Contraception: Why Not?

Pope John Paul II has very profound and beautiful things to say about the meaning of sexual intercourse and I can only give you the briefest of descriptions of it here. He says that the sexual act was meant to be an act of total self-giving. You want to give everything you've got to someone you love. And when you're withholding your fertility, you're withholding something that belongs in the sexual act, something that actually belongs there. To withhold it means that you're not giving of yourself completely. I heard someone compare contraceptives to someone who says, "You know, you're having a bad hair day. Would you mind putting a paper bag over your head? You know, I want to make love to you, but I can't stand looking at that hair. It's driving me crazy." That's what a condom is and that's what a contraceptive is. It says "I love you but I don't want a very important part of yourself here, something that actually belongs in this act."

Think of the difference between these two phrases: "I want to have sex with you" and "I want to have a baby with you." It's awesome - the difference. Our society says, "I want to have lunch with you, I want to go to movies with you, I want to play tennis with you, and I want to have sex with you." No big deal. But if someone comes up to you and says, "I want to have a baby with you," you should be knocked off your feet. Because, if they have any idea what they're saying, they're saying: "I want to be with you from now till forever. First of all, we'd be bringing forth a new immortal soul and we have an immortal link through this immortal soul that wouldn't exist if we hadn't engaged in this act. It also means, I like your eyes and your smile and the way you walk and I want to bring another one of you into this world. And I like the way you think and I want my children to think like you. And I'm willing to be there for midnight feedings and breakfast and PTA's and weddings and the long haul. I want to have a baby with you." That's an incredible thing to say to someone. "I want to have sex with you." We say that with the greatest of casualness. "I want to have babies with you." If you know what you're saying, it's an incredible statement. You are expressing the desire for an incredible bond with a person when all of your acts of sexual intercourse leave open the ordination to procreation. Whether it's literal or symbolic, at least it's there and preserved in some sense.

I'm now moving to my last point. You've been patient but I still have to say some more. And this is it, you all want to wait for this part. You're not ready to move yet. This is it: "The differences between contraception and natural family planning." Now, a lot of people say, "What's the difference?" You have two couples who don't want to have a baby and want to have sex and they're doing the same thing. They're trying to have sex without trying to have babies or without wanting to have babies. They're doing the same thing. And that's a very common confusion and a very common complaint, and I'm going to try and help you think about it.

The first thing I want to say to such couples, such people, is, "Well, if contraception and Natural Family Planning are the same, why not just use Natural Family Planning?" And you know what they say, "But, that would be completely different. I'd have to change everything." I say, "Wait a second. You just told me there's no difference and now you tell me it'd be completely different." But, of course, what they mean is no moral difference, but they recognize that there'd be an enormous lifestyle difference. I say, "But, wait a second. If there's an enormous lifestyle difference, then that may be a hint that there's some kind of a moral difference as well." At first, I try to point out to them this simple principle in ethics that the ends do not justify the means. Stated another way: "You must have good means to good ends. Not only your goal must be good, but also the way you get there must be good." So consider a couple who doesn't want a child for probably a very good reason. A couple who is contracepting. Another couple using Natural Family Planning also not want a child for a very good reason. One couple uses contraception and one uses Natural Family Planning. Consider two men, or individuals, who both want to support their family. One robs a bank and one gets a job. They're both doing the same thing - they're both supporting their family, but they've chosen very different means.

I've tried to indicate why I think contraception is wrong. It says no to God in his creative act. It says fertility is a bad condition as opposed to a wonderful condition. It puts a wedge between the giving between a husband and wife. And it has dreadful consequences for society. I want to claim that Natural Family Planning is not open to those same kinds of objections. It does not do those same things.

Most couples are frightened about using Natural Family Planning, and frightened is the right word. They are frightened of using Natural Family Planning and largely for two reasons. One is they think it doesn't work. But they are wrong. In an article in the British Medical Journal, September 18th, 1993, a doctor reviews the evidence on Natural Family Planning and says it's more effective than the most effective contraceptive. More effective! He cites studies from, of all places, Calcutta. And you know who it is who is teaching Natural Family Planning in Calcutta? A diminutive Catholic nun. The author has found out that most of those whom she teaches are Muslims and Hindus. Natural family planning has what is called, a virtual zero pregnancy rate, .004 pregnancy rate.

Still, such information doesn't seem to convince people, Many confuse NFP with the old 'rhythm method', which was some 27% ineffective. There is a huge difference between the 'rhythm method' and the modern methods of Natural Family Planning. I will give a review course on them in a minute.

The second reason that couples are afraid is the abstinence that is required. They think the abstinence will just be too hard. It's mostly the women who are afraid of it and they're afraid of it because of the males. They think, "my husband will get too irritable, he'll get too grumpy. He'll be removed and distant and won't be affectionate and will stay away from me during that time. And, how will we make up our fights? And, how will we talk? And I'm nervous about what's going to happen." Men think they will feel greatly deprived. "Who can go that long; who can go seven to twelve days. It's not right. That's not what I got married for." These fears are most common among those who have contracepted before marriage. Those who have used contraception before marriage and used contraception within marriage are very frightened of the abstinence because sex has become key to their relationship. They think that when you take the sex out of a relationship, where's the love going to be? Where's the intimacy going to be?

Couples who've abstained before marriage, however, have little or no problem with Natural Family Planning. Little or no problem. In fact, they think that abstinence is a way of expressing love. It's not this huge deprivation. The reason that they abstained before marriage was not because they weren't attracted to each other, not because they didn't have abundant opportunity, not because they weren't madly in love with each other and the hormones weren't raging, but because they loved each other. They said, "I'm not going to have sex with you before marriage because I love you. I don't want to hurt you. I don't want to have a stronger commitment than I've made here. I don't want to put us in danger of having a baby when we haven't really prepared for that baby. Marriage is preparation for those bonds and marriage is preparation for that baby. And I love you and I can wait. That's how much I love you." Within marriage, abstinence has that same aspect. "It's not a good idea for us to have a child right now. We can abstain. We did it before. We know how to show our affection at this time. We know how to be loving to each other at this time because we've done it before." And they can do it.

Women who use Natural Family Planning have an amazing sense of self-respect and well-being. They think that their fertility is revered by their husbands and they think that they've got themselves particularly good husbands. "I've got my husband who's particularly good. He's a wonderful man. He's got high moral standards. He doesn't treat me like a sex object. I can trust him. He likes me even when we're not having sex together. He's a great guy. I got myself a good one." And males have a great reverence for their wives, for their fertility. They don't want to damage her body. They don't want her to take all these pills and use these devices. They say, "No. I love her. I wouldn't put her through those risks. And this willingness to have a baby for me, that's a wonderful thing. What a woman puts herself through! And I am going to respect that." So, there is this deep bond between the two of them.

And NFP doesn't say no to God. You see, NFP respects a woman's fertility, has no bad social consequences (in fact wonderful ones -there's almost a non-existent divorce rate among couples using Natural Family Planning) and NFP doesn't say no to God because God has said, "I want to be there at the fertile time. I made the fertile time for bringing forth new human life. If you engage in the sexual act, I want my option of making new human life. But I gave you a half of a month, three quarters of a month, where you're infertile and if you want to pursue the bonding power of the sexual act without babies, do it then. I'm asleep. I'm out of town. I don't expect to be invited at that time. I'm not around. You can't even make me come. I won't come. I can't. I made your body in a certain way." There's no saying no to God. NFP couples respect the fertile period as if they're on a sacred ground. You don't walk there unless you're prepared for the consequences.

People say Natural Family Planning is much like dieting. We have this phenomenon now of Bulimia. People eat and they throw up. That's a bit like contraception. You want the pleasure but you don't want the consequences. You engage in the act and you violate the act. Whereas Natural Family Planning is a lot like dieting but a lot better. When you diet, you can't eat the chocolate cake; you have carrots and celery. Sex during the infertile time apparently is a lot better than carrots and celery. The options are better. There's a pinch in it. It's difficult, but it's not impossible and it does great things for marriage.

Couples will tell you, they've always told me this, you read this in all the NFP literature: Those who use Natural Family Planning communicate better with each other. I've always wondered what that meant. Does it mean that people are either having sex or talking, but not both and because they're not having sex during the fertile time does that mean they're talking more. But, there's something to that. I read somewhere that couples, I'm not married and, of course, I'm envious in many respects of marriage, especially for companionship, but you read something like people say there's twenty-seven minutes a week on the average that couples talk to each other. And I say, "Gosh, if that's all it is, it's not worth it." Twenty- seven minutes!

But, anyway, these Natural Family Planning couples must use that twenty-seven minutes well. I've figured this out, what they're talking about. It goes something like this. They have this conversation once a month maybe twelve times a year. And it happens on that weekend when the mother-in-law takes the children or you have a nice little business trip and you're looking forward to this nice weekend together. A little quiet lunch, maybe some shopping, a movie, a romantic dinner, and a nice evening of relaxed lovemaking with no children, no stress, just a nice night. And the woman gets up in the morning and says, "Darling, I'm afraid I've entered the fertile phase." So, there's this deflation, this disappointment. The weekend is not going to be everything they thought it would be.

This little conversation ensues which usually starts with the question, "Why are we doing this? Why are we abstaining?" And sometimes that provokes a conversation about contraception and why or why not, but usually that's settled. And usually the question means, "Why did we decide it's not a good idea to have a baby? Why are we abstaining?" And the husband might say, "Well, you know, the reason we decided not to have a baby right now is you said you're too tired. You've got too many little ones or you've got a job now and you're really fatigued and you really can't imagine having another child. Are you still tired?" And she might say, "Well, no. As a matter of fact, I'm not too tired right now. The younger ones are a little bit older and you know I think I may be able to handle another baby. Let's take a risk. Let's really enjoy this day in the way we planned." Or she might say, "Of course I'm still tired. You never help. You said you'd give the kids a bath. You don't give them a bath. You said you'd let me have Saturday afternoons free. I've never had a Saturday afternoon free. Of course I'm still tired." And he might say, "I'll start bathing them tomorrow, dear." Or she might say, "The reason we're not having a child right now is you said your financial burdens are too great. You can't imagine supporting the family we already have, let alone any more. Are you still financially burdened?" And he might say, "Well, no, I'm not. We refinanced the house and I was kind-of panicking. I'm getting a promotion. Things are OK. Let's take a risk." Or he might say, "Of course I'm still financially burdened. Your friend, Jane, gets a fence around the house, you have to have a fence around the house. Your friend, Jane, gets a new kitchen, you need a new kitchen. Your friend, Jane, gets new dishes, you need new dishes." And she might say, "I don't need those new dishes." But the important thing is that they're having this conversation and it's a conversation that's focused around the most important things, which is why they're having babies and why they are not having babies. And how their life is going together and are they sharing the burdens or not.

Couples using contraception tell me they can go for a very long time without having that conversation. They can say, "We're not going to have babies for another three to five years and we'll talk about it then," and that's when they talk about it. And they go apart. They go to their jobs and come back for dinner and go to their jobs and come back for dinner. And that's about all there is.

So, I'm saying Natural Family Planning does not have bad social consequences. It's very difficult to use outside of marriage. It does not say no to God in his procreative act. It treasures a woman's fertility and it enhances, not alienates, the relationship between spouses. It is not subject to the same objections as contraception.

Now, I'll close with one final story and then give you a chance to ask some questions. I give talks on premarital sex to my students with some frequency, and I've discovered that they are absolutely terrified at the notion of divorce. They hate divorce because they've either been children of divorced households and have experienced the pain and trauma themselves or they've seen their friends go through it. And they don't want it. When they get married, they want to be married for good and they're not all convinced it can happen, because they've seen so much divorce around them. I have a brother-in-law who is the son of a divorced household. When he was very young, his father left the family. My parents have been married now for coming up on fifty years. And he follows my father around. My father is this huge curiosity to my brother-in-law. You know, like where did this man come from who could be married to the same woman for fifty years? And how did he do it? And he can see how happy we all are with this wonderful intact household - that's what we now call them. So, I make my students this offer, and either someday I'm going to be a very poor woman or I'm going to be hailed as a prophet in my own time.

I make them this offer: I say I will give them a thousand dollars if they get divorced if they followed the formula that I tell them. I really like to tell people what to do and this is what I tell them to do. I say, "First of all, I'm glad you've heard my talk. That's not necessary, but it helps. But these are the four things you need to do if you want to get married and never get divorced. First of all, you can't have sex before marriage. If you've started, stop. And stop for at least a year and a half to two years before you get married and start thinking about sex and what it's all about and why it's a good idea not to have sex before you get married. Secondly, when you get married, get married in a church and go to church every Sunday and pray while you're there. Get married in a church. Go to church. Thirdly, use Natural Family Planning and do not contracept within marriage. And fourthly, tithe - give ten percent of your money to church or charity." I tell them, "If you get God, sex, and money in the right place, everything else is easy.

Well, I've gone on and on and on as I promised. I'm only through about the second step in the twelve step program in our non-stop talkers support group. What I would like to say, again, our culture thinks that contraception is one of the greatest things going. It's very hard to escape that perspective in the culture in which we live. But when one sees the deeper reality that the church sees, you can begin to see why the Church has an explanation for the chaos that has resulted because of a contraceptive society and the rest of the world can't even see the chaos, let alone know what the causal connections are. I thank you very much and I'd like to take any questions you might have. Thank you for being so patient.

How is your message received by Catholic clergy?

The Catholic clergy. How am I received by the Catholic clergy? That's rather a sad question. They're my hardest group to talk to. I've received maybe half a dozen to ten invitations to address Catholic clergy and deacons and this is at the mandate of their bishop. Now, even in these meetings, a lot of the ones who are really opposed to me, don't show up, so I'm already starting out with fairly sympathetic audience. Again, the statistics on this are hard to come by and they're variant, but some studies show that only 35% of Catholic priests support the Church's teaching on this. I've seen as high as 47%. I expect it's as low as 35% or lower. I could be cynical. I think there are reasons for their lack of support. Reasons why they might not be as culpable as we might judge them to be. Before 1968, in the 1960's, as I said, 66% of Catholics were living by the church's teaching. Priests who were trained before Humanae Vitae were not trained to defend the Church's teaching or explain it. They were simply taught to assert it and Catholics, for the most part, accepted it. After 1968, very quickly dissenters got control over most of the seminaries and most priests taught after 1968 were taught that the church was going to change it's teaching of someday and that Catholics in good conscience could dissent from the Church if their conscience told them this was alright. The question of conscience is a whole other question. I mean, how many Catholics have really consulted their conscience on this issue, but let's leave it at that. So, when speaking to priests, I'm speaking to an audience that has been, largely for twenty-five years, been actually doing what they were told - telling people that contraception is alright if their consciences tell them so.

And I can feel a real resistance from the priests when I start out, to say the least. In fact, usually, the priests who support the Church's teaching, I can identify them quite quickly. They're marginalized and they actually sit on the margin. I can find them. I often find that about twenty minutes into my talk, I sense this real drop of certain defenses and this could be entirely subjective on my part, but it's what I experience. I sense them thinking, "Alright, there's something here. I better listen to this." And about another forty-five minutes into the talk, I get this sense like, "Whoa! she's really starting to make sense. Maybe I'd better be nicer to those couples who use Natural Family Planning and give them more support." And that's about as far as I think I get. I'm much more confident about the upcoming clergy - those under forty years of age. I've found that they are much more likely to be supportive of the Church's teaching on this topic. Partly because they have seen the consequences of a contraceptive culture. Many of these young men have stood on the picket lines protesting abortion and you don't have to stand on that line for long to make the connection between contraception and abortion and then other things start to unfold from that. And a lot of them are much more inclined to think that this Pope has some wisdom and are ready to line up behind him and he has really made the Church's teaching on contraception a major part of his pontificate.

So, I think there's hope in both respects. Priests have become priests because they want to lay down their lives and serve others. They're good souls. They're permitting contraception is not because they want to lead people down the garden path, but because they are actually doing what they've been taught, for the most part, and I think that it's up to the laity to help them see what contraceptives have done to marriages. Thank you for your question.

Is there an impact of the loss of grace for couples who contracept?

That's a very good question. Is there an impact of the loss of grace on marriages. And I think that the fact that 50% of marriages are ending in divorce, among Catholics as well as the rest of the population, suggests that there's an impact of the loss of grace in this. I think that those who contracept, even if they're confident that what they're doing is right, can't feel quite as enthusiastic about their church as otherwise. They can't be quite racing to be full-fledged members of this church. Many of them are very active in their parishes and love their church, but they've got this view, "My church teaches something that's wrong." And you can't have that full embrace. You're not confessing contracepting because you don't think it's wrong. You won't get the healing graces and the empowering graces from confession that you would get. Couples who use Natural Family Planning will tell you is that prayer and the sacraments are at the heart of what they do. They need that help to be faithful to what they believe to raise the children that they have. I think that it's always hard to measure the impact of grace because it's an unseen reality. It's there, but to measure it... But, I think the loss of grace can be seen as far as what is happening with marriages. Again, I think that if you're around couples who use Natural Family Planning, you really do sense a quite spectacular closeness that they have and self-respect and mutual admiration that I think is not as often clearly there in couples who contracept.

I think most contraceptors are what I would call subjectively innocent. They're doing something that is objectively wrong, but they are not getting up in the morning and saying, "I want to perform an offense against God, I want to be hostile to my fertility, and I don't want to give myself to my spouse completely." They're not saying that, but, again, their act says that, and I think that they're going to be suffering harmful consequences from what they do and be somewhat surprised at the bad consequences.

Let me just give this little anecdote. I have a friend who has seven brothers and sisters. They were all raised Catholic and very few of them are practicing Catholics now and all of them are contraceptors except one couple. The couple that is not contracepting but using Natural Family Planning, had four children, all planned, etc. The other couples, again, have no children, all contracepting, two income households, lots of disposable income, lots of time for romance and fun. And one night the eight of them were having a very open discussion about their sex lives. And all of the women, the contracepting women, were complaining that they felt that they were just being used in the sexual act. They felt that this was just one more thing that was expected of them and they felt used. And the men were complaining. They were complaining that they had been reduced to begging for sex, which they found demeaning, and that they were engaging in sex with a woman who just wasn't all that engaged. She might just as well be watching TV. And they're having this conversation and the couple using Natural Family Planning were looking at each other quizzically and saying, "What are they talking about? Is sex not interesting? Is sex not as interesting as TV? Begging for sex? I don't know what this is all about." They're doing just fine.

Now, if you were to look at these couples: The contracepting couples - two incomes, fitness clubs, designer clothes; the couple with the four children - getting pudgy, gray, financially stressed, not as much sleep, etc. Which couples are having a satisfying sex life? It's amazing, but it's the opposite of what one would expect. And I think there's something there, again, in Natural Family Planning, that causes this kind of closeness and love between a couple that is really the heart and soul of what makes sex good. It's not having a designer body and designer clothes and lots of disposable income. That won't buy you a good sex life. It's really trust and love and tenderness and really knowing and communicating with the individual with whom you are having sex. And that's what Natural Family Planning brings about. It would be astonishing for the contracepting couples to think that contraception might be the source of the problem in their sexual lives. But there is good reason to think that maybe, in fact, that is what is making things flat in their relationship.

Do you think there should be sex education classes?

Oh, yes. The abstinence message is not enough. It seems to be the advice just to refrain - largely because of either unpleasant consequences or some sexually transmitted diseases - which, of course, should not be underestimated. Certainly there is the death dealing AIDS, but also some thirty-five other strains now, of sexually transmitted diseases which are extremely damaging. The huge increase in the amount of infertility is mostly traceable to these sexually transmitted diseases. Women are having sex with more than one partner, getting these diseases, having scarring in their fallopian tubes, etc. All these things young people should know. They definitely should know all these things.

But teaching about chastity is much more than teaching young people to abstain. Chastity really is understanding what the sexual powers are for and, in a certain sense, ordering one's life in such a way that those sexual powers will be reserved to the time when it's appropriate. This is something that Natural Family Planning, I think, really helps with.

As you've all noticed, our society is absolutely saturated with sexual stimuli. Absolutely saturated! It's hard to go about an hour in the morning without having something assault your senses. You drive to work and you see three billboards with scantily clad individuals. You turn on the TV, you see people embraced in some sexual activity. I went to Dillard's, which is a department store, the other day, to buy a coffee pot. In every single isle, there was a perfume ad with a naked man and woman in this passionate embrace. And I'm thinking, "I want to buy a coffee pot. I do not want to see pornography and here it is." I'm assaulted by this. God did not hang these things from trees. It isn't part of his design that we are going to have this assault on our senses. I know friends who get up on Sunday morning and take the lingerie adds out of the newspaper because they are just as bad as Playboy. There's no point in having their fifteen year old boys be assaulted with this. But, you can't avoid it. The music, etc.

Consider the male who has been at the office all day long, He has been assaulted by sexual stimulation all day long; when he drives to work, when he turns on the TV, when people tell dirty jokes, when there's scantily clad women in the office place, his imagination starts to run. All day long, he's fantasizing about some woman. He comes home at night and he's really ready to go. And there's a female in the kitchen, you see, who's quasi available. And now he has sex with this woman. He doesn't make love with this woman. He has sex with this woman. He's fantasizing about some other woman, hasn't thought about his wife all day long. Natural Family Planning puts a stop to that kind of impersonal sex. With NFP, couples have to abstain some seven to twelve days a month. It won't work to come home like that. You've got to start shutting these things out. You've got to say, "I don't want to listen to that. I don't want to see this. I don't want to look at this magazine. I don't want to watch this movie. Because it fills me with thoughts I'm not going to be able to act upon and they're not fair to my wife anyway. I've started to appreciate this complex woman that I'm dealing with and when I to make love, I want to make love to her."

Pope John Paul II says that Natural Family Planning brings about, what he calls, the virtue of self-mastery which is the same as the virtue of chastity. He says it actually makes people better lovers because now they're making love to the person they love rather than to some fantasy. Instead of satisfying some sexual urge, they can control those sexual urges and now they're acting, again, upon a love impulse and not a sex impulse. Chastity education should help young people have to learn that they are virtually assaulted by their culture. They also need to learn about original sin. That all of us have disordered appetites in almost every aspect of our lives. We want to eat more, sleep more, drink more, and have more sex than is good for us in ways, with people, etc., that aren't good. And that's a result of our fallen nature. We can expect this, so we shouldn't be startled and astonished and upset that these things are happening to us. It's part of the course of things. But we have to learn to reorder ourselves. And, I say to young people, "Yes this sexual disorderedness is going to happen to you. A lot of it's not your fault. It's the fault of your culture. The other problem is you're a human being. But you have to work at chastity and the rewards are great." The couples I've known who've gotten married and who've been chaste before marriage, have this innocence and euphoria in marriage which is absolutely enviable. There is a real trusting of each other and a real sense that sex is clean and not dirty. With premarital sex, people often come to think of sex as being something dirty. It's something naughty. It's something you sneak around and do. Whereas couples who wait until they get married, for them sex is good, it's clean, it's pure, it's something I saved for this person. Young people don't know what they're missing out on when they're letting culture just sweep them along. Young people just have not been taught well by adults. We've gone down some of the paths of life and some have been dead ends. We need to warn them: "It's not any good, we tried that. Don't you try it, it's not worth it." Teaching chastity is very different from the simple abstinence message. Our culture doesn't know how to teach abstinence because every single moment of the day, it works against chastity.

How can we evangelize friends and family with this information?

Oh. I think I'm going to count on you to do that. You sound like you're very capable of doing that. It's very hard to evangelize, especially one's own friends and family. A good way of doing it is to start giving them tapes and documents. "Listen to this, read this," instead of talking yourself. And say, "After you've read this and listened to this, let's talk." I think that's the first step. Just open up a line of communication. Very few people have reflected on the evils of contraception and understandably so, because nothing provokes them to reflect upon it. Few Catholics have ever read any encyclical, let alone Humanae Vitae." We are the most literate society in the history of mankind, but we read "Newsweek" and "Consumer's Report" and "People Magazine" and never a Church encyclical. Well, this is a good one to start with. And Familiaris Consortio is also great. They're all great. Once you get started, you start to learn how to wade through them and they're wonderful. So, I would start with that. Young people should start study groups. Get your friends together. Meet once every other week and go through "Familiaris Consortio" together. Get together and read it - page by page. Don't make people read it ahead of time. Get together, read two pages and talk about it. Married couples should do the same thing. Invite some of your friends in and say, "Let's read this together." You'll be amazed at what emerges from sessions like that. That's only one small suggestion, but I'm sure seminarians like you are going to make the difference for us.

Thank you all very much.

1, 2, 3,