JOHN PAUL II's apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, signed Nov. 22, 1981, discusses the difference—both moral and anthropological—between artificial contraception and periodic continence by recourse to the rhythm of the woman's cycle. The difference, which even some theologians claim to reject, involves, as John Paul says, in the final analysis, “two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.”
Here is how the he puts it: “The choice of the natural rhythms involves accepting the cycle of the person, that is the woman, and thereby accepting dialogue, reciprocal respect, shared responsibility and self-control. To accept the cycle and to enter into dialogue means to recognize both the spiritual and corporal character of conjugal communion, and to live personal love with its requirement of fidelity. In this context the couple comes to experience how conjugal communion is enriched with those values of tenderness and affection which constitute the inner soul of human sexuality, in its physical dimension also. In this way sexuality is respected and promoted in its truly and fully human dimension, and is never ‘used’as an ‘object’that, by breaking the personal unity of soul and body, strikes at God's creation itself at the level of the deepest interaction of nature and person.”
Dr. William May, defining the demonstrable difference between contraceptive intercourse and periodic abstinence as human acts, freely chosen, stresses that there is, in a sense, a double-barreled choice: “one chooses (a) to have sexual relations and (b) to destroy whatever procreative power there may be in those relations. Contraceptive intercourse is not only non-procreative intercourse but anti-procreative intercourse. One element of human choice in contraceptive intercourse is the direct intention to render impotent the procreative power of the human person, to inhibit this human power at least for the time at which intercourse is chosen. It is a choice to reject this aspect of our human personhood.” (Human Existence, Medicine and Ethics: Franciscan Herald Press, 1977).
Persons, May writes, who elect to exercise parental responsibilities by recourse to periodic abstinence decide to do “something quite different” from those who opt for contraceptive sexual relations. Those who use natural family planning, for example, elect first of all, not to have conjugal relations if the probability of conception is verified. They so choose not because they deem such relations as wrong. On the contrary, they recognize “that conjugal relations are goods of the highest order, worthy of human love and respect, for they are meant to be expressions of the love they have for one another.” Rather, they elect to give up this good option, here and now, “because they realize that (a) it would be irresponsible for them to have relations if conception is probable, because of a serious moral obligation to avoid pregnancy, and
(b) were they to choose to have conjugal relations here and now and avoid the possibility of conception-pregnancy by contraceptive, anti-procreative means, they would by repudiating their gift of procreativity and hence responding negatively to a great human good” (Human Existence).
So there is a real difference between periodic abstinence as means or acts of exercising parental responsibility and contraception. The assumption here is of course that recourse to periodic continence is not chosen for reasons of selfishness or unwillingness to share lives and love with future generations.
Father Liptak is pastor of St. Catherine Church, Broad Brook, Conn., and professor of moral and sacramental theology at Holy Apostles Seminary, Cromwell, Conn.
To accept the cycle… means to recognize both the spiritual and corporal character of conjugal communion.