by Angela Franks, PhD, in Women, Sex, and the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching, edited by Erika Bachicochi.
Margaret Sanger and the dominant culture give one answer to the question of what is bad for us: female fertility. By contrast, the Church argues that it is not the female body that oppresses women and girls, but rather that deformed desire is at the heart of all sin—and thus all oppression.
If deformed desire is bad for us, healed desire, put in the service of self-giving love, is good for us. How do we develop such love? The periodic abstinence involved in natural family planning heals desire in a way that contraception cannot. Desire is in itself not immoral; by nature, we are creatures who physically desire, because we have bodies with senses that detect what is pleasurable. But desire must be fully human: it has to be directed by our intelligence and freedom. Some training of sexual desire is necessary in order that it ﬁnd its right place: eros in the service of agape, that is, erotic love put in the service of charity.Here NFP can play a central role.
As my husband can testify, NFP demands something profoundly countercultural: that men learn to measure their sexual desires by the rhythms of the female body. Such a request is unheard of in a society in which male desire appears to set the guidelines—especially in the “hookup” culture. Indeed, such a reorientation of desire is more revolutionary than any secular feminist project.
In reﬂecting on the internal chastity that came with practicing NFP, Fletcher Doyle, author of Natural Family Planning Blessed Our Marriage: 19 True Stories, noted how profoundly it altered his relationship with his wife for the better. “She became even more beautiful to me,” he said. “Now, more than ever before, I had to consider her in her entirety as a human person and avoid the trap of thinking of her as someone to take care of my needs ... [m]y life with my wife became more an act of giving rather than taking.”
Perhaps it was for this reason that Pope John Paul II recommended the periodic abstinence of NFP as intrinsic to marital spirituality, regardless of a couple’s childbearing plans. This abstinence helps form one’s desires in the virtue of chastity, which in turn renders one capable of seeing one’s spouse the way God sees him or her. Chastity gives spouses “a singular sensibility for all that in their vocation and shared life carries the sign of the mystery of creation and redemption: for all that is a created reﬂection of God’s wisdom and love.” Reverence for the procreative meaning of sex means reverence for the female ability to bear new life and, thus, reverence for the female body in its holistic truth—as opposed to reducing the female body to the status of a sexual object. The Church, through NFP, promotes the reorientation of male desire toward such reverence for the female body. This cherishing of women and girls in their personal wholeness would be a genuine sexual revolution.
Reverence for the other disrupts the frantic pursuit of pleasure that withers our ability to love generously. In a contracepting culture, the single-minded pursuit of sexual pleasure to the exclusion of new life leads a man and woman to close their hearts to that future beyond their control that they would face together as mother and father. By controlling births, our culture hopes to control, to tame, and to commodify the extravagant claims of love—to measure them according to our meager measure.Contraception was sold as something that would build up love, yet it narrows love into a cramped selﬁshness that causes both personal heartbreak and social injustice.
In stark contrast to this contraction, the reality is that we human beings are called to greatness. We are made in the image of God, made to know and love him and each other in a love without limit. God is supremely selﬂess, giving of himself constantly. We are made for no less. That is why the Second Vatican Council could say that the likeness between us and God “reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully ﬁnd himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”74 This kind of love—a no-holds-barred, self-giving, God-trusting love—is an arduous adventure. It is not “safe.” But it is the only kind of love that is worthy of the dignity of men and women, made for the greatness of union with God. And it is the only kind that will make us truly happy.