We live in a savvy, technologically-minded culture. Smart homes are on the horizon where one hardly needs to lift a finger to turn on the air conditioning, open the blinds, start the rice cooker, order online groceries, or even open doors. Voice commands, iris readers, and artificial intelligence take the old adage, “Your wish is my command” to new heights.
In the midst of such promising life-styles of ease and affluence, the Catholic Church’s 2000-year-old prohibition on contraception can look – and feel – increasingly Stone Age. Why not be “smart” about our fertility in ways similar to how we are “smart” about the other functions of our lives? Wouldn’t this be the reasonable way to go?
And yet, 50 years ago, Pope Paul VI already anticipated this modern impulse of handing our human decisions and actions over to technology and the danger it posed to human love. In his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, whose 50th anniversary we celebrate this year, Blessed (soon to be “Saint”) Paul VI wrote, “We believe that the human beings of our day are particularly capable of seeing the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle.”
What fundamental principle was Paul VI referring to? Was he forecasting the great triumph of technology over our natural biological processes? On the contrary, he was asserting the inseparable connection between love-making and life-making in the marital one-flesh union.
Ironically, over the past 50 years, the opposite trajectory has occurred. Rather than seeing the inseparable connection between unitive love and procreative love as deeply reasonable, our technological age regards it as an imposition. Biology and fertility can and should be controlled for our personal benefit, so the thinking goes. Therefore, the Church should get with the times and revise her teaching to acknowledge that contraceptive intercourse is as natural as a body builder taking steroids. It enhances performance, not detracts from it.
The key issue, however, is not performance, but love. In a collection of reflections known as The Theology of the Body, St. John Paul II stated that we need an ever “clearer discovery of God’s plan for human love” since “the one and only true good of the human person consists in putting this divine plan into practice.”
Christianity, as the expression of the divine plan, is not a religion of separation but of integration. It unites, rather than divides. This truth is supremely expressed in the Incarnation where divinity is united with humanity. It is also inscribed in human nature where body is intimately united with spirit.
As a result, in the most intimate expression of love between a husband and wife, it’s clearly “reasonable” that God would not design separation as the goal, but union. “The human body,” John Paul II said, “is not only the field of reactions of a sexual character, but it is at the same time the means of the expression of man as an integral whole…which reveals itself through the ‘language of the body.’”
In other words, we express the fullness of who we are through our bodies. Our sexual impulses and urges do not determine us. Our rational freedom allows us to express the whole truth of our person through body and spirit working together.
No where is this body-spirit integration more critical than in the one-flesh union between husband and wife. In a rarely cited passage, John Paul II said the conjugal act perfects the consent husband and wife gave to each other at the altar. That’s a pretty extreme statement. Most people don’t connect what happens at the altar with what happens in the bedroom, and yet, the two cannot be separated.
Hang with me for a moment as this inseparable connection between altar and bedroom becomes clear: Marriage, because it is a Sacrament, is a sign of the indissoluble union between husband and wife. At the altar, bride and groom publically promise the whole of their life to each other: “for better or worse; in sickness and in health….” When they enter into the conjugal act, John Paul II says they are reproposing the vows they made on their wedding day. They are saying again with their bodies what they said at the altar, “I give the whole of myself to you for life.”
As if that wasn’t enough, John Paul II, following in the footsteps of Paul VI, reminded us that marriage is also a visible sign of Christ’s loving union with the Church. As John Paul II noted: “The spousal relationship that unites spouses, husband and wife, must…help us to understand the love that unites Christ with the Church.” In this love, Christ gives himself totally to the Church – both body and spirit – on the cross and in the Eucharist to bring about our holiness, our redemption.
Marital union is designed by God to mirror, to reflect, the wedding vows and Christ’s love for the Church. The “language of the body” expressed by husband and wife in every aspect of conjugal life is designed by God to say: “I give myself totally and irrevocably to you. I hold nothing back, including the potential to give life.”
But St. John Paul II goes even further, plunging us deeper into the waters of both human and divine love. Christ’s love, he says, is redemptive as well as spousal. Therefore, married love is designed by God to be redemptive as well as spousal. In other words, married spousal love is a means of grace.
These are humbling words – to think that spouses can be a channel of the very life of God to each other and to a brand new human life through the one-flesh union. This calls for amazing reverence of this intimate act that is not only pleasurable, but sacred and even sanctifying. Thus, to violate the inner truth of conjugal union by intentionally shutting down its natural (and supernatural) life-giving dimension by impeding the total gift of one’s self harms marital love rather than enriching it. Contraception and sterilization cause a dis-integration between body and spirit, a separation between conjugal life and love, which can tragically spill from the bedroom into the couple’s life as a whole. Physical contraception can lead to emotional and even spiritual contraception where I withhold the whole of me from my spouse and even God.
Does living redemptive and spousal love require heroic sacrifice? Absolutely. The difficulty in giving up contraception is, ironically, the struggle to fully integrate body and spirit with our emotions, imagination, desires, and impulses. Without recourse to contraception, husband and wife must practice periodic abstinence in order to postpone pregnancy. This requires self-mastery, an exercise of human effort and agency in what has traditionally been called chastity.
Ultimately, Humane Vitae, John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, and 2000 years of Catholic Church teaching center on protecting and promoting this very human endeavor of full integration and maturity through the virtue of chastity, an endeavor not required of animals nor angels. As embodied human persons, it is our call (our vocation) to integrate body and spirit so as to be free to make a sincere and total gift of self according to our state in life and God’s design. In doing so, this opens up “interior room” within ourselves, St. John Paul II said, to “become ever more sensitive to the deeper and more mature values” inherent in divine and human love.
But won’t abstaining from sexual union interfere with the expression of love between husband and wife? This concern is valid. John Paul II’s response moves the question from a single frame (sexual union) to the entire motion picture (all of marital life) “The task of conjugal chastity,” he says, “lies not only in protecting the importance and dignity of the conjugal act in relation to its potentially procreative meaning, but also in safeguarding the importance and dignity proper to the conjugal act inasmuch as it expresses interpersonal union” across the whole of married life.
Sexual intimacy is a very important, life-giving, and grace-communicating dimension of conjugal life, which is symbolic of the couple’s entire life of total, self-giving love. Marriage, by its very nature, is a unity of the two in which procreation and conjugal union, body and spirit, spousal love and redemptive love are integrated and inseparable. Deep, personal communion and spousal intimacy is fostered from the breakfast table to the dinner dishes to the good-night kiss especially when abstinence is the order of the day. Total self-giving in the bedroom becomes total, redemptive self-giving in every aspect of daily life. This is indeed something every human being is capable of seeing as deeply reasonable – and worthy of our human freedom.
Katrina J. Zeno, MTS, is an international speaker and coordinator of the St. John Paul II Resource Center for Theology of the Body and Culture for the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona. Her website is www.katrinazeno.com and many of her videos can be found on her YouTube channel. Her FB page is “TOB Speaker.”