Catholic sexual morality and NFP



Early in my diaconate formation, we learned that one definition of theology is faith seeking understanding. As I’ve continued on in my courses, I agree with this statement. I believe it is reciprocal. Faith leads you to a desire for a greater understanding; and with a greater understanding, your faith strengthens. It takes great faith to follow the Church’s teaching on fertility; but as you gain an understanding of this teaching, it strengthens your desire to live it. Having just completed our course on Catholic sexual morality, I will try to summarize a few points that, I hope, will increase your understanding and nurtures your faith.

From the first centuries of Christianity, the Church has taught that marriage, and sex within marriage, can be holy. It may seem strange that the early Church would have to teach and defend this position; but the widespread heresy of Gnosticism, which claimed the material world was evil or flawed and had a negative view of marriage, believed otherwise. Several Church councils, including the Second and Fourth Lateran Councils, have confirmed the holiness of marriage.

The Church teaches that sexual love is a self-gift that images God’s love in a particular way, in that it can beget life. There are two aspects to this sexual act that must be present. The marital embrace should possess authentic conjugal love – always towards the good of the spouse. Lust and selfishness should not be a part of marriage sexuality. Secondly, it must always be open to the transmission of life. This love must involve giving the whole person, holding nothing back, not even one’s fertility.

Some misunderstand the Church teaching to mean that every act must be an attempt to be procreative. This is incorrect. It must be open to the transmission of life. The Church understands there are times when pregnancy may not be optimal for a couple for financial, health or personal reasons. However, the Church is also clear that intentionally attacking the fertile aspect of the marital act is intrinsically disordered.

There are many different family-planning methods. Unfortunately, most are not open to the transmission of life. Contraception, whether it is oral, a physical barrier, injectable or by other means, separates the connection between the transmission, or openness, to life and authentic conjugal love. The use of contraception is a gravely evil act. Sterilization, whether it be the husband or wife, is also not allowed for this same reason. Not all family planning is about the prevention of pregnancy, but also includes assisting in achieving pregnancy. We must consider how the Church teaching impacts those struggling to have children, which can be a very difficult and sensitive situation. One growing method of treating infertility is using invitro fertilization, also known as IVF. This is pregnancy accomplished outside of the marital act. Even though the outcome can be a great good, it separates the conjugal act from the initiation of life.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. Natural family planning, or NFP, respects the twofold meaning of the conjugal act in marriage. It allows a total self-giving of the couples to each other while being open to the transmission of life. Natural family planning may not be as convenient as contraceptive methods for family planning, but research and conversations with couples show it to be an effective method of family planning with many additional benefits to the marriage. NFP not only assists in the spacing of children, but can also effectively assist in the conceiving of children – especially using Natural Procreative Technology or NaPro Technology.

Understanding Catholic moral teaching on sexual love is not a question of one technique over another, but a question of the whole orientation of one’s life and willingness to accept God’s design for marriage and the nature of conjugal love itself. I encourage all couples to grow in their understanding of the Church’s sexual morality, and then have the faith to trust even this aspect of their lives to God.

Ed Walker serves on the board of the Holy Family Center for Life. He is a member of Resurrection Parish in Evansville and is a candidate for the Diocese of Evansville’s permanent diaconate.