Catholic Teaching on NFP
As Catholics, we believe that authority comes from both Sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, passed down over the centuries from the very first apostles and instituted by Jesus Christ.
Both Sacred Scripture and Catholic Tradition have much to teach us about marriage, procreation, and the sexual act, and this informs the teachings surrounding Natural Family Planning.
“Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2370
“The moral law obliges … [husband and wife] in every case to … respect the biological laws inscribed in their person. It is precisely this respect which makes legitimate, at the service of responsible procreation, the use of natural methods of regulating fertility.”
Pope St. John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, no. 97
“Supported by science, experience has confirmed the educational value of Natural Family Planning in contributing to an integrated vision of sexuality, marriage and responsible procreation.”
Pope St. John Paul II, Address to Participants in a Course Sponsored by the Centre for Studies and Research on the Natural Regulation of Fertility, 1993
Sacred Scripture always refers to fertility, and children, as a great blessing from God and a source of JOY; and the lack of fertility (what is often called being “barren” in the Bible), is seen as a cause for sadness and distress. There are countless stories in the Bible of women who were infertile for many years, who were finally able to conceive a child when they had thought it was impossible. These stories have been a source of great hope and inspiration to many couples experiencing infertility.
Sarah (wife of Abraham)
Sarah was unable to bear children, and she underwent much heartache and emotional pain because of it. However, God eventually spoke to Abraham and told him that Sarah, who was ninety years old at the time, would become pregnant, and that nations and kings would come from her. She ended up giving birth to Isaac, one of the forefathers of the ancient Jewish people.
Rebekah (wife of Isaac)
This story shows a husband crying out to God because of his wife’s barrenness, showing how difficult it can be for both spouses. God eventually answered Isaac’s prayers and allowed Rebekah to give birth to twins, Esau and Jacob.
Rachel (wife of Jacob)
Jacob loved Rachel more than any of his other wives, but she was unable to become pregnant. Jacob had many children with his other wives, which was extremely difficult for Rachel to see, and some of them even tried to make her jealous, which only added to her pain. But God answered Rachel’s years of prayer, and allowed her to have two sons.
This is a beautiful story of a devout woman of faith who experienced infertility. She prayed fervently for many years, and made a promise to God that if she were to conceive, she would dedicate the child to God. Finally she was able to bear a son, Samuel, who grew up to be a great prophet and anointed David, king of Israel.
Elizabeth (wife of Zechariah, mother of John the Baptist)
Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were very holy and devout people, but were unable to have children and were getting on in years. Finally, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and announced to him that Elizabeth, though she was old, would bear a son, John (the Baptist), and that he would be a great prophet who would prepare the way for the coming Messiah (Jesus).
Marital Love and the Sexual Act
Unitive and Procreative
The marital act is both unitive and procreative, and those two aspects must never be separated from one another. When they are, it violates the meaning of that act as it was designed by God, our Creator. One might argue that the sexual act is solely for the purpose of procreation (leaving out the unitive aspect), or that it is only about bonding between the spouses (leaving out the procreative aspect). Both would be false–the act is designed to be both unitive and procreative.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. (CCC Part 3 Paragraph 2369, Humanae Vitae 12, Familiaris Consortio 32)
Free, Total, Faithful, and Fruitful
God’s love is always free, total, faithful, and fruitful. Every kind of love comes from God, and is a reflection of God’s love for us. Married love is designed to reflect God’s love, so it should also be free, total, faithful, and fruitful.
These criteria are all present in the marriage ceremony–in the marriage vows, the questions before the consent, as well as in the words of the consent. The couple agrees that they have come there “freely and wholeheartedly,” that they will be faithful to one another all the days of their lives, and that they will accept children as gifts from God.
These criteria are to be followed in every area of a marriage – in the physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual realms.
Reflected in the Sexual Act
The sexual act (sexual intercourse), which is the physical representation of married love, and the fulfillment (or consummation) of the marriage vows, is designed to be free, total, faithful, and fruitful. The Catholic Church teaches that if any one of these criteria is missing, then the act is not in line with its God-given design (Catechism of the Catholic Church Part 2, Article 7, paragraph 1625-1654, Humanae Vitae 9).
St. Pope John Paul II refers to this idea in his Theology of the Body writings as well:
“As ministers of a sacrament that is constituted through consent and perfected by conjugal union, man and woman are called to express the mysterious ‘language’ of their bodies in all the truth that properly belongs to it…. According to the criterion of this truth, which must be expressed in the ‘language of the body,’ the conjugal act ‘means’ not only love, but also potential fruitfulness, and thus it cannot be deprived of its full and adequate meaning by means of artificial interventions.” -St. Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body 123: 4;6
With the possibility of the marital embrace resulting in a pregnancy, the couple gets to participate in the creative power of God, which is sacred. Sex is meant to be a holy act that lifts married couples up to a new level of heavenly bliss, as well as puts them as close to God Himself as they can be while here on earth.
Teachings on Contraception
The sexual relationship between a man and a woman was designed with purpose and meaning. In the intimacy of sexual relations, a couple shares in the mutual gift of fertility. The language of their bodies speaks to their relationship. It expresses their love and commitment to each other.
It confirms the sacrifice they are willing to make on behalf of their beloved. In the sexual embrace, the true meaning of love is meant to be communicated – that the full union of man and woman makes them one, and as they become one with each other, they cannot help but want more of the other in the world. So comes the natural openness to new life spouses can create together.
When it comes to suppressing fertility through contraception and sterilization, the language of the body then denies that true meaning of love. It holds something back from the other and allows self ambition to enter in.
“Contraception is gravely opposed to marital chastity, it is contrary to the good of the transmission of life (the procreative aspect of matrimony), and to the reciprocal self-giving of the spouses (the unitive aspect of matrimony); it harms true love and denies the sovereign role of God in the transmission of human life” (Vademecum for Confessors 2:4, Feb. 12, 1997).
Coitus interruptus, or the interruption of intercourse, whether through physical barriers, hormonal manipulations, or withdrawal before completion, violates the once sacred sexual act. For it to be free, total, faithful, and fruitful, sex must end with aims of full completion – with the seed of the man deposited inside of the woman. As the man gives of himself, so the woman receives, and thus, their rich gift of body and soul to the other makes sense.
See more on the Theology of the Body at http://www.theologyofthebody.net/
Teachings on Avoiding Pregnancy
The Church teaches that couples are free to prayerfully discern whether or not they are ready for a pregnancy at any given time, and to take certain things into account when making that decision. There must be JUST reasons for avoiding pregnancy, which could be emotional, physical, psychological, or financial. If a couple determines that they have a just reason to avoid a pregnancy, they can use NFP to help them to do this by only engaging in the sexual act when they know the woman is infertile.
Humanae Vitae 16, Catechism of the Catholic Church Paragraph #2368, Gaudium et Spes (50-51)
Please consider the following quote from Pope Saint John Paul II, in regards to couples discerning their readiness for pregnancy:
“At this point, words follow that are of particular importance in determining with greater precision the moral character of ‘responsible fatherhood and motherhood.’ We read, ‘The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God.’” -Pope Saint John Paul II, Theology of the Body 121:2
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