The Marital Call for Life-Giving Love Part. 2

In Part 1 of “The Marital Call for Life-Giving Love” I discussed the primary means of “fruitfulness” in marriage, which is mutual acceptance of new life. Today, I’m discussing the Church’s plan for fertility.  

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A big question people often have upon hearing the Church’s teaching on contraception is the following: Does the Church seriously think that married couples are always called to engage in the sexual act with the intent of having children?

The answer: Absolutely not.

Being open to life in marriage is not to say that a married couple cannot responsibly and prayerfully regulate the size of their family, but rather that husband and wife do not thwart God’s design for sex, love, and marriage by artificially blocking fertility during a naturally fertile time.  Mirroring God’s love in the marital act means never rejecting (or placing barriers between) the possibility of bearing forth children.  Openness to the possibility of new life is key; not specific intention to procreate in every act. Through periodic abstinence, a couple is able to have control over their bodies and make a total and complete gift of themselves to each other.

This is why the intrinsic goodness of marriage isn’t altered or changed when couples are unable to have children, for reasons of age or natural infertility.  Unintended infertility is not an impediment to marriage; intended infertility is.

When Procreation is Entirely Excluded from Marital Love

When man and wife intentionally reject the possibility of children, the fundamental character of their sexual relationship drastically changes.  Openness to new life means being readily accepting of the expansion of love through parenthood.  When this openness to new life is removed, the will in the sexual act may no longer be wholly concerned with the other person’s good, and affirming of their inherent value.  Rather, the spouses (intentionally or not) begin to look at the other person as something to use and be used by.  Contraceptive love is not entirely concerned with the good of the other, because it excludes an entire gift of self.

The contraceptive mentality is not constricted to the medicated realm alone.  This similar mentality is taken in marriages that seek to remove the procreative aspect of their union through coitus interruptus (i.e. the “pull out” method), mutual masturbation that does not lead up to the sexual act, and the avoidance of children through abstinence for an unjust reason.fruitful

The Call for Chastity within Marriage 

This is why chastity in marriage is so essential. Chastity in marriage is not merely abstaining from sexual intercourse during periods of fertility.  It means following God’s plan for sex, love, and marriage.  This is not a negative thing, but it is an entirely positive thing motivated by authentic love.  As Jason Evert says, “Chastity gives you clarity of vision.”  It trains faithfulness, and frees us to love with full hearts so that we can make an entire gift of ourselves to our spouse.  Chastity does not mean oppressing all sexual desires, but calls spouses to properly order their desires so that they may be able to make a full expression of love and unity.

Living a chaste life in marriage opens up a deep level of communication and respect, and prompts man and wife to work together as a team, in all areas of their marriage. It also calls them to realize that there are more ways to express love than just the physical.  During periods of abstinence, they are called to get creative, finding ways to express their love to one another in different ways: through words of affirmation, spending quality time with one another, and performing acts of service for each other.

Seriously, the Solution is Natural Family Planning?

Natural Family Planning  is the means by which couples can avoid pregnancy if they have a just reason to do so.  So many people argue against NFP, claiming it is an old-fashioned, oppressive, and unworkable solution to human sexuality, but these claims are primarily based on misconceptions of what it is.

NFP is a means of regulating birth, through the observation of the woman’s natural fertility.  It relies on the science of a woman’s body, helping a couple identify when a woman is fertile or not.  This is not to be confused with the outdated, calendar “rhythm method,” but is an effective (99% method effective, and 96% user effective) and reliable means of avoiding pregnancy, and also of achieving it.   During fertile periods (in the case when a couple is trying to postpone pregnancy), man and wife are called to abstain from sexual intercourse.

NFP is different than contraception, because it isn’t a barrier method, meaning nothing is being done to prevent conception.  The sexual act is left the same–man and wife do not frustrate God’s plan for love in the act–and nothing changes in either of the spouse’s bodies. By watching the woman’s basal body temperature, cervical fluid, and hormone levels, the couple is able to identify when a woman is fertile or not, in order to achieve or postpone pregnancy.

Doesn’t This Method Have a High Failure Rate? 

Method effectiveness in each of the different methods of NFP is incredibly high (99% effective), but user effectiveness does vary.  How a person typically uses these methods vary in circumstances, and all of these play a huge role in how effective their method of choice is.

For example, a couple who isn’t following protocol strictly or is lax about keeping track of their signs of fertility will have a harder time postponing pregnancy than a couple who is very diligent.  Also, a woman who has irregular cycles or lower/higher levels of hormones than most, will probably need some assistance (an NFP instructor) to help guide her through her fertile periods.

The Strange and Difficult Way 

Many people think the Church’s stance on contraception is oppressive, but in reality, ordering sexuality according to God’s plan is actually entirely freeing.  This reality is hard to explain, because the nitty gritty of practicing NFP really does require a lot of work, discipline, and sometimes even heartache.  In all honesty, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that practicing NFP wasn’t hard.  It can be very difficult at times.  It calls for discipline in charting, open communication with my husband, periods of abstinence, and learning to live chastely in marriage.  It means asking ourselves, before entering into the marital embrace, the following: Are we prepared at this time (financially, spiritually, physically, etc.) to bring another life into the world, if God so wills it?  If we are, and I am fertile, then we are free to engage.  If we aren’t, and I am fertile, we have to hit the pause button on expressing our love bodily for a few days.  This requires a ton of self-control, and also certitude in our love.  NFP doesn’t require me to ingest chemicals or insert devices into my body in order to achieve sexual “liberation” in my marriage.  In our times of abstinence, we are reminding each other of the great responsibility that comes with marital love–and this is incredibly freeing.  As Jason Evert said,

“NFP beautifully contradicts such a [contraceptive] mentality, because it does not treat a woman’s body as if it needs to be subdued by drugs or shielded behind barriers in order to function properly; it just needs to be understood.  This invites the man to treat the woman’s fertility with reverence instead of disdain.   He learns that his wife’s body has been perfectly made.  This is true sexual liberation.”

Following God’s plan for sex, love, and marriage is very counter-cultural, and oftentimes very difficult.  Practicing the love God has in mind for marriage puts marital love to the test, calls man and wife to give a total gift of themselves to each other, and reminds them to always put the promise of their love in God’s hands.   In this way, love is not harmed or oppressed, but rather, strengthened and freed.

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Giving a Complete Gift of Self in Marriage

The third essential element of marital love is that it be given totally.  To understand what it means to give totally in marriage, it is good once again to review the purpose of marriage: The purpose of marriage is not merely for the sake of happiness, but for the procreation and education of children, and for the mutual perfection and sanctification of the spouses.  It is in this way that man and wife mirror the love of the Trinity, and the love of Christ for his bride, the Church.  Thus, the word “total” is as complete and conclusive as it sounds: it means that we are called to give our whole lives as a gift to our spouse.

Sounds hard, doesn’t it?

How can we be expected to hand over our lives completely to another?  It is entirely true that this is a difficult thing to do, because God created us free autonomous beings.  As such, we have the freedom to protect, serve, and cultivate our lives according to our own likes, pleasures, preferences, and choices.  We are called to work towards self-perfection and greatness in life, and to take care of ourselves in mind, body, and spirit.

However, while a healthy self-love is important, self-love alone is not ultimately what brings us fulfillment.  We learn from Christ that true fulfillment comes in living our relationships well.  Thus, in marriage, man and wife are called to adapt and conform themselves to the needs and desires of their spouse; for the good of their beloved.  Marriage is ordered towards a complete and total gift of the self, for without it, one could not truthfully say to another, “I am entirely yours.”

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If I am being completely honest, I must admit that what it means to give “totally” to my spouse is something I am still learning to do with each passing day.  Sometimes it comes easily and sometimes it takes a ton of work because my husband is his own person with a unique temperament, character, and personality—and I am my own person with a different set of characteristics and qualities that make me, me.  It can be extremely difficult at times to lay down my selfish needs and wants for the sake of my husband and to give my love to him unreservedly at all times, but I know that when I do and he does the same for me, our marriage and love is strengthened because of it.  While I have a lot of personal preferences, dreams, and goals, I have to ensure that I am not placing them above the needs of my spouse.  Loving authentically in marriage means that my husband comes first, that I always seek his good, that I am completely open with him (in mind, body, and soul) and that my dreams and desires are united with his.  If my own needs and preferences get in the way of our time together, impede me from meeting his needs, put barriers between our love, or cause strife in our union…I need to re-evaluate and reprioritize.  Also, if I feel that my husband is failing to consider my needs in preference for his own, I am called to openly communicate with him, share my frustrations, and be ready and willing to forgive and forget his shortcomings and failures.  Similarly, in all these ways he is called to do the same for me.

Loving totally does not mean that you won’t encounter difficult moments.  It is a tall order to give totally to another and to pour out love as God does (in complete gift to the beloved), but this is the kind of love marriage is ordered to give. It means always approaching your life together with the love you vowed to each other on your wedding day: a love that always seeks the good of the other, in good times, and in bad.

Just as it sounds, becoming a total gift to another requires much selflessness, but this is part of the purpose of marriage!  Sanctification (i.e. the means by which we become holy) comes only through humility and a whole lot of dying to self.  This does not mean we become something totally different than who we are, that we should allow ourselves to be abused, or that we have to give up all of our personal dreams and desires.  Rather, it means we are called to change the way we do things.  In marriage, it means examining life, not from the perspective of the “I”, but under the lens of the indissoluble “we.”

Thus, it is through a total mutual self-gift and daily dying to self that husband and wife help each other reach perfection in love.

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