Whenever Catholics are taught that Natural Family Planning (“NFP”) is the way to plan their family , they are referred to the encyclical Humanae Vitae (“HV”) but few understand why contraceptives are frowned upon, and even fewer practice NFP. A 2006–2010 National Survey of Family Growth found that those who used contraceptives, or resorted to abortion or sterilisation are twice as likely to divorce. Does HV throw light on why contraceptives weaken the marital bond?
HV makes clear that the issue of birth control must be addressed by an understanding of God’s plan for love and marriage, with conjugal love involving a mutual self-donating love that looks beyond itself and seeks to remain open to new life in co-operation with God.
There are four characteristics of conjugal love: human (i.e. love which involves the senses and the spirit, and freely seeking the good of each other instead of using the other in casual sexual encounters), total (i.e. without reservations or self-interest), faithful and exclusive, and fruitful (i.e. the communion of persons doesn’t exhaust itself in the attainment of sexual climax, but proceeds to the giving of new life).
At the core of its teaching, HV stressed that the conjugal act has to be both unitive and procreative to strengthen the communion of persons. The introduction of contraceptives frustrates these aspects, and deeply wounds the marital bond.
HV also taught that natural family planning must be practised with the objective of realising responsible parenthood. This requires the couple to regularly review their circumstances to decide whether they are open to having another child. Of importance, they must recognise their duty towards God to be open to life, and be trusting and generous in their decision.
HV has been hailed as prophetic in its predictions, including an increase of marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.As the foundations of our familial relationships reel from the destructive effects of the widespread use of contraceptives 50 years on, HV remains a clarion call to the faithful to be noble and to choose the life-giving way of spacing births.
We now look at the intimate sharing of two couples who have chosen to practice NFP and how these testify to the truth and beauty of the core teachings of HV.
The truth about contraceptives
Corey, a medical doctor and his wife, Julie, are CEP presenters who have taken the HV charter and are currently among the first batch of 50-plus students of the Maryvale certificate course.
When they first got married, the couple practised NFP simply because it was the right “Catholic” thing to do. However, when the kids came in quick succession, in intervals of about two years, they started to feel the strain of coping with a big family.
“While we knew theoretically that the use of contraceptives was frowned upon by the Church, we had problems grappling with what seemed to be a rather archaic concept in the modern world, where contraceptives are widely used and prescribed,” explains Julie. “The prospect of Him blessing us with even more children became more difficult to accept especially since we could hardly cope with the children that we already had. The practical considerations of the typical Singaporean parent spoke much louder than the teachings of the Church and it was easy to find many excuses not to practise NFP.”
The fourth delivery really led the couple to question their reliance on NFP. “As my wife lay in the delivery room just after delivering our fourth child, she developed post-partum hemorrhage, a severe maternal complication,” recalls Corey, “and this left me with serious doubts about the wisdom of NFP.”
After much deliberation, the couple decided to try the Pill, but as Julie explains, what started out as a seemingly rational solution to the issue of family planning began to affect their relationship in subtle ways. “I was never quite at peace with it and there were times in the midst of our intimate moments together when I felt that Corey could not quite look me straight in the eye, perhaps because we were no longer truly in sync with each other. Our love relationship was affected in ways that I could not fully understand. Perhaps that is what Pope St John Paul meant when he said that ‘the body has a language’. Through my body, I make a total gift of myself to Corey in love. It is unconditional. But the use of contraceptives runs contrary to this. It was as if Corey accepted me but without my fertility and I felt that our love was being shortchanged.”
The situation was made worse by Corey’s great reluctance to talk about the issue, and that troubled Julie, as she had always deeply treasured their close relationship. She prayed fervently as she waited for Corey to be ready, and her prayers were answered when CEP came to their parish in 2008. “CEP came with childminding, which couldn’t have been more perfect … but, more importantly, it provided the much-needed platform for us to start talking.”
“We shared about our innermost fears and our dreams for our marriage, and we prayed,” adds Corey. “Over time, I realised that the fundamental obstacle to my acceptance of NFP had nothing to do with the method or its reliability, but my unwillingness to trust God and allow Him to be in the driver’s seat.”
Julie understood that, for Corey, reverting back to NFP involved no less than a complete change in mindset. “I thank him for loving God and me enough to make that decision for us. We took the Humanae Vitae Charter and never looked back. Through it all, we have come to realise that it is only when we let Him take over that He truly empowers and transforms us. The verse in Corinthians rings so true that it is indeed “God who causes all things to grow.”
God blessed them with their fifth child, whom they welcomed in 2013 . Even though the pregnancy brought back some of the old fears along with some new ones, but with contraceptives out of the way, they felt that they were back in full communion with God and each other and that gave them the quiet assurance that, come what may, He would be there to see them through.
“Joshua will always be a permanent reminder of His love for us and of our refusal to compromise on our love for each other,” Julie concludes, “It is indeed by the grace of God that we have come this far.”
The freedom to love as God loves us
Eugene and Trillion have been married for 20 years and have three boys aged between 14 and 18, the fruits of their love and God’s gift to them.
They hadn’t heard about HV until they became part of the expat church community when living in Shanghai in 2013, and they joined the MPC programme as volunteers. The curriculum was based on Theology of the Body by St Pope John Paul II and HV.
Despite their lack of understanding of HV, they had been practising NFP anyway, having been introduced to it during their MPC in preparation for their wedding 20 years before. “I was not a Catholic then,” says Trillion, “but NFP sounded like a really good idea as I didn’t want to take the Pill or use other invasive contraception methods for fear of side effects.”
“NFP is a wholesome, loving way of deciding together with our spouse how many children we plan for in the family,” explains Eugene. “At the same time, it allows us to be open to more children if God should kindly bestow them to us as a gift. I see it as God’s way of allowing us to co-operate with Him to building a family together.”
“One challenge is to abstain from sex during my fertile period,” explains Trillion. Working it out involved some discussion, adjustments and time. “We spend time doing non-sexual things and Eugene will try to distract himself by doing more housework and washing the car. Our friends are always amazed at how we can keep our house so clean without a helper. The secret is NFP!”
Jokes aside, the couple reveals that, as a result of NFP, their relationship is much stronger. They feel closer, sex is more meaningful, and because they focus on activities outside of their intimate time, they have grown so much more fulfilled as a couple – so much so that they often now think the same way, say the same things and behave similarly, as if telepathic.
“I’m just so thankful to our Lord for Trillion, and also for NFP as a gift being so instrumental to help me see her for the wonderful person she truly is,” Eugene exclaims. “One day we were driving and I was sharing with Trillion how much I loved her, how I miss her whenever she has to travel for work, how I yearn to be with her when she is not around. And maybe that is what it means to be one in the Sacrament of Marriage. Then it dawned on me that perhaps that is how God feels with us. That He loves us that much. He can’t wait to be with us, that’s why he is always beckoning to us, courting us. And perhaps why there is the Sacrament of Matrimony so that by loving our spouse so much, being called to be so close to each other as to become one, we can be privileged enough to have a glimpse of how much the Father and Son love each other.”
They are now a presenting couple at MPC and use the power of story-telling to share authentically about their experience practising NFP with engaged couples, sharing the challenges as well as the positive effect it has had on their marriage.
“It’s easy to learn,” promises Trillion, “and for the ladies, you will get to know when you are fertile and when you are not. This helps you, as it did me, when you are trying to conceive, space out your children or prevent a pregnancy.”
“Both Trillion and I are work in progress,” says Eugene. “We have much to learn and to progress through in our spiritual life. But through the practice of NFP, what we have found is a glimpse of true freedom. A freedom not shackled by or rooted in our personal cravings or desires, but a freedom to love.”
HOW HV CAME TO BE
Prior to 1930, all Christian churches held the view that the use of contraception was an intrinsic evil. It was at the Lambeth Conference of 1930 thatthe Anglican Church allowed for contraception in limited circumstancesand opening of the floodgates to a widespread use of contraception. Then when the first oral contraceptives hit doctor’s clinics in 1960, the celebrated Pill blurred the lines still further. Questions were raised as to whether oral contraception should still be banned by the Church since, in some views, it didn’t interfere with the physical act of procreation. At the same time, the highly ideological presentation of Malthusian over-population was a growing concernof how the population growth in poor countries would affect the future. Thelaity was voicing confusion over marrying the need to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church yet fearing thedevastating human consequences to leaving population growth unchecked.
In changing times, the real concerns needed to be addressed, and Pope John XXIII issued a commission in 1963 to open up the questions around birth control and population. Pope Paul VI expanded the commission, which eventually led to his release of Humanae Vitae (HV) in 1968.
HV reinforced the reasoning that marital relations constitute a union of the loving couple with a loving God in which a new person can be created. This love is total and as such there can be no accommodation for giving something less than oneself as created by God, as would happen with contraception.
Criticism was loud, especially from organisations fighting population growth and, by the 1980s, the spread of HIV. With decades of poor catechesis, Humanae Vitae is likely the most ignored teachings of the Catholic Church.