The Radiant Joys of Marital Discipline
“The practice of periodic continence…far from being a hindrance to [spouses’] love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character.” This statement by Pope Paul VI, from his landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae (no. 21), would likely be ignored by much of society today or scoffed at as an outdated joke. Practicing periodic continence as a form of natural family planning (NFP) is a bold contradiction in a culture accustomed to sex that is unmoored from marital commitment, requires no accountability or responsibility, and is understood as having no bearing on one’s purity of heart. Sadly, adherents to such a libertine lifestyle slowly suffer the emotional, physical, and spiritual consequences of their sexual “freedom.” Beneath their revelry, many find themselves fettered by shame and addiction, living with embittered relationships, broken hearts, and an absence of purpose.
On the other hand, there is a growing number of “NFP couples” among Catholics who understand that marriage truly is a sacrament. These couples take solace in Paul VI’s words and are encouraged as they have recourse to natural family planning. Intuitively, they understand via experience the “truly human character” that is fostered in their spousal love through the practice of periodic continence.
Each summer at the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Nebraska, couples who practice NFP share their stories with the one hundred and seventy-five diocesan seminarians who attend a ten-week spirituality program. Reflecting on NFP’s value in their marriage, one couple remarked that it “allows us to have greater reverence for each other. We know that we are truly loved by our spouse because there is never an artificial barrier between our total gift of self in marital union.”
Another couple related their experiences as they made the courageous transition to NFP after the husband had insisted for years that they use contraceptives. This shift gave an authentic freedom to the wife, who stated, “After three years of staying away from the sacraments because we were using ‘the Pill,’ I am now delightfully receiving Jesus again.” This “priceless gift,” as she described it, facilitated deeper communion with Christ and the Church.
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