The 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time [A] *

The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A] *
Wis 12:13,16-19  +  Rom 8:26-27  +  Mt 13:24-43
July 23, 2017

“‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Weeds and wheat.  Jesus’ parable today is simple.  But like the grain of wheat itself, it can bear much fruit.  Jesus told us that He came into this world so that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  But accepting that gift of life is challenging at times for every follower of Jesus, especially for those called to the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

By way of example, consider three different married couples, each facing a different situation.

First, John and Mary have just gotten married.  They are excited about settling down and starting their new life together.  They want to raise a family eventually, but are not in a financial position to begin right away.  They figure that they will be ready to have children in about two years.

Second, Alan and Jane have been married 8 years.  They have just two children.  Alan has recently lost his job and Jane is at home with their younger daughter.  They feel that currently they cannot afford the costs of rearing a third child.

Third, Mark and Michelle are married and have one child.  Michelle has been told by her doctor that for medical reasons she should not get pregnant for at least two years.  They want other children eventually, but will follow the doctor’s advice in the meantime.

These three couples are Catholics.  What does the Catholic Faith require of them in their situations?  How can they avoid pregnancy and also avoid sin?  What does the Church really teach about birth control?  More specifically, what are the principles that guide these couples in their prayer, their conversation with each other, and their moral choices?

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To understand what our Church truly teaches, we have to clear up a misunderstanding.  Some people think that the Church is against all forms of planning a family.  That is, some people think that the Church is against all forms of controlling births.  They have heard “someone” say that the Church teaches that a couple must either keep having children—despite financial or medical problems—or else abstain from all acts of marital love.  Looking at the problem in these terms, they dismiss what they’ve been told is the “Church’s teaching” as absurd.

But that is not the Church’s teaching.  Blessed Pope Paul VI teaches us in Humanae Vitae that:

“If… there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles… in the reproductive system….”[1]

So there is a way for the three couples that I described to work through their concerns and still be faithful Catholics.  The Church asks them to understand, however, the how’s and why’s of planning their families.  Some kinds of “family planning” consist of cooperation with God; other kinds of “family planning” consist of rebellion against God and against His design of marriage.

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One principle of truly moral forms of family planning is based on what marriage really is.  Marriage is a covenant between two persons. A covenant is more than a mere contract.  The marriage covenant involves two persons giving themselves to each other completely.  Marriage is marriage only if it is total:  this totality is one of the four essential qualities of a true marriage.  The love of spouses for each other is designed to be a mirror of God’s love for us. So the love of spouses for each other is meant to have, as the love of God for each of us always has, the same four qualities.

The Church teaches that the four essential qualities of an authentic marriage—the four adjectives that describe married love—are “free”, “faithful”, “total”, and “fruitful”.  This is easier to remember by substituting the word “full” for “total”:  then you have four words that begin with the letter “f”.  That is, the love of spouses for each other is meant to be, and God’s love for each of us always is, “free”, “faithful”, “full” and “fruitful”.

So in a marriage, there are not meant to be reservations in the giving of oneself:  there are meant to be no conditions on self-giving, no holding back.  Each spouse says to the other, “I give you all that I am, in body and soul, for the present and all the future.”

The physical act which expresses this attitude is the act of marital love. A married couple expresses with their bodies what they say in their minds, hearts, and emotions:  that nothing is held back.  One of the gifts of self—one of the dimensions of what make husband and wife who they are—is the human body’s fertility.  Sexuality has its deepest meaning in an act of  total self-giving:  a self-giving that is open to new life.

Yet what if this sexual act is deprived of its power to give new life?  What if a spouse wants to “give himself (or herself)” to his or her spouse, with the exception of his or her fertility?  Is a couple allowed to use something, in order to “hold back” their fertility:  that is, in order to give everything to each other except their fertility?

All we have to do is answer whether that act of marital love is still a total self-giving.  Clearly it’s not, because now a step has been taken to hold something back.  But a marriage covenant means total self-giving.  The physical act is meant to “tell the truth” about the total self-giving going on in the spouses’ lives.  Artificial contraception contradicts this.  The marital act itself is supposed to say one thing—“I give myself totally”—but in this case it really means just the opposite.

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Morally speaking, then, the principle that makes natural forms of birth control acceptable, while artificial forms are always sinful, is that, in using artificial birth control, the couple does something to deliberately “close” the life-giving power of the act of marital love.  In natural forms of birth control, however, no such step is taken. The spouses do not act against their fertility.  They follow the natural patterns of the body’s fertility and infertility:  patterns placed there by God Himself.  In the fertile days, if there are serious reasons to avoid pregnancy, the couple respectfully steps back from the act of marital love.

So in using artificial birth control, the couple attack the meaning of the marital act:  they carry out the action of marital love, while at the same time undoing one essential part of it.  In natural forms of controlling births, instead, they simply choose at times not to carry out the action in the first place, respecting God’s role in bringing about new life.

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All this can seem daunting to married couples.  But it’s important to remember that couples have not only God’s grace to help them in all this.  They also have the virtues of the Christian person.  It’s these virtues which often speak most persuasively to those who are reflecting on what is natural to human beings, as opposed to what is artificial, or in other words, less than human.

Natural Family Planning is based on the virtue of self-control (that is, self-discipline).  The virtue of self-control is necessary not only to be a faithful spouse, but also to be a faithful follower of Jesus.  Natural Family Planning is also based on the virtues of communication and shared responsibility.  The practice of Natural Family Planning fosters the growth of self-control, communication, and shared responsibility.

Of course, as with anything that’s good, Natural Family Planning can be misused, if a couple has the wrong motives.  Married couples are called by God to cooperate generously in bringing forth and educating new life. For a couple to decide that “we don’t want children at this time”, there need to be serious, objective reasons, not just reasons of convenience, or comfort.  This is where the virtue of prudence (always in the setting of prayer) strengthens married couples to act in the Image of God.

Natural Family Planning, then, is a practice of virtue, resting upon self-control, inner freedom, respect, trust, communication, and reverence for God’s plan for love and marriage.  It enriches both spousal love and the spouses’ marriage covenant, making their love more and more like the love of Jesus for His Church.

*Some of this text is from Fr. Frank A. Pavone’s articles on the Priests for Life website:  “Birth Control and NFP: What’s the Difference?” and “The Family-Planning Dilemma”.


[1] Humanae Vitae 16.

Click HERE to link to the Vatican’s English translation of Humanae Vitae.