Abstinence education

I am puzzled by the reflections of Christopher Roberts and Marian Crowe (Does Method Matter?), which suggest that the spiritual discipline of marital sex depends greatly on use of Natural Family Planning (NFP). To the extent that this spiritual discipline is practiced in abstinence, NFP is certainly not required. There is no shortage of opportunities for abstinence in a marriage: long work hours, illness, troubled children, financial worries, exhaustion. After thirty-eight years of marriage, I can report that finding opportunities for abstinence from sex was—and is—a nonissue.

But why limit the spiritual discipline of marital sex to abstinence? There is a more demanding side to this discipline in the positive practice of sex, in generosity, openness, willingness to be led or to lead, patience, setting aside the anxieties of the moment or mood, cheerful humility, forgiveness and mercy…the list could go on, since the demands of this spiritual discipline are in the details. My wife and I practiced NFP all through our fertile years—and with satisfaction, since it worked for us—but it was neither necessary for abstinence nor the source of our greatest spiritual growth in marriage.

Perhaps the shortcomings in the moral reasoning against contraception (well stated by Lisa Fullam in the same issue) have sent Catholic spokespeople searching for an alternative rationale toward the same end—and our long tradition of sexual renunciation is easy to locate. But this has never been our only tradition for the practice of sex, and the focus on abstinence misleads Catholics entering marriage regarding the spiritual demands that lie ahead. Indeed, it distracts and misleads us all, and it devalues the unitive practice and power of sexual love.

Frank Schweigert
St. Paul, Minn.


Common sense

Over the course of seven years at the Catholic University of America, I studied logic, epistemology, natural law, Augustine, and religion. I have been married sixty-five years, with eight children—including a stillbirth and a couple of miscarriages. At eighty-seven, I have acquired a lifetime of experience as a trial lawyer and businessman. When it comes to contraception, we need not talk of hard cases but rather of the average American Catholic couple who both work and yet must be very careful with their money. With or without children most of them practice or have practiced birth control. Why? Because, as a Chinese priest opined to me more than fifty years ago, if something is contrary to human nature, common sense, and the common experience of humanity, whether it be Catholicism or Communism, it won’t work.

Back to the average Catholic couple: After a long and arduous day, meal preparation and other domestic duties, tending to several children—as many of our new immigrant families do—getting out ovulation charts and taking mucous tests before making love borders on the ridiculous. As for natural law, the major premise of Humanae vitae is flawed. Even Augustine, who never got it quite right on love and sex, preached that married couples could have intercourse to control their irascible and concupiscent faculties—even though they were not engaged in sex to have children. Accordingly, if a couple can have loving sexual relations to be of one flesh or to sate their sexual needs, then the purported requirement that every sexual act be open to procreation is not the primary reason for the act. Consequently there can be a barrier to procreation.

By his own admission, Augustine had a strong sexual drive. His life before his conversion, living with a woman and having a child out of marriage likely conditioned his later theology of marriage. Concomitant with his own experience he concluded that the celibate monastic life was a higher calling than marriage. Vestiges of this point of view are discernible between the lines of well-intentioned articles by writers like Christopher C. Roberts and Marian Crowe. This will not lead to a better understanding of human sexual love. It is regrettable that the wonderful legacy Augustine has left us loses some of its burnish because of the inordinate effect his ideas about sex have had on the hierarchical church.

Ernest C. Raskauskas
Potomac, Md.


A failed method

After struggling with the authors’ efforts to breathe new life into a long-exhausted discussion (Does Method Matter?), ending with the good sense of Lisa Fullam calling for contraceptive morality that honors love, justice, and experience, I could only wonder at this largely stale repetition of a moral debate the sensus fidelium has long since resolved. Humanae vitae was negated by theological and philosophical challenge, resort to conscience, and the revelation that Paul VI was persuaded to abandon Vatican II collegiality largely out of fear that “magisterial authority would be undermined if there were a change in teaching”—as if such change had never occurred before.

Cracks in the teaching against contraception began well before Humanae vitae was issued. I recall when, around 1960, a college friend returned from the annual Catholic Philosophical Association meeting with the news that its members found the natural-law argument against contraception invalid. Apparently the Catholic Theological Society of America, meeting nearby the same weekend, would not debate the issue.

That same year my wife bore our sixth child in six and a half years, five accounted for by failures of Natural Family Planning, accompanied by numberless occasions of withheld affection. A seventh pregnancy brought a physician’s warning. Meanwhile, each successive pregnancy had worsened my wife’s varicose-vein difficulties, dooming her to sixty-odd years of suffering—so far. Of necessity, we joined the majority of First World Catholics who followed their consciences or abstained from Communion. Humanae vitae’s loophole—conscience—visible to the sophisticated reader if not to hundreds of millions of uneducated or less educated fellow Catholics, decided the issue for us.

After Humanae vitae, most First World Catholics simply followed their own consciences and confessors learned to respect their silence about their sexual experiences. And bishops learned to condemn contraception discretely so as to be ignored. Meanwhile, perhaps in response to criticism, Rome recognized mutual love and sanctification as also primary ends of marriage—at least until the single-purpose-of-marriage argument was again required to condemn same-sex marriages.

Better had the Commonweal panel discussed why John Paul II and Benedict XVI loyalists are now so exercised about maintaining a posture on contraception they have for so long faithfully ignored.

William H. Slavick
Portland, Maine


What do I know?

In Does Method Matter? Christopher Roberts dismisses “hard cases” as a way of “keeping the challenges of Natural Family Planning at arm’s length.” My wife is one of those “hard cases.” When she was pregnant with our second child she started having severe lung trouble, and after our daughter was born she was repeatedly hospitalized for years with pulmonary fibrosis. The doctors said it was a miracle she and the baby survived the pregnancy. She was on high levels of oxygen for over four years until she got a lung transplant. During that period she was in and out of the hospital and nearly died several times. God performed a miracle for our family (although it was a fourteen-year-old who donated the lungs, making it a severely bittersweet experience).

Fairly soon after the baby was born, when my wife was first getting sick, I got a vasectomy. According to church teaching as I understand it, that decision was “intrinsically evil.” I had to live without my wife for a year while she waited for a lung transplant five hundred miles away, as I worked full-time and took care of two young kids on my own.

I don’t appreciate being lectured to by Roberts on the supposed virtues of abstinence and how it is so great for marriages and helps fulfill God’s plan or whatever. I know plenty about abstinence, as we were involuntarily forced into it during most of my wife’s illness and absence. 

When my wife became ill, our choices were: abstain permanently; use NFP and risk an unwanted pregnancy that would have almost certainly killed my wife, threatening the life of any future child, turning me into a widower and my kids into orphans; or use artificial birth control. My doctor told me a vasectomy is the most effective form of birth control, period.

As I understand it, NFP is advocated because it allows us to accept that we don’t have total control over our lives and that we have to submit to God’s will. I don’t need to use NFP to know that. My wife’s illness and the suffering our family has gone through have made it perfectly clear that events are out of our control.

But what do I know? According to the church and Roberts, my acts were “intrinsically evil.” He can try to sugarcoat it, but when I read articles like his, that is what comes through. I thought Jesus and his church preached compassion, but I guess I’m just being “too insistent on [my] personal autonomy and the urgency of [my] appetites.”

I very much appreciated the more nuanced views expressed by Marian Crowe and Lisa Fullam.

Nick Hermsen
Palm Desert, Calif.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.