Why is artificial birth control an option for Catholics who are willing to use contraceptives? On the occasions I have presented the possibility of using natural family planning (NFP) to Catholic couples who use contraception to avoid pregnancy, the usual response has been: “It’s too hard.”
What is sought, therefore, is a quick and easy solution to a problem. But can problems really be solved with quick and easy remedies? To think so is to reduce the problem of birth to a partial reality which necessarily implies leaving aside the deeper meaning of life and of personhood. Paul VI was very aware of this when in his Encyclical Humanae Vitae he said the following:
The problem of birth, like every other problem regarding human life, is to be considered, beyond partial perspectives –whether of the biological or psychological, demographic or sociological orders –in the light of an integral vision of man and of his vocation, not only his natural and earthly, but also his supernatural and eternal vocation. (HV 7)
The use of birth control on behalf of Catholics has to be seen in the light of our supernatural and eternal vocation. What is this vocation? The Vatican II Constitution, Lumen Gentium, states it as the universal call to holiness. We are called to be with God in heaven by means of a holy life. St Paul stated it clearly in his first letter to the Thessalonians:
This is the will of God, your holiness… For God did not call us to impurity but to holiness. Therefore, whoever disregards this, disregards not a human being but God who gives his Holy Spirit to you (1 Thes 4:3;7-8)
A preference for what is easy is not a characteristic trait of Catholic Spirituality. In order to live you have to die to self, in order to reach your end you have to take the narrow path. If we want to follow Christ we need to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow him. This is what we find in the Gospel.
The real question is does the use of birth control make Catholic couples better persons? Does it bring them closer to God? In the light of the universal call to holiness, does it help them grow in holiness?
You don’t become holy just by desiring it. Growth in holiness implies shunning sin, letting God take control, living Christian virtues. But as the masters of spiritual life remind us, it is impossible to live the characteristic Catholic virtues without self-mastery.
Paul VI understood the importance and the need for married couples to practice self-mastery:
The honest practice of regulation of birth demands first of all that husband and wife acquire and possess solid convictions concerning the true values of life and of the family, and that they tend toward securing perfect self-mastery. To dominate instinct by means of one’s reason and free will undoubtedly requires ascetical practices, so that the affective manifestations of conjugal life may observe the correct order, in particular with regard to the observance of periodic continence. Yet this discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort, yet thanks to its beneficient influence, husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one’s partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love, and deepens their sense of responsibility. By its means, parents acquire the capacity of having a deeper and more efficacious influence in the education of their offspring; little children and youths grow up with a just appraisal of human values, and in the serene and harmonious development of their spiritual and sensitive faculties. (HV 21)
A text of Maximus the Confessor, a 7th Century abbot, master of spiritual life, can help us better understand the importance of self-mastery in the spiritual life: “charity springs from the calm of detachment, detachment from hope in God, hope from patience and long-suffering; and these from all-embracing self-mastery; self-mastery from fear of God, fear of God from faith in the Lord.”
Maximus gives self-mastery an important place within this text. Reaching the highest level of spirituality, charity, cannot be attained without self-mastery. But self-mastery is not mere will power, it comes from faith in God and fear of God.
John Paul II in his teaching on human sexuality, known as the Theology of the body, intended to “trace an outline of conjugal spirituality. In the spiritual life of the spouses, also the gifts of the Holy Spirit are at work and, in particular, the “donum pietatis,” that is, the gift of reverence for that which is God’s work.” (TOB, 132:1)
Reverence for God and his work is the “fear of God” from which springs self-mastery. John Paul II goes on to say that this gift of reverence for God’s work:
united with love and chastity, helps one to identify, in the whole of conjugal shared life, the act in which, at least potentially, the spousal meaning of the body is linked with the procreative meaning. It guides one to understand, among the possible “manifestations of affection,” the singular and even exceptional meaning of that act: its dignity and the consequent grave responsibility connected with it. Therefore, the antithesis of conjugal spirituality is constituted in some sense by the subjective lack of such understanding, connected with anti-conceptive practices and mentality. (TOB 132:2)
How many Catholics who choose artificial birth control consider this option in the light of a conjugal spirituality? Birth control is contrary to conjugal spirituality, because the very expression implies that the spouses become controllers of life, something that pertains only to God. Only God is the Lord of life. Only the honest practice of the regulation of births that respects the natural stages of fertility and infertility allow for a deep conjugal spirituality.
Birth control will not make you holier, but self control as a form of reverence for God’s work will.