The Theology of the Body Giving NFP a Boost

by Rev Charles Goraieb
Vol 15, Nos 1-2
Winter/Spring 2004
Reproduced with Permission

As a seminarian studying philosophy I was introduced to the works of Dietrich Von Hildebrand and others who called themselves phenomenologists. These writers included Karol Wojtyla (who had already become the Vicar of Christ) and his stunning work, Love and Responsibility. The more I studied and reflected on the work of these writers the more certain I became that God's plan for human sexual love was not an arbitrary list of do's and don'ts but an integrated tapestry that must be seen as a whole. And at the center of this plan is the much debated teaching in Humanae vitae regarding the inseparability of the two ends of marriage. In order to preserve the dignity of the spouses and their sexual expression, each and every act of sexual love must both foster their unity as husband and wife and be open to the possibility of new life.

This simple yet profound insight of our church is at the center of so much going on both within the church and the broader society. In his 1968 encyclical affirming this truth, Pope Paul VI predicted that a failure to see the inseparability of these purposes of sexual love would give rise to a long list of dark offenses against love. In hindsight we can see just how prophetic he was. Unfortunately, it has also become the point of departure for the voices of dissent that have echoed so loudly in the past 35 years.

Through God's grace, my experience has been very different. Almost immediately I began to see just how essential this teaching would be to me as a future priest if I was to offer real assistance to my flock. It was as if the Lord had placed a master key in my hand, assuring me that this was the way to free many who were imprisoned in the pain of sexual chaos.

Beginning with my first parish assignment I have always insisted that couples seeking to marry would have to take the entire NFP course, explaining to them that the introduction alone would do them very little good. With few exceptions, couples have accepted this requirement and most have expressed appreciation for their exposure to the course. I am not naive enough to think they all have put it into practice, but at least their horizons had been expanded.

Early on some of my closest lay friends were couples teaching NFP. Over and over again they would tell me how difficult it was to stand before 30-50 couples who are glaring at them, just daring them to challenge their practices or opinions. What our Church teaches is, without doubt, God's Word and the basis for true self-donation and mutuality in marriage. Why is this so hard to get across? Why so much hostility? What could we do to touch people's hearts more effectively?

About seven years ago I began to study the Holy Father's teachings known as the Theology of the Body. While not easy reading, it soon became clear that this is what we were missing. Here was a comprehensive and inspiring way to see God's plan for human love based not on the Natural Law but on Scripture and on every person's experience.

The Holy Father starts his work with the dialogue Jesus has with the Pharisees in Matthew 19:3ff regarding the indissolubility of marriage. On two occasions in this dialogue Jesus refers to God's original plan for man and woman, the plan revealed "in the beginning." To understand what this original plan was, we must go to the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2. Before sin disrupted their unity, our first parents lived their union in awe and gratitude for the gift each one was to the other. This gift was freely given and joyfully received. They had no fear of being reduced to objects of sexual pleasure or being rejected by the other. It would not have occurred to them to use their sexual love to manipulate or seek to dominate the other. Adam wasn't concerned about losing his independence and Eve seldom experienced "headaches." The respect, mutuality, trust and openness in their relationship is summed up by that amazing line in Genesis 2:25: "the man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame." We know that many of these qualities in their relationship changed as soon as they both fell into sin. But because of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, there is hope for us all. As the Holy Father points out repeatedly, the nature of our first parents, who were made in God's image and likeness, remained unchanged. God's plan for each human being remains the same even though we must contend with sin in order to achieve it. This plan is summarized in the document from Vatican II called the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) chapter 24:

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, "that all may be one. . . as we are one" (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God's sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.

We can highlight three basic points from this passage. First, the love between spouses is intended to be a mirror, an icon of the love which exists between the three persons of the Godhead. More specifically, the Pope argues that it is in their sexual union that spouses reflect to each other, as much as is possible in this life, the perfect union of love in the communion of persons of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Secondly, human beings are created to freely donate themselves in love to another. In fact, we can not fully realize our human dignity unless we do so. And following this second point he concludes that inscribed in our very bodies as male and female is our complementary need for another. Man is incomplete in his maleness without woman and visa-versa. He calls this the nuptial meaning of the body.

If you are thinking that this is just abstract theology, then let me try to apply it more practically to marriage. Our starting is the idea of the gift which we are all called to make of ourselves (that is true whether we are married or single, although the gift is obviously expressed differently in the latter case). On their wedding day, spouses make four promises to each other: they vow to give themselves to each other freely, completely (no other parties), permanently (until the death) and open to life (to be fruitful, God willing). These four vows are renewed each and every time they express their love sexually.

The damage which can result from breaking the first three vows is not hard to grasp. If husbands force themselves on their wives or if one of them is having an affair or if they marry with the idea of it being just a temporary relationship, the marriage will soon be in big trouble. So isn't it logical to assume that breaking the fourth vow could also strike a fatal blow? Contraceptives allow couples to renege their wedding vows. It also means that they have used the nuptial meaning of their bodies to say something which is false. As the Pope says, they have "lied" with their bodies (the "lie" of fornication and adultery is even more pernicious).

As a pastor who works constantly with married couples, I am deeply indebted to Pope John Paul II for giving us a new and inspiring way to get couples' attention and take a closer look at NFP. In most cases I don't go into a deep explanation of the Theology of the Body with them. But I do get the main ideas across by making my case for the benefits of periodic abstinence, the essence of NFP. If attempting to convince a couple to be open to NFP the conversation might go as follows:

"Would you two like to experience your sexual love as a sacred and holy event"?

The answer is usually, "of course Father."

"One of the drawbacks of contraceptives is that they exempt the man from having to respect and follow the natural cycles of his spouse. He now thinks that there is nothing to prevent her from responding to him sexually whenever he would like."

"Yet we all know that men and women have different sexual constitutions. Men are easily stimulated and are almost always eager. A woman's sexual drive on the other hand, follows monthly cycles of ebbs and flows. Failure to honor and observe these differences can cause tremendous friction. Over a period of time many women get the sense that they are not understood and in fact are being used. Her spouse, on the other hand, may not understand why she is not as responsive as he would like her to be."

"In fact, there is something of an undeclared war that exists in many relationships where the husband seems to constantly be seeking sexual affection only to be rejected by his wife. He begins to wonder if she still loves him. She, on the other hand, feels that his only interest in her is sexual because he seems to constantly pursue it. It also seems that this is the only time he shows affection for her. (their body language at this point will speak volumes)."

"So, what can be done to change this? Adopt the practice of periodic abstinence as the foundation and spirituality of your marriage."

If I have gotten their attention, I then describe some of the benefits of periodic abstinence:

Improved communication.

Better understanding of your spouse's emotional and sexual makeup.

Acquisition of the virtues of sel-denial and self-mastery (without self-mastery, it is impossible to make a sincere gift of oneself).

The monthly cycle of self-denial followed by sexual union provides the tension and release which keeps both spouses attuned to each other (it also gives the couple a built-in method to experience the paschal mystery of death and resurrection).

Couples learn to show their affection in a multiplicity of ways besides sexual intercourse.

Responsible parenthood now rests on the shoulders of both and not just the one using the contraceptives.

Some 95% of the couples who practice periodic abstinence stay married (based on anecdotal evidence).

NFP couples have sexual intercourse more frequently and find it more satisfying than couples who contracept (also based on anecdotal evidence).

Ordinarily there is a relationship between the faith which the couple possesses and their openness to hearing all this. Yet even those whose faith is immature can still be reached by appealing to their longing to see their relationship prosper and their love deepen. Modern men and women may not be moved by long-standing Church teachings or the natural law, but an appeal to their experience and ways to improve their lives will always have an impact.

In his excellent biography on the Pope (Witness to Hope) George Weigel says that the Theology of the Body is a ticking time bomb set to go off sometime in this century. What the Holy Father has given us is a profound treasure that will take some time for the Church to assimilate. Once that process is in motion, we can expect many people of all faiths to be listening very carefully as the Church's voice rises above the din to proclaim the truth. In the meantime, we all can set about the process of learning and enriching ourselves with these teachings. Below I include some recommended resources that can help you deepen your understanding of the Theology of the Body. It is a breath of fresh, sweet air for all of us who want to serve God's people and turn their hearts towards the Author of Love. May it be a boost to all of you. And may the Holy Family guide and protect us all.


Fr. Goraieb is pastor of St. Henry's Parish in Buckeye, Arizona. He can be contacted at: