God, Sex, & Babies:
What the Church Really Teaches about Responsible Parenthood
by Christopher West
experience sharing Catholic teaching on marital love and
sexuality around the world, one thing is certain: confusion
reigns regarding Church teaching on responsible parenthood.
Perhaps the main problem is failure to grasp the profound
distinction between contraception and periodic abstinence or
“natural family planning” (NFP). While contraception is never
compatible with an authentic vision of responsible parenthood,
the Church teaches that NFP – given the proper disposition of
the spouses – can be.
As is always the case, erroneous thinking comes from both ends
of the spectrum. Failure to distinguish between contraception
and NFP occurs not only among those bent on justifying
contraception. It also occurs among those who think any attempt
to avoid or space children is a sign of “weak faith” or “lack of
trust in God.” Then there is another group of people who accept
the licitness of NFP but argue about what constitutes a serious
enough reason for using it.
A large book would be needed to spell out all the valid points
and counter-points necessary for an exhaustive treatment of the
issues. The goal of this article is simply to outline some of
the common questions pertaining to responsible parenthood with
the hope of bringing some balance to the discussion. We’ll begin
by outlining the inner-logic of the Church’s sexual ethic.
John Paul wrote in Familiaris Consortio that “the difference,
both anthropological and moral, between contraception and
recourse to the rhythm of the cycle ...is much wider and deeper
than is usually thought, one which involves in the final
analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of
human sexuality.” In brief, these “two irreconcilable
concepts” revolve around an “incarnate” versus a “dis-incarnate”
view of love.
“Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). These words
of Christ sum up the meaning of life. Yet how did Christ love
us? “This is my body which is given for you” (Lk 22:19). God’s
love – an eternal, spiritual reality – is made flesh in Jesus
Christ. In other words, Christ’s love is an incarnate reality
and we’re called to love in the very same way – with the
unreserved gift of our bodies.
In fact, the spiritual call to love as Christ loves is stamped
right in our bodies as male and female, in what John Paul II
calls “the nuptial meaning of the body.” The nuptial meaning of
the body is the body’s “capacity of expressing love: that love
precisely in which the person becomes a gift and – by means of
this gift – fulfills the very meaning of his being and
Man and woman express this bodily gift in numerous ways. But, as
the Holy Father states, this gift “becomes most evident when
spouses ...bring about that encounter which makes them ‘one
flesh.’” And St. Paul describes this union in “one flesh” as
“a great mystery” that in some way images, proclaims, and
foreshadows the union of Christ and the Church (see Eph
No higher dignity and honor could be bestowed on our sexuality.
God created us male and female and called us to “be fruitful and
multiply” as a sign of his own mystery of life-giving love in
the world. Yet, if we are to embrace this grand, sacramental
vision of our sexuality, we must also embrace the responsibility
that comes with it.
Ethics of the Sign
John Paul II says that we “can speak of moral good and evil”
in the sexual relationship “according to whether ...or not it
has the character of the truthful sign.” In short, we only
need ask the following question: Is this given behavior an
authentic sign of divine love or is it not? Sexual union has a
“prophetic language” because it proclaims God’s own mystery.
But, the Pope adds, we must be careful to distinguish between
true and false prophets. If we can speak the truth with the
body, we can also speak against this truth.
In order to be “true to the sign,” spouses must speak as Christ
speaks. Christ gives his body freely (“No one takes my life from
me, I lay it down of my own accord,” Jn 10:18). He gives his
body without reservation (“he loved them to the last,” Jn 13:1).
He gives his body faithfully (“I am with you always,” Mt 28:20).
And he gives his body fruitfully (“I came that they may have
life,” Jn 10:10).
This is the love a couple commits to in marriage. Standing at
the altar, the priest or deacon asks them: “Have you come here
freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other
in marriage? Do you promise to be faithful until death? Do you
promise to receive children lovingly from God?” Then, having
committed to loving as Christ loves, the couple is meant to
incarnate that love in sexual intercourse. In other words,
sexual union is meant to be where the words of the wedding vows
How healthy would a marriage be if spouses, rather than
incarnating their vows, were regularly unfaithful to them,
regularly speaking against them? Herein lies the essential evil
of contracepted intercourse. The desire to avoid a pregnancy
(when there is sufficient reason to do so) is not what vitiates
the spouses’ behavior. What vitiates contracepted sex is the
specific choice to render sterile a potentially fertile union.
This changes the sign of divine love into a “counter-sign.”
Divine love is generous; it generates. And, to put it plainly,
this is why God gave us genitals – to enable spouses to image in
their bodies (to “incarnate”) an earthly version of his own
free, total, faithful, fruitful love. When spouses contracept –
that is, when they willfully defraud their union of its
procreative potential – they become “false prophets.” Their
sexual act still “speaks,” but it denies the life-giving love of
“To think that constraining the free flow of body fluids
impedes me from loving my wife is ludicrous.” This sentiment –
once angrily expressed in a letter I received – typifies the
“dis-incarnate” view of love used to justify contraception. For
this man, love is not revealed in the body (and its fluids), but
is something purely spiritual.
St. John’s admonition comes to mind: Beware of those “false
prophets” who deny the incarnation (see 1 Jn 4:1-3). Make no
mistake – taken to its logical conclusions, contraception
implies the acceptance of a world-view antithetical to the
mystery of Incarnate Love, that is, to the mystery of Christ.
Applying the same “dis-incarnate” view of love to Christ, what
are we to make of Christ’s blood shed for us on the cross and
given as drink in the Eucharist? Is this “free flowing body
fluid” not the definitive accomplishment of Christ’s spiritual
love for his Bride? If Christ had withheld his blood in a mock
crucifixion, would this have sufficed? “Without the shedding of
blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hb 9:22). Similarly,
without the giving of the seed, there is no conjugal act. The
spirit is expressed in and through the body (and, yes, the
body’s fluids). It can be no other way for us as incarnate
persons. John Paul II explains: “As an incarnate spirit, that is
a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by
an immortal spirit, man is called to love in his unified
totality. Love includes the human body, and the body is made a
sharer in spiritual love.”
If contracepted intercourse claims to express love for the other
person, it can only be a dis-embodied person. It is not a love
for the other person in the God-ordained unity of body and soul.
In this way, by attacking the procreative potential of the
sexual act, contracepted intercourse “ceases also to be an act
Maintaining Respect for Incarnate Love
So, does respect for “incarnate love” imply that couples are
to leave the number of children they have entirely to “chance”?
No. In calling couples to a responsible love, the Church calls
them also to a responsible parenthood.
Pope Paul VI stated clearly that those are considered “to
exercise responsible parenthood who prudently and generously
decide to have a large family, or who, for serious reasons and
with due respect to the moral law, choose to have no more
children for the time being or even for an indeterminate
period.” Notice that large families should result from
prudent reflection, not “chance.” Notice that a couple must have
serious reasons to avoid pregnancy and must respect the moral
Assuming a couple has a serious reason to avoid a child, what
could they do that would not violate the “ethics of the sign”?
In other words, what could they do to avoid a child that would
not render them unfaithful to their wedding vows? I’m sure
everyone reading this article is doing it right now. They could
abstain from sex. The Church has always taught, teaches now, and
always will teach that the only method of “birth control” that
respects the language of divine love is “self-control.”
A further question arises: Would a couple be doing anything to
falsify their sexual union if they embraced knowing they were
naturally infertile? Take a couple past childbearing years. They
know their union will not result in a child. Are they violating
“the sign” if they engage in intercourse with this knowledge?
Are they contracepting? No. Neither are couples who use NFP to
avoid a child. They track their fertility, abstain when they are
fertile and, if they so desire, embrace when they are naturally
infertile. (For uneducated readers, I should add that modern
methods of NFP are 98-99% effective at avoiding pregnancy when
used properly. This is not your grandmother’s “rhythm method.”)
People will often retort, “C’mon! That’s splitting hairs! What’s
the big difference between rendering the union sterile yourself
and just waiting until it’s naturally infertile? End result’s
the same thing.” To which I respond, what’s the big difference
between a miscarriage and an abortion? End result’s the same
thing. One, however, is an “act of God.” In the other man takes
the powers of life into his own hands and makes himself like God
(see Gn 3:5).
The difference, as we’ve already quoted John Paul saying, “is
much wider and deeper than is usually thought.” Indeed, the
difference is cosmic. NFP enables a couple to maintain respect
for incarnate love. Such respect is the very raison d’etre of
NFP. Contraception “dis-incarnates” love and, by doing so,
“strikes at God’s creation itself at the level of the deepest
interaction of nature and person.”
Trusting in Providence
So what constitutes a “serious reason” for avoiding a child?
Here’s where the discussion typically gets heated. Correct
thinking (ortho-doxy) on the issue of responsible parenthood,
like all issues, is a matter of maintaining important
distinctions and carefully balancing various truths. Failure to
do so leads to errors on both extremes.
An example of one such error is the “hyper-pious” notion that if
couples really trusted in providence, they would never seek to
avoid a child. This simply is not the teaching of the Church. As
Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II’s pre-papal name) observed, in some
cases “increase in the size of the family would be incompatible
with parental duty.” Therefore, as he also affirmed,
avoiding children “in certain circumstances may be permissible
or even obligatory.”
We are certainly to trust in God’s providence. But this
important truth must be balanced with another important truth if
we are to avoid the error of a certain “providentialism.” When
the devil tempted Christ to jump from the temple, he was correct
to say that God would provide for him. The devil was even
quoting Scripture! But Christ responded with another truth from
Scripture: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test”
(see Lk 4:9-12).
A couple struggling to provide for their existing children
should likewise not put God to the test. Today, knowledge of the
fertility cycle is part of God’s providence. Thus, couples who
make responsible use of that knowledge to avoid pregnancy are
trusting in God’s providence. They, no less than a couple “who
prudently and generously decide to have a large family,” are
practicing responsible parenthood.
Selfishness: the Enemy of Responsible Parenthood
It’s certainly true that, like all good things, NFP can be
abused. Selfishness, as the enemy of love, is also the enemy of
responsible parenthood. It’s clear from the Church’s teaching
that frivolous reasons for avoiding children will not do. Nor
are spouses required to have a “life and death” situation before
they make use of NFP.
In determining family size, Vatican II teaches that parents must
“thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that
of their children, those already born and those which the future
may bring.” They must “reckon with both the material and
spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in
life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family
group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself.” In
terms of limiting family size, Humanae Vitae teaches that
“reasonable grounds for spacing births” might arise “from the
physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from
The Church’s guidance is purposefully broad. Following the
Church’s lead, I don’t intend to spell things out much further
than this. It’s the duty of each and every couple to apply these
basic principles to their own particular situations. Moral
dilemmas are much “easier” when others draw the line for us,
but, as Vatican II says, “The parents themselves and no one else
should ultimately make this judgement in sight of God.” John
Paul II adds that this point is “of particular importance to
determine ...the moral character of ‘responsible
Therefore, the surprisingly widespread idea that a couple must
obtain “permission” from a priest to avoid pregnancy is not only
false, but betrays serious confusion about the nature of moral
responsibility. If a couple is uncertain of their motivations,
it’s certainly advisable to seek wise counsel. But the Church
places responsibility for the decision squarely on the couple’s
shoulders. If spouses choose to limit family size, the Catechism
only teaches that it “is their duty to make certain that their
desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with
the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood.”
On this point, there is another more subtle and little discussed
form of selfishness that conflicts with responsible parenthood.
I once counseled a couple that had several children very close
together. The parents rightly recognized each child as a divine
blessing and did all they could to love and care for them.
However, the mother, emotionally drained since the third child,
had been desiring a larger space between babies ever since. It
came to light that the reason they didn’t space their children
was because the husband selfishly wouldn’t (or couldn’t)
Here, what on the surface might pass as a generous response to
Church teaching, when looked at more closely, actually
demonstrates a failure to live Church teaching. The point is
that in order for parenthood to be “responsible,” the decision
to avoid sexual union during the fertile time or the decision to
engage in sexual union during the fertile time must not be
motivated by selfishness.
Killing versus Dying: An Analogy
The following analogy may help to summarize not only the
important moral distinction between contraception and NFP, but
also the necessary moral attitude that must accompany the
responsible use of NFP.
Our natural attitude towards others should be one that desires
their life and good health. Circumstances, however, could lead
us to have a righteous desire for God to call someone to the
next life. Suppose an elderly relative was suffering greatly
with age and disease. You could have a noble desire for his
passing. Similarly, a couple’s natural attitude should be one of
desiring children. Circumstances, however, could lead a couple
to have a noble desire to avoid a pregnancy.
In the case of the elderly relative, it’s one thing to suffer
with him while waiting patiently for his natural death. In this
situation there would be nothing blameworthy even to be grateful
for his death when it occurred. But it would be quite another
thing to take the powers of life into your own hands and kill
him because you cannot bear his sufferings.
Similarly, for the couple with a noble desire to avoid
pregnancy, there is nothing blameworthy in waiting patiently for
the natural time of infertility, and even rejoicing that God has
granted a time of infertility. But it would be quite another
thing for the couple to take the powers of life into their own
hands and render themselves sterile because they cannot bear the
suffering of abstinence.
With regard to attitude, it’s also possible that your desire for
your relative’s death might be unrighteous. You may have some
sort of hatred toward him that would lead you to wish him dead.
You may not kill him yourself, indeed he may die of a natural
cause. Nonetheless your rejoicing in his death would be
blameworthy. This is akin to a couple who uses NFP with an
unrighteous desire to avoid a pregnancy. Their rejoicing in the
infertile time would also be blameworthy because it is motivated
by a selfish, anti-child mentality.
In this short article, I’ve outlined the basic logic of the
Catholic sexual ethic with the hope of bringing some balance to
the discussion of responsible parenthood.
In contrast to the world’s “disincarnate” view of love, the
Church teaches that matter matters. What we do with our bodies
expresses our deepest held convictions about ourselves, God, the
meaning of love, and the ordering of the universe. When the
Church’s sacramental view of the body is taken seriously, we
understand that sexual union is not only a biological process,
but a profound theological process – “a great mystery that
refers to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:31-32).
The Church’s well-balanced teaching on responsible parenthood is
a divine gift given to protect the supreme value of this sign.
Imbalances on both extremes must be avoided if we are to ensure
fidelity to the sign of marital love and an ever-clearer
proclamation of the divine mystery in the world.
Familiaris Consortio, n. 32
Theology of the Body, January 16, 1980
Letter to Families, n. 12
Theology of the Body, August 27, 1980
See Theology of the Body, January 26, 1983
Familiaris Consortio, n. 11
Theology of the Body, August 22, 1984
Humanae Vitae, n. 10
Familiaris Consortio, n. 32
Love & Responsibility, p. 243
Person & Community: Selected Essays, p. 293
Humanae Vitae, n. 10
Gaudium et Spes, n. 50
Humanae Vitae, n. 16
Gaudium et Spes, n. 50
Theology of the Body, August 1, 1984
Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2368 (emphasis added)
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