Voices Online Edition
Vol. XIX No. 2 Pentecost 2004
Can parents today teach a "countercultural" message about sex and marriage?
by Wendy Kennedy
Everyone is doing it. There is no way to stop it: raging hormones, teen pregnancy, abortion, venereal disease, living together before marriage, divorce, infidelity.
We live surrounded by terrible statistics. Our culture is saturated by the sexual revolution. From television ads to magazine displays to national news -- we cannot escape the constant barrage of sexual messages. No one is exempt -- not even Catholics. It seems that there is no escape. We parents can at best communicate our morality, but we cannot expect our children to actually live by our hopes for them. I mean, how can we counter the cultural message? Kids don't listen to us anyway.
Practicing What We Preach
Our children do listen, though most often it is not to our words but to the tune of our actions. What are we really "saying" to them? Are we telling them to obey God's law, while enabling them to avoid the consequences of rejecting it?
"You shouldn't drink ... ", we remind them, " ... but it'll be safer if you do it here at home than hide it somewhere else". "Sex is for marriage ... ", we say, " ... but you better use protection if you're going to do it anyway". "Abortion isn't good ...", we teach, " ... but you can't throw away your chance at this scholarship".
These mixed messages communicate far more than we intend. Are we, through our actions, asking them to live according to God's law, while we ourselves make exceptions? Let me make it clear. I am not addressing blatant bad examples given by parents, such as those in affairs or shacking up, or the growing number of Catholics who divorce then remarry outside the Church. I assume people in these situations are well aware of the poor example they are giving their children. Instead, I am addressing the far greater numbers who, while otherwise living their marriage vows faithfully, still choose to disregard one little unpopular area of Church teaching concerning sexuality.
"Oh, but that's different!" you exclaim... "The Church is wrong about that one". "But I have to use birth control -- we can't possibly handle another child because ... [fill in the rationale]". "If I didn't, we would have twenty children!" "I have to follow my conscience, and my conscience says that it's OK".
Can you see the danger in this reasoning? This allows the individual to set aside the laws of Christ, based upon his or her own circumstances and subsequent interpretation of what is right and wrong. If we can choose whether or not an action is sin, should we be surprised when our children do the same? But they may choose to disregard one of the laws that we do agree with. We cannot have it both ways.
Yes, we are called to follow our conscience, but only a rightly formed conscience. If we want our children to live under the authority of God's law, they must learn to respect rightful authority in general. They learn that respect first at home, as they learn to obey the authority of their parents.
In the Catholic home they learn from early on that their parents get their authority from Christ, through the Church. Jesus gave the Church, not individuals, the job of interpreting right and wrong for His people. "What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven". (Mt 16:19) This is the cornerstone of Church authority in matters of faith and morals. On this rests our life in one holy Apostolic Church. When we become our own authority, independent of the wisdom of 2,000 years of teaching by the Holy Spirit through Scripture, tradition, and Magisterium, we repeat the sin of Adam. Contraception is this generation's fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Church proclaims the Word of God. The serpent of this age whispers, "There's nothing wrong with contraception. It is not sin". Whose voice are we following?
Sexuality in Marriage
It has been thirty-six years since Pope Paul VI wrote his controversial encyclical, Humanae Vitae ("On Human Life"). Now is a good time to evaluate our own faithfulness to this definitive teaching of the Universal Church. Yes, Virginia, the Church still teaches that contraception is grave (dare I say mortal?) sin. There is no uncertainty as to what the Church teaches, only about people's acceptance of that teaching.
Humanae Vitae §14 states clearly: "Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary. ... [and] every action which, either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation -- whether as an end or as a means.
"Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these. Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it -- in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general" [HV 14].
There are many, many legitimate reasons to avoid a pregnancy -- sometimes even life-threatening ones. These "hard cases" present the slippery slope that leads many to contraceptive use. I find it telling that that reasons I hear from contracepting Catholics for why they "have to" disregard this definitive Church teaching are the exact same rationales I heard at our Crisis Pregnancy Center from people planning on an abortion. "We can't afford another baby". "My husband will leave me". "It would be dangerous to my health to have another baby". "We don't have room for another child". "I would crack up -- I can't handle the ones I already have". "It would ruin my chances at school/career/etc." "I have no choice". Contraception and abortion are branches of the same rotten tree.
Natural Family Planning
This issue of family planning is so serious that people feel they have no other choice when they have a good reason to avoid a pregnancy, such as health or age or limited finances. They believe this because they either never heard of natural family planning (NFP), or have never looked at the research that documents conclusively that NFP is just as effective as the birth control pill.
Just as with advances in other areas of medical science, the archaic, ineffective Rhythm method -- erroneously equated with NFP -- has been replaced with modern NFP methods. I get frustrated that so few Catholic couples will even learn about NFP, much less try it. They believe contraceptives are more effective, and easier to use, to boot. (I wish they would look at the figures on contraceptive user-failure rates!) In addition, most have no idea that hormonal methods of contraception are abortifacient, and that little babies are losing their lives, cycle after cycle, on the altar of convenience. They never question the biased reporting of effectiveness rates by a contraceptive industry and medical community that only makes money when people use their artificial methods.
Humane Vitae does not doom Catholic couples to dozens of children. The Church recognizes that when there are reasons for a couple to avoid pregnancy, they can choose to use only the infertile times of the woman's cycle for conjugal acts. In other words, we may abstain from sexual contact during the fertile days of the woman's cycle, in order to avoid a pregnancy.
There lies the problem for most. "That's impossible", we complain. "It's not natural". "We'll lose spontaneity in our sexual relationship!" "That's expecting too much -- we have biological needs, you know", we whimper. Some claim periodic abstinence would damage the marital relationship. Some say that the Church is just plain wrong on this one, because NFP runs contrary to our nature. Abstinence, they say, has no business in a healthy married life.
There are many, many times when logistics or health requires marital abstinence, sometimes for extended periods of time, having nothing to do with avoiding pregnancy. Business trips, illness, recent childbirth, just plain fatigue -- all these, and more, periodically require marital abstinence. Then, of course, there are all the times when we abstain because of the emotional needs of the other. Our spouse is upset about something, or we have not yet settled an argument. Temporary abstinence may be the loving response in this case.
Abstinence is a natural part of every marital relationship. NFP simply employs such periodic abstinence, usually for only a brief period at a stretch, for those with a valid reason to avoid a pregnancy.
The Parenting Connection
What does all this have to do with teaching our children chastity? Plenty! The fact that we live a consistent Catholic lifestyle goes a long way toward influencing our children's morality. Think about what we are asking of them when we teach that sex is only for marriage. For the newly pubescent individual, this means literally years of continuous abstinence until they find a life-long marriage partner. For some it will mean permanent abstinence for the rest of their lives, as in the case of those who never marry, or those who choose a religious vocation. If we "cannot" abstain for a few days at a stretch for the sake of family planning, how can we expect them to do it for years?
The Church's teaching concerning the sacrament of marriage is a crucial part of forming our children's sexuality. If we want our children to accept that sex is for marriage alone, then we must not separate it from its procreative side. The unitive and procreative natures of the marriage act are inseparable.
When the time comes to give "the talk" to your son or daughter, it is a natural opportunity to introduce them to the purpose of the act itself. Never talk about sex outside of the context of a possible pregnancy. Encourage them to use this time of extended abstinence to get to know their own signs of fertility, and to practice the chastity that will be a regular part of their married life, or a permanent part of the religious life. In this way, a religious vocation no longer seems so alien or unnatural -- it is just another expression of the abstinence we all are called to at some time.
When we practice natural family planning, we provide ourselves with the perfect teaching material.
Imagine the impact of the following: "John, we know how hard abstinence can be when you really love someone. Your mother and I have to deal with it every month during her fertile days, since you know her heart condition could kill her if she got pregnant again. Our love for each other demands abstinence. Thank God for natural family planning -- in the old days, the abstinence would have had to last until she hit menopause! Now it's just for a few days at a time!"
Or how about: "We had to abstain for the first time during our honeymoon -- I won't say that was easy, but we knew it was just temporary. We have a whole lifetime ahead to love each other!"
Many parents avoid talking to their teens about this area because they fear the inevitable question: "Well, did you wait 'til marriage?"
For those who have failed in this area -- through premarital sex, infidelity or contraception -- it is important that our sins are dealt with in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and that we fully amend our lifestyle if we expect to teach our children to live chastely. It is not hypocrisy to learn from our mistakes and then teach our children the lessons we have learned. We often learn more from our failures, and sharing from our personal experience will make a strong impression.
We parents have the responsibility to form our children in this important area. We cannot blame the culture when we fail to provide a good role model.
Wendy Kennedy is a certified natural family planning instructor for the Archdiocese of Detroit, and a former crisis pregnancy counselor. She and her husband Joe have seven children.
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