My wife Libby and I were married in the summer of 2003. The following spring we settled into a new job, and we moved from our little one bedroom apartment and into our first house. We decided the time was right to attempt the parenting thing.
Because we had been practicing NFP, we knew how to maximize our opportunity for conceiving a child. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time. We didn’t know if we would be good parents or if we would even be able to conceive a child. Yet when we came together as husband and wife with the specific intention of conceiving a child, our marriage was deepened. The experience raised to a whole new level our respect for each other and our sense of awe at the greatness of God for His plan of sexual love. We discovered that our potential fertility was not merely an accidental part of the human experience, but rather expressed something amazing about us as persons made in the image and likeness of God.
“Wow, we are attempting to cooperate with the Creator of the universe in the creation of new life that will exist forever! Who are we that we should be able to do this?”!
For St. John Paul II, fertility is not accidental, but existential. It is an expression of the human person. To withhold or reject fertility is to withhold or reject the whole person. While fertility can be studied through biology, it is not simply biological. Rather, sex and fertility are at the core of our entire being.
For anyone who has suffered the cross of infertility or knows someone who suffers with this cross, John Paul’s perspective makes all the sense in the world. Very close friends of ours have carried the cross of infertility for a number of years. It is precisely because fertility is at their core that their suffering is so great. If fertility were merely accidental, it would not be so difficult. They long deeply to bring another child into this world as a reflection and permanent reminder of their married love. Their prayer is that they would have fertility to give to one another. They cannot imagine keeping it from the other.
As a parent, I feel a deep sadness when my son shares with me something that he does not like about himself. My daughter is only 4, and my prayer is that she always knows the truth of her beauty and goodness, especially when she reaches the teen years and is tempted to find flaws is the way she looks. To boil it down, contraception says, “I don’t like my fertility, and I don’t want to share it with you.” Our heavenly Father sees fertility as a beautiful part of who He created us to be. It saddens the Heart of God when we don’t appreciate how wonderfully made we are.
For John Paul, the difference between NFP and contraception involves two opposed concepts of the human person. Contraception views fertility as a disease, and therefore, must be suppressed. NFP views fertility as an integral part of the human person (see Familiaris Consortio, no. 32). Fertility is not something to be ashamed of or rejected, but joyfully embraced as a gift from God. NFP allows a couple to responsibly cooperate with the Creator in bringing forth new life. What an incredible dignity God bestows on us creatures in allowing us to participate in the creation of a person who will exist forever! NFP cultivates a respect for this human dignity not only toward our spouse, but also our children. The respect does not stop there, though. NFP cultivates a greater respect and appreciation for every human person, because it fosters the realization that every person is made in the image of God.
As we watch the evening news and see war in the Holy Land, conflict between Russia and the Ukraine, and poverty on the rise here in the homeland, we are challenged to have a greater appreciation for human dignity. We may not be able to do extraordinary things to change the course of history on a large scale, but we can allow our own minds and hearts to be changed and softened toward our fellow humans. NFP is a path to foster mutual respect and soften us to see every person as our brother and sister.
Granted, it is a small step, but doesn’t the journey of a thousand miles begin with the first small step? It seems too simple and not drastic enough, but if we are not willing to change as Christians, how can we expect non-Christians to have a greater respect for their fellow humans? To this point, St. Ignatius of Loyola said, “He who goes about to reform the world must begin with himself.” Let’s increase the level of respect in our own families and neighborhoods and do our part to build a culture worthy of our great dignity.
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.