Bishop John T. Steinbock
My dear brother priests, deacons and all of God's people,
The love of husband and wife, in the Sacrament of Marriage, speaks to us of God's great love. True marriage requires the reciprocal gift of exclusive, unending and fruitful love. In the Sacrament of Marriage God pledges the graces necessary for a couple to persevere in this total self-giving love. But a couple must have the humility to realize their need for the Lord, the faith to put the Lord first in their lives, and the will to follow the example of the total self-giving love of Jesus in their relationship with each other.
We live in a society with a totally different vision for marriage and in a culture in which it is increasingly more difficult for couples to persevere in their marriage commitment. The Christian teaching on conjugal love is even difficult for many of our own Catholic people to accept, being influenced so strongly by the individualism, utilitarianism, and self-centeredness of our culture. We need to proclaim it loud and clear.
I write this pastoral mainly for our priests and deacons, as well as those involved in teaching roles in the Diocese, to encourage them to bring the clear teaching of the Church regarding conjugal love to our young people and couples, and to better articulate that teaching. For this purpose I present various themes explaining this teaching. Couples seeking to be guided by the teaching of Christ and the Church in their marriage bond will also find this pastoral helpful.
I ask that we pray very much for those in our parish communities who have been divorced. Our hearts go out to them and we support them with the love of Christ, encouraging them to stay close to the sacraments if they are able. I encourage anyone who is divorced, and remarried, to speak privately to a priest to seek his guidance.
1. Divorce Rate in the United States
It is a sad commentary that there are over a million divorces each year in the United States, and though Catholics have a lower rate of divorce than Protestants, hundreds of thousands of these divorces each year are amongst Catholics (1). One fourth of the children in the U.S. live with only one parent (2). Divorce has touched almost every family in our parishes in one way or another. It brings great suffering not only to the immediate family but to the Christian family and society as well.
The modern world has separated love from bringing forth life, and this influences our young people very much. To help young couples persevere in their marriage bond, it is essential for them to understand conjugal love in the light of the Church's teaching on the Sacrament of Marriage and the Christian family, towards which marriage is directed.
The divorce rate of those using Natural Family Planning is miniscule compared to this high divorce rate. Informal studies have placed the divorce rate from 1.3% to less than 5% (3). This is certainly a strong motivation to take a good look at the teaching of the Church regarding conjugal love. What is it that keeps these couples together?
Whenever Church teaching speaks of not using artificial means to prevent conception, it is always presented in light of the truth and beauty of conjugal love, in light of the theology of the body in its masculinity and femininity, the Sacrament of Marriage, and the sharing in the creative power of God in bringing forth new life to form the family. Natural Family Planning is a means for married couples to live this spirituality. Responsible parenthood is not simply limiting children. In fact, NFP has nothing to do with contraception. The practice of NFP is an expression of conjugal love that preserves the dignity of the human person and that cooperates with God in His creative power.
Our Holy Father states: "We call that fatherhood and that motherhood responsible which correspond to the personal dignity of the couple as parents, to the truth of their person and of the conjugal act. Hence arises the close and direct relationship that links this dimension with the whole spirituality of marriage"(4). He also identifies the word "natural," not as a biological term, but as a term that signifies "morally correct"(5).
2. Modern Natural Family Planning
Prior to and at the time Humanae Vitae was promulgated in 1968, the only method for spacing children in accord with the teaching of the Church was the rhythm method. Because of its unreliability, it was very difficult for couples to be faithful to the teaching of the Church.
A lot has changed over the last thirty years in the medical and scientific world, including the perfection of Natural Family Planning. With NFP a couple can accurately identify the times of fertility and infertility in the cycle, and use this information to achieve or avoid a pregnancy. When used to avoid a pregnancy, the method necessitates abstinence for an average of 8 to 10 days within the cycle (6). According to the Department of Health and Human Services of the Federal Government and the World Health Organization of the United Nations, this method is 98% effective(7). NFP is as effective, and in some cases more effective, than most other known means to prevent pregnancy, and without the negative side effects.
Christian marriage demands chastity, continence and self-sacrifice. Couples must be led to appreciate these virtues, which are essential for a good marriage to last, especially in a culture that would lead them to instant gratification. Our Holy Father, speaking of these virtues in relation to conjugal love says: "The role of conjugal chastity, and still more precisely that of continence, lies not only in protecting the importance and the dignity of the conjugal act in relation to its procreative meaning, but also in safeguarding the importance and the dignity proper to the conjugal act as expressive of interpersonal union, revealing to the awareness and the experience of the couple all the other possible Îmanifestations of affection' that can express this profound communion of theirs" (8).
It is important to emphasize that Natural Family Planning is not contraception. It allows a couple to have a fertility awareness and appreciation of their bodily functions, as created by God. When a couple does not have intercourse during the natural periods of fertility in a month, they are simply respecting the cycle of fertility of which God Himself is the author. Couples can also use this method to conceive a child.
3. Clear Teaching of the Church Rooted in Authentic Love
The teaching of the Church on conjugal love cannot be separated from the teaching of the Church on marriage, the family, the theology of the body in its masculinity and femininity and the dignity of the human person. This teaching is full of joy and hope and calls man and woman to a true respect for each other, above all finding their Christian and human identity in the gift of self, as Jesus has given of himself as gift to us. The teaching of the Church offers the Truth of God's love, and brings hope to married couples to have a lasting and joy filled union.
Our Holy Father in his Encyclical, Familiaris Consortio, written in 1981, roots the teaching of the Church on conjugal love in love itself: "God created man in his own image and likeness: calling him to existence through love, he called him at the same time for love. God is love and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion. Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being" (FC 11).
Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae also rooted the teaching of the Church on conjugal love in the vocation to love. "Conjugal love reveals its true nature and nobility when it is considered in its supreme origin, God, Who is love, the Father, from Whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. Marriage is not, then the effect of chance or the product of evolution or unconscious natural forces; it is the wise institution of the creator to realize in mankind His design of love. By means of the reciprocal personal gift of self, proper and exclusive to them, husband and wife tend towards the communion of their beings in view of mutual personal perfection, to collaborate with God in the generation and education of new lives" (HV#8).
The teaching of the Church has consistently affirmed that marriage and conjugal love are ordered to the procreation and education of children. But, Humanae Vitae states: "If therefore there are reasonable grounds for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that then married people may take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and use their marriage at precisely those times that are infertile, and in this way control birth, a way which does not in the least offend moral principles" (HV#16).
We live in a society where children are often seen as a burden and sex is reduced to the pursuit of pleasure. Though each couple must ultimately decide on the number of their children, we must remind our people that children are not a burden to be endured but a gift to be joyfully received. Children are the supreme gift of married life. Christian parents are called in the midst of a self-indulgent world to be generous in accepting children with joy and love.
A couple must constantly examine their consciences seriously whether they are simply being led by materialistic and selfish values in making a decision to limit their children. Those same materialistic and selfish values can slowly enter into other aspects of their relationship. A couple must keep an openness to life, putting trust also in God's providence, as they decide the reasonable grounds for spacing or limiting their children.
4. The Inseparability of the Unitive and Procreative Aspects of the Conjugal Act
"The Church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law, as interpreted by their constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life" (Humanae Vitae #11). "That teaching, often set forth by the Magisterium, is founded upon the inseparable connection willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning" (HV#12).
Humanae Vitae does not say that a couple must intend to have a child in each and every marriage act, but that should intercourse take place when conception is possible, the couple must have a respect for this possibility and must not frustrate it through contraceptive means. Natural Family Planning maintains the interrelatedness of the unitive and the procreative aspects of the conjugal act. NFP allows this openness to the transmission of life, while contraception does not. By an act of intercourse, a couple is saying "yes" to life; by an act of contraceptive intercourse, a couple is saying "no" to life. NFP keeps the openness to the child even when a child will not be conceived; contraception separates the unitive and the procreative aspects of the marriage act.
5. The Conjugal Bond Shares in God's Creative Power
Pope John Paul II stated in 1984 in a seminar on responsible parenthood: "At the origin of every human person there is a creative act of God·. From this fundamental truth of faith and reason it follows that the procreative capacity, inscribed in human sexuality, is--in its deepest truth÷a cooperation with God's creative power. And it also follows that man and woman are not the arbiters, are not the masters of this same capacity, called as they are, in it and through it, to be participants in God's creative decision. When, therefore, through contraception, married couples remove from the exercise of their conjugal sexuality its potential procreative capacity, they claim a power which belongs solely to God: the power to decide in the final analysis the coming into existence of a human person" (9).
These words of the Holy Father basically say that contraception is intrinsically evil because a couple in using contraception are making themselves equal to God. Contraception excludes the God-given creative dimension from human sexuality.
It is also important to state that Humanae Vitae, dismissed so readily by many, simply expands on what is taught explicitly as Divine Law by the II Vatican Council ("Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World," paragraphs 51-52).
The teaching of the Church presents a vision that sexuality is not merely biological and genital, but is the very means by which a couple give of themselves totally and completely, including every aspect of their being, in mutual self-giving love. Very much what is part of each spouse is his or her fertility; in fact, this is at the root of their beings, enabling them to be cooperators with God in bringing new life into this world.
When spouses give themselves to each other in the marriage act, and exclude this most intimate part of their beings, the act denies their total self-giving to each other and they reject the creative power given to them by God. Contraception separates their love from God's eternal plan. This can have a devastating effect on the marriage, as a couple can begin to treat each other as objects for manipulation, holding back the total self-giving of themselves. The individual can take on a greater importance than the union of the two. Self-love can begin to replace self-giving love.
6. Not a Popular Teaching in our Society
This teaching is not a popular teaching in our day and age. The concept of recreational sex and sex solely for pleasure that pervades our culture, the hedonistic pull of the popular media, the individualism and permissiveness of our culture make it difficult to see children as a gift, to see that sexuality is directed to procreation as well as for permanent unity, and difficult to exercise self-discipline and self-restraint. It is exactly that popular culture that destroys fidelity and marriage.
When sexuality is separated from procreation, anything goes. And this is exactly what we are seeing in our society today: abortion, sterilization, cohabitation, multiple divorces, homosexual marriage, surrogate motherhood, therapeutic and reproductive cloning, abandonment and killing of new born babies, sexual exploitation of children, disrespect and degradation of women, and sexual perversion of every kind. The contraceptive mentality of separating sex from procreation is one of the root causes of our "culture of death," as it leads one not to respect the human dignity of another person, but to see another as an object to be manipulated for one's own ends.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI, a true prophet in Humanae Vitae cautioned the world against four consequences of separating the procreative and unitive aspects of marriage: conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality, sexual exploitation and loss of respect for women, governmental control over people's lives, and human beings thinking they had unlimited dominion over their own bodies, turning the human person into an object.
It is interesting that Mahatma Gandhi, though not Christian, understanding the Natural Law, insightfully stated: "There is hope for a decent life only so long as the sexual act is definitely related to the conception of precious life. This rules out perverted sexuality and, to a lesser degree, promiscuity and to condoning if not endorsing natural vice" (10).
7. Natural Family Planning and Spirituality
Natural Family Planning is not simply an effective and medically healthy means for the spacing of children. It is a way of life that enables husband and wife to base their relationship on the truth of God's life-giving love. NFP demands good communication between husband and wife, so essential for successful relationship. Communication in the most intimate part of their lives in their conjugal bond, which many couples never experience, encourages communication about every other aspect of their lives.
Natural Family Planning is not mainly about spacing children. It is about authentic Christian discipleship, putting Jesus at the center of the marriage relationship. NFP helps a couple to struggle against the daily influence in society of a materialistic and individualistic understanding of sexuality, which can erode a couple's relationship.
The practice of Natural Family Planning prevents a couple from looking at each other as an object to satisfy their sexual wants. Personal love, not sexual satisfaction, becomes the emphasis for their conjugal bond and for their ongoing relationship. NFP emphasizes the personal qualities of love in a marriage relationship and the practice of the virtue of chastity within the marriage. NFP demands openness, trust, mutual understanding, patience, putting the other before self, authentic personal love. It is said that people must work at love to remain in love. NFP becomes a means for working at that love every day of their lives.
Add to all of this, faith in a loving and merciful God, the frequent use of the sacraments, prayer in the family, trust in the grace of the sacrament of marriage, and the support of the Christian community, couples can find Jesus as The Way, to true, committed self-giving love in their marriage covenant.
8. The Church's Role
The Church must be at the forefront not only of proclaiming the dignity and permanence of marriage, but also of speaking about and explaining Natural Family Planning. Because it doesn't entail the manufacture of devices or pills that are part of a billion dollar industry, because it doesn't lead to economic profit, the world is not going to advertise or publicize NFP. On the other hand, NFP is very inexpensive, as it has no continuing costs after the initial training.
In fact the world in which we live will do all in its power to avoid speaking the truth of the ill effects of contraception, and of the effectiveness of Natural Family Planning. Many studies have been done about the possible harmful effects of artificial means of contraception but we hear very little of these ill effects in the media. Harmful effects of the pill for women can include the increased danger for breast and cervical cancer, increased risk of cardiovascular problems, and other adverse effects such as headaches, mental depression, and gall bladder disease (11). The use of Norplant can cause, among other side effects, prolonged and irregular bleeding, suppression of menstruation with negative psychological side effects (12). The injectable contraceptive, Depo-Provera, can cause irregular and heavy bleeding, severe depression, loss of bone density, and mild or massive weight gain, whose harmful effects, even if discontinued, may persist for two years or more (13). The IUD can cause pelvic infection, perforation of the uterus, and increased risk of ectopic pregnancy (14). RU 486 which is really an abortion drug, and so popularly promoted, has been reported to cause death from hemorrhage and heart attacks, as well as severe cramping, nausea, vomiting, and excessive bleeding (15). A letter issued in 2000 by the manufacturer of one of the RU 486's two drugs, said its use in an abortion could cause death, yet it has been pushed by the abortion lobby (16).
9. Respect and Reverence for Women as Persons
Contraception is an affront to women. Most artificial means place the burden for avoiding a child solely upon the woman, absolving the husband from any responsibility. It has strong adverse medical and psychological effects on the woman, even putting her in the danger of death with some contraceptive methods. Ideology and the profit motive move the contraceptive market, not respect or concern for women.
Just as an aside, ideology and the profit motive also move the abortion market, which is also an affront to women. Physical complications of medical and surgical abortion can include breast cancer, infertility, subsequent fetal loss, ectopic pregnancy and low infant birth weight, as well as infection and major hemorrhage (17). Abortion also increases a woman's risk of suicide, homicide and accidental death (18).
Natural Family Planning respects the woman as a person. She is not used as an object. NFP has no health risks or medical side effects for the woman. NFP is all natural, no drugs or devices are needed, and has no long term effect on the ability to have children. Natural Family Planning relies on a couple having true love and respect for each other, patience, understanding, knowledge of self and of bodily functions, the spirit of chastity and self denial in the marriage relationship, honest and ongoing communication, and the mutual acceptance of the responsibility for spacing children. The world really isn't interested in promoting these basic qualities that promote a loving and lasting relationship and has nothing to do with economic profit.
This is not the message that our movies, radio talk shows, TV sit-coms, give to people, or the message sex education classes give to children in our public schools. In fact, they give the opposite message of endorsing sex apart from love and apart from marriage. These messages are affecting our Catholic young people and couples.
It is the Church that must proclaim clearly God's design for conjugal love, of the procreative and unitive meaning of the marriage act. People will not hear these things anywhere else. This means it is the responsibility of the priest in each parish to take a leadership role in teaching the people entrusted to his care this teaching of the Church, which can enable couples to be faithful till death.
10. Certified Trained Teachers
Thanks be to God we now have a good number of trained certified teachers of Natural Family Planning in our Diocese. I want to thank those that have become certified trained teachers of NFP and are engaged in this ministry. I encourage others, both English and Spanish speaking, to learn to be certified teachers of NFP to be at the service of couples to help them live out the spirituality of true conjugal love.
An ideal would be to have trained teachers in every parish to hand on the richness of the teaching of the Church to engaged couples, to support them to enter into relationships of true, total self-giving love, which alone can overcome the influence of a culture that leads people to manipulate others, even spouses, in the name of love.
These classes will only be effective if priests encourage married and engaged couples to take advantage of them. It is the pastor's responsibility to see that the people who prepare for marriage in their parishes are taught the clear Magisterium of the Church regarding conjugal love and are given the opportunity to learn more in depth of NFP.
Priests are also the ones who have to encourage with pastoral care and love couples as they struggle to live by the teaching of the Church regarding true conjugal love in the midst of a society that scorns any vision of sexuality apart from an unrestrained and autonomous understanding. Couples need the help of all the sacraments, especially the need of the Sacrament of Reconciliation to to help them to continue to persevere in seeking to put Christ at the center of their marriage relationship.
11. Truth and Conscience
The teaching of the Church tells us clearly that contraception in the marriage act is intrinsically evil and a serious sin as it subverts the total self-giving love, which is by its nature life-giving. The Church in its authentic Magisterium brings us the truth of God's law to guide us through this life in order to guide us to eternal life.
The teaching of the Church also tells us that people must follow their conscience and will be judged on their conscience. The Second Vatican Council in "The Church in the Modern World" (Gaudium et Spes) clearly states in relation to a couple's decision on how many children to have: "The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God. But in their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church's teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel. That divine law reveals and protects the integral meaning of conjugal love·" (GS 50).
The Bishops of the United States in their Pastoral letter, "Human Life in our Day," written in November of 1968, reflect on conscience: "Humanae Vitae does not discuss the question of good faith of those who make practical decisions in conscience against what the church considers a divine law and the Will of God. The encyclical does not undertake to judge the consciences of individuals but to set forth the authentic teaching of the Church which Catholics believe interprets the divine law to which conscience should be conformed."
The Bishops also state in that same Pastoral letter: "We feel bound to remind Catholic married couples, when they are subjected to the pressures which prompt the Holy Father's concern, that however circumstances may reduce moral guilt, no one following the teaching of the Church can deny the objective evil of artificial contraception itself."
To simply tell a couple to follow their conscience in relation to spacing of children without presenting the clear teaching of the Church to inform their conscience, is to leave a couple prey to the influence of the materialistic approach to sexuality, which can destroy a good relationship. Only after a couple has been explained well the teaching of the Church on the love of husband and wife, can they make an informed decision in their consciences.
Even though persons may be in a good, but erroneous, conscience, they will still experience suffering in their lives because of actions objectively immoral. Good intentions or a good conscience will not prevent the consequences of selfishness entering into the life of a couple, if they commit acts objectively against God's will. A fact of life is: following God's law leads to happiness; disobeying God's law leads to suffering.
12. Formation of Priests and Laity
Before the perfection of NFP, it was very difficult for couples to follow the clear teaching of the Church on conjugal love. Now with the reliability of Natural Family Planning and the availability of classes throughout our Diocese, priests can happily encourage couples to be faithful to this authentic teaching of the Church, which preserves the unitive and procreative aspects of the marriage act. NFP emphasizes and strengthens the spiritual and personal qualities in their love relationship. It leads them to be authentic Christians putting the Lord and God's will first in their relationship.
I encourage our priests, deacons and all those involved in teaching our Catholic faith, to learn more of the beautiful teaching of the Church on marriage, family and conjugal love, as well as Natural Family Planning, in order to articulate it well to the people entrusted to their care. The teaching of the Church in this area will support our young married couples to form lasting and joyful unions. To live an authentic Christian life calls for a radical conversion, and calls us to be counter cultural in this world. We are called to lead our people to holiness, to a total self-giving love, as Christ has loved us.
For those who have the responsibility to teach in the name of the Church, to learn more of the beauty and truth of the teaching of the Church on marriage and the family, essential reading and study would include: Chapter I of Part II of "The Church in the Modern World," (Gaudium et Spes), paragraphs 47-52, from the II Vatican Council, 1965; "Of Human Life," (Humanae Vitae) by Pope Paul VI, 1968; "On the Family," (Familiaris Consortio) by Pope John Paul II, 1981. At the end of the footnotes I give further suggested reading for those who would like to delve deeper into this subject.
Christian parents must teach and witness to their children and to society true married love, love that is exclusive, unending and fruitful. Christian couples are called by God to promote true conjugal love amongst other couples, especially young couples, struggling to live the Christian vocation of marriage, in the midst of a society whose culture does not support that love. The teaching of the Church on the love of husband and wife in the light of marriage and the family must be taught in all our marriage preparation classes, in our Catholic High Schools, and in our Senior High Religious Instruction Classes, as well as in the RCIA process.
CHRIST IS THE ONLY HOPE FOR THIS WORLD
In ending Familiaris Consortio, Our Holy Father tells us very succinctly how important this teaching on marriage and the family is for all of us: "The future of humanity passes by way of the family" (FC 86).
May we who teach in the name of Christ and the Church never fear to present clearly this teaching of the Church on love and marriage in a culture that leads people to be totally consumed in self. The only hope for the world is the teaching of Christ's total self-giving love. It is this love that we are called to witness and to teach to the people entrusted to our care. The power and love of the Lord is with us through his Spirit. Let us go forward in hope and courage in bearing witness to the love of the Lord, who alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Let us entrust our efforts to promote good Christian marriages to the intercession of Our Blessed Mother. May Mary be our example and model for always seeking to be faithful to God's will. Through her intercession may our Christian families, like the Holy Family, have the presence, joy, comfort and strength of Christ, to be a light and example for the world of authentic self-giving love.
Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God
Most Rev. John T. Steinbock
Here is further suggested reading on the teaching of the Church on marriage and the family.
These documents can be obtained in most Catholic bookstores, or at the Publishing Office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 3211 4th Street, N.E., Washington DC 20017.
All for the Love of God
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