by Theresa Notare
Weddings are usually occasions for great joy. But I confess that for me they often cause anxiety. Naturally, I am happy for the blessings of others. My anxiety is rooted in the dilemma of choosing a proper wedding gift. By "proper," I mean a gift to truly honor the sacramental reality of the event. I want to give something that helps the couple live well their covenant in Christ. Given my interests and responsibilities, that means classes in Natural Family Planning (NFP).
Despite my good intentions, I have not yet had the nerve to do so. I hesitate to intrude on the couple's privacy. And so my anxiety--knowing that most newly married couples have a fairly misguided understanding of sexuality. Our culture promotes myths about sexuality, myths capable of wreaking damage upon single people and even tearing apart marriages.
What sexual myths? The central idea is that sexual intercourse is simply a value-free, pleasurable activity (as long as no one is coerced). Sex is portrayed as a need (like breathing), an uncontrollable drive, and even a sport. It is spoken of only as a means to self-fulfillment, instead of being directed toward one's partner.
There are two blemishes in this airbrushed image of sex--fertility and disease. The former is seen as something to suppress, the latter as something to avoid (but not by avoiding sex). Subconsciously accepting these myths, many couples have sexual intercourse without marriage and many approach marriage with a history of several sexual partners. It doesn't register that promiscuity before marriage makes fidelity to one person in marriage difficult.
Today's engaged couples are also often "expert" in the use of contraception (and if they are not, they think they should be). Most couples have so well accepted contraception that to tell them it's wrong or even unhealthy sounds bizarre. If you qualified the statement by saying that contraception is unhealthy on a psychological and spiritual level, they truly would not know what you are talking about. Yet, they need to know the truth. If couples want to build strong, lasting marriages--and most do--they need to know what will help them. The rich teachings of the Church on human sexuality, conjugal love and responsible parenthood need to be explained and integrated into their lives. Couples should be challenged to see the negative impact of sex without marriage. They need to understand that contraception will adversely affect their relationship with each other and with God.
Contraception does not exist to welcome another person into the world. It is intended to prevent the coming into being of another person. Its action is to separate, or suppress. Contraception is not family planning--it is family avoidance. That is radically different from being a good steward over one's fertility and co-operating with God and His design to space and limit births in a marriage. The latter perspective honors God as author of life, the former does not.
Couples who use contraception might ask themselves if the physical action of avoidance, separation, and suppression exist on other levels (e.g., emotional or spiritual)? And if they do, how does this affect their relationship? This is a very reasonable question. Physical acts express and affect our very being.
When cultural myths deny the strong emotional bond created by sexual relations, what results? When sex is transplanted from the structure of the original human relationship--marriage--where are we heading individually and socially? When the baby is not welcomed, what does that say about the kind of people we are? How can we grow in generosity and selflessness in a vacuum?
Today, the Catholic Church is the only major Christian body which teaches that contraception is wrong (although only sixty years ago, most Protestant denominations taught the same). The Holy Father speaks of the true nature of human sexuality when he writes that it "manifests its inmost meaning in leading the person to the gift of self in love" (Evangelium vitae, #97). This means that human sexuality has an "other" orientation, a spousal or family meaning. To remove this meaning from sex is to trivialize sex, and contribute to a "contempt for new life" (EV, #97). Pope John Paul II underscores the age-old Christian teaching that life must be respected from the conjugal embrace when he writes that, Natural Family Planning recognizes "all individuals" (including the child) in its methodology and promotes decision making "guided by the ideal of the sincere gift of self" (EV, #88). "Only a true love is able to protect life" (EV, #97).
NFP allows us to live our beliefs. It encourages a sexual spirituality in married life. In striving to be "open" to new life, spouses choose their mutual goal--to have God be the architect of the design for their family. By practicing periodic abstinence when trying to avoid or postpone pregnancy, couples can take a careful look at how they love each other. They can become conscious of trying to approach every aspect of life without covetousness or domination. There is no room for greed and exploitation when one lives chastely, because chastity consists in the long-term integration of one's thoughts, feelings, and actions in a way that values, esteems, and respects the dignity of the created order, others, and oneself.
This does not just happen after one NFP class! It is a life style that takes a life-time. It is also the approach to married life that helps couples perdure. God's gift of sexuality is a most proper wedding gift. It is what the Church invites us to accept and what the Catholic community should offer to those beginning married life.
Theresa Notare is the Special Assistant to the Director of the Diocesan Development Program for Natural Family Planning, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, Washington, D.C. This article was first produced for the nationally syndicated column, Life Issues Forum. For further information on NFP call: 202-541-3240/3070.