There are many practical reasons not to use birth control drugs and devices, reasons that can be categorized as risks to health and maternal life, risks to the life of a newly conceived child when the contraceptive action fails, and risks of pregnancy.
So why do so many married couple choose to use such risky forms of birth control?
One reason is lack of awareness. Many women and their husbands are not informed about the problems of unnatural forms of birth control (UBC). They also do not know about natural family planning, and even their doctors are frequently not only uninformed about modern NFP but are biased in favor on UBC and disregard their potential for harm.
But what about those couples who live in areas where proponents of natural family planning make it easy to learn? What about those who have learned how to practice NFP but still choose UBC? Why do such couples say NO to Humanae Vitae and YES to UBC?
I submit that the basic reason for saying NO to Humanae Vitae is fear of the Daily Cross. Here I refer to the cross of abstinence from the marriage act. To be sure, sometimes there is real fear of the burdens of having another child, but in the last analysis even such a fear is part of the greater fear of the cross of abstinence from the marriage act.
How can I say that? My proof is very simple. Informed people know that a woman can actually conceive a baby only during a 24-hour period in each cycle. That tells the story of egg life, but sperm life in the presence of cervical mucus is several days longer. But let us forget about sperm life for a moment and imagine that the abstinence required by systematic NFP to avoid pregnancy was only 1 day. Who would dissent? Nobody. Two days? Probably still no dissenters. How about 3 days? Who would risk the dangers of hormonal birth control if 99% effectiveness could be achieved with only three consecutive days of abstinence from the marriage act?
Now the case gets a bit more difficult as we revise the Genesis 18 dialogue of Abraham with God before the destruction of Sodom. What if systematic NFP required 4 days of abstinence? Who would dissent? What if it required 5 days? What about 6? Or 7? That would mean that the couple would have to refrain from the marriage act over a weekend. What about 7 nights and 8 days? This is about the current minimum with most forms of contemporary NFP. (For more about the details of NFP, see Natural Family Planning: The Complete Approach which is both purchasable and downloadable at the website below.) What if it meant abstinence for 12 to 14 days? That’s about what was required of law abiding Jews in the Old Covenant (menses plus another 7 days), and that brought them together again right about the time of ovulation—God’s plan for increasing the children of Abraham.
Even short periods of abstinence can be a cross for some married men and women who have developed a habit of frequent sexual union. And longer periods of abstinence can be a cross for almost all married men and their wives. I don’t deny that; in fact I think it’s undeniable; nor am I belittling it.
My assertion is that the will to avoid that cross is the real reason for refusing to accept the teaching of Humanae Vitae. The huge problem with that is the teaching of Jesus that the daily cross is the price of discipleship. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Lk 9:23 and parallels in Mt and Mk) Can one be counted as a disciple when he refuses to accept the price of discipleship?
The wonderful reality is that when married couples mutually embrace whatever the cross of abstinence may be in their situation, many experience the truth of Jesus’ teaching. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light (Mt 11:30). They have lost some portion of their sex life, but they have gained much more in their overall relationship. I imagine, however, that there are others for whom the cross remains heavy. They need our prayers, even though they may recognize that this burden is light compared to other crosses involved in family life.
So what is the relevance of this commentary in the light of the current ecclesial emphasis on the New Evangelization? It is simply what St. Paul discovered after his encounter with the Athenian intellectuals. There can be no evangelization, old or new, without preaching the cross.
John F. Kippley