If you’re Catholic, you may already be familiar with the practice of Natural Family Planning (NFP), the method by which married couples can morally use a woman’s natural fertility cycle to avoid or achieve pregnancy without recourse to barrier or hormonal contraceptives.
And if you’ve ever used natural family planning in your marriage, you already know the periods of sexual abstinence can be . . . let’s say “tough.” Holy Ruckus blogger Annie McHugh has written on this before here and here.
As my wife and I were recently discussing possibilities for our future (careers, babies, finances, obligations to extended family, the global pandemic—you know, normal stuff), it occurred to me that abstaining from sex as a part of NFP is a lot like abstaining from gathering for the sacraments as a part of social distancing amid the covid-19 pandemic.
Hear me out
Imagine a holy married couple—let’s call them Tommy and Gina— who have sexual relations regularly as part of their healthy, holy marriage. In the Catholic understanding, sex is sacramental. It consummates and renews the free, total, faithful, and fruitful vows and consent of marriage. The couple’s consent and vows are the sacramental “matter” and “form.” In other words, sex for a marriage is kind of like the bread and wine in the Eucharist or the water in baptism: it’s the part of the sacrament we experience with our senses, communicating a deeper reality of grace that can’t be experienced physically. That’s the long way of saying that sex is supposed to be a holy, awesome, and integral part of the sacrament of marriage.
Tommy and Gina are a holy couple who live out their marriage this way. Sex is a mutual, total self-gift, both procreative and unitive, which reminds them of the creative, unitive love of the Triune God and his deep, self-giving love for them. Follow me so far? But plot twist!
Tommy (the breadwinner of the family, working hard on the docks) loses his income because the union’s on strike. While Gina earns some money working at the diner all day, they are down on their luck for the time being. So the two take the matter to prayer and prudently decide to use NFP to avoid pregnancy for a time, abstaining from sex during Gina’s fertile periods.
Wow, this is tough, so tough. Now they can’t reap the benefits of holy married sex as often. They less frequently feel the same emotional and spiritual closeness because they are less frequently renewing their wedding vows in a physical, sacramental way through sex. But, being an awesome holy couple, they adapt, and use this time as an opportunity to grow closer in other ways by doing creative romantic dates together and focusing on their communication and shared prayer life. They are still able to enjoy sex sometimes, but not as much as they are used to or would like.
However, after a few months, Tommy’s union negotiates better terms, the strike ends, and he goes back to work with better pay. Tommy and Gina return to prayer and decide to stop using NFP to avoid pregnancy and they are once again enjoying holy married sex as frequently as they want. Five holy Catholic-schooled children follow who all attend the Catholic University of America and discern vocations to holy married, single, and consecrated life. Happy endings all around.
And even though Tommy and Gina had to abstain from an important part of the sacrament of marriage for a time, their abstinence—far from being a neglect of their faithfulness to the sacrament of marriage—was in fact a way of demonstrating their faithfulness to the sacrament.
Isn’t this basically what our Pope, bishops, priests, civil leaders, and scientific experts have asked us to do in abstaining from public gatherings for the sacraments?
They ask us to temporarily abstain from certain sacramental graces for the sake of those we love —graces we normally depend on and are obligated to attend to. In the case of a married couple abstaining from sex, it’s for the sake of one’s family. In our case abstaining from attending the sacraments, it’s for the sake of those who might suffer and/or die from covid-19.
Covid is an insidious disease which harmlessly infects some with no symptoms, while painfully killing others. Because of this, gatherings (like church) are dangerous, especially for the elderly, immunocompromised, and infirm. Moreover, because the disease is so new and so contagious, it can quickly stress our healthcare system beyond its capacity unless we take measures to slow its spread. If you’ve watched any of the videos from hospitals in Italy, thousands of people are slowly suffocating to death inside make shift ventilators (plastic bags filled with pressurized air designed to help air into their lungs), without friends or families by their side. By staying away from public gatherings, like the sacraments, we are saving friends, family, and neighbors from this fate.
And like Tommy and Gina using NFP, this temporary sacramental abstinence doesn’t mean we have no ways to be faithful. We can still be the Church even if we are not going to a church building for the time being. The Church teaches that while the sacraments are the ordinary means of grace, God is certainly not limited to the sacraments in dispensing grace to his people. This is why Canon law, in extreme circumstances, allows exceptions for baptisms and weddings by laity and the clergy to give general absolutions. We also have the great tradition of spiritual communion by which generations of Christians routinely communed with our Lord in the Eucharist in ages where physical reception was much more rare. Just as Tommy and Gina found other ways to enhance their union, so too can we draw closer to the Lord in other ways during this time.
Let’s take it one step further. Imagine Gina was immunocompromised and Tommy had a cold. While it is merely a nuisance for him, if she caught it, things could get bad. Would it not make sense for the couple to abstain from sex, kissing, and other physical affections for a time while there is a risk to Gina? Even though sex is a regular part (an obligation even) of their sacramental life as a married couple, it doesn’t mean they should disregard the danger. Abstaining doesn’t mean that they aren’t married, or not being faithful to each other, or not finding other ways to communicate and receive God’s grace to/from one another. It just means that for prudent and charitable reasons, they are, for a time, refraining from this avenue of sacramental grace. Given the state of the world, we should adopt the same attitude towards the sacraments. Yes, it is hard to go without. No, it is not the ordinary way we do things, but since when is being a faithful Catholic ever easy.
Some have argued that we should continue to gather and brave the pandemic because of our devotion to Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist.
I think St. Paul would disagree. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he tells them (1 Cor 11:26-29):
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
On the one hand, he is telling them not to partake of the Eucharist as common bread and wine but as the Lord’s body and blood. We normally think of this verse as an exhortation to believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (which it is), but if you read it in context of the letter, an additional meaning emerges. In the verses before (1 Cor 11:17-22), Paul calls out the divisions in the Corinthian community and the lack of concern they have for each other. In the chapters following, Paul explains how they are all different but united as various parts of Christ’s body and exhorts them to live the way of charity and love. Paul is not only calling out those who treat the Eucharist as common food, but also those who worship with no regard for the other people in the community. The problem Paul is addressing is not just that the Corinthians aren’t treating the bread and the wine like Jesus‘s body and blood. They also aren’t treating one another like Jesus‘s body and blood.
We find a similar message from the prophet Isaiah (1: 11-17) condemning those who offer lavish worship and sacrifice at the temple while ignoring the plight of the poor. The prophet Amos likewise proclaimed that true worship is tied to concern for one’s neighbor (Amos 5:21-24). Consider also Jesus’ words (Matthew 23:23-26) to the Pharisees, who were perfect in their ritual observance but lacking in their mercy. Suffice to say the scriptures are not kind when describing those who prioritize worship at the expense of other people. As devoted disciples of our Lord, we must not disregard the vulnerable in our attempt to show honor to God, but rather recognize that God desires worship which includes a paramount concern for the least among us. And just as absence makes the heart grow fonder for a married couple using NFP, so too can this time away from the sacraments increase our love for the Lord. When this time of social distancing is over, we can re-enter into sacramental life with renewed vigor, devotion, and appreciation, just as a married couple joyfully reunites after time apart. So yes, it is hard for me to abstain from the sacraments and the grace they bring me, but I absolutely will. I love the body and blood of my Lord Jesus Christ too much to do otherwise.