Monday, April 30, 2012

Marital Chastity, Fruitful Multiplication...and NFP?

Now that the HHS contraception mandate has brought the contraception issue into focus for Catholics, it’s time to hone in on what’s necessary for a renewal of sexual morality and marital chastity and fruitful multiplication…don’t you think?

Consider this quote from the preface to The Case Concerning Catholic Contraception, where author Michael Malone stated:

When Pope Paul VI lamented toward the end of his pontificate that “the smoke of Satan has entered the sanctuary”, what man among us could disagree? And since the Church is based on the fundamental structure of the family, it is in relation to the sanctuary of the home itself that such diabolical disorientation has done the most serious damage.

I think there are good reasons for checking our morality meter on this subject.

Note: I am addressing only the use of periodic continence for “spacing births”, not the use of NFP or NaPro for achieving pregnancy.

That said…let’s start with this:

There have been statistics thrown around about the percentage of Catholic women who use some form of artificial birth control. There are also figures thrown around as estimates of the percentage of Catholic couples using NFP (whether for achieving or avoiding pregnancy).


The stunningly obvious fact is that Catholic families – which have been historically large – are now about the same size as the families of the general population.

I would venture to guess that this reduction in average family size for Catholics has come about because of an almost overpowering contraceptive mentality in our society which has resulted in many Catholics using artificial contraception and sterilization, against the teachings of the Church.

But why did good Catholics start going against the teachings of the Church on contraception? I suspect we can pin the blame on a very vocal group of dissident theologians and others who voiced immediate disagreement, disappointment, and resentment when they learned that Pope Paul VI, in Humanae Vitae, had decreed that artificial contraception was still immoral and forbidden. This frontal attack by dissidents led to a weakening of that teaching. And that led to many Catholics using artificial contraception. NFP, I think, eventually emerged as a response to the fact that so many Catholics were illicitly and immorally contracepting right along with their non-Catholic peers.

So let’s consider the evolution of the Church’s teaching on the duty to procreate, the use of periodic continence to limit/space births, and the use of NFP.

In 1930, Pope Pius XI published his encyclical, Casti Connubii, which was essentially a response to the Lambeth Conference’s approval of the use of birth control.  Casti Connubii stood by the primarily procreative end of marriage, but acknowledged that:

…there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider…

Still, there was the ever-present caveat:

…so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.

In 1951, Pope Pius XII’s addressed Italian midwives in his Allocution to Midwives; Fr. William Gardner, in his excellent article Purity Honors Creativeness, notes that this document

…seems to be the first papal document that sanctions (albeit conditionally) the use of periodic continence…Pius XII affirmed that married couples have a positive duty to provide children for the propagation of the human race, a responsibility owed to the  State, to the Church, and to God Himself. However, the Pope also concluded that couples may have recourse to periodic continence in order to avoid conception provided that there exist “sufficient and secure moral grounds” and that “no artificial means are used to hinder the procreation of new life.” (my emphases)

Fr. Gardner also mentions that the Allocution reaffirms that procreation is the primary end of marriage, and that the “unitive” end is subordinated to it. In addition,

…[The Pope] further notes that  all the personal, intellectual, and spiritual enrichment that derive from conjugal life has ultimately been placed by the will of the Creator at the service of posterity.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae, which again affirmed that periodic continence may be permitted for serious reasons, though the language seems a bit more liberal here:

If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles…  (HV, 16)

But this document also reiterates that the primary end of marriage is procreation in fairly strong language:

…[Parents] are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out. (HV, 10)

It seems to me that within these documents, there is a progressive movement toward more permissive language related to periodic continence. Still, each document reaffirms that abstaining from sexual relations during the woman’s fertile times should be for “serious reasons”, and that the primary reason for marriage is procreative.

Now, it also seems to me that there has been a progressive movement amongst the faithful toward focusing more on the fact that periodic continence is licit, and less on the idea of “serious reasons” (which they say should surely be left up to the couple and their pastor to determine), and even less on the procreative end of marriage and the duty to have a “generous” number of children.

The other sad...
The Church seems to have acquiesced to society’s contraceptive mentality, in order to take a pastoral approach that acknowledged the pressures of modern secular society on Catholics; these pressures have been economic, sociological, and psychological. The “women’s movement” worked hard to convince women that they needed more than motherhood to be “fulfilled”; divorce laws were relaxed (leading some to warn women to have a fall-back career option in case their husbands divorced them);, and the “overpopulation” myth also pressured against large families.

Somehow, I am reminded of the answer Jesus gave to the Pharisees about why Moses allowed husbands to divorce their wives, but Jesus forbade it: “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). In a similar way, it seems that our Holy Fathers began to allow periodic continence as a means of limiting births because of the “hardness of heart” that was coming over the Catholic faithful as they turned toward “modern” values at the expense of their large numbers of children.

In Purity Honors Creativeness, Fr. Gardner observes (my emphases):

To attach subjective requirements for the permissible use of periodic continence also seems to validate the point that this is a matter of Church discipline, a matter of positive law, rather than something built into the nature of the act of sexual intercourse. Furthermore, since this is a matter of Church discipline, it is conceivable that the permission (or dispensation) could be reversed.

Should the permission be reversed? Well, let’s ask ourselves this: What are the “fruits” of this development of a view of periodic continence being permissible for “serious reasons”? We are not seeing an increase in the birthrate among Catholics, are we?!

By the way, I do recognize that some couples struggle with infertility or other issues that may be kept private, and that a small family cannot be taken as an indication of whether or how a couple is contracepting. So stick with me; hear me out.

I think that it is quite likely that many Catholic couples who, in the last 50 years or so, turned to the use of artificial contraception, used the relatively new permission for periodic continence as an excuse for their behavior. After all, they may have reasoned, if the Church allows periodic continence to be used for avoiding pregnancy, what’s wrong with going with something a little more “convenient”? I have had more than one woman, open to using NFP, ask me, “So how is that really different from artificial contraception?” (There is a difference, but it is telling that the unbiased newcomers to the idea seem to recognize a similar line of contraceptive thinking in both.)

What I’m getting at is this: even if periodic continence is licit (and it is, in some circumstances), it keeps getting liberalized in response to pressure from the secular world – to the point that it is becoming institutionalized as NFP. The concept of conscience has become weakened by the moral relativist climate of our society, and I think that blinds people to the contraceptive mindset around NFP.

And that’s why I think we need to talk about NFP. We need to investigate whether periodic continence has turned the critical question from discernment of whether to AVOID pregnancy to one of whether to ACCEPT pregnancy. There’s a big difference. The first, I think, emphasizes God's will, the second emphasizes our own.

Fr. Gardner makes a distinction between behavior that is licit versus behavior that is virtuous. Periodic continence, he says, is licit, but not virtuous.

I ask those who defend and promote NFP: are you willing to truly examine that difference (between licit and virtuous), and to consider whether we should be helping couples move toward virtuous behavior, or simply licit behavior? Are you willing to truly examine whether “family planning” should be on human terms, or whether it should be more “providential”? 

If yes, then let’s discuss this as mature adults. 

On Clarifying the Licit Use of NFP
What's Wrong with NFP?
Abuses of NFP and the Duty of Motherhood

Comments are welcome, but please attach a name somewhere, and please do not resort to name-calling. If you want a private conversation, feel free to email me at



  1. The concept of conscience has become weakened by the moral relativist climate of our society, and I think that blinds people to the contraceptive mindset around NFP.

    Bingo! That's the money quote, and you're on target, Jay.

    As a convert who was never properly catechised, I can agree with that.

    During my studies (I spent 6 months studying with a Father Tom who has probably passed on), and I asked him one day about the use of contraceptive pills. He basically said that it was a matter for myself and my conscience to work out with God.

    The message I came away with was that it was up to me to decide, and he didn't go into any detail about the Church's teachings.

    That was just over 20 years ago.

    There has been so much I've only learned in the past 2 years I'm gobsmacked. The only reason that I'm a Christian at all is purely by God's Grace, and likewise a Catholic.

    The enemy has done his work well.

  2. The Compendium of Social Doctrine approved by Pope John Paul II gives a good run down of what the Church teaches here:


  3. And the Compendium issued by Pope Benedict XVI is short so I will quote section:

    497. When is it moral to regulate births?


    The regulation of births, which is an aspect of responsible fatherhood and motherhood, is objectively morally acceptable when it is pursued by the spouses without external pressure; when it is practiced not out of selfishness but for serious reasons; and with methods that conform to the objective criteria of morality, that is, periodic continence and use of the infertile periods.

    498. What are immoral means of birth control?


    Every action - for example, direct sterilization or contraception - is intrinsically immoral which (either in anticipation of the conjugal act, in its accomplishment or in the development of its natural consequences) proposes, as an end or as a means, to hinder procreation.

    Such is the Teaching of the Church -and wonderfully issued by Pope Benedict XVI


  4. "Periodic continence, he says, is licit, but not virtuous."

    Hum. Actually virtues can very well be involved.

    Prudence, temperance, chastity....

    And I would not play off periodic continence and "Providence". Providence involves our judgments too..and God and the Church expects us to use our intellects and wills in making choices in life...and for our family.


    1. Conversely, not practicing NFP can involve unvirtuous behavior.

      It could involve poor self-control, poor communication, imprudence, selfishness, uncharity, ignorance and laziness in failing to learn the method correctly, and a lack of wisdom in discerning the will of God.

      Additionally, statements like "The Church seems to have acquiesced to society’s contraceptive mentality" get dangerously close to sedevacantism.


  5. I'd like to ask, if a wife is in a fragile state, say someone like Andrea Yates, and the spouse did not wish to exercise the virtues of prudence, temperance, chastity, by practicing periodic continence, but rather decided to selfishly pursue the marital act with no regard to his wife's fertility, physical or emotional health, under the guise of being generously open to more children, is he really being virtuous? Would not NFP be the virtuous act in this case?

    Signed, lra

  6. Ira, NFP cannot be used without the consent of both spouses, both "technically" and "practically"; it takes two to tango, and it takes two to decided NOT to. In the scenario you describe, there's a husband who is violating principles of charity and justice. It is his "marital right" to have sexual relations with his wife, but as you describe it, he is certainly not acting virtuously, even if he claims to be acting out of generosity towards having children. That's how I read it, anyway.


Please be courteous and concise.