One of the common objections we hear to using Natural Family Planning (“NFP”) is, “I want to be able to have sex whenever I want to, and the birth control pill allows me to do that.”
The desire to be “one-flesh” with one’s spouse is understandable and even noble. In fact, God has attached the greatest of pleasure to sexual union because He wants married couples to engage in this most intimate of conversations. It may sound scandalous, but God truly desires that husbands and wives make love, and it brings Him great joy when they do so, provided their coming together is serving to bring them closer together and not driving them apart.
Given a choice, my four-year old daughter Maggie would have ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Most reasonable parents would never in a million years let their children have ice cream as their main food source. While Libby and I are not perfect parents by any stretch of the imagination, we are “reasonable parents” in this area. Maggie eats foods other than ice cream much to her disappointment. I hope she will thank us later. Everyone agrees that eating whatever you want and whenever you want will not make you happy in the long run. Ice cream can be a most enjoyable dessert on the appropriate occasion. It takes discipline to discover the right time and place to enjoy this delicious treat.
Just as ice cream should be enjoyed at the right times and for its intended purpose, so should the sexual union of husband and wife. Sexual union is not intended to be an “on demand” feature of the married relationship. Unfortunately, our culture has developed an “on demand” mentality for all sorts of things: music on Spotify, movies on Netflix, television shows on the DVR, and Google with information. The pervasive “on demand” thread of the culture can penetrate the fabric of the married relationship. Contraception fosters the “on demand” mindset because its underlying assumption is that “sex is just another activity that my wife and I do, and therefore, we should be able to do it whenever we want.”
Much like my daughter, Maggie, is being shortsighted when she wants ice cream at every meal, “on demand” sex is not good for the health of a marriage. The truth is that sex is not just another activity, but it is the most intimate of conversations that involves the entirety of the spouses; it is a total gift of self. An “on demand” attitude reduces the meaning of sex to self-gratification.
NFP fosters the necessary virtues that help couples realize the true gift of the marital embrace. The fostering of virtue is the fourth reason why St. John Paul II believed that NFP is different from contraception. With NFP, the couple has the opportunity each month through conversation with God and each other to ask the question, “Is this the right time to come together?” NFP allows the couple to know the woman’s fertility, and therefore, if the couple has discerned that it is not the right time to have a child, then they abstain from the sexual union during the fertile time. If they have discerned that it may be the right time to bring a child into the world, then they come together during the fertile time.
NFP maintains the proper respect for the dignity of the spouse because it allows the couple to maintain the discipline of coming together when the couple has mutually agreed to do so. In other words, sometimes the couple has to say “no.” Contrary to pop culture’s belief, saying “no” is possible, and even good under some circumstances, as it communicates to the spouse, “You are worth waiting for!”
I’m certainly not saying that couples should limit their sexual union unnecessarily, but NFP does open the couple to the possibility of saying “no” for the good of the other. JPII was convinced that NFP helps build the character of the couple and in particular helps spouses grow in self-mastery. Why was self-mastery so important to him?
Because self-mastery leads to greater freedom! In the eyes of the world, freedom is doing whatever you want whenever you want, but true freedom lies in the ability to do what is good. When a husband learns to temper his desires for sexual union because his wife is unable to come together, JPII would say he grows in possession of himself. Only when one possesses himself can he make a true gift of himself out of love.
Think about it in these terms: I can only give something I possess; I can’t give what I don’t have. NFP teaches me as a husband to always think and do what is best for my wife. It makes me a better man. If I am unable to say no to a sexual urge, then am I truly a free man? Only slaves and addicts are unable to say no.
And if I am unable to say no, what does my “yes” really mean?
Contraception leads a couple down the road of slavery and addiction where they are not free to focus on what is good for the other. Instead, it builds a culture of instant gratification within the relationship.
Our culture rightly puts a high premium on freedom, but we must be careful as to how we define this important word. Fortunately, we do not have to settle for a counterfeit version of freedom. JPII invites married couples to embrace the fullness of genuine freedom offered by NFP—a freedom expressed in mutual, sacrificial love that seeks the true good of our spouse.
Brad DuPont is a consultant for the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. He credits Dr. John Grabowski’s talk at the 2014 Theology of the Body Congress, “Something Old, Something New: Tradition and Development of Doctrine in the Theology of the Body’s Teaching on Marriage” for inspiring this series of articles.