Letters From a Young Catholic

My reflections as a Catholic young adult passionate about the Faith, seeking to grow in knowledge and understanding of God and discerning the will of the Lord in my life.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Theology of the Body

I can't have a blog without putting the Theology of the Body on it. I feel very passionately that people need to hear the message of the Theology of the Body. You may think it's just about the sanctity of marriage and the dignity of the human person but it goes so much deeper. The Theology of the Body is about what it means to be a person made in the image of God. It's about all of creation. It's about psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, theology, philosophy, biblical studies, metaphysics, medicine . . . really, it touches on everything, and that's not an overstatement.

Here's a post I made on www.onerock.com recently about the Theology of the Body in response to some questions being raised about natural family planning (NFP) and the Theology of the Body.

First of all, responsible parenting. The Catholic Church doesn't teach that couples must have as many children as physically possible. It teaches an openess to human life and the gift of children. There's a difference. In Humanae Vitae the guidelines for responsible parenting are stated, yet they leave room for much serious discernment on the part of the couple. For instance, a Husband and wife should consider "their own good and the good of the children already born or yet to come." They should "read signs of the times and of their own situation on the material and spiritual level." Finally, they should consider "the good of the family, of society, and of the Church." One couple might make these considerations and choose to have a large family. Another couple may make these considerations and choose to limit their family size. So long as both couples are acting in good conscience (a good conscience must always be informed) and acting in a way that respects the meaning of sexual union (i.e. not using artificial contraception)- in a way that never falsifies the language of the body- the Church teaches that they are both exercising responsible parenthood. There must always be just reasons for avoiding a pregnancy, yet this must always be done naturally. Just reasons for avoiding a pregnancy must be valid, it does not mean justifying every little reason why a pregnancy may not be convenient. I admit this is not crystal clear, but it must be discerned according to the circumstances of the family and therefore there can't be definitive boundaries set on what is a just reason and what is not a just reason for avoiding pregnancy.

Quoting from Christopher West's "Theology of the Body Explained" (p.429)

"Every time a couple engages in the marital embrace they must speak the language of their bodies in truth. In other words, they must renew honestly (with their bodies) the commitments they freely made at the altar - commitments of fidelity, permanence, and opennesss to children. But are couples always obligated to engage in intercourse? Indeed, on various occasions in life a couple may have good reason to refrain from intercourse. In such cases, abstinence itself becomes an expression of love. The need to avoid a pregnancy is just such an occassion. In itself, refraining from marital union to avoid a pregnancy in no way violates the truth of intercourse as a "sign." In order actively and directly to violate the sign of intercourse, you must first engage in it. Only then can you defraud it of its meaning."

In this excerpt we see the difference between contraception and NFP. While NFP leaves the door open to God. If a couple enters into the marital embrace during an infertile period, consciously practicing NFP, this does not go against God's plan. The fact that the woman doesn't get pregnant during her infertile period is only natural and is in accordance with God's plan for her cycle. She's not supposed to get pregnant then. There's a huge difference with naturally planning when to have children, in accordance with one's cycle (or one's spouse's cycle) as opposed to taking matters into one's own hands disregarding the plan of God. To use artificial contraception is always a denial of the true design of human sexuality and hinders a sexual interaction in a way that it cannot express authentic love, which is always a full gift of oneself, freely given, faithful to the other and bearing fruit (not necessarily offspring, but grace and spiritual fruit as well).

NFP is morally acceptable not because it is not "artificial," but because it is not contraceptive. Couples who use NFP morally never impede the procreative potential of any of their acts of intercourse. In this way the value of the "sign" of intercourse remains objectively intact.

As I already mentioned, Humanae Vitae looks at what it is to authentically love. Authentic love is always free, full, faithful, and fruitful. In considering these aspects of authentic love in relation to contraception and Natural Family Planning we can see how Natural Family Planning allows for authentic love, while contraception prevents it.

With contraception freedom is broken by self-imposed slavery to sexual desires and instinct without a necessity for self-discipline. The couple cannot give fully of themselves to each other as they are expressing a reserved gift (i.e. I give of myself to you except my fertility). Furthermore, they are not being faithful to each other in the marriage vows (assuming their Catholic) to be open to the possibility of the transmission of life during every marital act. Their love does not manifest the fruitfulness of children, and since the love cannot be authentically expressed, they are hindering their marriage rather than receiving the fruitful grace which accompanies sexual intercourse between a married couple without contraception.

Natural Family Planning relates to these aspects of authentic love differently. First of all, naturally family planning puts the couple's freedom to the test during periods of abstinence when they have chosen in fidelity to strengthen the virtue of self-mastery, and when sexually active they give of themselves freely and without reservation. During periods of abstinence there is a mutual trust that enables them to fully surrender to one another and during periods of sexual activity they are able to give of themselves fully without exception. NFP strenthens faithfulness in marriages since if they practice self control within marriage they are more likely to practice self-control outside of marriage (fewer affairs) - interestingly divorce rates among NFP users is virtually non-existent. When they are sexually active they are faithful to God's plan for human sexuality. Furthermore, a couple practicing NFP is always open to the possibility of pregnancy, thus the Holy Spirit is always welcome and they are not suppressing their fertility.

While contraception is an intentional supression of fertility, Natural Family Planning involves learning how the body works and "working with it." Furthermore, periods of absitnence with NFP strengthens the virtue of self-mastery.

This being said, NFP can be used with a contraceptive mentality. Some people take the "responsible parenthood" thing too far and justify not having children for reasons such as "I want a new car."

True responsible parenthood must recognize the natural laws God has given us in our beings and it must include an exercise of reason and will over passions and instinct. Finally, a couple discerning whether they have just reason to avoid pregnancy must consider the physical, economic, psychological, and social circumstances in which they find themselves. These will vary from couople to couple, but if a couple is a ttentive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and their consciences they will know if they are acting in God's will or not.

Here's my Theology of the Body reading list for anyone who wants more information:

Theology of the Body, JPII
Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla (JPII)
Crossing the Threshold of Love, Mary Shivanandan
Theology of the Body Explained, Christopher West
The Good News About Sex and Marriage, Christopher West
The Splendor of Love, Fr. Schu
The Jeweler Shop, JPII (it's a play!)
Sex and the Marriage Covenant, John Kippley
The Billings Method, Evelyn Billings
Humanae Vitae, A Generation Later, Janet Smith
Humanae Vitae

Happy reading! That should keep you going for a while! :-)

Note: Theology of the Body is not simply a reference to 'our' bodies, but rather to THE Body, that is, the Word made flesh, Christ, in whom all revelation is found. To understand the Theology of the Body in this way truly brings it to the center of all areas of life.