A couple of weeks ago I decided to write an article for the Feminine Gift on contraception, and in particular, on the difference between artificial and natural means of regulating childbirths. However, having been intensely studying canon law for the last few years, and not dealing a lot with all the sound principles of moral theology that undergird the Church’s very wise teaching on family planning, I must admit that I had to make an effort to mentally rearticulate for myself the distinction between the different methods of regulating childbirths (I know, bad priest). Then, once I had all the arguments mapped out nicely in my brain—arguments that could have convinced Margaret Sanger herself—I sat down to write, but then didn’t.
I realized that the question, “What’s the difference between artificial contraception and natural family planning?” must be preceded with the answer to another question, “What is conjugal life for anyway?” We get off on the wrong foot entirely if our goal is simply to find a legitimately approved Catholic form a birth control, and then just use it in the same way that all the uncatechised people out there use artificial forms of birth control. That’s not the point of natural family planning.
All the clever arguments why artificial contraception is wrong, and why natural family planning is permissible, don’t make any sense at all if we lose sight of the purpose of conjugal life in the first place. And no, I’m not just going to say it’s for procreation and the unity of the spouses, so go be a good Catholic and make lots of babies. It is for those things, but even here we need to back up a bit.
Marriage is a vocation. In fact, “the vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (CCC 1603). The vocation to marriage is inscribed on the human heart. Every single person feels this call, this vocation, which comes from God, Who created us like this (so how come priests can’t get married you may ask? For now, check out paragraph 1579 in the Catechism, and if you still want to read more, check out Pope Paul VI’s document on it).
In our post Adam-and-Eve fallen state, we experience something called concupiscence. Basically, it’s that annoying experience of feeling like I’m hardwired to prefer sinful things to good and holy things (Rom 7:15-25). It’s the little devil you see in the cartoons whispering in our ear, “Put YOURSELF first. Do what YOU want. Get what YOU can out of life.” The result? Pride, egoism, self-centeredness, vanity, greed, arrogance, hatred, lust, gluttony, sloth, envy, resentment, divisions, factions, discontentment with life, etc. You get the idea.
The great deception of the devil is that life will be better if we put ourselves first, if we get what we can out of life, if we increase and God decreases. But this is a lie. The irony is, as Vatican II said, the more we make a gift of ourselves to others, the more fulfilled we become (GS 24). Our Lord said this in many ways (e.g., “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it”, Lk 17:33).
OK, so back to the vocation of marriage. As a vocation, that is, a calling from God, it is meant to help us live a happy, fulfilled, joyful, integrated life in union with Him, and with others. It is meant to make us better people. Again, the Catechism says that, “after the fall, marriage helps to overcome self-absorption, egoism, pursuit of one’s own pleasure, and to open oneself to the other, to mutual aid and to self giving” (1609).
Marriage, like any vocation, is meant to put us into a situation where we have to sink or swim. It deprives us of the possibility of living only for ourselves. And let’s face it, we need this. Left to our own devices, we’d naturally gravitate toward a comfortable, selfish, self-satisfying life (at least I would). I need something bigger than myself to force me into a situation where I have to give of myself, where I have to overcome my pride, and be generous and patient, that is, make a gift of myself in the service of others—where I have to choose to love.
This is where family life and children come in. I do not believe that God could have devised a better way to force us to be generous and give of ourselves than children (and one’s spouse too!). A baby crying in the middle of the night does not give the parent the option of just lying in bed and ignoring him or her. A hungry child will not wait to be fed. A teenager is a patience-making machine (I know I was).
Does the Church say that every married couple has to have ten children? No, of course not. But the Church does say that married couples should take the responsibility to be generous and make a gift of themselves seriously. What this means will be different for every couple. The point is that it is for our own good to be in a situation where opportunities for selfless acts of generosity, patience, and self-denial abound. Such opportunities may have names like Timmy, Suzy, Sally, and Bobby. Such “opportunities” may not feel like opportunities in the middle of the night or when I’m at my wits end and want to yank out my hair, but I am most firmly convinced of the Gospel truth that God will reward every selfless act of love with more of His grace. I have seen this over and over in the lives of countless people, and especially elderly couples who have been married for many, many years. They’ve learned to die to self, have had all the rough edges of pride and self-centeredness ground off, and are often the most patient, kind, happy and fulfilled people on earth.