It is hard to overemphasize the tremendous value great spiritual writers place on the virtue and practice of obedience



“If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained. (20) (Encyclical Humanae Vitae)

The decisions we make in life have consequences (sometimes very profound consequences); and this is true of the decision we make in marriage whether to follow Church teaching in the area of family planning. I do not hesitate to say that many Catholic couples have not fully appreciated the profound ramifications of this decision.

A common theme in great spiritual books is that obedience (that is, the virtue of obedience) is very dear to God, and for that reason blessings flow from God when we practice humble, trusting obedience. When we apply this principle to Church teaching on contraception and family planning, we can confidently conclude that the practice of Natural Family Planning draws down blessings from God upon the married couple. It is hard to overemphasize the tremendous value great spiritual writers place on the virtue and practice of obedience. With this in mind we should take into consideration that the teaching in Humanae Vitae is the very touchstone of Catholic sexual morality – yet many in the Church chose not to follow it.

Catholic psychologist Gregory Popcak states:

“I’ll say it again. NFP is a wonderful gift, and if you don’t practice it you are missing out, big time. In fact, you cannot experience the fullness of your sexuality without it.” (p.32)

Popcak adds that the “Janus Report on Sexual Behavior (1993) demonstrates that couples who live out their faith have more satisfying sex lives because they ‘pay more attention to the mystic and symbolic dimensions of…sexuality’ ” (p. 204). If this is true, how much more does NFP conform to the important symbolic dimension of sexuality –  as a reflection of God’s own creative power –  by not rendering the act of intercourse infertile by an external and artificial act, but by by taking recourse to the natural periods of infertility in a woman’s cycle as ordained by God’s Wisdom?

The decision to practice NFP involves the eminent use of the virtue of chastity. And as C.S. Lewis observed in his classic, Mere Christianity, “those who are seriously attempting chastity are more conscious, and soon know a great deal more about their own sexuality than anyone else.” The attempt to bypass chastity by using artificial contraception is dangerous: it tends more and more to a view of sexual pleasure as an end in itself, the beloved partner potentially becoming more and more an object of gratification. Stacey Holgate comments:

Chastity is a virtue closely linked with the cardinal virtue of temperance. Possession of this virtue enables and necessitates the integration of man’s sexuality with his entire being: intellectual and spiritual. Chaste behavior leads to the self-possession necessary for self-donation, not only physically within marriage but also spiritually to God. Chastity is not achieved quickly nor is it attained easily. The ongoing pursuit of the virtue through grace and effort is in portion what makes its fruits so sweet” ( reference below).

The decision of newly married couples to ignore Church teaching and use artificial contraception is not a good one. In fact, it is not a decision which is beneficial to their marriage (I do not judge their subjective culpability). Who knows how many special graces they would have received had they been obedient to the Wisdom of the Church which comes from the Holy Spirit. Humanae Vitae was a prophetic document, and human sexuality is more and more in disarray because its teachings were
not heeded.

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

References: For Better …Forever! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage by Gregory Popcak. The quote by Stacey Holgate is from her article “Marital Chastity and Natural Family Planning” which can be accessed via Google.

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