A lot of people know that the Catholic Church doesn’t ‘allow’ contraception. Many people do not know why, others may grasp the fact that there is something ‘wrong’ with blocking the natural end of sexual relations. Yet there is something much more profound going on here, namely that having children – procreation – is one of the most amazing ways in which we are made in the image of God.
The word ‘procreation’ has a somewhat impersonal sound to it, yet it is ‘creating with’ God. Husband and wife cooperate with God in allowing their marital union to bear fruit; they provide the matter, if you will, and God infuses the soul. At the moment of conception, a new unique person comes into being, alive and growing and destined to take his or her place in the human race as a child of God. Not only is this a good – since God creates out of love and human life is always a blessing – but it mirrors the love within the Holy Trinity. Now, the Trinity is one of the mysteries of God that nobody can explain. I remember a stern red-pen warning scrawled over an academic paper I wrote when I mentioned that a certain theologian had ‘explained the Trinity’ in a particular way. “No one can explain the Trinity!!!” it shouted off the page, and so since that day I have been very wary…
Nevertheless, we hold this to be true: that from all eternity God has existed in a communion of love, a relationship of family if you will. The Father loves the Son totally and fully, withholding nothing. The Son receives this love in its entirety, rejecting nothing, and returns the love to the Father, fully and completely. This love is the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the manifestation and personification of divine love. One God, three persons who are one in essence, from all eternity. Yes, there’s really no getting your head around that one.
Yet the implications for marriage are profound. We are made in the image of God – with free will, the ability to love, and destined for eternal life – and within marriage we can reflect this life-giving aspect of the divine nature. In the physical union of spouses, the husband loves the wife totally, giving all and withholding nothing. The wife loves the husband totally, receiving all and rejecting nothing. This exchange of love can manifest itself as a third person, the child, a distinct human being created from the love of husband and wife. In this way, marriage is an icon – an image – of God. It is a pale reflection since God is divine and we are his creation, and so it is always important to remember that we are made in God’s image not he in ours. Yet in this way, we see a concrete example of Pope St John Paul II’s expression in his Theology of the Body – “the body makes visible the invisible reality of God”.
And so when we use contraception within marriage, we are not giving or receiving love fully. We say to our spouse, “I want to give and receive all that you are – all, that is, except your fertility”. We are closing the door to God moving in our marriage. We are frustrating his plan for creating new life instead of cooperating with it. Of course, fertility is not guaranteed and babies don’t always arrive, but in closing our bodies to the possibility, over time we find that our hearts begin to close too. Instead of contraception, however, we have recourse to natural methods of family planning. If there are good reasons for postponing pregnancy (and these are for the couple to discern with the help of a spiritual advisor if necessary) then learning the cyclical pattern of female fertility enables the couple to choose not to be intimate during fertile days. This is not the same as contraception because nothing is done to change the fullness of the act which is a total gift of love; no devices or pills are used to reject the potential fertility of the union.
Utilizing Natural Family Planning methods, or fertility awareness methods as they are sometimes called, is an option within marriage. The periods of abstinence can be challenging, but the virtues acquired as a result – increased patience, generosity, and better communication – are qualities which make for a better marriage. It is perhaps for these reasons, among others I’m sure, that Catholic couples who do not use contraception have a divorce rate of about 2% whereas Catholic couples who contracept have a divorce rate which mirrors the rest of society. It’s worth considering. And if you’d like to learn more about the methods, start here.