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Surviving As a Catholic Family in the Third Millennium

by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.


In this excerpt of his address at the Couple to Couple League's 1998 convention, Archbishop Chaput contrasts the effects of contraception on marriage with Natural Family Planning.

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Our Sunday Visitor, Publishing, September/October 1999

Surviving as a Catholic family in the third millennium is the theme of these remarks. And the point I'd like to focus on is this: The family will survive into the third millennium only if there is a radical return to God's plan for what, and who, the family is. In his exhortation on the Christian family in the modern world (Familiaris Consortio), Pope John Paul II makes the striking statement: "Family, become what you are!" (no. 17). The family will only become what it is by returning to its source— by, like the Apostle Paul, kneeling before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name (see Eph 3:14).

Time magazine published an article some time ago listing predictions beyond the year 2000. One section was entitled "The Nuclear Family Goes Boom." It predicted that marriage and the family, as we know them, will cease to exist. Lifelong marriage will be replaced by serial monogamy. More and more children will be raised by "caregivers" rather than by their parents. An increasing trend toward childlessness will develop among those who do marry; along with a growing demand for children among those who do not.

We're seeing these trends already. And so, one has to ask, How has our nation, which was built upon biblical principles upholding the family, arrived at this kind of dilemma? The answer is complicated. But the rejection of the truth about human sexuality and conjugal love — brought on, at least in part, by the widespread acceptance of contraception — has played a major role in the breakdown of the family in this century.

As many of you know, at the 1930 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Church became the first Christian body to claim that contraception could be morally acceptable. Pope Pius XI responded with his encyclical Casti Connubii (on Christian marriage). This was the first of many significant Church documents during this century that have deepened our understanding of marriage. Since then, the Church has frequently affirmed her constant teaching that contraceptive methods of birth control are incompatible with an authentic Christian understanding of marriage and human sexuality.

Recognizing already in 1930 the many trends threatening the family, especially the Lambeth decision. Pope Pius XI stated that if marriages are to be renewed, two things are necessary:

First, Christian spouses must meditate on God's plan for marriage: and, second, with the help of God's grace, they must seek to shape all their ways of thinking and acting according to it.

This is the heart of your wonderful apostolate: To help couples understand God's plan for marriage, and to equip them to live according to that plan. Unless this is done, no sustained renewal of marriages, of families and of society at large can occur. Unless this is done, the family in the third millennium may indeed whither and die.

Following Pope Pius XI's counsel, I'd like to encourage you in your mission by reflecting for a few moments on God's plan for marriage. And I want to zero in on one aspect which so many Catholics today find so difficult to accept, and which pertains specifically to your apostolic work.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae ("Of Human Life"). Three decades of discussion have shown us that, at its root, the contraception dispute is not primarily about how to regulate family size. Nor is it really about Church authority vs. personal conscience. These issues are relevant, but behind them lies something more profound. What's ultimately at stake, as Pope John Paul II repeatedly stresses, is the truth of the human person, created as male and female in the image and likeness of God (see Gn 1:27). Let me explain what I mean.

As creatures, our very being is a gift from God. Therefore, the meaning of our existence in the world is not something which we're free to invent. Rather, it's something we're called to discover. Only as we live according to the deepest meaning of our being, as it is given to us by our Creator, are we able to fulfill ourselves as men and women.

The Second Vatican Council teaches that man — male and female — discovers in the revelation of his likeness to God, Who "is love" (1 Jn 4:8), a profound truth, that is, that he can only find himself by making a sincere gift of self (Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, no. 24). By showing us the model of "sincere self-giving" in offering Himself on the cross, Jesus Christ "fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear" (no. 22).

Now, what do these deep truths have to do with the dispute over contraception? The beauty of human sexuality in God's plan is that it reveals to us a fundamental truth of our existence: We are called to give ourselves away in love. Indeed, in a certain sense, the most radical "sincere giving" of one human being to another is that of man and woman in the "one flesh" union of marriage.

As Pope John Paul says in his Letter to Families: "Every man and every woman fully realizes himself or herself through the sincere giving of self. For spouses, the moment of conjugal union constitutes a very particular expression of this. It is then that a man and a woman, in the 'truth' of their masculinity and femininity, become a mutual gift to each other. All married life is a gift; but this becomes most evident when the spouses bring about that encounter which makes them 'one flesh' " (no. 12). Elsewhere, the Pope says, "by means of this gift, [spouses] fulfill the very meaning of their being and existence" (General Audience, Jan. 16, 1980).

As the Vatican II Fathers clearly stated, the Church's concern in her teaching on the regulation of births is to "preserve [this] full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love" (Gaudium et Spes, no. 51).

The Church would betray herself if she did not, at every turn, uphold the dignity of the human person by safeguarding the truth that "man can only find himself through a sincere gift of self — in other words, by loving as Christ loves.

If we are to grasp fully the significance of the Church's teaching and communicate it to others, we must understand precisely what it is that the Church opposes — and, in turn, how this threatens the deepest truth of the human person.

Against Our Nature

The language we use is very important in this regard. For example, it's often said that the Church opposes artificial birth control. While true, this often misleads people to believe that the Church opposes such methods specifically because they are artificial, which is not the case. What the Church specifically opposes is contraceptive methods of birth control.

Contraception can be defined as the choice, by any means, to impede the procreative potential of a given act of intercourse. In other words, the contraceptive couple chooses to engage in intercourse and, foreseeing that their act may result in a new life, they intentionally and willfully suppress their fertility. This can be done with artificial devices, hormones, by sterilizing surgical procedures or various other means.

Fertility, however, is not a merely biological phenomenon which can be suppressed at will without consequence to the couple's relationship. Fertility is given by God as a gift. It's an integral part of who we are. In the acts proper to marriage, husband and wife are called to give themselves to each other in the full truth of their personhood, in the full truth of their masculinity and femininity. This is the very "language," so to speak, of the marital embrace: "I give myself to you completely, and receive all that you are." Anything less is not sincere self-giving.

Contraception precludes this sincere self-giving by saying, "I give you all of myself except . . . except my fertility. I receive all that you are except . . . except your fertility." Thus the choice intentionally to withhold one's fertility during intercourse, or to refuse to accept it as a gift in one's spouse, contradicts the essence of conjugal love precisely at the moment when it should find its most intimate and sincere expression.

Contraception not only objectively changes the relationship of spouses. It also objectively changes the spouses' relationship to God. In God's wise plan, He has chosen the "one flesh" union of husband and wife to be the point at which His love comes into the universe to cooperate with the love of husband and wife in bringing about, according to the mystery of His own will, the creation of a new human person.

Right at this point, however, the contraceptive couple refuses to cooperate with Him. They decline to let God's love commune with theirs — and what is sin but the breaking of communion with God? Furthermore, by proceeding with the act which is in itself ordered toward procreation, yet at the same time refusing that possibility by an act of their own will, the contracepting spouses make themselves the arbiters of human life.

They take to themselves a prerogative which belongs to God alone. In doing so, spouses reject their status as creatures and make themselves "like gods." This, let us remember, was the very nature of the temptation which led the first husband and wife to sin "in the beginning."

We should also remember that Christ has raised the dignity of marriage to the level of a sacrament. Thus the acts proper to marriage, as specific enactments of that sacrament, re-present and participate in the "great mystery" of Christ's love for His Bride, the Church. Contraception, however, intrudes itself into this mystery as a contradiction, or countersign, of Christ's great love for the Church.

Christ's love, and this all-authentic love, is by nature fruitful and life-giving. It's unthinkable that Christ would go through the motions of His most profound act of love for us, His "sincere gift of self" on the cross, and yet at the same time deny His love's fruitfulness. He came to us so that we. His Bride, might have life and have it to the full (see Jn 10:10).

This is the mystery that marriage truly participates in —the life-giving love of Jesus Christ for the Church. If we truly understand this, then for a husband and wife to go through the motions of their most profound act of self-giving, and yet at the same time intentionally to deny its fruitfulness, is likewise unthinkable. This, however, is exactly what is at stake —the call of man and woman to be a sign of Christ's love in the world.

Why NFP Is Different

As you well know, the Church is often accused of being inconsistent because she rejects contraception but accepts natural family planning. But the difference between the two, as Pope John Paul says, "is much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one which involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality" (Familiaris Consortio, no. 32).

It's important for us to realize, as teachers, that the moral difference between the two does not lie in the fact that one is artificial and the other natural. This is a distinction which makes little sense to people. They rightly claim that many things we use are artificial but not immoral. Rather, the distinction lies in the fact that abstaining from intercourse when a couple is fertile is in no way a contraceptive. Such a couple is not choosing to impede the procreative potential of intercourse. Instead, they are choosing not to engage in intercourse.

And what about choosing to engage in intercourse when a couple knows they are infertile? The principle that "every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life" might better be understood when stated this way: "Spouses must never do anything of their own will to close any marriage act to the transmission of life." Couples who choose to limit their acts of intercourse to the naturally infertile periods of the cycle, in order to avoid pregnancy, do nothing of their own will to close those acts to the transmission of life. While their acts are naturally non-pro-creative, they are never anti-procreative. This is a crucial distinction.

By living in accord with the cycle of fertility and infertility which God Himself has written into the person of woman, spouses are able to respect the full meaning of their masculinity and femininity and, in turn, the full truth of sincere self-giving. Furthermore, they "acknowledge themselves not to be the arbiters of the sources of human life, but rather the ministers of the design established by the Creator" (Humanae Vitae, no. 13).

Another way we might help couples understand it, is this: Whenever spouses choose to engage in intercourse, they are obligated to speak the truth of sincere self-giving. However, spouses are obviously not always obligated to engage in intercourse. Indeed, there are many times throughout married life when spouses may wish to engage in intercourse but have good reason not to do so, whether it be due to illness, after childbirth, lack of privacy or, in this case, a just reason to avoid pregnancy.

The Moral Use Of NFP

At this point, it might be useful to address another error which can, with all good intention, creep into our thinking about regulating family sizes. Many couples with a sincere desire to accept the will of God find themselves troubled in conscience concerning the responsible use of NFP. When is it morally permissible to space children, or to avoid them indefinitely? Some go so far as to believe that anyone who uses NFP, except for the gravest, life-threatening reason, shows a lack of trust in God. This is simply not the case — and it is definitely not the teaching of the Church.

While it's certainly true that God can and does provide for our needs, especially when we're striving to do His will, our ability to reason and plan is part of God's provision for us— and a gift which He expects us to use. As Pope Paul said in Humanae Vitae, the Church is the first to praise the intervention of man's intelligence in an area of life which so closely associates us with our Creator . . . so long as it is done with respect for the order God has established (see no. 16).

Those who, with just reasons, make use of NFP, are responsible parents, no less so than those who elect to accept many children (see Humanae Vitae, no. 10). In either case, parents should base their decisions on prudent reflection, having taken into consideration their own good, the good of the children already born, and having properly assessed their own situation on a material and spiritual level (see Gaudium et Spes, no. 50).

That being said, even when there are the gravest of reasons to avoid pregnancy, contraception is never justified. For, as I've sought to demonstrate, the couple who engage in contracepted intercourse finds themselves engaged in a lie. According to our Holy Father: "The innate language [of intercourse] that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other" (Familiaris Consortio, no. 32).

Thus we're able to see how today's ongoing contraception dispute is not merely a dispute about how to regulate family size. Rather, at root, it's a dispute about the very meaning of life — and the essence of marriage. Contraception is a contradiction of the deepest truth of the human person who, created in the image and likeness of God as male and female, can only find himself through a sincere gift of self. We must continually seek to deepen our understanding of these truths and find compelling ways of presenting them to others, especially those who find the Church's teaching so difficult to accept. Much is at stake here — nothing less than the authentic realization of our humanity and the survival of the Catholic family in the third millennium.

Before I close, let me offer a few practical suggestions for surviving as a Catholic family in the coming decades, and for strengthening the good work of your apostolate.

1. First of all, pray. Pray continually for your own marriages and families, pray as a family, and pray for the renewal of family life throughout the world. As Pope John Paul said in his Letter to Families, "The family is placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love" (no. 23). Spiritual warfare is real, and the family is on the front lines of that battle.

2. Thus, secondly, as St. Paul exhorts, you must put on the full armor of God so as to be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil (see Eph 6:11): the truth as your belt; righteousness as your breastplate: zeal to share the good news as your footgear; faith as your shield: salvation as your helmet; and the Spirit, the Word of God, as your sword.

3. Nourish yourselves with the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist regularly. We inevitably, and often, fail in our attempt to live the truth. It is so important to avail ourselves of the grace of the sacraments.

4. Study and meditate upon the great riches of the Church's teaching. More than two-thirds of what the Church has ever officially said about marriage and human sexuality has come from the heart of Pope John Paul II in the last 20 years. Yet his great contribution is virtually unknown to most people in the Church. Pope John Paul II's extended catechesis on marriage known as the "Theology of the Body," for example, offers us a vision of human sexuality never before articulated in the Church. If you find his scholarly approach difficult, don't be discouraged — many good books are available that can help you more easily digest his thought.

5. Of great importance as we approach the third millennium is spending quality time as husband and wife, and as a family, in preparation for the Great Jubilee of the year 2000. In this year of the Holy Spirit [1998], it's particularly fitting to reflect within the family on the Holy Spirit as the bond which unites man and woman in marriage, and as the Lord and Giver of Life Who makes the spouses' love fruitful.

I'll conclude my thoughts with a passage written by the great Anglican poet T.S. Eliot shortly following the Lambeth Conference in 1930: "The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized, but non-Christian, mentality. The experiment will fail, but we must be very patient in waiting its collapse. Meanwhile, we must redeem the time so that the faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us, to renew and rebuild civilization and save the world from suicide."

Those were prophetic words. The task now at hand, to "redeem the time" and renew the family, is a critical one. The Church's teaching on conjugal love and marital chastity presents a difficult challenge for many couples. Yet this is exactly the challenge which married couples must embrace if they are to perfect themselves in love, "become what they are," as the Holy Father says — and not merely survive, but thrive as God intended, in the third millennium.

Yes, we're often weak. We often fail in living up to the truth. But to whom is this challenge given? To men and women who remain slaves to their weaknesses? No. To men and women who have been set free to love by the power of the Cross. Let us not empty the Cross of its power. Let us, instead, believe in the Good News and share it faithfully and confidently to the ends of the earth!

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M.Cap., is head of the Archdiocese of Denver.

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