All my life, I have had wonderful people around me who demonstrate good marriages, especially my own parents, for which I am incredibly grateful. I had older Christians in my life who helped form me, and thanks to all of these people and their wisdom, I knew marriage would be incredibly humbling. I knew marriage was not a fairy tale, and that my life with my husband could come with some painful times ahead. I knew that in marriage, we would be together in good times and in the bad, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part. I knew these things, and I was prepared to stick with my husband through whatever would come. But something I have learned since then is that marriage is more than simply sticking together; it is more than a commitment for life. And for this, I, along with so many others I know, was left without the understanding of something critical to the nature of marriage.
At its core, marriage is life-giving. It is a sign of the love of Christ for the Church, and inherent to that love is life. Parents give natural life through their love for one another, pointing to Christ and the Church, which, together give supernatural life through their love. The love Christ has for the Church gives supernatural life to those members who are reborn and brings more members, more daughters and sons of God, into the fold. So too, the marriage of a husband and wife ought to bear fruit by its love. Marriage is unique in that it is the one union that actually brings new life into existence. We get to be co-creators with God, offering to Him our love with which He creates new life.
Before I continue, I must be clear I am not saying, nor do I mean to suggest, that there is something morally wrong with a couple who deeply desires children and is open to life, but due to health problems, is barren. And, might I add, a couple with this disposition and yet without children is a testament to the fact that marriage naturally yields children, that there is something physically wrong when a husband and wife cannot have children. Spiritually and emotionally, this couple feels deeply that something profound is lacking, and it is a true cross they must bear. To say children are not inherent to marriage is a mockery to the husband and wife who are grieving their inability to bear children, for it says they only lack an accessory to their marriage. It diminishes their grief by diminishing the value of what they lack.
Can a couple really say they love one another spiritually and emotionally while simultaneously altering their bodies so their love might not bear fruit? There is profound dissonance with this suggestion. The couple says with their bodies, “Sure, I want you now, but we cannot let anyone come into existence who might be a lasting sign of our love.” Each person is used by the other for feelings of love, of desire, or of pleasure, but the act in which they partake is nothing more. The dignity of each person is not respected. Can a couple who contracepts really say they love one another wholly? They may say they love one another spiritually and emotionally, but if they alter their bodies or tell the other to alter her body so she might not bring forth life, there is something deeply disturbing going on here. Can love be whole when it is altered to be barren? Can love be whole when it does not allow for sacrifice?
Additionally, if love is Trinitarian in nature, and if marriage is a sign of the mystery of the love of the Trinity, then what are we showing when we do not let our love be expressed in all its fullness? If the union between husband and wife is like the union of the Father and the Son who give and receive love, and the Holy Spirit is the essence of the love between them, then when we alter our bodies in the very act that points to the Trinity, we do it in a way that shuts out the Holy Spirit who is the outpouring of the love of the Father and the Son, the one who works in us and makes us holy, the one who brings us Life and Truth, the one who makes us bearers of Life, Truth, and Love Himself. Can our love be whole when the very picture of the Trinity to which our love points is destroyed, unrecognizable?
When I was engaged, I read the book, Sheet Music, by Dr. Kevin Leman, as it was believed to be a good book on sex and marriage from a Christian perspective. I read much of the book while I was engaged, and looking back it is deeply troubling. For engaged couples, he advises that the woman see a doctor to get some form of contraception, and to “get to know her body” so she can better tell her husband how to please her. He even encourages the wife, when the husband is away on a business trip, for example, to send him messages reminding him what he gets to come home to. I vividly remember thinking to myself that I had better get ready for when I was married; I better get ready to give myself to my husband whenever and however he wanted me. And if I did not and my marriage was suffering, it may be that I simply am not putting in the effort to be sexy enough for my husband to keep him interested and to bring him home at the end of the day. Though I did not agree with much of what he said, the doctor who wrote this book certainly sent the overwhelming message that pleasurable sex, and a lot of it, is the pathway to a good marriage. I know the book was written with good intent, but it brought a lot of baggage into my marriage I otherwise would not have had, and I am deeply saddened that so many others may have been burdened with this man’s so-called “marriage counseling.”
To add to the problems with this book on marriage and sex, children were absent from the discussion. Out of this great lack, I was given the message that children can come eventually at whatever point the couple desires them, but ultimately, marriage is only for the enjoyment of husband and wife and to curb lust (although I would argue his understanding of sex only keeps a man lusting after his wife). According to this skewed view of marriage, contraception is the norm even for married couples, because, of course, sex is on-demand and children are only a choice. But if sex truly is good, then why must we block what comes from it? If children really are a blessing, and sex really is good, then it cannot be good to block what comes from sex—rather, the human being who comes into existence from the act. We cannot have sex without children. The two inherently come together. Therefore, we cannot have true love in marriage without openness to life.
Within the context of marriage, some may question what is wrong with desiring children in the future but using contraception to wait a few years. One could say this understanding still recognizes that children come from marriage. This may be true, but still the husband and wife are not honest with each other every time they come together in conjugal love. The body speaks a language of self-gift and donation, and to inhibit this bodily expression through contraception is to undermine the integral meaning of the act. The man and woman want sex without its fruit, and furthermore, they want sex with a woman whose body is changed to be like a man’s—a person without a womb, a person without the capacity to bear life inside of her. If she uses contraception, it is all on her to ensure that a child does not form inside of her, so she must actively do things to her body to ensure the part of her body that makes her a woman does not function. She is only desirable, or is at least more desirable, if she changes her body from working as it should so she is unable to bear life. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the reality is the husband rejects his wife as a whole person, as she was created to be, and the wife rejects her own body, resenting it, saying the way she is created by God is not good. Together, they twist God’s sacred creation—the creation he called “good”—desiring a distorted creation over the gift God gives them in their very bodies, in their very being. This is a problem.
Contraception sends the message that women’s bodies are bad, because sex should be on demand and without consequence. But women’s bodies do not naturally allow for this. God did not create women’s bodies to be this way, and he did not create sex this way either. He created both to be fruitful, a beautiful sign of his love. He created both man and woman for the other, to be gifts to each other and to the world, and our bodies are an inherent part of that gift. To love fully with our hearts is not enough; we must love also with our bodies, or we are lying to ourselves. I recently listened to a podcast in which an analogy involving food and eating was used to aid our understanding as to why contraception is immoral: we eat for nutrition and for pleasure. We cannot separate the pleasure of eating food from the nutrition, or lack thereof, of the food we eat. Imagine there is a piece of cake that can be eaten. If a person is on a diet, she declines the cake. However, if she eats the cake and then throws it up, we acknowledge this person has an eating disorder. There is something profoundly wrong about eating something for the pleasure of it and then throwing it up so you do not have the contents of the cake. This goes for anything we eat. You cannot separate the pleasure of food from the nutrition of the food. It is all or nothing. It is the same with sex. By using contraception, we use sex for the pleasure and throw out that for which sex is made. This is a disorder of what God created, and we can see the sickness around us as a result of contracepted sex.
In 1968 when the use of contraception was becoming widespread and more church bodies were changing their stances on the morality contraception, Pope Paul VI spoke the truth about the inherent immorality of contraception, speaking prophetic words about its consequences, among one being that “a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection” (17 Humanae Vitae). While much of this is clearly seen in the public sphere and in the #MeToo movement, this mentality has also unknowingly seeped into Christian bodies, making it possible for one to give advice like what I found in a “Christian” book on sex and marriage, one in which reverence for sex, marriage, women, and children is completely lost.
In many Christian bodies, it has become possible to separate mind from body, treating each as able to function separately from one another. People believe that as long as one’s mind and spirit is in the right place, what the body says does not matter—thus, many have changed their stances on abortion and gay marriage. But this all started with changing the belief on the morality of contraception, which destroyed people’s understanding of the reality that sex and babies go together. Fertility is a gift, and not something to be destroyed, as the destruction of fertility simultaneously destroys women’s bodies and the understanding of children as a gift.
Despite contraception being hailed as women’s freedom from bondage, contraception has actually destroyed women’s healthcare, for it is taught to doctors that any problem a woman has can be “fixed,” or rather covered up, with the pill. Instead of actually addressing serious problems, women are simply given a pill to mask the symptoms of a sickness, never addressing the sickness itself until things get out of hand, until a woman is left with crippling pain, indefinite infertility, miscarriages, and more. To reduce women’s healthcare to contraception is one of the worst things that has happened to women. We all know what it is like to feel unheard, misunderstood, and to leave frustrated, not understanding what is going on with our bodies. Thankfully, there is another way with Natural Family Planning (not the same thing as the Rhythm Method), which empowers women and helps us to understand the gift of our bodies, our fertility, and can even help diagnose problems that have real solutions. We do not have to suffer the way we have been told we must.
I grieve for the way womanhood has so seriously been attacked in every possible way. I am saddened at the ignorance of so many well-meaning people, especially of Christians, who have been so swayed by the culture in ways they are not even aware. Thinking about marriage and sex without contraception strikes a chord—I know, because I’ve been there. It strikes a chord because we have been told our whole lives that safe sex, responsible sex, married or not, is contraceptive sex.
When I first heard about Natural Family Planning, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I never imagined that there was any other way in married and family life that didn’t involve contraception. I never knew just how deeply I had separated sex from one of its true purposes. This was initially revealed to me in the ways fellow students asked questions after a lecture that was given on the topic of Natural Family Planning at my university. Questions involving the risk of unplanned pregnancy within marriage was talked about akin to a car crash, like an accident or a sickness, and it didn’t even phase me. I firmly believed abortion was wrong my entire life, but there was another whole layer to the problem of which I never conceived. Could this artificial control that is commonly hailed as responsible actually be immoral?
I was face to face with the reality of this question as I faced marriage in the coming months, and my fiancé (now husband) and I agonized over this question and its very clear consequences for our marriage and future. Why had we never heard of this before? Why had we never heard anyone question contraception ever in our lives? Why had the use of contraception become so accepted and considered the responsible way for married Christian couples in such a short amount of time—a short 50 years from when it was almost universally condemned by Christians to widely accepted and actually encouraged? My husband and I felt cramped for time and alone in making a good decision, and in fear and frustration, we settled for the use of contraception until we were in a better financial situation, at least until we were out of school and then we would try Natural Family Planning, which we believed was genuinely the better way to go. This is a decision we deeply regret, as we now realize contraception robs any married couple, as it did us, of the fullness of truth in the most intimate act between a husband and wife.
I think it was when we were nearing six months of marriage that I continually felt this tug to look at A Theology of the Body by St. John Paul II. My husband read parts of it for a class when we were engaged, and it was something that had further spurred our conversation on the topic of contraception in marriage during our engagement. But, after trying to forget about it for the time being, I could no longer keep it out of my mind. I was sick of taking the pill, feeling as though I was some sort of slave to it. It was anything but freeing (as feminists and Christians alike say it is). It seemed as though the pill had become the modern day sacrifice for control. God offers us Himself, our True Bread, in the Eucharist to sustain us, His very Body. And it was like I was engaged in some mockery of that most precious Food, taking this pill every day as though it were my life and I would be lost without it. I was full of resentment for this thing and tired of my bondage to it.
As soon as I started reading A Theology of the Body, I knew I found the Truth. This was God’s plan for marriage and family, for man and woman, for sex and for children. My whole being was meant to be a gift to the other, every part of me! My body, which I thought was only a burden, was actually a true and most beautiful gift. God, through His unique creation of woman, made me to house life and bring life into the world. I was astounded by the beauty here, and overjoyed and full of wonder at what God had done and the life to which He calls husband and wife.
This is a beautiful calling, yet a hard one. Knowing contraception deliberately undermines the language our bodies speak as life-givers and bearers, my husband and I had some serious changes and sacrifices to make. Though we were still finishing our undergraduate degrees, we could not hold off on obeying God’s will for marriage. We knew it would be a possibility that I would become pregnant before I finished my undergraduate degree as I had not learned Natural Family Planning, and that would take some time. But we knew God would provide for whatever came, and we knew He called us to obedience to Him, no matter what that looked like.
I’ve heard it said that Natural Family Planning changes your heart, and it is totally true. You are always thinking about children and talking about children with your spouse and the beautiful responsibility God gives a husband and wife as co-creators with Him in creating new life. It is a sacrifice, but that is part of what makes it so beautiful. Sometimes the greatest sacrifices are also the greatest beauties in life. The cross is the cause of the greatest joy. So too is marriage a cross, and motherhood a cross, but they are the greatest joys. These crosses free us from the bondage of the world and call us to love more than we ever could on our own. God’s gift is a cross and simultaneously true life. It is in the cross that we become wholly ourselves, and thus it is in the whole gift of ourselves to others, even in our very bodies, that we become who we were meant to be, that we become free.
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