Catholic teaching on openness to life

Sometimes I use the phrase “open to life” when I reference the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexual morality. Because the phrase is vague and can mean different things to different people, I wanted to create this page to clarify what exactly the Church teaches about this. As someone who converted on this issue (I use to see contraception as up there with air and water in terms of being a universally good thing), I thought I’d hit some of the questions I used to have:

“What’s a one-sentence summary of what Catholics mean by ‘openness to life’?”

Both the pleasurable and procreative aspects of the sexual act are good; to intentionally sever either aspect is bad.

“Is this the same thing the Duggars believe?”

Catholic teaching about openness to life is often confused with the quiverfull worldview, which condemns any intentional effort to avoid pregnancy. The famous Duggar family, who have 19 children and counting, subscribe to this view. While both Catholic teaching and the quiverfull outlook share the beliefs that artificial contraception is wrong and children are a blessing, the Catholic Church does teach that non-contraceptive methods of avoiding pregnancy (e.g. Natural Family Planning) are acceptable. The Church emphasizes the need for couples to be prudent in their decisions about when to have children.

“But Natural Family Planning doesn’t really work, right?”

It takes a little patience and effort to learn how to use NFP effectively, but when you do, it is a reliable method for avoiding pregnancy. (I would also add that it’s a great way for women to really get to know their bodies.) A German study of NFP published in the journal Human Reproduction in 2007 showed 99.6% method effectiveness rate and a 92.5% user effectiveness.

“If Natural Family Planning is so effective, how is that different than contraception?”

A question to ponder on that account is this: if Natural Family Planning is truly identical to contraception, why doesn’t everyone just do NFP? It’s free and avoids embarrassment at the grocery store checkout line. When you consider that question, you see that there’s actually a vast difference between the two.

Here’s a very stripped-down summary of the incredibly rich theology behind it: The Church teaches that both the pleasurable and the procreative aspects of the sexual act are good, and to intentionally sever one is a really bad thing. Which isn’t to say that you must aim to have a baby with every single act, but using the woman’s body’s natural times of infertility maintains an openness to the procreative aspect of sex that you don’t have when you take action to sterilize it.

The sexual act must never be severed from its life-giving potential, either physically or mentally (the latter is why it is possible to misuse NFP in “contraceptive” way). All human sexuality must be ordered toward the miracle of new human souls. When we forget that and start thinking that sex is just about bonding or pleasure, not only is it an objective misuse of this most sacred of acts (a rough analogy would be to say that loaded revolvers can be used for toys as long as you put blanks in the chamber), but it is harmful at both the individual and societal level. I wrote more about all that here.

“If Natural Family Planning is so effective, why do so many people who use it have big families?”

The use of Natural Family Planning starts an amazing spiritual and mental domino chain, where your entire worldview becomes ordered differently. It’s not within the scope of this post to go into all the details of that, but I will say that using NFP motivates you to be open to having more children where you otherwise wouldn’t. Since it’s an abstinence-based method, there’s sacrifice involved with avoiding pregnancy. Every month couples are highly motivated to ask themselves, “Is it really that important that we not have another kid right now?”

“So, in theory, it wouldn’t be out of line with Catholic teaching if a couple used Natural Family Planning to just have one kid?”

Correct. Although it’s worth emphasizing that openness to children should be the default. The mentality should not be “we assume we cannot have another child right now unless we discern otherwise,” but rather, “we assume we can have another child right now unless we discern otherwise.”

I hope that covers some of the basics of this oft-confusing term. Volumes and volumes of books have been written about this issue so, needless to say, I can’t cover it perfectly here. If you have further questions about this issue I recommend that you check out the resources below. Also, the Delphi NFP forums are an excellent resource full of knowledgeable, supportive people.

FURTHER READING

ARTICLES

BOOKS

  • The Good News About Sex and Marriage by Christopher West: A must-read for anyone who has questions about Church teaching in this area. The Q&A format makes it a quick, easy read.
  • Set Free to Love: Lives Changed by Theology of the Body by Marcel Lejeune: A collection of essay’s of real people’s experience with embracing the Catholic Church’s body of teaching on human sexuality. A very readable, personal way to familiarize yourself with this topic.
  • Theology Of The Body For Beginners by Christopher West: Another good one from West. I have not read this myself but hear it’s great. He explains what Pope John Paul II meant when he said that if we live according to the true meaning of our sexuality, we “fulfill the very meaning of [our] being and existence.”
  • Love and Responsibility by Pope John Paul II: A beautiful, must-read book advocating for a more “personal” (as opposed to utilitarian), self-giving view of marriage and family life.

AUDIO AND VIDEO

  • Contraception: Why Not?: This lecture by Dr. Janet Smith is excellent, and it’s only $5 for the CD. You can find a catalog of her other work (also available at a low price or for free) here.
  • Christopher West’s series of tapes and videos: I’ve heard a lot of great things about West’s CD’s and DVD’s about sex and marriage. I’ve talked to quite a few people who listened to his audio lectures with their spouse and say that it utterly transformed their relationships.