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Periodic Abstinence For All of Marriage | Catholic Life

Periodic Abstinence For All of Marriage

Commenting on the contraceptive mentality post Allison asked a pointed question.

How do you feel about those who say they never want children but use NFP because it’s the only thing approved by the Church? Not sure how often that happens, but would you still think that their view is okay? Or do you view children as a part of marriage for those who are able?

Rebecca gave a great explanation of why some couples using NFP might say that they plan on never having children, but I think that Allison wanted a more general answer, so here is my view. I am posting it here so that you can all chime in with your wisdom.

Marriage is like life: we are not called to decide everything all at once, but rather to discern and live each day. Of course it is wise to plan, but there is nothing wrong with looking ahead and honestly admitting that our best of plans will not achieve every ideal.

If a couple is able to continuously discern the need to avoid pregnancy, and these moments end up adding up to their entire reproductive lives, then that is sad in some way, but certainly not sinful.

It seems highly unlikely to me that a couple would abstain from sex rather than use contraception if they were so closed to children as to violate their promises to the Church and to each other.

Furthermore, the Church’s minimum standard is that we must not separate sexual intercourse from reproduction. But married couples are not required to engage in sexual activity at all, as long as abstinence is mutually agreed upon. If it is okay for some rare couples to never engage in sexual intercourse, then it must certainly be okay for some to never have children, even though they may have no fertility issues.

I have never met a faithful Catholic couple who would not wish to have all the material, health, relational, and societal blessings required for raising children. But we live in a world where not everyone has everything, and as long as that is the case there will be couples who are unable to ever discern an appropriate time to enter the marital embrace with the hopes of conceiving a child. Children are certainly the supreme gift of marriage, but not every married couple is blessed with the resources and situation to seek out the transmission of human life.

Catholics who support contraception often assert that the Church should require marriages to be open to life rather than “that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life“. But the Church insists that moral law is not about the marriage as a whole and ignoring “details” of particular acts, but rather about each and every act added up to the whole. And if each and every sexual act is open to life, even though highly unlikely to result in pregnancy, the Church’s minimum standard1 has been met.

How would you answer Allison’s question?

1. Of course there may still be the question of whether a couple is being selfish or generous in their approach to giving themselves to each other, but that is no more true for the continuously “avoiding” couple than for all couples who “resort to infertile periods!”

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24 Responses to “Periodic Abstinence For All of Marriage”

  1. Allison 06. Aug, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

    I guess what I’m wondering may just not really exist. I just know that some couples go into marriage not ever wanting children, and essentially lie during their pre-cana. So I guess for that type of couple, why would they even bother using NFP, they’d probably just use contraception. So I guess what I was thinking may not even really happen.

    I guess for those who take NFP seriously, then they are actually discerning whether or not they should have a child, and are not being selfish.

    Because if they were going to be selfish then they probably wouldn’t care about the Church’s stance on contraception.

    • Rae 06. Aug, 2010 at 5:48 pm #

      Well, if a couple is planning to never have children, no matter what else happens (not just that they don’t think it is likely to work out) then they are *not* married. Openness to children (at least abstractly) is a part of consenting to marriage. And if you’re not freely consenting, then you’re not married!

      Canon 1101 — §1. The internal consent of the mind is presumed to conform to the words or signs used in the celebration of a marriage.
      § 2. If, however, either or both of the parties should by a positive act of will exclude marriage itself or any essential element of marriage or any essential property, such a party contracts invalidly.

      Is that extreme more of what you were thinking of?

  2. Melody 06. Aug, 2010 at 7:09 pm #

    What leaps to my mind when I read of this dilemma are women who discover that they have a serious health problem. One family member was on anti-seizure meds, which would have been very dangerous for a developing fetus, for several years. Fortunately she did not need to stay on them forever, and she and her husband now have a child. I don’t know if they were using abstinence, or “other stuff”; it was one of those don’t-ask situations. These types of situations are not of anyone’s choosing; a couple might wish very much to have a child, but recognize that conceiving on purpose would be irresponsible.

    • Rae 10. Aug, 2010 at 5:15 am #

      Very true that we never know (and it is often quite inappropriate to ask!).

  3. Rebecca 06. Aug, 2010 at 7:11 pm #

    Me again – ha!

    Anyway, it’s interesting because when we got married if you’d asked me I would have said ‘definitely, in 5 years we are going to start having children and I would like to have 4′. And I said that very cavalierly and didn’t truly think about the discernment process for having children. It wasn’t truly until ‘the pressure was on’ so to speak by potential grandparents (mothers), society in general, and the fact that I wasn’t enjoying the side effects of birth control that I really started to think about it.

    I think we were the ‘textbook’ contraceptors – never talk or think about having children. The topic was on a ‘shelf’ to be picked up again in 5 years. I don’t often wonder if those 5 years (now past) weren’t so difficult to get me to get on my knees and consider that this isn’t just about me and my life on this earth. That there is something more.

    • Rae 10. Aug, 2010 at 5:16 am #

      So funny how planning to have children can be as presumptive as planning not to! I’m glad that you’ve found something more.

  4. Joy 06. Aug, 2010 at 7:11 pm #

    As someone pointed out at a Pre-Cana I attended, the Church asks that we are open to life not that we actively seek it. I agree with your (Rae) statement that there may be couples who never feel sure of the right moment to pursue a child, but provided they have not taken steps to make conception impossible God is part of the conversation and potential conception.

    • Rae 10. Aug, 2010 at 5:18 am #

      ” not taken steps to make conception impossible” I think that is the essence of the Church’s teaching on why periodic abstinence to avoid conception is allowable.

  5. Allison 06. Aug, 2010 at 8:53 pm #

    I’m not talking about those who have to avoid for health reasons, I posted that in my original comment.

    What I was thinking about more has to do with wondering if the people who don’t wish to have children, do they still agree with the Church’s stance that sex is for procreative and unitive purposes?

    I guess it’s the way you look at it. Are you still “open to life” if you’re only having sex when you’re statistically not likely to get pregnant, and you do that for your entire life? (and I’m talking about healthy individuals here). If you have no intent on ever having children, and only have sex during phase 3 when you’re very unlikely to get pregnant because you know you’ve ovulated, that’s when I think people are saying it becomes like contraception. Because they have no intent on getting pregnant ever. And so they’re trying to work around it without using contraception.

    But then as I said, does that occur very often in real life? I don’t know. Because if you never want kids, are you less likely to follow the Church’s stance on it all? Possibly.

    • Rae 10. Aug, 2010 at 5:13 am #

      ” If you have no intent on ever having children, and only have sex during phase 3 when you’re very unlikely to get pregnant because you know you’ve ovulated, that’s when I think people are saying it becomes like contraception. Because they have no intent on getting pregnant ever. And so they’re trying to work around it without using contraception.”
      The thing is, I’m not sure how whether one “plans” to have children in the future has anything to do with determining whether it is right to avoid conception in any given cycle. I don’t think that the Church looks at marriages as a whole, I think that she looks at individuals and our choices in every given moment.

    • Rae 10. Aug, 2010 at 5:14 am #

      And I’m sorry that it took so long to clear your comment. It was marked as spam for some reason!

    • Amed 31. Jul, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

      Welcome to the blog world! Looks like a great start already. You have thigns on your blog that I still need to figure out. I am so excited how all of those who connect with Kelly Rae Roberts are also connecting together online. What an impact she has made!

  6. Michelle 08. Aug, 2010 at 4:55 pm #

    Hey Rae…I think it’s interesting you mention that it would be ok for a couple to never have sex if mutually agreed…I think that poses a problem with consummating the marriage to completely make it valid. I’m writing “off the cuff” and haven’t got my resources on me right now…can you elaborate on your understanding of the consummation of marriage vows and how it might impede a valid CAtholic marriage if consummation never occurs?

    • Rae 10. Aug, 2010 at 5:22 am #

      I actually have a draft post on celibate marriage that I started a year ago!

      Short answer: sex (once!) is necessary to consummate a marriage, but not to make it valid. The highest example of Catholic marriage is that of the Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph. And they had the truest of marriages.

      • Michelle 10. Aug, 2010 at 6:09 am #

        I was under the impression that St. Joseph and Mary needed no consummation for a valid marriage for some other reason, but I am now at work with no time/resources available to get a source. I just thought consummation was required for validity for everyone else…I’ll have to study up.

  7. Michelle 08. Aug, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

    I am often reminded of my own journey when I read these posts and especially Rebecca’s comments. My husband and I often said that we didn’t want children before and after our marriage vows. We contracepted for the first year of our marriage. But when we learned NFP…it was like a huge chain was cut free for us and we learned to actively seek God’s Will for our marriage rather than our own. For us that has meant four children, some burdens in the financial arena, but a very happy and (we feel) holy marriage. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say that what we have now could only be possible because of a huge leap of faith at some pretty critical points in our lives. But, that’s what we’re here for, no?

    • Rae 10. Aug, 2010 at 5:24 am #

      Indeed. And it will be interesting to see where we all end up ten years from now. So everyone must keep blogging so that I can watch the changes in our views. :-)

  8. Kelly 20. Aug, 2010 at 6:42 pm #

    “Children are certainly the supreme gift of marriage, but not every married couple is blessed with the resources and situation to seek out the transmission of human life.” <—-Then why get married. Seriously. Why not just stay single. If this is a persons mentality then I don't think God is calling them to the married life. What happened to trust in God? Waiting for the perfect "resources and situation" is in my estimation no different from the tacky bumpersticker cliche, "if you can't feed 'em don't breed 'em." We have 8 children and live on one income. It is not easy, but nothing worthwhile in this life is.

    • Rae 20. Aug, 2010 at 7:38 pm #

      “Then why get married. ”
      Two reasons:
      1. Because we do not know what life will bring.
      Example: the Church allows couples to marry, even if it is likely that they cannot consummate the marriage, provided it is not *certain* that the impotence is antecedent and perpetual. (see Canon 1084.1 -Canon 1084.1 ).

      So, if a couple is allowed to marry when it looks as if they might never be able to consummate the marriage, how much more so must they be allowed to marry, even if it is possible that they will never be able to have children?

      Just because it does not work to have children today does not mean that it will not work tomorrow. The best we can do is to rely on the mercy and sovereignty of God.

      2. Because marriage is about more than sex.
      Example: The Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph and the ancient tradition of celibate marriage.

      Some people are called to trust in God and generously accept many children. Others are called to trust in God and deny their desires for conjugal relations.

    • Rafaela 31. Jul, 2014 at 6:45 am #

      Aren’t you glad you had your camera? A pefcert example of why I never want to hear you say again, That would make a great shot but I don’t have my camera

  9. Kelly 20. Aug, 2010 at 9:43 pm #

    “Others are called to trust in God and deny their desires for conjugal relations” <— okay, then they are called to the celibate life and *not* marriage.

    2335 Each of the two sexes is an image of the power and tenderness of God, with equal dignity though in a different way. The union of man and woman in marriage is a way of imitating in the flesh the Creator's generosity and fecundity: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh."120 All human generations proceed from this union.121 –Catechism of the Catholic Church

    I am not talking about abstaining from having children for a while or a period of time. I am referring to abstaining for the entire duration of the marriage. This is of course excluding any *serious* health reason. I can't quote anything here, but as far as I remember from our days of marriage prep and NFP classes, you have to have a "serious" reason for avoiding a pregnancy; medical, financial, etc.

    My question of "then why get married" was in response to someone using NFP to avoid a pregnancy for the entire duration of their marriage. I understand that there are exceptions…a couple getting married and then a spouse dies soon after, or an issue that was not known of before while the couple was in marriage prep, or a loss of a job. Things happen. Life happens. This is all in God's hands. But a couple that avoids a pregnancy for their entire marriage because they don't feel like they are "blessed" with the right "resources or situation", well, that is a little hard for me to swallow. It smacks of not having trust in God. Not submitting to what He may have planned for you. I'm sorry, but the natural course of marriage is to procreate. And this leads into your #2 , We are called to immitate the Holy Family, but we are NOT the Holy Family. Here I will admit that I haven't heard of the ancient tradition of celibate marriage. I have heard the story of St. Therese of Lisieux's parents, though. That when they told their spiritual director of their plans to be celibate in their marriage, he told them that this was not God's will for them. He told them that they should have children. Thank God they did. :)

    "2. Because marriage is about more than sex."
    As a wife and mother to 8 children, I of course realize that there is much, much more to marriage than sex. There is work, sacrifice and suffering. There is also love. Non-sexual love, compassion and friendship/companionship.

    Thank you, Rae, for this opportunity to discuss this here. I am happy to have met you and to vistit your blog.

    • Rae 21. Aug, 2010 at 9:22 am #

      I’m actually not sure about how much we’re disagreeing, and how much we’re talking past each other. The thing is, I don’t believe that the Church calls us to consider our marriages as a whole and make decisions for our entire lives in one moment. I believe that she calls us to do the right thing *today*. And sometimes the right thing is to abstain and avoid pregnancy. And sometimes it continues to be the right thing. I do not believe that a serious reason to avoid pregnancy is somehow less serious due to the fact that a couple does not yet have children. And, conversely, it is not okay for couples to close themselves off to life simply because they already have 1 or 5 or 10 children.

      As I said in my reply to the first comment, if a couple is planning on not ever having children, no matter the circumstances, then they are *not* married. But it is entirely possible to have serious reasons to avoid pregnancy starting from the beginning of marriage, and to continue to have serious reasons every single day for the rest of one’s life.

      And I’ll see what I can do to hurry up with my post on celibate marriage since I think that deserves a deeper discussion. :-)

      Thanks for your comments, and please continue to let me know what you think I’m missing.

    • PresterJosh 23. Aug, 2010 at 5:43 pm #

      ““Others are called to trust in God and deny their desires for conjugal relations” <— okay, then they are called to the celibate life and *not* marriage."

      While that may be true in general, it isn't an absolute. There is a longstanding Catholic tradition of celibate marriages. This typically happens in one of two ways…

      1. At some point, the couple decides/realizes that they could serve God more perfectly by remaining celibate from this point forward.

      Interestingly, this is where some of our earliest historical evidence of priestly celibacy comes from. In the early Church, a married man could be ordained, but was expected to abstain from sexual relations with his wife after ordination. (There are writings of the Church Fathers which indicate that this was the case with the married Apostles.)

      2. A couple might choose to never have sex within marriage, in order to serve God as perfectly as they could.

      The primary example, of course, is Mary and Joseph. But throughout Church history their have been others, and the Church has always recognized their marriages as valid. (Consummation isn't actually required for validity.)

      St. Therese's parents had actually planned to practice this vocation, but were instructed otherwise by their confessor. Though it apparently wasn't the right thing for them, they were following a well-established tradition.


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