My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
This is the third in a series on the Theology of the Body.
As we continue the series on the Theology of the Body, and having considered last week marriage as a sacrament and the great challenge that it is today in our Church and world, we cannot ignore the practical consequences found in loving, sacramental relationships.
Pope John Paul II once said, in one of his catechetical sermons, “The way some people talk, you would think that Christ left us six sacraments and a trap; namely marriage.” No, marriage is not a trap. But it does have innate difficulties. Although the mandate we hear in Genesis is, “Be fertile and multiply,” at times married couples have recognized for good reason that they must limit the size of their family according to their ability to educate and care for them. This is a very personal decision for those families, one that only they can make for themselves. One family may have the ability to care for ten children, while there are those who with great difficulty can care for only two. The Church recognizes that families may limit the number of their children; however, this should be done always through natural means which respect God’s plan for procreation. And here begins the problem of interpretation. What exactly are natural means?
The recent mandate from the United States Department of Health and Human Services that even religious organizations, through their health plans, must provide contraception, sterilization and abortifacient drugs to their employees has brought out into the open again a problem that has largely gone un-discussed for many years; namely, the immorality of contraception and sterilization. The Church’s position on these matters was developed over a long period of time.
But perhaps the only way to understand the true moral difficulties of contraception is in the context of the Theology of the Body. Unless we understand marriage as the complete mutual self-giving of the spouses and the sexual act within marriage as the physical personal expression of that total self-gift, the intrinsic evil of contraception cannot be understood. If spouses are truly to give themselves to the other completely, they cannot withhold the fruit of that gift, be it an ovum or a sperm. Although the moral teaching in this regard, especially as set out over 40 years ago by Pope Paul VI in the Encyclical Letter, “Humanae Vitae,” has been misunderstood and ignored by many, the wisdom of his teaching still remains.
What are the alternatives for couples seeking to regulate birth, since artificial means of contraception always block the mutual gift that marriage should be?
Natural Family Planning (NFP) over the years has developed scientifically to provide methods of spacing children and determine fertility that if used properly are extremely successful. However, it is not only the success rate of these methods that recommends NFP. Rather, it is the understanding that by taking advantage of infertile periods and by abstaining during fertile periods couples do not compromise their mutual self-gift, instead they foster a deepening of their gift of self to each other.
Unlike artificial means which require the couple to perform a willful act against the possibility of conception (rendering the sexual act anti-procreative), natural means cooperate with God’s design in which there are times of natural infertility (the act being naturally non-procreative). Obviously, these natural methods demand periodic continence; that is, abstaining from sexual relations during the time of month when a woman is fertile. This seems for many almost impossible in our society today which glorifies instant gratification. Yet, the self-discipline implied in Natural Family Planning is a discipline necessary for a truly happy marriage.
Recently, in our own diocese here in Brooklyn and Queens we have made available more seminars on Natural Family Planning. The next classes will be offered on June 14 and July 12 at 7:30 p.m. The classes will be held at 310 Prospect Park West in Park Slope. You would be most welcome to attend. Simply call 718-965-7300, extension 5540 and speak with Martha Hernandez. These classes are intended to not only allow couples to learn about Natural Family Planning, but it also assists them in learning the practice of generosity in married life.
Contrary to contraception is the issue of infertile couples who desperately wish to have children. Today, modern science has intervened with various methods of artificial conception; many of these methods, such as in vitro fertilization, are morally unacceptable according to the teaching of the Church. Christian couples, notwithstanding the good and natural desire to have children, cannot use these means. Not every means used can be justified by the end that is sought.
The dignity of persons in marriage and the dignity of any child conceived demand that normal sexual intercourse should be the way in which conception occurs. Other means of conception fall short of the possibility of respecting the integrity of marriage and God’s plan for procreation. This I know is difficult for most people to understand; however, it must be stated that children are a gift from God and not the right of any married couple.
The issue of sterilization, as well as abortion, has been included in the recent HHS mandate. Again, sterilization of either the male or female would preclude the use of a natural faculty for the purpose for which it was created. Abortion is the ending of a human life once it has been conceived, either through the various abortifacient drugs available today or through a direct surgical abortion.
Married life not only carries with it tremendous responsibilities, but also joys and pleasures which sustain a married couple through the vicissitudes of what married life entails. Every marriage certainly is an experience of putting out into the deep. When the troubled waters of the issues described above present themselves, perhaps it is to the ark of the Church that people must flee, less they be swallowed up in the tempests and waters of the many contemporary storms. Hopefully, as we discuss these issues today we will remember married couples in our prayers, especially those who are experiencing the difficulties and challenges cited.