Openness to Life: Fertility, Natural Family Planning, and Childbirth in the Catholic Faith
My fertility has always been perfectly timed. It is a gift to have it be so, but its strength can also be a cross at times.
Natural family planning (NFP), aka limiting the conjugal act between my husband and myself to times other than the five or six days of peak fertility works exactly as intended from month to month. To the day, I know when I would get pregnant and when I wouldn’t (but that isn’t to say I didn’t simply ignore these data points and hope for the best…)
Again, that’s pretty incredible and most nurses, midwives and doctors I’ve spoken to over the years are shocked. But because of this, my husband and I can proceed with near absolute certainty that without the intervention of the Divine, I will not get pregnant.
When realizing how simple it is or isn’t for me to get pregnant, it made me start to ask why I was choosing each month not to have kids. And when I made my list, I saw how self-focused my reasons were. Outwardly, I didn’t realize I was doing this but I was counting down to when my kids would be old enough to babysit themselves or when they’d be old enough to grab lunch and a beer with me. I was counting down to when they would all be out of diapers and able to fend for themselves in a lot of ways or until I’d have more free time to pursue my own desires. I didn’t want to start back at the beginning with another life. I love my children so very much. I really love being a mother. I truly believe motherhood is the most important job.
But, still, there’s a disconnect. My thoughts around my purpose as a wife and mother seemed to be a bit disordered.
So as I often do whenever I have questions about life, I turn to tradition. And on this subject and for me, this tradition comes in two main forms: The Catholic Catechism and Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Both of which explain simply and profoundly the true meaning and purpose of marriage and the vocation of wife and mother.
There is so much richness in these texts, so it’s difficult to choose which passages to include here, but I think the following give a solid overview of the Church’s teachings on motherhood, sex, and procreation. Don’t take my word for it, though. Pick up your own copy of The Catholic Catechism and Theology of the Body. Both are easy to read and accessible no matter where you may be in your faith journey.
From Theology of the Body:
Eve was revealed to Adam as a mother—one in whom new human life is conceived and nurtured. When Eve became a mother, the mystery of Adam’s masculinity was also revealed—the lifegiving, fatherly meaning of his body.
By revealing the mystery of masculinity and femininity, procreation expands the knowledge shared between man and woman. In sex, a husband and wife know each other, and find themselves affirmed through each other. In procreation, a husband and wife come to know themselves through a third person, sprung from them both. This is a revelation. Looking at their child, a husband and wife rediscover themselves, their shared humanity—they see their own living image. When Adam first saw Eve, he declared, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” And when Eve first saw her child, she exclaimed, “I have begotten a man!”
Those parts of the female body that are connected with motherhood have always been regarded with honor. In the Gospel, a woman says to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts which nursed you!” (Lk. 11: 27 NKJV). These words, spoken in reference to Mary, the second Eve, are a celebration of motherhood and femininity.
When the first Eve became a mother, she praised God: “I have begotten a man with the help of the Lord.” Eve’s prayer expresses just how significant the blessing of fertility is. The woman’s body becomes the place where new human beings are conceived—where the divine image is passed on.
Human beings don’t create new life on their own—ultimately, it’s God who calls all life into existence. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” God told Jeremiah (Jer. 1: 5 NKJV).
From The Catholic Catechism:
2335: Each of the two sexes is an image of the power and tenderness of God, with equal dignity though in a different way. The union of man and woman in marriage is a way of imitating in the flesh the Creator’s generosity and fecundity: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” All human generations proceed from this union.
2361 “Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another until death.”
2362 “The acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable; the truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude.” Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure:
The Creator himself . . . established that in the [generative] function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment. They accept what the Creator has intended for them. At the same time, spouses should know how to keep themselves within the limits of just moderation.
2363: The spouses’ union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple’s spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family. The conjugal love of man and woman thus stands under the twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity.
2366 Fecundity is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful. A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment. So the Church, which is “on the side of life,” teaches that “it is necessary that each and every marriage act remain ordered per se to the procreation of human life.”
“This particular doctrine, expounded on numerous occasions by the Magisterium, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.”
2367: Called to give life, spouses share in the creative power and fatherhood of God. “Married couples should regard it as their proper mission to transmit human life and to educate their children; they should realize that they are thereby cooperating with the love of God the Creator and are, in a certain sense, its interpreters. They will fulfill this duty with a sense of human and Christian responsibility.”
2368: A particular aspect of this responsibility concerns the regulation of procreation. For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. 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.
Though man is sinful, this doesn’t mean that the body is evil. Sin clouds our ability to see the original meaning of the body, but it can’t erase the meaning itself. Our interpretation of Christ’s teaching, then, must be completely free from the negative, Manichaean attitude towards the body. Such an attitude leads, ultimately, to the annihilation
In brief, God created man and woman as two complementary people of equal divinity. The love they express between one another is sacred and binding through the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. And their acts of love, through God’s will, are designed to make manifest in a third person, a child. This child is the gift that springs forth from the love shared between a husband and wife. To be faithful to one another and to bring forth life, another soul to bring to God, is the purpose of marriage. It is our duty as married people to accept this aspect of our vocation. The conjugal act and procreation cannot be separated because God wills them to go together.
All these thoughts and realizations are rather new to me right now, and as I process what they mean for myself and my husband and our family’s future, I was blessed to get to speak with writer, doula, pregnancy and childbirth advocate and wife and mother of six, Mary Haseltine on an episode of The Catholic Mama podcast.
With a degree in Theology and Catechetics and as a practicing doula and mother of a large brood, Mary so obviously and completely lives these aspects of Church doctrine. Her insights are wonderful and her book, Made for This: A Catholic Mom’s Guide to Birth, which we talk about on the episode is a godsend for all moms or soon-to-be moms.
You can also download and listen to the episode directly here.
The Catholic Mama Podcast
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Have you embraced Natural Family Planning? How has it changed your life, marriage, faith, and family? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!