This is the fifth in a six-part series on Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s profound and heroic 1968 encyclical. The series’ introduction is here. The question of “responsible parenthood” as the Church defines it is taken up here. Questions about the unitive and procreative meanings of sex and why they should not be separated are discussed here. Questions of conscience are taken up here. This post will examine why NFP and contraception are so different, even though they kind of look the same.
For the sake of simplicity, natural family planning (NFP) is any of the methods by which married couples can determine when the wife is potentially fertile, so that they can practice periodic continence (abstinence) if they don’t desire pregnancy. Under contraception, I will include anything the couple does before, during, or after the marital act to attempt to render it infertile.
What kinda looks the same when you compare NFP and contraception?
What is the same when comparing the use of NFP and contraception is that in both cases the couple has made a decision to try to avoid pregnancy. As we discussed in the last column, the couple ought to have made a decision in conscience that they have a serious (just) reason to postpone having a child at this time.
Those who have a serious reason to try to avoid pregnancy and who use NFP have the seriousness of their reasoning confirmed for them many times during each of the wife’s fertile periods. The reason is that they have decided to refrain from having sexual relations during this time, even though they still want to have relations, so it is not easy to stick to their decision. On the other hand, for those who resort to artificial means, there is no such confirmation, because they simply continue having sexual relations as if nothing were at stake. If their reason is trivial, there is no motivation to rethink their decision. In addition, the fact that they are performing an objectively wrong act each time they contracept doesn’t help their moral reasoning in general.
Another possible point of contact between NFP and contraception is that married couples who do not have a serious reason to avoid pregnancy yet who do so using natural methods can be said to have a “contraceptive mentality.” This means that they are illegitimately saying no to the primary good of marriage, which is children. They are also saying no to God who may want to be giving them a new child. Some have questioned whether it is possible to use NFP and actually have a contraceptive mentality. I don’t know the answer to that question.
How are NFP and contraception actually radically different?
We English speakers who support NFP (or no planning at all) are at a disadvantage when trying to explain to people the difference between NFP and contraception. The reason is the nature of the words we are forced to use. Natural family planning is called a “method”—indeed, there are different methods of natural family planning a couple can choose from, just as there are many artificial methods. Vocabulary-wise, both groups “use” a “method.” But in reality, underneath NFP there is no method at all because the married couple is literally doing nothing. The techniques of NFP simply help the couple pinpoint when it is likely that pregnancy could occur so that the couple can refrain from relations during that time. They literally don’t do anything, and since they have a legitimate reason for not acting, their non-action is perfectly legitimate. They are saying yes to God’s plan in every way. They are convinced that their will is in agreement with God’s will that they should not get pregnant right now. They are also obedient to the God-given rhythms of fertility built into the wife’s body by not having relations when they could result in a pregnancy. If it should happen that a true “surprise” pregnancy results, they are open to that and take it as God’s will.
On the other hand, couples who use artificial methods do something. They have sexual relations that they attempt to render infertile. They are saying by their actions yes to sex and no to procreation. These artificial contraceptors are rejecting God’s will in a serious matter. As we have seen, God has designed into the human sexual act a two-fold meaning which the couple on their part ought not separate: love-making with life-making. The contracepting couple says no to God. They are saying—maybe not consciously but with their bodies and with their actions—I will have the sex but I will not have the procreation.
Road to perdition or paradise: Consequences of NFP and contraception
The seemingly obscure but very real differences between NFP and contraception have consequences that reverberate on the whole of marriage and family life. For example, the decision to use NFP means a serious and on-going communication with one’s spouse and God. It also requires humility and helps one grow in that same virtue. The couple realizes and lives the truth that they are not God and that they cannot do anything they want. In this way, the practice of NFP helps the couple see their creatureliness. Concretely, they cannot have sex right now if they want to uphold their decision not to get pregnant. They grow in the virtues of temperance and fortitude as they endure not doing something they would like to do. NFP can also help the couple develop the virtue of gratitude because when they do come together when the wife’s natural infertility returns, their relations are even better.
On the other hand, contraception is not only morally evil; it is also a road to vice in general. As we have pointed out above, the decision to contracept can be made without a serous reason. Since there is no difficulty in having sex when you want it, you have no motivation to reevaluate whether you really have a serious reason to not have a child now. In addition, for the contracepting couple, Paul VI warned in Humanae Vitae that contraception opens “wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards” (§17). In addition, the pontiff wrote, “a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection” (§17). In other words, the husband is tempted to see his wife no longer as a person but as an object of his pleasure to be used. This is a direct result of the joint decision to say no to God by saying yes to sex but not to its procreative purpose.
Given all this, is it really surprising that divorce among those Catholic couples who live NFP is practically non-existent, while it is about 50% for Catholic couples in general?
In the final column, we will turn to the question of whether American Catholic couples should aim for large families.
© 2014. Kevin Aldrich. All rights reserved.