Each year on July 25th we celebrate the anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter Humanae Vitae. Yes, I said celebrate. Contrary to popular belief, the Church wishes to celebrate the encyclical that affirms the long-standing and beautiful teaching that the sexual love between a husband and wife is meant for two purposes, to unite the couple more profoundly and to have their love take flesh in the form of new life.
Many believed that Pope Paul VI would allow for artificial means of birth control, and many still believe he should have. Still, there are others who say that the Church does allow for contraception under the name of Natural Family Planning (“NFP”), but is this true? Is NFP simply “Catholic Contraception”?
Pope Paul VI believed there was a significant difference, and St. John Paul II, building on his predecessor’s teaching, articulated five main differences between NFP and contraception in his catechesis on human love in the divine plan that has come to be known as the theology of the body. In this series of articles, I will explain each of these differences.
The first difference can be called the “linguistic argument.” In John Paul’s view of the human person, the body is not just a collection of cells that happens to be connected to an invisible soul. Rather, the body is what actually communicates and makes visible the soul. The body makes present the invisible mystery of a person’s maleness or femaleness, the two equal but different ways of existing as a human person. You might say that the body speaks a “language.”
We recognize this truth in so many ways. In fact, nonverbal communication is incredibly powerful and, often times, reveals the truth of a situation far more convincingly than verbal communication. Think of a child who tells his mom that everything is “fine,” but his body language communicates sadness through shrugged shoulders, a slumped posture, and a frown as big as a clown in face paint. Any good mother would not believe the empty verbal response of “fine” and but instead would believe what the rest of the body is communicating. We would say that the child’s body is revealing the truth of whole person.
Bodily gestures, like a kiss, communicate affection. This is why Jesus remarks to Judas that he is betraying the Son of Man with a kiss. A kiss is not meant to communicate betrayal and, in the case of Judas, is an ironic and false communication. In John Paul’s thought, body language can speak truths or falsehood in the same way that words do, so it is important to always speak the truth with our bodies. For John Paul, the conjugal act between a husband and wife says in a bodily way what the couple expressed in words at the altar on the day of their wedding. It is a renewal of their wedding vows each time the couple comes together to have this most “intimate conversation.”
In the wedding vows, the couple pledges to give the entirety of their lives to one another as a complete gift of self. The language of the marital act says the same thing, but through the language of the body.
With contraception, the language of the body goes from a language of giving everything to a language of withholding. What is withheld? When a couple contracepts, they say to each other, “I give you everything but my fertility.” Contraception makes the renewal of vows into a partial gift instead of the complete gift which was expressed at the altar.
Obviously, most couples who have contracepted did not intend to speak a language that contradicted their wedding vows. They most likely were a victim of the surrounding culture that offers contraception as the “only reasonable option.” Hopefully, this series of articles will dispel some of the myths about Natural Family Planning and allow couples to find a new hope and way to rejoice in the renewal of their wedding vows.
Many couples are changing the course of their marriage by reconsidering the choice of how to regulate births–and are looking into NFP as a reasonable option. If you have practiced NFP, chances are you know someone who has doubts about it. It is not always easy to have conversations about the beauty and gift that NFP can be to a marriage. Hopefully, this series of articles will better equip you to have meaningful conversations with friends and loved ones.
The truth is that NFP is a treasure that is waiting to be discovered and a source of good news for couples!
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.