Engaged couples give themselves to one another in countless ways. Sharing a schedule, prioritizing meals and other leisure time together, merging finances and developing a budget, planning the wedding, and preparing a new home are all ways in which an engaged couples give themselves to one another. When they could each be spending time with friends, they instead commit their time to their shared future. This is becoming a total gift of self is a great practice for the married life.
Self-giving Love: A Total Gift of Self
Sex is another one of those actions by which a husband and wife give themselves to one another completely. Sex differs from all other acts of love because God has created it to be a sharing of one’s entire self—body, mind, and spirit. As such, intercourse expresses not simply the love spouses have for one another, but also the sacramental union into which God has called them.
It is no coincidence that God also placed our fertility—our capacity to cooperate in the creation of a new human being—within the act of sexual union.
The love and commitment that is required to properly care for a child is a reflection of the love and commitment that burn with bright intensity in the sexual act. The total gift of self expressed in sex is the same gift required to change diapers in the middle of the night or take on extra responsibilities at work to provide for a child’s education or healthcare.
The Two Dimensions of Sexual Intimacy
Sexual intimacy has two important dimensions: it both unites a couple in a powerful, consuming way, and it cooperates with God’s creative power.
In fact, these two dimensions of sexuality depend mutually upon one another. To separate one of these dimensions from the other alters and falsifies the act, making it less than what God intended for us.
Sex without an intention to grow in unity is not a total gift of self—it is a taking of sorts. In this case, two people use each other as objects. What should be the most generous act becomes egocentric, and the action is fouled.
The same holds true if one withholds the possibility of new life from the sexual act. In that case, a couple is saying to one another, “I am one with you, and I give all of myself to you, except for my fertility.” This is a significant exception. It means that the couple is not willing to speak with their lives what their bodies are communicating.
A couple that is not open to new life in their sexual activity refuses to share with each other the possibility of a future with children, which is something less than the total gift of self that God intended with this action.
A Spirituality of Marriage
There is a spirituality of marriage embedded in this approach. Because God is love (1 John 4:16), a married couple’s love is a participation in the life of God. This is strikingly different than the way most of the world sees marriage and the very reason Catholics believe marriage is a sacrament.
Staying home to spend time with a spouse instead of golfing or shopping, or doing the laundry when it is not your turn, is more than a gift of self to one another—it is an opportunity for connection with God as well. These acts, and thus one’s connection to God and spouse, are in some sense a prayer, and the Church tells us that they are a sacramental sign of God’s love for all to see.
Much in today’s culture would have us believe that romantic love is about a couple consumed with one another. Certainly, a couple’s love is a deep bond, but that bond also connects them to the living God. Marriage is a three-dimensional experience. It is not about a couple gazing deeply into one another’s eyes, but rather a couple walking into the world together with sleeves rolled up, holding hands.
Church Teaching on Contraception
Because sex is the ultimate act of love in marriage, it is also the ultimate participation with God’s love. A couple who is unwilling to participate with God in the sexual act and so withholds their fertility from one another is declaring that God has no role in that part of their lives.
This is why the Church opposes contraception.
It introduces an artificial element that allows a couple to change what they are saying to one another with their bodies—it allows a couple to give everything to one another except their fertility. Contraception also impoverishes the sexual union to a two-dimensional act, closed to God’s participation.
Should a couple always want to have a child with every act of intercourse? Of course not.
There are legitimate reasons to limit family size, or to delay having children. Couples are called to be good stewards of all their resources—both personal and material—at the same time that they are called to have a generous view of love and new life.
Natural Family Planning
Couples need a reliable way to postpone or avoid pregnancy when they are not in a position to have a child. Leaving that part of their marriage open to unreflected chance would be irresponsible.
This is where Natural Family Planning (NFP) can be most helpful. NFP is a method by which a couple can determine fertile and infertile phases of a woman’s cycle with a high degree of certainty. The couple can then use that knowledge to choose to have sex only during infertile times if they want to avoid pregnancy.
NFP ensures the dignity of the marital act. It asks the couple to apply discipline and self-control to their sex lives, and rightly so. If a couple intends to purchase a house, they have to be disciplined with a budget and practice self-control with their spending.
If a couple intends to get in shape and lose weight together, they must practice discipline and self-control.
Sex, with its power to unite a couple and co-create new human life—is infinitely more powerful and important than these other endeavors. Shouldn’t we approach it with at least as much responsibility?
NFP preserves the marital language of love that a couple communicates to one another with their bodies and their lives. It enhances a couple’s union because it ensures that nothing artificial stands between their actions and intentions with one another. It enhances a couple’s openness to new life by reminding them with every sexual act that their love is a cooperation with and a visible sign of God, who is love.
(photo credit: esoterika)