this couple finds it impossible to practice NFP successfully? We might recommend total abstinence, and some couples may find this reasonable, but for other couples who just cannot abstain for months, even a year at a time without serious damage to their relationship, might we say that this couple should not be required to do the impossible and might be allowed to, at least for a period, use some for of artificial contraception?
Obviously, much depends here on what is possible and impossible. I don’t tend to think we should take the most heroic option (total abstinence, e.g.) as the baseline for what is possible. But I think we can say generally that a couple that tries and fails to practice NFP and who has serious and legitimate reasons to delay birth may, in certain circumstances, be able to use some form of artificial contraception for a period of time in good conscience.
It should be clear that I think that there are cases where a couple could, in good conscience, use artificial contraception. Furthermore, I think that in such cases, the couple should not be separated from the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, because of their choice.
I think it is important to note that the formation of one’s conscience is ongoing especially when one finds one’s beliefs or behavior is some way disharmonious with the Church’s teachings. In cases like these, it is particularly important to receive pastoral guidance. While some may find the confessional a good place for such guidance, a better practice might be to seek out a spiritual director/confessor who can provide more directed pastoral advice and spiritual counsel and provide the sacrament of confession in cases where sin is found to be present. Such an option is contingent of priests sympathetically recognizing the various circumstances that keep people from obeying the Church’s teaching on contraception, and not immediately concluding that a person is in a state of mortal sin simply because he or she is not in full compliance.
It is unfortunate to me that so few parishes (in my experience) offer pastoral resources for those who continue to struggle with the contraception question. I have heard people dismiss the question out of hand with a “yup, birth control is a mortal sin, just like abortion and rape.” This is not only unhelpful for those of the faithful who really do struggle, it is also deceptive. Even if the person using birth control is sinning, we don’t need to put them on the same level as a murderer. Pastoral sensitivity is key here.
And for those who do find themselves using birth control in good conscience, for them it is important to recognize that the Church offers an ideal that they are falling short of, that there is something sacred and beautiful about sex that is lost through the use of artificial contraception, even when it is for serious reasons. For these people, it is so important that they not dismiss the teaching on contraception but continue to return to it, and continue to reevaluate their circumstances to see if maybe it is time to try again.
Ultimately, we need to recognize that when it comes to the moral authority of the Church, there is a difference between the teaching itself and the pastoral application of that teaching. By offering compassion and sympathy on a pastoral level, we don’t undermine the teachings of the Church, but we do make the Church a hospitable place where people can continue to find themselves welcome even when they fall short. Calling these people bad Catholics, or worse, saying such people aren’t Catholic at all is something we should avoid at all costs. Instead, keeping such people within the fold is a reminder to us of all both of the pilgrim nature of the Church and the radical inclusivity of Jesus on whom the Church is built.
I like this approach. If we can combine a fidelity to difficult teachings with a generous pastoral mercy then we will do well. This approach has obvious applications to other controversial and difficult areas of moral theology.
This is a smart and sensitive post on a topic that is often handled badly (if handled at all).
There is a problem, however, and it is one that needs to be thought about carefully by the laity, especially the married laity in their varied experiences. The post basically dismisses the plausibility of holiness in the form of abstaining. The problem with this is that it totally separates married and celibate states of life and the possibility of spiritual analogy between the two. While we have come a long way in clarifying that sexual intimacy is not a necessary evil reserved to the married (whether they are open to life or not), the move in recent decades to piggyback a common and relatively worldly celebration of sex as the meaning of all things and the chief mode of personal identity-discernment and liberation, also merits ongoing critique by moral theologians. Are Catholic marriages a failure if they do not meet West-ian standards of liturgized romance?
“Heroic” may, in many circumstances, be an apt term to use, but if we understand the call to holiness in married life to include not merely better sex (or more morally integrative sex? whatever that would mean), but a lifetime struggle to grow in self-mastery and self-denial precisely for the sake of the other, it is equally unhelpful at the pastoral level to imply by “heroic” that such attempts at self-denial are not only impossible but undesirable.
We need to articulate well the place of the celibate vocation at the heart of the whole life of the Church — not simply for the sake of the priest, religious or dedicated single Catholic layperson, but also for the sake of articulating a morality of spiritual progress that touches upon the whole of a person’s life, whether married or not. Good moral theology, and even a thinker such as JPII, argues against a reading of St. Paul that implies that the married state is an occasion for pleasure, even license, that is open to those not “heroic” enough to be celibate. But somehow the joyful place for sexual intimacy has to be found within the context of the Cross and the model of sacrifice Scripture clearly posits as determinative of the theological as well practical meaningfulness of marriage (cf. Eph. 5.22). At the ‘natural’ level, abstaining can be defended as an ancient practice undertaken for a variety of motivations; but in the absence of such motivations, and considering marriage at the sacramental level, surely the graces that come to us through the Church should give us hope that marriage can reflect a truly heroic kind of moral greatness — difficult, but not implausible or impossible. “Do (we) not know the power of God….”?
This is a great point and I heartily agree with much of what you said. I think abstinence, even long periods of abstinence, are very much a part of the “lifetime struggle to grow in self-mastery and self-denial precisely for the sake of the other.” I have nothing but good things to say for abstinence. But I worry about holding up celibacy (no sex) as a goal for the married couple, as you seem to do, especially the couple that is already carrying quite a few crosses. I think about couples struggling with finances or long-term care of a family member, or the couple that is HIV-positive or whatever, and the grace that they find in the sacramentality of intercourse, not because of the pleasure so much but (paraphrasing the Theology of the Body) the way in which they find wholeness in the gift to and of the other. Yes, it isn’t impossible that such a couple could also embrace celibacy but I think that option is heroic. I don’t think this is romantic; I think it is human.
So to be clear, abstinence is a great good and not at all heroic. This is what I love about NFP is that it teaches the inherent goodness of abstinence. But celibacy is a different thing. The married couple, I don’t think, is called to celibacy. Periods of abstinence teach both the goodness of sex and the way in which sex fits into a life of intimacy, but isn’t the sum total of intimacy between married couples. But moving beyond periods of abstinence to celibacy as a way of life is contrary to the vocation of marriage and as such, heroic.
Thanks to you, Prof. Haile; this is very helpful.
I should also clarify that I use the term “spiritual analogy” between the married and celibate states of life. Maybe that term is too imprecise, but it attempts to reflect some teaching since the Council that uses similar language to express a mutual informing of the two states of life. The goal is not to confuse them, but to rethink the old “prioritizing” of the celibate vocation in a more theologically rich way. These states of life depend upon one another and learn from one another, but you are exactly right — they cannot be collapsed into one another. That is why I speak of “abstinence” as a moral practice in marriage, and NOT of celibacy. While I don’t think you intended to communicate this, the part of your original post on “dissent”, in conjunction with the suggestion that heroic = impossible, could lead to the conclusion that periodic abstinence, for all the correct SPIRITUAL reasons, is simply ridiculous. It may be difficult and undesirable, but if it is impossible and ultimately unhealthy, then the Church must simply be wrong — and one should state and defend that argument, rather than shifting to the legal principle of “impossibility,” which can be easily misconstrued. Thank you for your help in clarification, and receive in charity my own self-clarification on the language of abstinence (as a virtue-building practice in itself) vs. celibacy as total.
Situations in which a partner is ill or, perhaps, an intimate gay relationship in which both seek to live chastely, absolutely present a different set of moral questions. My point is simply this: while these present a different set of moral questions, if even periodic abstinence is minimized as a fruitful goal of NFP for the married, it becomes that much more implausible for the Church to talk about a healthy theology of celibacy (for priests, religious, dedicated single folks) OR a strongly-committed abstinence of a more lasting kind in genuinely difficult situations such as you indicate. But coming back to the married and struggling, I know directly of several situations where the NFP option does not seem to “work” and, at least in one case, a mentoring and pastoral exploration of somewhat greater (not total) abstinence might be truly life-giving — I say ‘might,’ since I don’t want to presume. But I have far more Catholic friends raised in the Church who have never even bothered to consider the option of NFP because, of course, it is absurd and what could the Church possibly have to say about any of this?! The examples that involve spouses of different faiths, or situations where there is just disagreement, or even pressuring of one spouse, I think it is important to move the discussion out of the realm of marital intimacy, to a recognition and actual dealing with deeper problems between spouses. It is not an issue with sex, first and last, but with a happy marriage from a larger perspective (which of course ultimately includes intimacy).
I realize this is a year-old thread, but this article is quite timely and important on the personal level.
I think the pastoral approach of this issue is paramount. I have a BA in Philosophy and an M. Div., and was a strong advocate of Theology of the Body, before that term was ever popularly used (the Inseparability Principle of Humanae Vitae was my Bachelors thesis). Although I didn’t ultimately get ordained a priest, I continued in that line, and into marriage.
Now we have six wonderful children, and have been sternly advised that any more children is out of the question. (Before anyone goes into the “doctors conspiracy theory”, realize that the physical problem is very very real.)
So now we are living effectively as brother and sister for years, since my wife’s hormonal rollercoaster makes charting for NFP an impossiblity, even with the help of NFP experts.
The ridiculous notion that living a celibate life in marriage is to be called for in this case has gotten on my nerves to no end. My wife and I love each other very much, and will endure, but my bitterness toward the Church grows with each month that passes.
Scott Hahn put it best: sexual intercourse is to the sacrament of matrimony, as Holy Communion is to the Holy Mass. You don’t go without Communion for too long or your soul will suffer. Similarly, a couple that goes on the celibacy route for year after year will also find a suffering marriage, even if they continue to love each other as fully as possible. Something will be missing, and the couple knows it.
This is the situation we find ourselves in, and, even as I continue to pray with this, I am getting full-up with bitter anger at the absolutist, black-and-white approach to this issue.
Let’s set the idealism aside and start paying attention to people instead of simply principles. It is all starting to smack of pharisaism.
So I’m a single virgin and new convert to the Faith. If sex between a married couple would result in a very likely dangerous pregnancy, then the solutions are either: 1) Take the chance and live with the consequences; 2) Abstain and live with the cross that comes; or 3) Disobey Church teaching and succumb to lust. In all honesty, how is this different from finding one’s self in a state of mortal sin? There are some seemingly parallel choices: 1) Get to Confession before Mass so that you can be in a state of grace for Holy Communion; 2) Go to Confession after Mass has started if you can’t get there beforehand and abstain from Holy Communion; 3) Heap sin upon sin and go anyway; or worst of all 4) Just stop going to Mass at all.
Being as you are already mad at the Church for some reason, I don’t mean to stoke those coals, but I can’t help but ask the question whether anyone genuinely fears Hell anymore. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” our Lord told the Apostles in the garden after the Last Supper. With the Holy Spirit, our wills are strengthened to the point of being able to endure martyrdom, let alone suffer through some sexless nights. It has been distressing seeing so much open and comfortable dissent from Church teaching, and praise Almighty God for pouring out abundant Holy Fear into me at my Confirmation and even before. I certainly would not have the courage on my own. Prayer is the answer to every ill. That sounds so brazen, but it’s what our Lord says. I invite anyone reading this to try it, trust it, and live it. God be with you.
My experience with car repair is limited to inflating the tires, and maybe topping off the oil. Thus, anyone who should turn to me for car repair advice would be a bit out of their mind. That said, I do have other areas of real world experience where perhaps I might be able to offer useful credible advice.
Simple common sense is all that’s needed to resolve this issue. Catholics should look to the clergy for advice on those topics where the clergy have real world experience. For example, the fact that the clergy are unmarried and celibate often means that they have much more time than we do to perform public service. Thus, it would be reasonable and wise to look to the clergy for advice on such an important subject.
There can be considerable advantages to being celibate and unmarried, but those advantages do not include making one a moral or technical expert on sex and marriage. If we were to faithfully follow the kind of crazy logic the Church aims at this issue, then to be consistent I should be the lead mechanic for Air Force One.
For 2,000 years Catholics around the world have enthusiastically embraced the teachings that are meaningful to them personally, while quietly ignoring those teachings they don’t agree with. That is the reality of Catholicism, and probably all religions.
Catholicism is not a single thing defined by self appointed leaders in Rome. Such a definition is only one flavor of Catholicism, an idealized form, a form which is rarely realized in the real world. The real world experience of Catholicism has always been, and most likely always will be, that of an intelligent, thoughtful and articulate universe of rich diversity revolving around the central figure of Jesus Christ.
Who by the way, to my knowledge anyway, never mentioned the subject of birth control even once.
As a husband in a marriage where pregnancy could be very bad this is helpful. My wife has been hospitalized numerous times for her bipolar disorder which is always accompanied by delusions and even schizophrenic elements. Last pregnancy she stopped her meds to avoid the possibility for severe birth defects or miscarriage. But, it almost destroyed our family. We lost our home and spent a year in court for custody and divorce. Thankfully she was hospitalized before anything was final and got back on medication and has been serious about it ever since.
We are both faithful Catholics and fully understand the teaching on contraception. We have used NFP but find it incredibly difficult and the charting is sometimes unclear. So, we usually only have sex once a month at most, sometimes we go a few months. This causes incredible tension in our marriage. She speaks about the beauty of abstinence and chastity and how it can bring us together as a married couple. I don’t disagree, but the beauty of it is diminished after a few months. It’s replaced with frustration and anger and resentment. She rejects my advances for any number of reasons and eventually begins accusing me of seeing her as nothing but a sexual object. Then comes guilt and thoughts of simply just giving up on sex altogether for as I have seen said many times, her good. Sacrificing myself for her good. But is me being frustrated and resentful good for anyone? Is her thinking I will perpetually only see her as a sexual object good for anyone?
I don’t want to use artificial contraception like homones and IUD’s and condoms but if we could just combine the current NFP with withdrawal on occasion when closer to fertility and not have to constantly worry so much and postpone just to be sure it would help us a lot. We’ve been married for 15 years and were not practicing for most of it. We always used withdrawal and were able to space our children as we wanted without issue. I guess at least this method seems more natural than altering the chemistry and workings of the body or putting a physical barrier in place. I don’t know anymore.
My wife and I just had our second child. We have been practicing NFP for 5 years; and have used it correctly. However, both times my wife spent 10 weeks in hospital and we had a premature baby. There is a risk to my wife’s life if we have another child; and are discerning our options. We believe in remaining faithful to the Magisterium but recognize that there has to be a pastoral response to our individual circumstances. We are talking, discerning, and reading about NFP and maybe using another form of artificial contraception to protect my wife’s health going forward. For the sake of growth in our relationship, abstinence is not an option. What moral theologians could we examine to help us discern; it would seem most people have an ideological position. Any advice? Can we follow our conscience and remain faithful to the Church?
I know that this is a very old thread, but this is very helpful for me!
I have been practicing NFP for almost 6 years. We haven’t had any unintended pregnancies, but it is because we practice a lot of abstinence. My fertility signs have not been very clear cut, and I started using a fertility monitor along with the Creighton method. I still do not have a lot of confidence, though.
It’s getting harder and harder to justify the amount abstinence that we practice. My husband has a very good job, and I am staying home with our one-year-old son (planned). His mother is mentally ill, and does not leave the house. She works for his company from her home; but her job still will not cover her mortgage; we pay that. She refuses to get psychological help, or go to a medical doctor of any kind.
My mother is 50k in debt. The treasury is garnishing some of her social security to pay for old student loans. Yes, this is perfectly legal. We help her out with expenses, too; and I need to figure out how to get some of her student loan debt forgiven.
I probably will need to go back to work soon. I can go out and get a very well paying job, but its a lot of hours. My husband works a ton of hours too.
Before the baby, we didn’t have much sex; after the baby, my cycle has been weird; and we’re having less sex. I’m beginning to feel like we’re missing a very key part of the marital relationship. I think, in general, we have a very good relationship – communicate well, joke often, and we really enjoy each other’s company. Since we are also in the same field, we have a strong intellectual connection as well. I think our strong intellectual connection is what is keeping things good between us. But, it’s just getting harder and harder. When do the crosses become too hard to bear?
I read a lot of people’s accounts of how hard NFP is on their marriage – how it’s not working for them, how they feel like NFP played a large part in their (or their friends) decision to divorce and/or leave the church. And this is where the church fails them. There really needs to be priests/nuns trained in giving this particular pastoral advice.
I am reluctant to go to my pastor in this case. I looked him up – he has written some books with advice for married couples on sexual ethics; one specific book against homosexuality, and one book where he goes back and forth with an Evangelical minister on doctrine. (My husband is Lutheran). He’s also apart of Opus Dei, and from what I’ve been reading about them….I just don’t know.
So, I feel a little stuck. For right now, I’m working with my NFP coach more closely. I’m not going to give up without a fight, but I’m just, right, right on that cusp.
This article is essentially what our priest told us. We gave NFP our best effort–tried both CCL and Creighton, worked closely one-on-one with instructors, etc., but the bottom line is that my charts were a mystifying mess. After 10 pregnancies in 10 years and the diagnosis and serious flare of a grave chronic disease, my husband had a vasectomy. I considered that an act of complete love on his part. I never would have asked it of him, and I made it clear that if he ever wanted it reversed, I would support that (I feel strongly that if one spouse wants more children, the other spouse needs to take that very, very seriously). But he had seen what repeated pregnancies did to my body, and he said, “no more.” We will both have to stand before God on judgment day and answer for what we have done, and we know it. However, as a child of divorce myself, I was determined to provide a happy marital environment for my own children growing up, and I’d rather answer to the vasectomy than to torching our happy marriage in the name of a principle that no longer made sense to our lived experience. Maybe I will find out I was dead wrong, and I just have to hope God will have mercy on me if that is the case.
Sex is not about the orgasm for us (although don’t get me wrong, of course physical pleasure matters) but is much more about the psychological, emotional, and spiritual intimacy we experience during it. It’s a “glue” that makes our marriage function much more smoothly and peacefully. We’ve been through long periods of abstinence, and we know what a stressor it placed on our relationship, at a time when we were experiencing massive financial problems, the flare of my chronic disease, the challenges of raising 6 children born within a 10 year time frame, and the struggles to juggle several jobs and schooling to get us out of the bad financial place we were in. Adding NFP-induced long periods of abstinence (it’s different when one spouse is sick–we’ve done both types of abstinence, and it is very different to abstain to avoid pregnancy than to abstain because the person you love most in the world is not physically up to it) was not healthy for our marriage. We survived it, but we also did something to change what we knew was causing us to lose the closeness that we have always experienced.
Many of our friends and family practice NFP, and most of them have found that it adds stress to the marriage more than it provides all the much-touted benefits mentioned in the slick marketing pieces. I am a big supporter of natural methods when they work (I am really grateful I never went on the Pill or any other form of hormonal birth control), but strict NFP (as opposed to FAM, in which couples either use a barrier method, withdrawal, or other forms of sexual intimacy during the fertile periods) has not worked well for most people I know. When it “works” from a child-spacing perspective, it’s usually because the couple has spent a lot of time abstaining, which in turn has reduced their feelings of intimacy and the overall happiness of their marriage.
I don’t ask the Church to change her teachings, but I do ask Her to be honest about what she is requiring of couples and about how NFP may damage marriages. Back in the day, there was such a thing as the marriage debt, which seems to have gone out the window the minute TOB blew into town. Sure, it’s a quaint notion viewed through the modern lens, but it makes a lot of practical sense to me. We owe our spouses the level of intimacy and psychological/emotional comfort that a moderately active sex life provides. Also, I’d like to see more discussion around the effects of requiring abstinence during the most unnatural time of the month, the fertile period, in which many women experience heightened desire and enjoyment of lovemaking. Too many Catholic women I know (myself included) experience this as soul-crushing after a while. Not so much because of the diminished pleasure I experienced as a result, but because my husband missed out on the most passionate part of me, month after month. We used to joke, “Am I interested in sex more than say, cleaning the bathroom? If the answer is yes, we know that we are definitely not ‘safe’ and must avoid making love at all costs.” Some of us experience cyclical fluctuations in desire that are very, very noticeable and have a definite impact on the quality of intimacy over the months and years of abstaining precisely when the wife is most into it.
Married life brings plenty of abstinence simply by virtue of living it—kids, jobs, business travel, family commitments, illness, exhaustion, menses (for heavy bleeders, this is just not a pleasant time for lovemaking), etc. It shouldn’t be surprising that adding a lot of NFP-induced abstinence to that (particularly during the time of the month many women desire sexual intimacy the most), over the course of decades, is experienced as a stressor by many couples.
This is NOT what the Catholic Church teaches regarding the use of contraception. The Catechism (paragraph 2370) reads, “every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil”. Also, “Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).” The language is clear. Natural family planning does work when couples learn how to use it and I would question why a faithful Catholic would marry someone who would be unwilling to use it or who would insist on using artificial contraception. Of course we live in an imperfect world and there are some situations where someone may find himself not in line with the Church’s teaching (such as if a future spouse had been sterilized) but no faithful Catholic should be falsely led to believe that contracepting is not a serious sin (the Catechism calls it “intrinsically evil”). NFP and periodic abstinence are reasonable solutions and they work for many Catholics. Contraception is not the answer. If you are in the state of serious sin, make use of the sacrament of reconciliation before receiving the Eucharist.