The other day I tried to shed a little light on Natural Family Planning (NFP). My "Part 1" entry shared the fact that not only does NFP exist, but it works well, doesn't require any contraceptives (and therefore doesn't have health risks/negative side effects), and there are several reasons people choose it over birth control regardless of their religious or moral beliefs. Today, however, Part 2 is going to be focused solely on the Catholic understanding of love, sexuality, children, and birth control.
If Catholics know that birth control goes against their church's teachings, why is this entry necessary?
The short answer: too many of them don't. Or think they do but really don't. Or they think it's okay to make up their own personal stance on the issue...but it's not (disagree? Make sure you read the entire entry.)
The longer discussion:
Many of you that read this blog are Catholic and already have some level of understanding surrounding the contents of this entry. However, I am quite aware of the fact that I have numerous friends and acquaintances that are Catholic but A) have no idea what the Church teaches, B) know the Church's teachings but don't understand it (and consequently think they don't agree with it), or C) believe they know the Church's teachings but sadly have been misinformed. Some of you, especially those that are not Catholic, may be wondering how on earth this could happen; how can so many Catholics be woefully misinformed or simply uninformed?? It's a great question that I could provide many answers and hypotheses for, but that would be another entry entirely.
Don't 98% of Catholic women use birth control anyway?
The short answer: No.
The longer discussion:
Let's briefly revisit the study produced by the Guttmacher Institute that claimed "98% of Catholic women use birth control." While the sad reality is that far too many Catholic women fall into the three categories I listed above (A, B, or C), I feel the need to quickly state something many of us already know: that this study doesn't provide anywhere near accurate numbers and should never be used as a valid source when discussing this topic. This article helps clear up some of the reasons the claims of this study are beyond misleading. Once we understand that the study intentionally excluded any Catholic women who had not had sexual intercourse in the past 3 months (there go all the nuns, religious Sisters, single celibate, etc.), excluded anyone who was pregnant, post-partum, or trying to get pregnant, and only took samples from women ages 15-44, we can easily begin to see how their statement that "98% of all Catholic women" use contraception is blatantly...wrong. Not to mention the study asked the women if they had ever used contraception (even just one time) but make it out to sound as if these women currently use contraception (all people make mistakes and I'd be willing to bet there are several devout women that use no contraception now but perhaps used a condom once when they were younger). I won't waste any more time going into all the details of this study and the false claims the media extracted from it, but I'd encourage any of you to read the article linked above that further debunks the study.
Now that all that's out of the way we know that the percentage of Catholic women using birth control is not 98%. However, too many do...and I'd venture to guess that out of the ones that do, most of them probably fall into categories B or C (listed above). So what does this mean? It means we have a huge lack of knowledge and theological understanding...so let's get at it.
What does the Catholic Church teach about sex and children?
Let's begin with the "longer discussion" on this one to ensure no one misunderstands the short answer:
The Church recognizes marriage as one of the 7 Sacraments and within this natural institution the sexual act is considered a very good, beautiful thing. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states,
"The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament." -CCC, 1601
We can see that procreation is an important part of this Sacrament, although this does not mean that couples who cannot conceive are somehow living the sacrament in an incorrect manner; the graces of a fruitful marriage are not dependent on having children, however the creation of life is arguably one of the most beautiful fruits that can come of a marriage. And here's why:
A simplified explanation of Blessed Pope JP II's Theology of the Body goes something like this: marriage and the creation of children is a witness to and earthly representation of the Holy Trinity. The love exchanged between God the Father and God the Son brought forth a further expression of love we know as God the Holy Spirit. So when a husband and wife come together in the ultimate physical way we can give love to our spouses, this love has the potential to bring forth a further expression of this love...a child.
Does this mean children should be viewed as treasured gifts from God that are a result of an act that within marriage is good? Absolutely! Does this mean Catholics are required to have as many children as physically possible? NO. Does this mean it's okay to prevent the possibility for a life to be created? NO. Confused? Read on.
The short answer:
Sex within marriage is a very good thing (sex outside of marriage is a *mortal sin because it doesn't take place within the Sacrament of marriage and cannot be a full gift of self from one spouse to another - instead it acts upon temptations and uses one another as objects of pleasure). Children are a result of this and are also considered very good and an important blessing. Children are always considered blessings, even if they are the result of sex outside of marriage because while the sexual act may have been sinful, the child has not sinned and is a precious life with the same human dignity God gives to all people.
Why does the Catholic Church teach that birth control is immoral?
Again, let's go with the longer discussion here:
The key to understanding all of this is to comprehend that a crucial part of the Sacrament of matrimony is the fact that being physically united in the sexual act has the potential to bring about new life. Remember how we discussed that sex between a married man and woman reflects the supernatural exchange of love between God the Father and God the Son? This love has the potential to create something - and when a child is conceived it's as if this exchange of love between the man and woman has produced the earthly reflection of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the conception of a child mirrors the completion of the Holy Trinity. Theology of the Body is complex theology that cannot fully be watered down into merely a few sentences, so I'd encourage you to begin studying it on your own. But let's get back to the key word in all of this: potential.
The Church teaches that birth control is immoral because it prevents us from truly being open to God's will. It completely closes us off from the potential of creating a life. This is not a good thing because it blocks unique children (who perhaps God desires us to create) from coming into existence and it says to God, "I will not let you guide my life. I choose to control my plans because it's most important that I be in control, not You." How can we let God be in control and live a true Christian life if we won't even let Him take the wheel? The answer is: we can't. Birth control separates us from this goodness of trusting in and following God, which is why the Catholic Church explains to us that contraceptives are sinful.
The short answer:
Contraceptives push us further away from God by putting ourselves in control instead of Him and prevent any children God would have blessed us with in that time-frame from ever existing. Not to mention, they make it easier to succumb to using our spouses as objects for pleasure whenever we desire, rather than loving them for their true self (body and soul).
I thought contraceptives could be moral if a married couple discerns that they aren't ready for children yet?
The short answer: Incorrect.
The longer discussion:
If you were told this by a priest or other vowed religious, it's not your fault.** This misguided notion of the Church's teachings stems from misunderstandings surrounding the Second Vatican Council and what it taught us. Some individuals took it upon themselves to say that the "Spirit of Vatican II" tells us birth control can be okay as long as it's within a marriage...and now we've got a generation of confused Catholics. Let me be clear when I tell you that the Catholic Church does not ever recognize contraception as a moral tool used to plan your family, even within a marriage. Here's what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says on the issue:
"...In contrast, "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:
Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality. . . . The difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle . . . involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality." -CCC, 2370
Why is Natural Family Planning considered moral when birth control isn't? Isn't NFP the same thing as contraception?
The short answer: NFP is not the same as birth control, which is precisely why it's moral (it's the opposite of all the explanations why birth control is immoral).
The longer discussion:
NFP never prevents a child from being born if it is God's will. It keeps God in control while we learn all kinds of important things about our bodies and fertility, which helps us take charge of our bodies and sexual desires without ever cutting God out of the picture because He has the ultimate control. This leads us to true freedom. With all of the knowledge we can prayerfully discern whether we feel God is calling us to become parents at that time or not. If not, we abstain when the woman is fertile which helps us learn to be disciplined in our sexual desires...rather than using our spouses as objects whenever we feel the urge. With NFP we must take a step back and constantly remember what the sexual act within a marriage is - a loving, total gift of self to the other. If we decide to perform this act when the woman is fertile, we know there is potential for a life to be created and in this way we are open to it if God desires it for us at that time.
Many people cringe at the thought of ever abstaining, but as Catholics we recognize that this helps us take a step back and view sex in the right way, remembering what it is and what it isn't for. In fact, I'd say that most couples find that abstaining for awhile each month is the exact opposite of detrimental to their sex life...because it helps the couple value the act and look forward to once again being reunited each month.
So there you have it! The Catholic understanding of sex, love, children, and birth control in the smallest nutshell I could manage. Hopefully it helps all of you understand the beauty and love that shines forth from these teachings...and that they are far from being mean or oppressive because they provide us true freedom to follow and say 'yes' to God within our marriages. For more information about NFP, check out these resources: IuseNFP.com and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (on NFP).
Rather than closing with a quote I'll simply remind all of you that today marks the 40th anniversary since Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion in the U.S. and Doe v. Bolton which legalized it throughout all 9 months of pregnancy. Today is also the national day of penance and prayer for the unborn, so let us remember the 55 million+ children who have been lost to abortion in the U.S. since Roe v. Wade and let us pray for healing and offer up penances for all mothers, fathers, and healthcare workers who have been involved in abortions.
* "For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent." (CCC,1857)
Translation: if sin normally classified as 'mortal' is committed without someone knowing it's a mortal sin, for them it wouldn't be considered 'mortal' but it would be a venial sin. This means they would be held accountable to a lesser degree because they didn't know, but it's still a sin they should repent and confess.
** "Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest." (CCC, 1860)
Translation: Our Church teaches that if we unintentionally sin (meaning we sinned but didn't know it was a sin) this will diminish or even remove any responsibility on our part for the sin when we have our judgement day. The act is still a sin (we just won't be punished as severely or perhaps at all - but only God knows), so once we realize this we should still repent and confess. Once someone understands something is a sin and does it anyway, the responsibility and accountability is theirs. What's the best thing we can do? Educate ourselves about sins and actively work on not committing them (this is a lifelong journey) and frequent confession. :)