Contraception and Catholic Teaching
Birth Control from the Biblical Perspective
Natural Family Planning and Church Teaching
IVF and Catholic Teaching
NFP -- What should Catholics think about it?
NFP and the contraceptive mentality
How to be Good Parents
How to have a Happy Marriage
The Nature of Marriage
The Sins Against Marriage
Christ in the Home
The book of Tobias and the Catholic ideal of Matrimony
The Academy of Fertility Care
On Motion Pictures - Pius XI - (Sets forth the Catholic principles to be kept in mind).
On The Communication Field: : MOTION PICTURES, RADIO, TELEVISION - Pius XII
Television: An Occasion of Sin?
The True Notion of Freedom
Husband and Wife
The Joys, Sorrows and Glories of Married Life
By Father Paul A. Wickens
“With three things my spirit is pleased, which are approved before God and men: The concord of brethren, and the love of neighbors, and man and wife that agree well together.” —Ecclesiasticus 25:1-2
“And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them. And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.” —Genesis 1:27-28
“Have you not read, that he who made man from the beginning, made them male and female? And he said: For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh.” —Matthew 19:4-5
THE NUPTIAL BLESSING
May the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob be with you, and may He fulfill His blessing in you: that you may see your children’s children even to the third and fourth generation, and thereafter may you have life everlasting, by the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth, God forever and ever. Amen. —From the Nuptial Mass of the Traditional Roman Liturgy
The title, or even the subtitle, of this book might well be The Catholic View of Marriage because, in a capsule form, that is what the book is about. Yes, “The Catholic View of Marriage,” for certainly the Catholic Church has a number of fundamental and far-reaching teachings on the nature and purpose of marriage, the role of husband and wife within a Catholic marriage and the place of the children—such that Catholic marriage, properly practiced, differs in a number of ways from the practices current in non-sacramental marriages and even from those of marriages between baptized non-Catholic Christians. The duties and obligations of each spouse toward the other within a Catholic marriage, the marital morality they must observe, the proper relationship of the woman to the man regarding headship within the marriage, the responsibility of that headship on the man, the need for the woman to be primarily homemaker and mother, the understood indissolubility of marriage—all these Catholic norms (and others) only help to promote true harmony and increased love between the spouses and a sense of security for the children. In effect, these Catholic norms help produce happy marriages. Scores of Catholic books on marriage have been written in the last 75 years, proving that Catholic marriage is indeed a fertile subject for Catholic writers. And of all such books that I know about, the most telling title ever given any of them was Why Catholic Marriage Is Different. That was probably far from the best book on Catholic marriage, but it probably had the best title by far, because in those five simple words it announces to the reader that Catholic marriage is indeed different from non-Catholic marriage. And Fr. Paul Wickens’ excellent little book, Husband and Wife, will amply show the reader why. In brief, why? Because, in brief, Catholic marriage is illuminated by the Divine Revelation of Jesus Christ, the God-Man, who came to “give testimony to the truth.” (John 18:37). Man can discern with his unaided reason the principal lineaments of marriage, but Original Sin and his own personal sins help blind him to the exact truth about marriage and help weaken his will to accept that truth, even when he sees it clearly. But with Divine Revelation shedding its light upon the institution of marriage, “everyone that is of the truth” (John 18:37) and willing to accept God’s word will see marriage for what it truly is and what it is truly supposed to be. Catholic marriage, in short, is based upon true principles laid down by Almighty God. And if man will but follow and adhere to these principles, then marriages will be happy, harmonious, fruitful in graces and in children, and will promote the eternal salvation of the spouses and their children and foster the well-being of the Church and of society. In reading this book, therefore, one should rid his mind of all secular notions of marriage and open it to the divine truth regarding this God-given institution in which the majority of human beings are called to work out their salvation.
Thomas A. Nelson
February 27, 1999
St. Gabriel of The Sorrowful Mother
Strangers in Many Ways
At wedding receptions one often hears a song originally recorded by “The Carpenters” entitled “For All We Know”:
Love, look at the two of us,
Strangers in many ways.
Let’s take a lifetime to say,
“I knew you well . . .”
Yes! Most couples at the time of their marriage are still actually “strangers in many ways.” But they need not worry! By God’s grace, they will grow together in love, understanding and holiness. The purpose of this small book is to help married people understand each other better, to help them with some of the common problems most couples encounter in marriage. It is not intended to be complete, by any means, but it is at least a “good start” to arriving at an understanding of each other and of the state of life they have entered into, what its purpose is and how God expects them to work out their eternal salvation within its realm. The information and advice contained in this book are really the product of many priests, many counselors and many married couples. Over a period of thirty-five years, especially through the outlines given to us at (pre-Vatican II) Cana Conferences, we were able to accumulate copious notes on various aspects of the state of marriage, and consequently we are able to pass along the accumulated wisdom of many people on this complex but so very important subject. Our heartfelt thanks go out to those wonderful Catholic people—some of them now deceased—who through their ideas and advice made this little book possible.
Fr. Paul A. Wickens
June 13, 1992
Feast of St. Anthony of Padua
THE PRIEST AS MARRIAGE INSTRUCTOR
One may ask how a priest might be capable of giving marriage instructions. After all, he is not married. How does he know the joys, the sufferings and the problems in marriage? To answer this objection, may we point out that a priest is capable because of four factors: 1) his training, 2) his experience, 3) his objectivity and 4) the grace of Holy Orders.
1. His Training: During his minimum of 8 years of college and seminary, he was given a well-rounded education, including an in-depth study of marriage.
2. His Experience: During his lifetime, a priest comes into contact with a countless variety of marriages. He has known newlywed couples as well as
golden jubilarians. He sees the young and the old, the rich and the poor. He sees the happy homes and the unhappy homes, the successful marriages and the
failed marriages. Thus, whereas the priest does not personally experience the joys and problems of this sacred union, he does obtain a wide understanding
about it. One must realize that it is not necessary to experience intimately every phase of life in order to understand people and their situations. Certainly surgeons do not need to have gone through the experience of, let us say, a brain tumor operation in order to understand its ramifications. A client who hires a lawyer does not require that the lawyer have been convicted of a crime or have spent time in prison. Personal experience is not the only teacher, and in fact, it is not necessarily the best teacher. For example, criminals often do not learn from the experience of arrest, trial and incarceration. Many fall back into the same crimes despite repeated punishment. The experience that the priest possesses is vicarious, but richly varied and is buttressed with a knowledge of human nature and a grasp of true religious teaching.
3. His Objectivity: The priest is neither husband nor wife and is able to look at marriage from an objective point of view. He can step back, in effect,
to get an overall view of the institution of marriage. One cannot always see the forest because of the trees. That is, when one is caught up in a situation, he or she often loses perspective. A famous monastic once said that in order for him more clearly to understand religious life, he would from time to time walk to a hill about one half mile from the monastery. From that vantage point, he could grasp the whole picture of monastery life and its purpose. Similarly, the priest is able to “step back” and examine the nature of marriage in an objective and detached manner.
4. The grace of Holy Orders: On the day of ordination, a great Sacrament is conferred upon a man. He is given Holy Orders. Not only does this Sacrament
elevate Him to the status of Alter Christus— “Another Christ”—but it guarantees him the graces to fulfill the various functions of his state of life.
One very important function is to instruct and counsel couples before and during marriage. The priest is given many graces from God, as part of his very
priesthood, specifically to enable him to perform the duties of his exalted state of life.
It would not be far from the truth to state that the institution of marriage is currently undergoing a terrible crisis. At no other time in our nation’s history have the problems with marriage been so serious. In saying this, we may appear to be negative, but we have decided that the best way to write on the subject of marriage is to begin negatively. Eventually, we will come around to the positive side. Our approach is similar to that of the man who intends to renovate the interior of his house. At first, he must be “negative.” He must scrape off the old paint and wallpaper. Then he can begin the real work of renovation and improvement. Similarly, we will spend some time on the negative side of marriage, but only for the purpose of presenting a balanced, positive understanding of the great and glorious Sacrament of Matrimony.
WHY DO WE SAY THAT MARRIAGE IS IN A BAD WAY?
1. Easy Breakup
Statisticians tell us that 50 percent of all marriages which take place in the U.S.A. end up in separation and/or divorce. It is an ever-worsening
situation. Some marriage experts even predict that as high as 85 percent of the marriages that are taking place now will eventually break up. Whatever figures we accept, it is undeniable that there is an appalling amount of discord among married couples—often within our own families and among our friends and co-workers. At a school reunion, it is not unusual to discover that half of our old classmates are divorced. The trend seems to be more and more toward unsuccessful marriages, rather than successful ones. The basic reason for this phenomenon is simple: An absence of faith on the part of one or both spouses. In other words, an absence of belief in God’s teachings and in God’s laws. The glue that keeps marriages intact is belief in God and the practice of His Holy Religion.
God is the author of marriage. He made the rules governing this sacred institution. Chief among these rules is the fact that marriage is indissoluble; that
is, it is unbreakable. It lasts until the death of one of the partners. But, there has been a rise of secular humanism, selfishness, loss of faith and lessening of prayer life. In movies, on television and in the secular media, there is generally a harmful message, one that is repeated often—and often in a subtle, predigested manner: “Divorce is commonplace; everyone is doing it; there is nothing morally wrong with it. Do your own thing. You have to be fulfilled! God understands.” (In other words, “Seek your own happiness without adhering to Divine Law.”) (1) Through the liberal media, most Americans have
Footnote 1. There is scarcely anything worse for a child than the divorce of his parents. Divorce is an act of selfishness. One’s own happiness is selfishly preferred to the child’s welfare. All psychiatrists agree that children need primary caretakers, i.e., parents who take care of them on a daily basis.
become conditioned to accept divorce and are weakened in their understanding that marriage is a divine and indissoluble institution. When disagreements
inevitably arise early in their marriages, many couples quickly resort to threats of “walking out.” In former days—when marriage was held in greater
respect—couples had the same disputes and arguments, but the idea of separation and divorce was foreign to them. It was taken for granted—through religion, culture, and mores—that spouses were married until the death of one of them. Disagreements and problems were usually worked out; or, at least in the case where one partner was incorrigible, the long-suffering spouse would endure the problems through counsel and prayer. They would earn Heaven by accepting their crosses on earth. In many cases the “endurance” period is rewarded by a change in or even a conversion of the “incorrigible” spouse, with a great increase of mutual love and respect enjoyed in later years together. Such a change in her husband occurred in the life of St. Rita of Cascia, but this type of change can happen in all marriages, and is not just a phenomenon in the lives of the Saints. St. Paul confirms this fact when he says: “The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the believing husband.” (1 Cor. 7:14).
2. Virtual Divorce
The couples that do not actually break up, but are very unhappy together, pose another very serious problem. They are merely “sticking it out” because
of the children, or because their parents would be upset. Whereas this problem is not so bad as an actual break-up, it is a sign that the marriage is in
trouble. What are the reasons for this sad state?
a. Lack of Enthusiasm
We all know of homes in which the couple simply “makes the best of it.” If they had it to do all over again, they say, they would not have gotten married.
They envy single people for their freedom and absence of responsibility. People who lack enthusiasm for their own marriages do not live for their marriages. Jobs, careers and recreation are more exciting. It is a standard joke in our present society that if a young man announces to his co-workers that he has become “engaged,” he is ridiculed for taking on a “ball and chain.” On the other hand, when a young woman announces her engagement, her co-workers energetically congratulate her for landing a husband. But it is a different story for the young man. While there is a certain amount of levity connected with his announcement, the “boys” chide him for taking on a responsibility that he will soon regret. (Who ever thought up the idea of those horrible stag parties the night before the Sacrament?) This lack of enthusiasm toward marriage is symptomatic of the unhappiness and lack of fulfillment
that many experience in their own marriages.
b. Separate Interests
While husband and wife may reside under the same roof, separate interests may keep them apart for long periods of time. Of course, there is the obvious and
necessary separation which occurs when the breadwinner husband goes off to work while his wife remains at home with the children. But in our “keep-up-with-the-Joneses” society, there is the all too common phenomenon where the husband works a full-time job, while his wife also holds outside full-time employment. Sometimes their work-hours are on different shifts, so that they hardly see each other. (Once a housewife takes employment outside the home, she usually becomes reluctant to leave that employment. The charms of the secular workplace, with its attendant salary, can sometimes make the home seem, by comparison, to be unglamorous and routine.) In addition to his job that takes him away from his home, the husband may participate in some “recreational”
activities, such as bowling or membership in a club. Or, whereas the husband may leave the house only infrequently, he may have an inordinate attachment
to television or some other activity at home. As a result, there is little time for the couple to do things together or to communicate in depth. Years ago, when our society was largely agricultural, husbands and wives worked together on the farm, ate meals together and, even when out of each other’s sight, were never far away from each other. In our present society, because of separate interests, sufficient time is not spent together. Love increases as knowledge increases. Love in marriage is a quality that does not remain static, i.e., motionless. If it does not grow, it diminishes. Love is a function of
the will, and the will can only respond to those things presented by the intellect. The more a man and woman get to know each other, the greater is their potential to grow in love. It is similar to growth in the love of God, our Creator. The more we know about God, the more we understand His attributes—such
as His goodness, mercy, power, wisdom, justice—and the greater becomes our potential to love Him.
c. Lack of Sympathy and Understanding
Most young people enter marriage with an incomplete understanding of their spouse, later declaring that they thought the other to be “different.” Each
originally found in the other an “ideal.” Faults were never dwelled upon. Each admired the qualities he or she discovered in the other person, such as how
nicely “the intended” treated the other’s parents. “When he visited my home, he gave respectful attention to my Dad; they talked about topics from baseball
to business, and he nodded politely when political questions arose.” “And she . . . she was so pretty and feminine! She was enthusiastic and bubbly and made few demands.” Just to sit and talk with each other was considered to be a perfect evening. But an accurate knowledge of each other’s faults was missing, or at least minimized in their minds, and often dismissed with comments like, “Of course, we know each other’s faults! What do you think we are: immature? But we are in love. We’ll work things out!” Time Marches On: If we could “fast-forward” in real time to perhaps five years later, we may find that this young man and young woman now have many complaints about each other. “He leaves the kitchen sink in a mess . . . and the bathroom, too!” “She cries or becomes moody when she can’t win an argument. She also talks on the phone all day long to her mother and her girlfriends. What the heck do they talk about?” “Without make-up she scares me!” “He is so fussy about what he eats. The other day I accidentally broke the yolk on a fried egg, and he wouldn’t eat it.” “In the morning she’s so grouchy . . . and she looks awful, too!” “When he gets home from work, he hardly talks to me. And here I am all day with the children, looking forward to his adult company. He is tired . . . or so he says. All he wants is a can of beer and his television.” Sounds like a classic situation! After living together for a few years, there tends to be a lack of sympathy for the other spouse. “Yes, before the wedding day, we had slight hints as to each other’s faults, but now they mean so much more. We live together day after day and find it is a headache putting up with those faults and idiosyncrasies!” One husband remarked to a priest friend of mine: “Father, my wife and I never have an argument . . . as long as she doesn’t talk to me.”
A great “wall of love” was evident on the wedding day. It was pristine and without flaw. But sometimes a wall begins to show wear and tear, like cracks in
the plaster from a house “settling.” So, repair the cracks, by pouring in forgiveness, unselfishness and greater understanding, not by resorting to arguments, bitterness and inflexibility. Patch up that wall with virtuous acts, with humor and prayer . . . and with renewed effort to please God and your beloved spouse.
d. Weakening of Home Life
1. Home has become a “service station.” In modern America, just as a car pulls into a gas station, fills up on gasoline, has its oil checked and then drives away, so do family members come and go from their homes. The children come home, hurriedly eat supper, do a few little chores and then move on. There is not enough time taken to develop human friendship, not enough togetherness. In God’s plan, the home is not merely a place to eat and shower and sleep, like the Y.M.C.A. It is a place to work together, to pray together, to laugh together, to learn together—and indeed, to save your souls together.
2. A bigger collection of appliances does not necessarily make a happy home. The secular world tends to equate a successful home with the number and quality of modern conveniences: Is it not true that at bridal showers and wedding receptions it is usual to see tables overflowing with gifts? During the course of the afternoon, the guests will inspect the tables. Electric toasters, candelabra, linens and blankets—many, many wonderful gifts. Can we not almost hear the guests exclaim: “Look at all these beautiful gifts. Won’t they be happy!” There it is! People often equate happiness and marital success with the accumulation of material things. A young wife faced with the daily chores of kitchen work might complain: “If only I had a dishwasher, I would be absolutely, positively happy!” While the acquisition of a dishwasher, no doubt, would ease some of the burden of the beleaguered housewife, it will not make her happy! Many women who have (or had) completely modern kitchens are divorced. We cannot judge a marital union by material possessions. The norm of success must always be the fulfillment of God’s will: the daily living out of the joys and sufferings of life in union with the teachings and example of Our Saviour.
3. Artificial Entertainment Television, of course, is the first thing that comes to mind when we think of artificial entertainment, but there are other forms of artificial recreation as well. During the engagement period, couples fully enjoy each other’s company. They are eager to communicate with each other—to talk and talk and talk about their dreams, ideas, fears, failures, hopes. All subjects—political, educational, cultural, current events, human nature—make up the conversational spectrum. After only a few years into marriage, the tendency is to communicate less. Instead of exploring each other’s intellect and enjoying each other’s company, there is a dependence upon entertainment outside of both. We can easily imagine a married couple sitting in the living room watching a TV show. Neither party has any input or contribution; both are passive “couch potatoes.” In order for marital love to grow, interaction is required. A flowering plant must be given attention in the form of water and sunlight. Some effort is required on the part of the gardener to make the flower grow and bloom. In order for marital love to increase and flourish, there is a need for the sunlight of conversation.
e. Prevalence of Adultery
Mental Adultery: When marriage vows are made, man and woman, in effect, promise to be “one in mind, one in heart, and one in affection.” Otherwise, they could not very well fulfill their marriage vows. No thing and no person should take precedence over their mutual love and affection. Mental unfaithfulness occurs when someone else receives primary affection. It could happen if a wife extends more attention to her relatives, or if a husband extends more attention to his friends, or has too much attachment to a career or hobby. When a husband is “always out”—not necessarily in an immoral activity—it means that his affections tend to focus upon subjects other than his wife and family. Parenthetically, although husbands and wives have vowed to be first in each others’ hearts, a wife may become subtly guilty of inattention to her husband after the children start to come. She finds it necessary to spend most of her time and energy on the children. Wives and mothers may unconsciously and gradually drift away from intimacy with their husbands because they are always busy, that is, occupied and attentive to their babies. A home should not be, per se, “child-centered,” but more correctly, “God-centered.” And this includes the spouses’ also remaining attentive to each other and one another’s needs.
Physical Adultery: In the secular and atheistic element of human society, adultery has always been a common practice. This is mortally sinful and results in punishment by Almighty God, even in this world! In our watered-down “Christian” society, adultery is not so socially scandalous as it once was. The liberal media regularly portray infidelity as some kind of romantic adventure—and often attempt to justify, and even encourage it. The sin of adultery is euphemistically called “having an affair.” In the civil law, divorce has become simplified and easy to attain. The notoriety of public figures who flaunt their adulterous behavior tends to break down respect for the institution of marriage and the virtue of purity. Scandal and bad example can be found everywhere, often even in the best of families. A wedding ring placed on the hand of a bride should send out a signal, loud and clear: She belongs exclusively to one man. So also the wedding band worn by the groom: He is no longer “fair game.” He belongs to one woman only. A respectable married man not only does not commit adultery, but also does not engage in looks, words and actions which may lead in that direction. On his deathbed, Saint Dominic assured his followers that he had never fallen into the sin of impurity. He confided that his success was due to the fact that he “never took part in any dangerous conversations.” That is a good lesson for all of us: Resist the beginnings! Many spiritual directors pass that wise maxim on to their penitents. It is an extremely important principle in the spiritual life. Every sinner—from Adam and Eve to every murderer, thief and adulterer since then—has foolishly ignored this principle. Every teenager who has rebelled against his parents and against God, somewhere along the line, has refused to “resist the beginnings.” A prudent married person does not bestow any type of affection on or give more than passing attention to members of the opposite sex which may ultimately lead to fatal consequences. Little by little, imprudent behavior can weaken one’s resolve to observe faithfully the marriage vows made before God. Adultery remains always a mortal sin. It is a direct violation of the Sixth Commandment. Even if this sin becomes prevalent in the world, its culpability is not thereby diminished. Anyone who dies having committed this sin—and dies unrepentant—will be subjected to eternal punishment in Hell.
f. The Materialism of Modern Marriages
1. Marriage is sometimes considered to be more of an economic venture than a sacred union. Young people often think of marriage as an opportunity for them to flourish economically: To take expensive trips, to eat in the best restaurants and to do many secular things they were not able to do before marrying. But realistically, marriage is going to provide many more opportunities for financial sacrifice than for the enjoyment of luxuries. This is especially true where the couple is willing to accept the children God sends them. The mature Christian viewpoint requires young couples to be reasonably prepared for marriage, financially and materially, but at the same time to trust in Divine Providence. When God grants husband and wife the privilege of being parents, they can be sure that, somehow or other, they will manage. They may not live as luxuriously as some of their friends. They may not function on the economic level which they would prefer. Nevertheless, married couples should be willing to accept the dispositions of Divine Providence and gracefully accept their current, temporary economic conditions as God’s Holy Will. We must remember that the model for the Christian family is the Holy Family. The Holy Family lived quite modestly. They remained in a humble stable for a time and permanently lived in a rather poor area of the world: Palestine and Nazareth. Mary and Joseph had, you might say, a most successful marriage, a most holy marriage, a marriage most pleasing to God. Materialism and financial status were the furthest things from their minds.
2. People tend to adopt the dictum of living “well,” instead of living “good.” “Good” means that your primary concern is to have your children grow up in the love and fear of God. Living “well” primarily means that you want your children to have all the material things that perhaps you never had. This parental ambition is very often overdone. Of course it is normal and natural for parents to want their children to have the necessary things, such as food and clothing and shelter. But to desire one’s child to rise on the economic ladder or in the social register, so to speak, can be a very dangerous thing—if that goal is given priority. Parents must definitely and clearly establish that their primary obligation toward their children is to enable them to save their immortal souls. That should be their top priority. Everything else pales in comparison to that. If there is true love for one’s children, then salvation should be the number one objective. After all, love is eternal. We all earnestly desire not to be separated from our loved ones. Since life on earth is transient and temporary and since eternity goes on and on without end, we naturally wish to be united for eternity with our beloved children. Our children, after all, are the only thing we can actually take with us from this life. Therefore, even for selfish reasons, one might say, we should labor unstintingly for the salvation of our children. Why? So that we will all dwell together and irrevocably in the final domicile of Heaven.
Appendix - PERIODIC ABSTINENCE
The chief cause of marital breakup, or unhappiness in marriage, is selfishness—which is really a disguised form of childishness. Sometimes marriage problems are not truly marriage problems. The fault often lies with the individual, who puts himself first . . . before God, before his spouse and before his children. This selfishness is most evident in the husband who wants to achieve his own satisfaction and his own happiness first, or in the woman who puts her own happiness, her own “fulfillment,” before that of her husband and her children. Only God can correctly teach us and demand the sublimation of ourselves and of our individual lives in the interest of that deeper and wider life that we have in common in marriage. Only God can instruct us, and only Jesus Christ and His Blessed Mother and St. Joseph can give us the example of how we should work this out in our daily lives. Selfishness can be converted to unselfishness, if we focus our attention upon God, our Creator, and upon the Holy Family and firmly resolve to keep God’s laws and follow the example of the Holy Family. If married couples work toward this beautiful unselfishness in which they think first not of themselves, but rather of God, their spouse and their children, they will not only be sanctified, but will find the greatest degree of happiness that may be allotted to man in this “valley of tears.” It is the great irony of life that unselfishness leads to a greater degree of happiness than selfishness. The secular world views things differently. The more we pursue our own gratification, says the world, the happier we will be. Just the reverse is true! The more we seek our own gratification at the expense of others, the unhappier we become and, paradoxically, the less complete and fulfilled as a human being. Good moral principles always win out in the end. Selfish human whims lead to a psychological wrecking ground. Some people hop from one garden to another, trying to find the elusive bird of happiness, while as always, it can be found in one’s own backyard, in the presence of God and in following the virtuous behavior displayed by each member of the Holy Family.
Definition: Periodic abstinence (or periodic continence) means to refrain from the marital act during the wife’s fertile time each month. The Teaching of the Roman Catholic Church Periodic abstinence for the purpose of limiting the chances for conception is licit, i.e., morally allowed according to Catholic teaching, provided the following principles are followed:
1. There is a serious reason for practicing it, for example, grave physical or mental health problems or some economic catastrophe.
2. Both parties mutually agree to abstain from the marriage act during the designated times.
3. There is no serious danger of incontinence for either partner.
4. There is no lessening of faith or trust in God’s wisdom in sending children.
5. The periodic abstinence is practiced only for the duration of time that the serious reason exists.
6. To be completely certain, couples should also seek the advice and counsel of a holy, well-formed priest (usually their confessor or spiritual adviser).
The truly Catholic norm for having children, for every couple in marriage, is complete surrender to the will of God to send whatever children He will. This is only a reinforcement of the Natural Law, which God has built into all of His creation and which the mind of man (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) can determine, without the assistance of supernatural faith. The Catholic norm in marriage is to trust completely to God’s Providence in the matter of bearing children: in other words, to accept all the children that God may send, without reservation or question. If God cares for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, then why should we lack trust in His Providence to care for whatever children He sends. (Cf. Matt. 6:28). After all, He created us the way we are and the way He wants us to be regarding our reproductive nature and the number of children a woman can bear, and therefore He will also provide for whatever children come along, so long as the couple obeys all God’s laws.
According to Jone’s Moral Theology (Par. 760-e, page 542): “For a proportionate reason, and with mutual consent of husband and wife, it is lawful intentionally to practice periodic continence, i.e., restrict intercourse to those times when conception is impossible.” Again, whereas the Catholic norm regarding having children is always total, unconditional trust in Providence to send whatever children God chooses, nonetheless, if a couple has serious health or psychological problems, etc., and if they are not able to practice total continence until the difficulty has passed, rather than resort to the sinful practice of artificial birth control, it is morally acceptable for the couple to practice continence during the fertile part of the wife’s reproductive cycle. This is allowed in order to prevent the mortal sin of incontinence (pollutio in Latin), but it must be done according to the norms outlined on page 77. Good-will and prayer are required so that the couple will remain open to whatever children God may send, despite their desire to avoid them during the time of difficulty.
Some Sacrifice Is Required
If all the moral conditions for periodic abstinence are present, then the couple should:
1. Determine the wife’s fertile times with accuracy.
2. Practice voluntary self-control and mortification during those times.
3. Pray together that God’s Holy Will will be done and that their faith in the Natural Law and the Church’s teaching about the Natural Law will remain intact.
To Determine the Fertile Times
There are books available that explain how to determine the woman’s fertile time each month. The fertile time is usually only about 48 hours per month, but abstinence should be maintained for 5 to 7 days to be “safe.” The two main methods of determining this time each month are the Billings Method, which relies on the mucous symptom, and the Sympto-Thermal Method, which relies on the mucous symptom plus basal temperature. The Couple-to-Couple League promotes the Sympto-Thermal Method. (See page 86).
Q. What is the Couple-to-Couple League?
A. It is an organization committed to providing information about the most effective ways to practice periodic abstinence.
Q. Who runs this League?
A. John and Sheila Kippley—who have written several books on the subject—run the Couple-to-Couple League.
Q. Is the League Catholic?
A. Similar to the Pro-Life Movement, it embraces all people of good will, although, de facto, the majority of its members practice the Roman Catholic Faith.
Q. Yet the Couple-to-Couple League is not sponsored, as such, by a Catholic organization. Does the Catholic Church accept information from sources that are not, per se, Catholic?
A. From time immemorial the Catholic Church has accepted, as a gift of God, legitimate science and medicine. The old-time Catholic colleges give testimony
to that. Catholic Academia studied and sanctified every area of natural human knowledge, from Antarctic studies to Zoology.
Q. Are there abuses in the practice of periodic abstinence?
A. When neo-Modernist clergy sponsor education in what has come to be called “Natural Family Planning,” chances are good that there will be lacking a
proper and clear moral and doctrinal foundation to show what are the true Catholic norms in regard to periodic abstinence.
Q. Can periodic abstinence be misunderstood?
A. Certainly. A husband and wife may be too scrupulous and tend to consider the use of periodic abstinence as displeasing to God. However, if the proper
conditions are fulfilled, couples are permitted, without pangs of conscience, to abstain periodically. (Again, couples should review the norms under which periodic abstinence is morally allowed and be sure they are fulfilling them all. Plus, one should refer to the list of Papal statements on page 85.).
Granted there have been abuses of periodic abstinence, especially on the part of those who promote “Natural Family Planning,” who are, in some cases, it would seem, using this “natural” technique of periodic abstinence simply to limit their families for insufficient reasons. Yet the moral principle remains: Abusum non tollit usum—“The abuse does not take away the use.” In other words, the practice of periodic abstinence is sound, under the conditions stipulated on page 77; it does not become a morally illicit practice just because some couples abuse it and sin by using it wrongly because they ignore some of the prerequisite conditions for its use.
Q. How else may periodic abstinence be misunderstood?
A. By indiscriminate use: A couple may apply the “serious reason” condition to fit any and all reasons, including selfish ones. Having children, especially in today’s pinched economic times, requires great confidence in God, that He will provide, despite the fact that He often lets us struggle. Couples should see in this His way of purifying us and weaning us from attachment to worldly things, rather than to Him. The term “Natural Family Planning” has been coined in recent years to refer to the more accurate means now available to couples to determine the woman’s fertile time each month in order to practice periodic abstinence, or what used to be called the “Rhythm Method.” However, a complete philosophy of childbearing which has emerged around this concept encourages couples to “plan” their children. The term “Natural Family Planning,” as well as the abuse of the practice of periodic abstinence (such that it is entered into with the same motive as in practicing artificial birth control), have come under severe criticism by traditional Catholic writers, as well they should. For—to paraphrase the comment of Cardinal Ottaviani—never has it been heard in the history of the Church that Catholic couples have a right to “plan” their families. Also, it might be observed that the lengths to which the wife must go to monitor her cycle precisely are anything but “natural.” (One writer has noted that it is exactly when the woman is able to conceive that she feels most inclined toward marital relations, an indication of God’s design.) Again, couples who seek to practice periodic abstinence for a serious reason should review the principles spelled out on the first page of this chapter to be sure they would not be committing a mortal sin by engaging in this practice. Then, when they consult a priest, they should be sure that his theology is sound and—if he concurs with them that a serious reason exists—that all the principles ennunciated on page 77 are in fact fulfilled. The morally safer thing for them to do is practice complete abstinence during the time the difficulty exists—if there is no serious danger of incontinence (mortal sin) for either partner. There is no possible sin in temporary total abstinence, if both parties agree to it and there is no danger of incontinence.
Q. What safeguards will protect couples from abusing or misunderstanding periodic abstinence?
A. There are several safeguards:
1. Seek the advice of a good pastor or confessor.
2. Practice the Catholic norm regarding conception, that is, “complete surrender to Divine Providence,” or co-operation with His plan for children,
however many He may send. Pray for help always to practice the Catholic norm and to learn from the words of Christ: “Seek ye therefore first the kingdom
of God and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matt. 6:33). “Be ye therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48). The Epistles of St. Paul, St. John and St. Jude constantly exhort us to sanctity, yes, even to heroic sanctity. And marriage, as with every vocation, often calls for heroic sacrifice, but God’s grace, through the Sacrament of Matrimony, will provide the help couples need—if they will call upon God for that grace.
Q. What virtue, in particular, should married couples pray for?
A. For trust—trust in God’s Providence! The great American Saint, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, instructed her sisters that when things looked difficult,
they should consider it an opportunity to trust God more. “Tanto! Tanto! Tanto!” she exclaimed. “More! More! More!”
Q. Suppose one spouse in the marriage lacks faith and trust in God and cannot seem to accept the required crosses of additional children in the spirit of the Cross and of Church teaching? Furthermore, what if, because of this weakness, there arise conflicts and tensions in the marriage?
A. The more enlightened and more faith-filled partner must firmly but quietly adhere to Catholic morals and Catholic norms. Good principles in such a case
will always win out in the end. The partner who is stronger in faith and understanding should show compassion and mercy toward the weaker spouse—but
not give in on the correct principles—just as Jesus Christ manifested compassion on those who faltered because of weakness. (Our Saviour was more severe
on those who acted out of malice or deliberate ignorance.)
Q. What else should the stronger spouse do?
A. Give good example; be well-balanced; be dutiful and generous and cheerful in all aspects of home life.
Q. Anything else?
A. Yes. Above all else, the spouses should pray together! Fr. Patrick Peyton’s motto, “The family that prays together stays together,” refers not only to not separating, but to the achievement of a wonderful unity of souls under God’s just and mysterious Providence. St. Paul wrote: “For when I am weak, then I am powerful.” (2 Cor. 12:10). He turned the recognition of his own weakness into an opportunity to depend more on God and less on himself. Paradoxically, his own human deficiencies became to him an occasion of grace. There is a great lesson in all of this for those spouses who are lacking in sufficient faith or trust in God to enable them to accept and care for all the children God sends them.
Higher Spiritual Motives
Periodic abstinence has also been practiced for ascetical reasons throughout the Christian ages. Many devout Catholic couples have mutually resolved, as an act of mortification, periodically to forego the pleasures of physical intimacy during, for example, Lent and Advent. Indeed, Church history is replete with canonized saints who have made resolutions of this nature, such as St. Henry II (Holy Roman Emperor 1002-1024) and his wife St. Cunegunda.
Sources of Catholic Teaching
Documents of the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church which have approved periodic abstinence either implicitly or explicitly:
March 2, 1853—Pius IX, Response Non esse Inquietandos—“Sacred Penitentiary.”
June 16, 1880—Leo XIII, Response repeated Non esse Inquietandos—“Sacred Penitentiary.”
Dec. 31, 1931—Pius XI, Casti Connubii—“On Holy Marriage.”
Oct. 29, 1951—Pius XII, “Address to Midwives.”
Nov. 26, 1951—Pius XII, “Address to Family Congress.”
May 15, 1961—John XXIII, Mater et Magistra— “Mother and Teacher.”
June 23, 1964—Paul VI, “Allocution to Cardinals.”
July 25, 1968—Paul VI, Encyclical Humanae Vitae— “On Human Life.”
Nov. 3, 1979—John Paul II, “Address to CLER and IFFLP.”
Jan. 26, 1980—John Paul II, “Address to Midwives.”
NOTE: Pope Pius XII recommended that medical science employ some of its expertise, not in inventing immoral devices and procedures, but rather in
determining with greater accuracy the woman’s fertility cycle.
Further Moral Considerations
The use of artificial contraceptives and abortifacients is contrary to the Natural Law. Natural Law is defined as the law of God as known by man’s rational nature, i.e., his intellect. All persons, no matter of what nationality or religion, are bound to obey the Natural Law. Thus, abuses of the procreative faculty are not merely abuses of “Catholic” laws. They are serious offenses against the law which Almighty God has built into human nature and which the reason of man can understand without the assistance of divine Revelation to enlighten him.
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