Many people, including Catholics, struggle to understand why the Church opposes the use of contraception.
Essentially, the Church does not want married couples to “live a lie.” The total gift of self promised by the couple to one another in the marriage vows at the altar is precious. The Church teaches that this promise of the total gift of self must also be present in the marital act; that is, what happens on the marriage bed should fully correspond to the solemn words said by the couple at the altar. When a couple chooses contraception, they are deliberately choosing to unite sexually while holding something back– specifically, their fertility (and the possibility of having children).
For more information on this topic, including an explanation of Natural Family Planning which is approved by the Church, you are encouraged to explore Married Love and the Gift of Life. Below are some excerpts:
A husband and wife express their committed love not only with words, but with the language of their bodies. That body language—what a husband and wife say to one another through the intimacy of sexual relations—speaks of total commitment and openness to a future together. So the question about contraception is this: Does sexual intercourse using contraception faithfully affirm this committed love? Or does it introduce a false note into this conversation?
Married love differs from any other love in the world. By its nature, the love of husband and wife is so complete, so ordered to a lifetime of communion with God and each other, that it is open to creating a new human being they will love and care for together. Part of God’s gift to a husband and wife is this ability in and through their love to cooperate with God’s creative power. Therefore, the mutual gift of fertility is an integral part of the bonding power of marital intercourse. That power to create a new life with God is at the heart of what spouses share with each other.
To be sure, spouses who are not granted the gift of children can have a married life that is filled with love and meaning. As Pope John Paul II said to these couples in a 1982 homily, “You are no less loved by God; your love for each other is complete and fruitful when it is open to others, to the needs of the apostolate, to the needs of the poor, to the needs of orphans, to the needs of the world.”
When married couples deliberately act to suppress fertility, however, sexual intercourse is no longer fully marital intercourse. It is something less powerful and intimate, something more casual. Suppressing fertility by using contraception denies part of the inherent meaning of married sexuality and does harm to the couple’s unity. The total giving of oneself, body and soul, to one’s beloved is no time to say: ‘I give you everything I am—except. . . ’ The Church’s teaching is not only about observing a rule, but about preserving that total, mutual gift of two persons in its integrity.
This is a teaching that many couples today have not heard or have not heard in a way they could appreciate and understand . But as many couples who have turned away from contraception have expressed, living this teaching can contribute to the honesty, openness and intimacy of marriage and help make couples truly fulfilled.
What should a couple do if they have a good reason to avoid having a child?
A married couple can engage in marital intimacy during the naturally infertile times in a woman’s cycle, or after childbearing years, without violating the meaning of marital intercourse in any way. This is the principle behind natural family planning (NFP). Natural methods of family planning involve fertility education that enables couples to cooperate with the body as God designed it.
What is natural family planning?
Natural family planning is a general name for the methods of family planning that are based on a woman’s menstrual cycle. A man is fertile throughout his life, while a woman is fertile for only a few days each cycle during the childbearing years. Some believe that NFP involves using a calendar to predict the fertile time. That is not what NFP is today. A woman experiences clear, observable signs indicating when she is fertile and when she is infertile. Learning to observe and understand these signs is at the heart of education in natural family planning.
When a couple decides to postpone pregnancy, NFP can be very effective. NFP can also be very helpful for couples who desire to have a child because it identifies the time of ovulation. It is used by many fertility specialists for this purpose. Thus a couple can have marital relations at a time when they know that conception is most likely to take place.
Is there really a difference between using contraception and practicing natural family planning?
On the surface, there may seem to be little difference. But the end result is not the only thing that matters, and the way we get to that result may make an enormous moral difference. Some ways respect God’s gifts to us, while others do not. Couples who have practiced natural family planning after using contraception have experienced a profound difference in the meaning of their sexual intimacy.
When couples use contraception, either physical or chemical, they suppress their fertility, asserting that they alone have ultimate control over this power to create a new human life. With NFP, spouses respect God’s design for life and love. They may choose to refrain from sexual union during the woman’s fertile time, doing nothing to destroy the love-giving or life-giving meaning that is present. This is the difference between choosing to falsify the full marital language of the body and choosing at certain times not to speak that language.
The Church’s support for NFP is not based on its being “natural,” as opposed to artificial. Rather, NFP respects the God-given power to love a new human life into being, even when we are not actively seeking to exercise that power. However, because NFP does not change the human body in any way, or upset its balance with potentially harmful drugs or devices, people of other faiths or of no religious affiliation have also come to accept and use it from a desire to work in harmony with their bodies. They have also found that it leads couples to show greater attentiveness to and respect for each other.