I have a nightmare about capital punishment. In my nightmare I overhear talk of “electric chair” and “lethal injection,” indicating that people are trying to decide about the method to use for an upcoming execution. Terror strikes when I discover a jury has decided that I am the one to die. Compared with that enormous decision, a discussion about which method to use is only a minor detail. On the way to the execution, I suddenly wake up in a cold sweat.
My nightmare reminds me about Pope John Paul II's teaching on capital punishment. Governments may use execution as a last resort to protect the common good. Nevertheless, in the event that an execution becomes necessary, the dominant emotion should always be profound regret: “I wish we did not have to do this.”
I see an analogy with contraception, when a couple decides to avoid having another child.
At first sight, readers might think that I have made a mistake in the last paragraph: Surely I really meant “an analogy with abortion.”
But there is no mistake. I submit that a serious moral issue arises from the very nature of contraception.
Couples who choose to contracept typically discuss methods, some moral, others immoral. But even the most moral discussion distracts attention from the major decision that is really at the heart of the matter: the contraceptive decision. That decision in itself is actually an enormous one for a married couple. Why so? Because it negates God's plan for marriage: “Be fertile and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Neither our first parents' fall from grace nor the devastation of the flood altered God's plan (Genesis 9:1).
Scripture describes clearly God's view of children: “Behold, children are a gift from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward” (Psalm 127:3). And “your wife [is] as a fruitful vine in the recesses of your home; your children [are] like olive plants around your table. Behold, thus is the man blessed who fears the Lord” (Psalm 128:3-4).
Vatican II states: “…children are the supreme gift of marriage and greatly contribute to the good of the parents. … True married love is directed to disposing spouses to cooperate valiantly with … the Creator, … who through the couple will increase and enrich his family from day to day” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 50). Of course, married love also has the purpose of unifying husband and wife. But the unique aspect of marital love is children.
Scripture encourages couples to look to the relationship between Christ and the Church as a model for their marriage (Ephesians 5:22-33). And how does Christ relate to the Church? The Catechism says: “The Church is the Bride of Christ … He has made her the fruitful mother of all God's children” (No. 808). This raises the following question: What aspect of Christ is the couple modeling when they practice contraception? It is inconceivable that Christ practices “spiritual contraception” with his bride, the Church.
God knows perfectly what each couple can handle in terms of family size. After all, he knitted both husband and wife in their mothers' wombs (Psalms 139:13) and gave to each certain talents. He has not forgotten those talents when he asks each couple: “Will you take care of these children until I come?”
In the most literal sense, a pro-life couple says to God, “We accept whatever you have planned for us, because we trust that you will provide for our needs like a good Father.”
Vatican II teaches in ringing terms: “Whenever Christian spouses in a spirit of sacrifice and trust in divine providence carry out their duties of procreation with generous … responsibility, they glorify the Creator and perfect themselves in Christ” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 50).
In light of the statements God and the Church have made about the blessings of children, I cannot understand why Catholic couples preparing for marriage are being instructed about family planning as a matter of course. I emphasize the phrase “as a matter of course.”
Of course, the Church recognizes that if a couple has just reasons for avoiding children temporarily, natural family planning is available (Catechism, No. 2368). But the dominant emotion experienced by a couple that is in a position of temporarily needing to avoid conception should be heart-felt regret. There may be good reasons for the decision, but the overall approach should be: “I wish we did not have to do this.” Family planning is not a cause for celebration.
Because of this, the couple should pray that the time period when they need to avoid the conception of a child is only temporary. The couple should be looking forward to a time when they will again celebrate the normal state of marriage.
And what is that normal state? Pope John Paul II has spoken about this loud and clear. In Washington, D.C., in 1979, the Pope said: “Americans are known for generosity to your children. And what is the best gift you can give your children? I say to you: Give them brothers and sisters.”
It's hard to describe the uplift my pregnant wife and I felt when we heard those stunning words from the Pope's mouth. Although we had been married for nine years at the time, we had never heard such a forthright call to openness to life. The Pope encouraged us to lift our eyes on high and put our trust in the great generosity of God our Father. When our son was born a few months later, we christened him John Paul.
The words of this Pope who has spoken forthrightly on all manner of life issues are the authentic teaching that God offers to families in our day and age: Openness to children is the rule rather than the exception.