For decades, Catholic laity have had to fend for themselves on the issue of contraception.
Engaged couples rarely heard about Natural Family Planning during their Pre Cana courses. Those who did — I speak from experience — and went on to use it thought they were in on a marvelous secret.
Since we live in a culture increasingly obsessed with chemical additives, maybe the Church should be more forthcoming about NFP. There will be receptive ears out there. And the laity should be the ones spreading the news.
How to do this? How does a millennial Catholic explain the teaching to a friend or colleague? Let's say two Catholic wives are chatting over coffee. There is a pause in the conversation. Then one makes a small confession in the form of a question.
"You know, about sex with your husband — isn't it always the same after ten years?"
"How do you manage that?"
"It may have something to do with Natural Family Planning."
"You do that? Isn't it rhythm?"
"No. The calendar rhythm method went out the window decades ago."
She goes on to explain that NFP is 99 percent effective, that it's free, all-natural, and there are no side effects. But certain questions follow.
Since artificial contraception and NFP have the same goal — to postpone the arrival of a child — I don't see any moral difference between them.
When it comes to spacing your children, there's all the difference between sex that's non-procreative, because it takes place during the infertile part of the wife's cycle, and sex that's anti-procreative.
In the first case, the couple accepts the wife's fertility as it is — a great good, but one which they are not going to make use of at this time. In the second case, the couple treats her fertility as though it were something wrong. A pill is what you take when you are sick.
But the intention is the same in both cases: no babies. I don't see the difference.
Contraception is an act whose purpose is to artificially thwart fertility — to get pleasure out of an activity while getting rid of its natural consequences, not unlike certain eating disorders. The couples using NFP are simply making love. There is nothing wrong with intercourse during the wife's infertile period. It was put there by nature.
But hasn't the pill been a great boon to society?
When the pill was introduced in 1962, the divorce rate was 25 percent. It promptly doubled. Widely available contraception, moreover, was supposed to reduce the number of abortions and illegitimate births. Nobody makes that argument anymore.
I've heard about the low divorce rate among couples who use NFP. But don't these couples have strong religious motives to begin with and so are less likely to divorce?
A fair point. But sex is a very deep thing. A couple who frustrate the procreative end of sex may also frustrate its unitive end. This is the Church's great secret. Anecdotal evidence is strong that couples who use NFP have happier sex lives.
Why would a couple using NFP have a better time in bed?
Women on the pill often complain about sex; they feel as though they're being used as objects. Husbands willing to use NFP often end up more open to sex. Even Sigmund Freud said that for a pleasure to be truly pleasurable, there has to be some kind of asceticism. NFP is like going on a honeymoon twice a month. Catholics aren't the only ones who know this. A rabbi told New York magazine that Orthodox Jewish couples, who abstain for twelve days from the beginning of the wife's period, say that periodic abstinence is a boon to their sex lives.
I am something of a feminist and regard the pill as part of woman's liberation.
Germaine Greer — who had her fifteen minutes in the seventies and is still with us — argues that the pill is bad feminist ecology. Women ought not turn themselves into chemistry sets for the sake of sex on demand. Contraception, moreover, made it easier for men to treat women as a means to an end and behave irresponsibly.
You haven't made theological arguments or quoted from the Bible. And I'm appreciative, because the G-word makes me nervous. Now I'm curious. What are they?
Saint John Paul II put it this way: when you use the pill or diaphragm, you are, in effect, saying to your spouse, "In this, the most intimate act of our marriage, I am going to give myself to you, but only up to a point." That's a serious limitation on the gift of self, which should be at the heart of the marital act. A married couple is supposed to be "one flesh." Contraception is a wedge.
You still haven't mentioned God.
God gave us the incredible privilege of being co-creators of new human life. When we insert a chemical plug, we are, in effect, telling God we don't want him around. You could say that the wife's fertile time is sacred ground. Put another way: other animals reproduce, humans procreate.
What about the Bible?
St. Paul lists "sins of the flesh" in Galatians 5, among them pharmakeia. This is usually translated "sorcery," but probably refers to birth control potions used back then.
I am over-caffeinated and have to go home and take some Vitamin C. I think I agree with what you've said. Why do we never hear about NFP?
Unfortunately, a generation of Catholic priests and educators were comfortable flopping along with the secular culture on this. But why wait on the institutional Church? A young woman I know got Catholic friends together in her living room and explained about babies and NFP. They had a lively discussion, and one friend told her that she was grateful somebody had finally explained what the Church teaches. So: operate on the grass roots. And check out apps like Natural Cycles on your smartphone.
George Sim Johnston. "Why Not Natural Sex?" The Catholic Thing (June 6, 2015).
Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Thing.
George Sim Johnston is a writer living in New York City. He graduated from Harvard with a B. A. in English literature and was an investment banker with Salomon Brothers in the seventies and early eighties. Since then he has been a free-lance writer, publishing with The Wall Street Journal, Harper's, Commentary, Harvard Business Review, National Catholic Register, World Catholic Report, and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Journalism Award from the Catholic Press Association. He teaches marriage preparation and CCD for the Archdiocese of New York and is the author of Did Darwin Get it Right?: Catholics and the Theory of Evolution.Copyright © 2015 The Catholic Thing
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