Dear Father, If the Church says we can’t use contraception, where does that leave a couple who for one reason or another do not want to have another child? Do they have to abstain altogether from marital relations?
No, they don’t have to abstain altogether. God forbid! As most people are aware, there are ways of determining the fertile days of the woman’s monthly cycle so that the couple can have marital relations only during the infertile days, which are, in fact, most of the month.
These ways are based on observing such signs as changes in body temperature, the viscosity of the cervical mucous and the cervix itself.
These methods bear the generic name Natural Family Planning (NFP) and are very effective.
Naturally, since in God’s plan marriage and the marriage act are the way of bringing new human beings into existence, the couple need a proportionate reason to use NFP if they want to avoid having a child.
Pope Paul VI gives us the criterion in his encyclical Humanae vitae (1968): “With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” (HV 10).
As the pope explains, a proportionate reason is always necessary to use NFP.
If the couple simply wish to delay the birth of the next child to give the wife time to recover because she is worn out after having had several children one after the other, that would be a sufficient reason.
If on the other hand they do not want to have any more children at all, a more serious reason would be needed such as important physical or mental health issues, financial difficulties or the possibility of passing on a serious hereditary condition. It is up to the couple themselves to decide whether their reasons are sufficient.
The phrase “with due respect to moral precepts” means the couple cannot use such means as contraception or sterilisation, which go against the very purpose intended by God for the marriage act.
Pope Paul explains: “The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (HV 11).
As regards the morality of having marital relations only during the infertile period of the cycle, Pope Paul VI says: “If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which we have just explained” (HV 16).
When the couple practise NFP each act of marital intimacy is open to the transmission of life, even if the couple know and expect that a new life will not arise from that act. They are living their sexuality and love in a way that is completely consistent with God’s plan.
Even if they were not consciously practising NFP so as to avoid the fertile periods, a couple would find that most of their acts of marital love would not result in a pregnancy anyway since there are only a few fertile days in each monthly cycle.
When, in spite of using NFP, the wife becomes pregnant, the couple should welcome this new manifestation of God’s providence and love for them.
Often they find that this unexpected child gives them great joy and makes a real contribution to the family and to society.
They should accept this “unplanned” pregnancy as in fact “planned” by God.
As is clear, NFP is not something that a couple can practise at any time of the marriage without a good reason.
They always need a proportionate reason.
Especially at the beginning of the marriage it is important to be open to life.