Arousal During NFP's Times of Abstinence

Expressions of Affection Within Marriage

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WASHINGTON, D.C., OCT. 19, 2011 ( Here is a question on ethics answered by the fellows of the Culture of Life Foundation.

Q: I’d like to ask a question about the appropriate place in marriage of sexually arousing behavior.

I’m getting married in November. I am presently taking an antidepressant medication that could be dangerous for an unborn child. My fiancé and I are planning on using NFP [Natural Family Planning] to avoid pregnancy when we get married. Originally we were excited to welcome a child right away into our life. But now that we know that the medication might seriously harm any child we conceive, we are looking into the legitimate options open to us for responsible family planning (perhaps I’ll be able to go off the medication later, maybe I can switch medications, or maybe we’ll always need to avoid and we will look into adoption).

I am specifically interested in answering the question whether or not we should avoid arousal after we get married while we’re abstaining, in the way we have been striving to do during our courtship. I have read conflicting thoughts on this. I (we) would be grateful for any help you can give us. And we would appreciate your prayers!

William E. May and E. Christian Brugger reply:

A: You ask whether there is any obligation after you are married and legitimately practicing periodic continence to avoid «arousal» during the times when you believe you should abstain from engaging in the conjugal act.

For the sake of clarity, we will presume that your belief is rooted in a conscience judgment that you should not pursue pregnancy while you are taking this medication. Pope Paul VI teaches that «serious reasons» can justify such a judgment (Humanae Vitae, Nos. 16, 10); Pius XII uses the term «serious motives» (Address to Italian Midwives, 1951); John Paul II calls them «just reasons» (Theology of the Body, No. 125.3), and Benedict XVI speaks about «grave circumstances» (Papal Message to Humanae Vitae Congress, Oct. 2, 2008). Avoiding severe injury to a gestating child clearly is a serious reason to abstain from intercourse during fertile periods, and so without knowing further details, you do seem justified in using NFP to avoid pregnancy.

By «arousal» we take you to mean sexual arousal that ordinarily leads to genital intercourse. It is the kind of behavior that helps the male have an erection and the female to receive him bodily into herself. This behavior is, of course, good and upright for married couples to intend when they are preparing for intercourse. We presume that you and your fiancé are presently avoiding «arousal» behavior of this kind, and rightly so, since you are not yet married.

It seems to us that a married couple, who judge they should not engage in the conjugal act here and now, also should not deliberately cause the kind of arousal befitting the preparation for intercourse, and so should avoid arousal type of behavior. This does not exclude ordinary expressions of affection. But behavior that deliberately causes genital stimulation is more rightly considered «foreplay.» It is likely to put oneself (and one’s spouse) into a proximate occasion of the grave sin of masturbatory behavior; or to tempt the couple, in the heat of the moment, to engage in intercourse against their prior moral judgment that they should now abstain. We leave to you the judgments about what types of behavior may elicit this kind of sexual arousal.

We warn against an overly scrupulous interpretation of what we’ve said. A mark of a healthy relationship is the freedom between spouses to love one another and express appropriate affection during «feast» or «famine.» If certain types of arousing behavior should be avoided during times of abstinence, this emphatically does not mean that spouses should be distant toward one another. There are a hundred ways to express love and affection non-sexually that can deepen spousal unity during these times: back scratches, foot rubs, hugs, sharing a glass of red wine, watching a good video, taking a road trip, going out to dinner. The most important thing is not to stop talking to one another. Spouses, especially husbands, should not pout or act irritably during times of abstinence because of the sacrifice entailed. It’s not the wife’s fault — «her darn fertility» — that’s making you sacrifice. It’s your collective moral judgment that this is the right thing to do. As Christians, that moral conviction takes on a greatly enhanced character in the understanding of God’s will. This is what Jesus wills for me — for us — right now. Embrace it and let it facilitate a growth in charity, humility and self-control.

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William E. May, is a Senior Fellow at the Culture of Life Foundation and retired Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics and director of the Fellows Program at the Culture of Life Foundation; and the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.

[Readers may send questions regarding bioethics to The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. The fellows at the Culture of Life Foundation will answer a select number of the questions that arrive.]
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