Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What Do You Mean, "Contraceptive Mentality"?

At the least suggestion that the use of NFP to avoid pregnancy might be influenced by a “contraceptive mentality”, a chorus of voices takes up the refrain:

NFP is NOT contraception!

Okay: it’s not…technically.  A contraceptive action would be one “which either before, at the moment of, or after marital intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation, whether as an end or as a means” (Humanae Vitae, 14).

It’s clear that simply abstaining from marital relations is not a contraceptive act, and there is nothing in Church teaching that generally prohibits a couple from agreeing to forego marital relations at any particular time.

I don’t disagree with this distinction between contraception and periodic continence. But I don’t agree that to say that “NFP is not contraception” also means that a couple using NFP cannot possibly have a “contraceptive mentality”.

Perhaps “contraceptive mentality” is an unfortunate choice of words. We can change that. We can use the phrase “birth control mentality” instead, because the point I’m trying to make is that NFP is, in fact, birth control – the regulation or spacing or even limiting of births within a family.  And while the “means” is not the same as contraception, it obtains the same “end” – fewer children. The secular world knows this; “contraception” and “birth control” are used pretty much interchangeably, and everyone know that “contraception” usually means the “birth control pill” (though there are other methods, of course).

Now I hear the shouts of “NFP is NOT Catholic birth control!” But I respond that it certainly is. If NFP is being used to avoid pregnancy, then it is being used to control, or regulate, the procreation of offspring. And if NFP is being used to achieve pregnancy, then it is being used to control, or regulate (in this case, foster) the procreation of offspring. To deny that the element of human control is introduced here is absurd. (For the purpose of this article, I am choosing to keep the focus on the use of NFP to avoid pregnancy.)

The point is that NFP is now touted as licit birth control (meaning control over the spacing of births), at the expense of the teaching on the need for “serious reasons” to use it, and the virtue of producing a large family. Probably one of NFP’s saving graces is the fact that the method can “fail” quite easily due to the fact that God has indeed seen to it that abstaining during the woman’s fertile time is difficult (God’s providence at work?).
When its promoters point out that NFP is “as effective” as various forms of contraception “if you follow the rules”, they employ the same language and imply the same kind of thinking as we see in those who advocate the use of contraception. When it is proclaimed that NFP is "99% effective" there is no other way to understand "effective" except as "successful in preventing conception". Is it correct to call this a “contraceptive mentality”? Really, whether that label fits any, most, or all NFP users is a moot point. In quibbling over the label, we deny the fact that we Catholics have bought into the current cultural myth that family “planning” is better than family “happening”.

In some respects, debating NFP is a secondary issue. Without confronting the "birth control" mentality that is behind it, we remain stuck fighting the "symptoms" rather than the "cause." NFP is only an issue because "birth control" has entered discussions of marriage as an authentic Catholic value. The "extreme cases make bad law" phenomenon is here in spades: what should be an exceptional situation has become a "way of life" – as evidenced by the fact that dioceses and parishes are requiring NFP classes for couples intending to marry in the Church.
If I can be a little silly here…there is no "industry" organized around defining all the reasons why "missing Mass on Sunday" can be acceptable. There are legitimate reasons for "missing Mass on Sunday" but we don't have entire apostolates focused on ways to take advantage of the laws governing the issue of "keeping the Sabbath holy." Likewise, NFP ought to be "exceptional”, but it has become "normative."

The discussion of “serious reasons” for using NFP is an important part of this picture.  There is no litmus test for what constitutes a “serious” reason to avoid pregnancy for a period of time, but if you read more than one or two lines of the documents that address this, you will see that they imply a degree of “seriousness” that is neglected in most current discussions of NFP.

For instance, in his Allocution to Midwives, Pope Pius XII discusses the “limitation of the act to the periods of natural sterility” in this way (my emphases):

…[T]he moral lawfulness of such conduct of husband and wife should be affirmed or denied according as their intention to observe constantly those periods is or is not based on sufficiently morally sure motives. The mere fact that husband and wife do not offend the nature of the act and are even ready to accept and bring up the child, who, notwithstanding their precautions, might be born, would not be itself sufficient to guarantee the rectitude of their intention and the unobjectionable morality of their motives.

The intention the couple brings to the situation is important. Thus, the fact that NFP is not technically contraception does not mean that a couple cannot use it with a contraceptive intention. If the couple intends not to conceive…hmmm…you can finish the thought. As Michael Malone puts it in TheCase Concerning Catholic Contraception,

Is one not led to ask: If you are doing your scientific best to keep from having any children at this period in your life – even though God could make you pregnant against your will – can any couple consequently claim, with any honesty, that they are genuinely being “open to life” as traditionally demanded by the Church? (p. 17)

Returning to the  Allocution to Midwives, consider this description of marriage from Pope Pius XII (my emphases):

The matrimonial contract, which confers on the married couple the right to satisfy the inclination of nature, constitutes them in a state of life, namely, the matrimonial state. Now, on married couples, who make use of the specific act of their state, nature and the Creator impose the function of providing for the preservation of mankind. This is the characteristic service which gives rise to the peculiar value of their state, the bonum prolis. The individual and society, the people and the State, the Church itself, depend for their existence, in the order established by God, on fruitful marriages. Therefore, to embrace the matrimonial state, to use continually the faculty proper to such a state and lawful only therein, and, at the same time, to avoid its primary duty without a grave reason, would be a sin against the very nature of married life.

This is a key point, because in today’s society we are constantly bombarded with the myth of overpopulation. This myth has been making itself felt for decades, and it reared its head in Humanae Vitae:

The changes that have taken place are of considerable importance and varied in nature. In the first place there is the rapid increase in population which has made many fear that world population is going to grow faster than available resources... (par. 2)

Add caption
There is plenty of evidence that the overpopulation myth is in fact a myth, and perhaps there is some progress in counteracting the falsehoods of the myth. Still, the fact remains that many people seem to think that family size should be limited for the good of mankind, since the earth allegedly won’t be able to support us all.  The answer? Limit family size. The means? Contraception, primarily.

But any form of birth control will do the trick. The important thing, apparently, is to practice “responsible parenthood”. In that phrase “responsible parenthood”, we see another abrupt change in the Church’s view of marriage: in documents prior to Humanae Vitae, the phrase was “generous parenthood”.

Perhaps the fear of overpopulation was an impetus for the transformation of “generous parenthood” to “responsible parenthood” in Humane Vitae. The phrase “responsible, generous, and prudent parenthood” occurs several times as well, but, interestingly enough, the working title of the Majority Report from the HV commission was “Responsible Parenthood”. I’ll be examining that issue in another post.

Still, the bottom line is that even though the term “responsible parenthood” seems to have cast a different light on the procreative end of marriage, the constant teaching of the Church remains, as expressed in Humanae Vitae, that couples

…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.

It seems to me that we need to re-examine the will of God for marriage and return to the active promotion of large families. It’s pretty simply, really: Just don't think about family planning. Just be married, love your spouse, and do what married people do and have done from the beginning of time!

That would begin to counteract the contraceptive…or birth control… mentality of our society. 

Click on the NFP tab at the top of the page for a list of other NFP posts on this blog.


  1. Of course NFP is birth control. Of course it accomplishes the spacing and regulation of births. Of course it can accomplish the same end of postponing, spacing, or limiting births as contraceptive methods.

    Why is this a problem? I'm sure you know Catholic teaching on the topic is more nuanced than declaring guilt by association. The end of postponing, spacing, or limiting births is not intrinsically immoral.

    In fact, the CCC entry on the topic sums up the matter quite nicely, while not failing to also teach on the need for "serious reasons" to space births:

    2368 A particular aspect of this responsibility concerns the regulation of procreation. For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality.

    I believe you are going beyond Pius XII's comment in the Allocution to Midwives that choosing to use NFP (as opposed to contraception) "would not be itself sufficient to guarantee the rectitude of their intention and the unobjectionable morality of their motives." In your interpretation you seem to imply that intending to avoid pregnancy at all is itself objectionable, as it is a "contraceptive intent". If that is the case, why would the Church permit couples to space births at all?

    I think most NFP proponents would agree that a couple needs to prayerfully discern and seriously consider their motives in deciding to avoid pregnancy. But simply intending to avoid pregnancy does not a contraceptive mentality make. Goodness gracious, there are many reasons and ways in which a couple can be open to life but seek to avoid pregnancy for a time--a recent miscarriage or stillbirth, a serious illness in the family, already having a young infant or a high needs child in the house, loss of a job, an imminent move, postpartum depression, job-related stress. I could go on. In this post you are going far beyond what the Church teaches on the matter, to create a moral problem where there was none before. Please leave the discernment of serious reasons to married couples and their spiritual directors, and trust that the Holy Spirit will not lead them astray.

  2. Good post, Jan. You WILL be bombarded, but I know you're up to it. (I'd give you a little smiley-face if I knew how!)

  3. Oops, I did it again. I'm so sorry for calling you 'Jan'. I know your name; I don't know why my fingers keep typing that.

  4. Curious-- if the point is to not interfere with a woman's body, and leave room for miracles, then wouldn't condoms during the fertile period be even more open to life than abstaining? They can break. (Honest, not snarky, question. And FWIW we use NFP.)

  5. We are challenged by the Church to consider, in faithfulness and honesty, having larger families. This by no means is a mandate. Living life as a priest or religious is certainly a holier state of life full of greater sacrifice and opportunity for prayer, but not all are called to be priests or religious. Even Paul strongly suggests that marriage is a distraction, something that keeps you from glorifying God most fully. Yet Marriage is a sacrament.

    Likewise, we can all acknowledge the special opportunities for prayerful sacrifice that arise out of having a large family. And may we all be called to live such lives of generosity to our children. But there is no requirement to have large families and there may be MANY circumstances under which having a large family is not possible or simply not prudent, as determined by the husband and wife.

    I agree with you that a contraceptive mentality can be present among couples who practice NFP, but the Church already proclaims that having large families is preferable.

    Perhaps you wish that there were more larger families, which is great, but then this post should not be a critique of NFP, but rather an exhortation, citing Genesis, Gaudium et Spes (P.50), Humane Vitae, etc. However, a more thoughtful approach would help give practical tools to couples to discern what is "serious" or "grave" reasons to avoid.

  6. Rachel: I’ve not said anywhere (at least I don’t think so) that postponing or spacing births is intrinsically immoral; you’ve set up a straw man argument there. I am writing from the understanding that spacing births is licit for “serious reasons”.

    I don’t believe I’ve said anything different from what the Cathechism says; NFP is licit for serious reasons. The CCC does mention that fact…it’s the NFP promoters who FAIL to mention it that give me pause. I don’t see a lot of discussion of “serious reasons” out there, and I think it’s necessary. If everyone is in agreement that serious reasons are required, why is there such defensiveness about some general guidelines about those reasons?

    Moreover, I fail to see where I have “gone beyond” what Pope Pius XII says or what the Church teaches. I am saying, as the Church says, that there must be “serious reasons” to intentionally avoid procreation. I’m saying, as the Church says, that the sexual act is particularly vulnerable to misuse and sin because of the immense pleasure involved. And I’m saying, as the Church says, that our consciences must be properly formed so that we can correctly discern whether or not we actually have serious reasons to avoid procreation.

    This is probably the most concise statement I can make regarding what I see as the problem with NFP as it is currently promoted. NFP promoters most often have responded to my posts with statements about their own circumstances, and how, for them, NFP was justified. That’s great, but I’m not writing about personal experiences per se. I’m not writing in order to point a finger and ask people to justify their use of NFP; and I probably would refrain from issuing any kind of “verdict” about a particular couple’s choice – unless the justification was something along the lines of “I’m going to be in a friend’s wedding six months from now, and I can’t be showing a baby bump at that time”.

    What I’m trying to do is to examine the general principles that are required to guide our actions in the use of the marital embrace. I’m trying to point out that there can certainly be sin involved. In fact, since were are humans with our fallen human nature, there will almost certainly be sin involved! If we want to lead holy Christian lives, we need to accept that fact, and be willing to truly examine our consciences when it comes to making a decision of our own will to avoid pregnancy.

  7. "K" - lol! Well, I guess I sort of see your point, but I think we'll all have to agree with the Church that condoms are not permitted!

    However, there was (still is? I don't know) a "Conceivex Conception Kit" that was designed to help couples with fertility problems. It included the use of a perforated condom for the husband, which would allow for some semen to enter the wife directly, while the remainder was "collected" and placed in a "conception cap" which was then placed on the wife's cervix. The moral soundness of this practice was debated in the December 2009 "Ethics & Medics" newsletter of the Nat'l Catholic Bioethics Center.

    Don't know why that came to mind, really, but there you have it...

  8. I do not see the problem you and some other Catholic commentators do, with these NFP promoters running around forgetting to mention that serious reasons are needed to avoid pregnancy. (To me, this is the ultimate straw man, the invention of these NFP users who think like Pill users and often act like them, too.)

    There are so many practical concerns with the daily use of NFP that we busy wives and mothers don't have time to bring in a discussion of "serious reasons" every time we just need some troubleshooting help. And I'm sure you'd agree that a nurse acting as an NFP instructor is not in the position to play spiritual director to a married couple meeting with her for an NFP follow-up. That doesn't mean that those discussions never happen--I have seen them, participated in them, and even initiated them on a number of occasions. It just means you don't see them all the time.

    I agree that because we are sinful human beings, we have a tendency to selfishness rather than generosity. But it's not a "contraceptive mentality," it's a lack of generosity, a personal fault that can be and often is overcome by NFP-using couples through prayer, discernment, and the self-control (and self-denial) NFP requires. Most couples I know are of the mentality that we are to discern the call to avoid or achieve a pregnancy each and every cycle, with an openness to God's plan and an honest assessment of our current situation.

    This is why the suggestion of a "contraceptive mentality" rampant among NFPers frustrates and offends and causes people to share their experiences instead of arguing principles.
    Most NFP proponents are not offended by connecting NFP to birth control--because controlling births can be a moral good. What offends us is the spoken or unspoken connection to contraception, an objectively evil, sinful act that works contrary to what we deeply believe to be God's plan for marriage. What offends us is the suggestion that we have the "contraceptive mentality," or are much more easily prone to it than those God-fearing providentialists!

    I have to say that your comment here has been much more focused and measured in terms of elaborating on the "serious reasons" needed for use of NFP. But re-reading your original post, I can point to the place where I believe you have gone beyond what the Church teaches on the matter, in your quotation of Michael Malone:

    "The intention the couple brings to the situation is important. Thus, the fact that NFP is not technically contraception does not mean that a couple cannot use it with a contraceptive intention. If the couple intends not to conceive…hmmm…you can finish the thought. As Michael Malone puts it in TheCase Concerning Catholic Contraception,

    Is one not led to ask: If you are doing your scientific best to keep from having any children at this period in your life – even though God could make you pregnant against your will – can any couple consequently claim, with any honesty, that they are genuinely being “open to life” as traditionally demanded by the Church? (p. 17)
    Perhaps I am improperly "finishing the thought" but are you not saying/implying here that merely intending to avoid pregnancy is evidence a "contraceptive mentality"?

    And where is Malone's mention of "serious reasons"? There are many serious reasons for why a couple would do their "scientific best" to prevent pregnancy. We need not impugn anyone's motives. The Church certainly doesn't, and regards even the couple avoiding pregnancy indefinitely for serious reasons to be "open to life" in their marital relationship.

    1. Rachel,
      You don't like the term "contraceptive mentality" but you are perfectly willing to use the term "providentialist" a term coined by Fr. Torracco I believe. A well known promoter of NFP.
      One of the problems with NFP is that it is now the issue in Catholic marriage that overrides everything else. I don't think its particularly normal or healthy for a married couple to be always trying to discern whether to have a child or not each cycle. This is contrived by NFP promoters.There are so many other things to think and pray about. Whatever happened to just loving your spouse and taking what comes without the charts and thermometers? Why does it have to be a lifestyle?
      Just asking the question isn't judging.

    2. I didn't realize "providentialist" was considered pejorative (nor have I heqrd of Fr Torracco, sorry.) Trusting in God's providence is a virtuous act, whereas contraception is a sinful one. The labels are not comparable.

      The reason NFP likely overrides a discussion of much else in marriage prep is that there is a good deal of evangelization to be done on the matter when engaged couples present themselves for marriage. If you are referring to NFP being an overriding issue in the day to day lives of married couples, well, I am not sure how you know that. I'm quite certain you aren't privy to the intricacies of others' marital relationships.

      Of course there is nothing at all wrong with a couple choosing not to try to avoid or try to achieve a pregnancy using NFP. If it truly is a distraction for a married couple who has just reason to use it, then by all means they can throw away their charts and thermometers. I know many NFP-using couples who have done this for months or years at a time.

      But honestly, NFP is such a great benefit to health and the information gleaned from observing/charting can be used to help a couple get pregnant sooner when they feel God is calling them to it. And for me, were it not for NFP, which I learned as a young woman before marriage intending to use it to avoid pregnancy, I would likely not have gotten pregnant as soon as I did. If I had not been charting and had been "leaving it up to God," I would have missed the signs pointing to infertility problems and would not have gotten the treatment I needed in order to conceive.

  9. Good points Rachel & Jay both, but doesn't the prevention of pregnancy necessarily imply some type of contraceptive action? Just in terms of plain language... contraception means against conception.

    When a couple conforms to the regimen of periodic continence, this regimen prevents them from having sexual relations during the fertile times. Therefore, periodic continence prevents pregnancy and is correctly described as contraceptive. Periodic continence certainly does not promote conception, nor is it neutral with regard to conception. And periodic continence "is what it is" regardless of whether or not there are serious reasons. Thus one may rightly conclude that periodic continence cannot be used without a contraceptive mentality, unless by "contraceptive mentality" one means to say some kind of general disdain for children.

    Please note too that total abstinence involves no such prevention of sexual relations during the fertile times (thus no need to chart, take temperatures, or read signs), since there are no sexual relations to be prevented.

    I think one needs to qualify further that illicit contraception either corrupts or interrupts the marital act in such a way as to prevent conception, or it temporarily or permanently destroys the generative powers, or it involves the use of periodic continence without serious reasons (subject to the judgment of the couple).

    1. Fr. Gardner, what troubles me about your comment is that you say "the prevention of pregnancy necessarily impl[ies] some type of contraceptive action". Are you saying that using NFP to avoid is a type of contraceptive action? Because it seems that then it could never be licit regardless of reasons, which is not what Humanae Vitae states, and not what you seem to believe (since you indicate the serious reasons later on). Just trying to clarify what you are saying...Humane Vitae says the two situations are totally different:
      "Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love."
      So I have two thoughts...1) I think you may be using the term "contraceptive" a bit differently than previous posters are using it. You say "periodic continence prevents pregnancy and is correctly described as contraceptive" - by that reasoning, so is complete abstinence, so where is the difference? Not everyone would agree with this use of "contraceptive". It seems like you are ok with complete abstinence (correct me if I'm wrong). You say "there are no sexual relations to be prevented" in this method, but that's not really true - ALL sexual relations are prevented. That's still preventing sexual relations, and still preventing pregnancy, which would seem to qualify it for "contraceptive" via your definition of periodic continence as contraceptive. 2) I think everyone here agrees that NFP can only be used to avoid for serious reasons and aren't saying that it's ok to avoid for frivolous reasons. They are just discussing the classification of the sin. Rachel is saying that it is a sin, but to call it a sin of contracepting is an unfair judgement in that there is no contraception occurring. I have yet to hear personally a Church document stating that abstaining is equal to contracepting. In fact, the Humanae Vitae quote I gave says they are very different. Of course, if you know of another Church document that says differently, I'd love to look at it, but I think it is fairly straight forward in what it says.

    2. I agree with amy g. Contra- ception means against conception. Hence an act against conception. The problem with contraception is that you are engaging in the act of intercourse while thwarting conception. Abstaining is choosing not to engage in the act. It is not the same thing.
      Sue A

  10. I think Fr. Gardner has a valid point about simply looking at what the word “contra-ception” means. The contraception that actively interrupts the marital act is illicit, and that’s the definition Humanae Vitae gives. But the point is, using NFP means intentionally abstaining from marital relations during the fertile period. It means choosing to act (or not act) WITH THE INTENTION to prevent conception.

    1. "Simply looking at what the word 'contra-ception' means" is not thinking with the mind of the Church on this matter, though. That's why it's a problem.

      The Church doesn't care what the word is or what the word "simply means," the Church cares about the moral acts themselves. Contraception is illicit because it interrupts the procreative nature of the marital act. There is no correlative act for the NFP-using couple to interrupt because they are abstaining.

      And surely, not engaging in marital intimacy is not considered a sin of omission or any sort of moral failure. There is no imperative placed upon married couples to engage in intimacy at each and every opportunity (or even at every opportunity where conception might possibly result). If you consider it a sin of omission in some way, then you must also be insisting that Catholic married couples observe signs of fertility so as ONLY to use days of fertility, in order to preserve the primary procreative meaning of marital intercourse. And I haven't seen you make such a demand.

  11. Yes, I agree with all of that, but I fail to see how "the prevention of pregnancy necessarily impl[ies] some type of contraceptive action". Abstinence - complete, or properly used periodic - is not actively interrupting the marital art, or it would be considered always illicit by the Church, and it is not. I'm just pointing out that the idea that "if it prevents pregnancy, it's contraception" is not quite right. Sure, periodic abstinence and the birth control pill both have the intention of avoiding/postponing prengancy. However, having the same result does not mean they are therefore intrinsically related. For example, if my goal was to get money, I have two choices: steal money or earn the money. Having the same end result does not mean that they are intrinsically similar. Saying "preventing pregnancy is contraception" seems to me to be the same as "earning money is the same as stealing" in this situation, especially since Humanae Vitae very clearly states that the act of periodic continence is very different from contracepting. I realize that NFP used to avoid has the intention to prevent conception, but that does not in and of itself contraception make. I just think it is a bit of an oversimplification that leaves out some truth.

  12. This novel definition of "contraception" is very dangerous and implies that certain activities (really, non-activities) are sinful which are, in fact, not.

    What could be the harm to one's soul in abstaining from sex? Paul (1 Corinthians 7), in fact, seems to see the benefit in couples doing so. The only way such non-activity could be inherently sinful (a sin of omission) is if there were a mandate to produce as many children as physically possible. There is no such mandate or requirement from the Church, so there is NO such way that NFP, when used to avoid pregnancy, could be deemed inherently "contraceptive."

    Secondly, I would point out, that we have made certain semantic distinctions precisely to distinguish nuanced positions; namely, that NFP-users with a "contraceptive mentality" are in a wholly different category than contraceptive-users. Whereas NFP-users with a contraceptive mentality may or may not be sinful in their abstaining (depending on whether they are abstaining for grave reasons), contraceptive-users are most definitely sinful when they use contraceptive to prevent conception as a result of the marital act. All this to say that there is nothing inherently sinful about NFP, while the use of contraception most definitely is.

    I also want to draw out some of the conclusions of your original piece, insofar as they are dangerous to healthy Catholic living. Particularly, you would like it if there were more Catholics were larger families (as would I), but you would seem to suggest that having large families is the standard by which all Catholics should live up to. Perhaps not, but all I'm saying is that Catholics who for economical, psychological, physiological reasons CANNOT have a large family, or none at all, should not be looked down upon by the Church in any way. And, I think, that's the mentality behind the Church's teaching in this regard: not to cast down those who have small families but to honor those who have large families and to affirm their generosity as a loving example to all others.

    In all fairness, I do not think that there are very many genuine Catholic couples are sitting around contemplating the effects that having another child will have on our non-existent over-population crisis, and so, using NFP to avoid contributing to it. Similarly, I think you contradict yourself. Of course, abstaining from sex is hard, partially because of how pleasurable it is. But then, wouldn't that lead us to believe that people who use NFP must be, on the whole, avoiding for serious reasons? Why else would they avoid during the fertile period during which sexual attraction is heightened? It's VERY difficult, and I think the test of time will challenge NFP-users to constantly reevaluate whether they are, in fact, abstaining for serious reasons. I say this because I was in this exact position towards the beginning of my marriage.

    Likewise, finding strength to avoid requires a reliance on each other, mutual fortitude if you will. It requires a prayerful attitude and, as our NFP-classes emphasize, "SPICE," essentially, alternative ways of expressing your love. Please tell me again how we should place these couples into the same category as contraceptives-users, who, because of their "freedom", are more inclined to exploitation and disregard of any human life which they have actually willed against being created.

    And finally, this rambling post brings me to my last point, which is that NFP-users are by nature open to life each and every time they have sex. They explicitly acknowledge the link between fertility and sexuality, and honor it by preserving it. NFP-users are quite aware that having sex means the possibility of having a baby. An NFP-user with a contraceptive mentality might have an unhealthy approach to any child who was created outside of their "plans", but that is not a quality inherent to all NFP-users, or, arguably, even the vast majority of them.

  13. Amy G, I suppose you could say that total abstinence (including celibacy) is preventative of having children, but not in the sense of regulating sexual activity since there is no sexual activity to regulate. On the other hand, periodic continence is an action, or regimen, which regulates sexual activity in such a way as to prevent the conception of children.

    Sue A & Daniel A, I acknowledge the distinction between artificial contraception and periodic continence. But we also need to distinguish periodic continence from mere abstinence. The latter is an action taken to direct sexual relations exclusively to the infertile times. But mere abstinence involves no action taken whatsoever.

    I see this as an issue of apologetics. Some non-Catholic Christians condemn celibacy on the grounds that it deprives the Kingdom of sons and daughters of God. But Traditional Catholicism has always defended the goodness of both marriage and celibacy.

    Nevertheless, I do believe that celibates ESPECIALLY, but all Catholics too, have a responsibility to promote generous fruitfulness in marriage (a.k.a. large families). It is not possible to sustain a vigorous Catholic culture without strong, faithful and child-rich Catholic families. The greater apologetics question is: why is Catholic culture in decline? Where are the children?

    Thank you, Jay, for this valuable discussion. I hope I’m not getting you into too much trouble…!

  14. Thanks for this discussion, Amy, Sue, Daniel, and Fr. Gardner. I think it's good to get the terms out there, defined, and "nuanced" as necessary for good communication.

    There's a lot discussed here, but for now I just want to address Daniel's comment about the overpopulation myth (because someone else addressed it too). I don't mean to imply, really, that NFP users are sitting around contemplating overpopulation. What I do mean, and will develop further in another post, is that it became a backdrop for our society, and that even the Church responded with it in mind. We are affected by such things even if we don't realize it. I think that generally, there has been an effect of the overpopulation myth on people's attitudes toward large families. That, combined with the availability of various forms of birth control, has been partially responsible for the shift in attitude. I think we-the-Church need to do something to reverse the trend.

  15. Fr. Gardner, can you please explain how couples can virtuously have sex during the non-fertile times, knowing that they cannot conceive, but, at the same time, being open to that possibility? Wouldn't your comments support the argument that couples should only have sex when they are most likely to conceive?

    Frankly, some of your thoughts seem opposed to the thinking of the late Pope John Paul II in Love and Responsibility, in which he would reclaim sex from those who would argue in a similar vein to you. Particularly, while procreation is indeed an end of marriage, that does not require that we must deny ourselves the unitive end when procreation is not available to us, for whatever serious reasons we may have.

    Furthermore, it should be reaffirmed that avoiding for serious reasons is ordered to procreation, for it encourages us to think critically about our relationship to our children and our ability to provide for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of all the children we care for. You wouldn't argue that couples should continue to have children even when they are already over-extended in these areas, would you? Children, while being a great gift, do not deserve to grow up in a household which cannot adequately provide for them. At the same time, the unitive aspect of sex is available to bring couples in these situations closer together, to "remember" (in a similar way that Eucharist is a "rememberance") their marriage covenant, and give them strength to persevere.

    Finally, I will point out that our current (American) culture dictates that our children "need" a lot of things which they, in fact, do not need. Similarly, we often want to ensure that our children receive an excellent religious education, as is encouraged by the Church, but this costs money. We are often left to make balancing judgments about what is in the best interest of our current and future children. I think that if we want to encourage larger families, we need to work to remove those obstacles from families' decision making. Work to make Catholic education more affordable or encourage homeschooling, teach families about what is truly "essential," provide better support structures for women who stay at home and encourage families to spend more time with their children, even at the expense of a higher income.

  16. Daniel A, “Can you explain how couples can virtuously have sex during the non-fertile times, knowing that they cannot conceive, but at the same time being open to that possibility?” Miracles can happen. An obvious exception would be when the wife is already pregnant. In which case, I would concur with Traditional Catholic teaching that sexual relations would be virtuous to render the marriage debt, but not for pleasure alone. What complicates the matter is when they are having sexual relations exclusively during the infertile times for the purpose of preventing children.

    “Wouldn’t your comments support the argument that couples should only have sex when they are most likely to conceive?” I think that spouses should readily give each other the green light, while trying to always give God the green light!

    With regard to Love and Responsibility, if I recall correctly, then Archbishop Karol Wojtila theorized that procreation is indeed the primary end of sexual intercourse in the objective realm, but that reciprocal love is primary in the subjective realm. With all due respect, I prefer to defend the traditional approach that there is a hierarchy of ends. Procreation is primary. All other ends are secondary and ordered to posterity.

    “You wouldn’t argue that couples should continue to have children even when they are already over-extended in these areas, would you?” I am blessed to be the oldest of 10 children. If my parents had followed the logic of not being over-extended, perhaps 3 or 4 of my siblings would never have been created. As it is now, I cannot imagine life without any one of them… or without their children.

    Daniel A, I would agree with your last paragraph; except that what is truly in the best interest of your current children is for them to have plenty of little brothers and sisters. It’s the second greatest gift for children, right behind the gift of sanctifying grace!

  17. I have not read all the comments, there are just too many. But I keep seeing a certain phrase that bothers me a great deal.

    The use of NFP to avoid pregnancy does not 'prevent' pregnancy. By it's very nature it does not prevent it from happening. It acts only to 'avoid' pregnancy. Even NFP done perfectly, still holds the door open for God. Contraception does prevent it.

    I think the contraceptive mentality is a term that is used far too often. Most couples that are willing enough to follow Church teaching at all, are going to consider their reasons. Sometimes those reasons will be better than others, but that is part of searching for God, as He asks us to.

    NFP promoters are attempting to get couples to trust the system in the first place. If couples aren't willing to even look into it because they don't believe it works, then how can they ever consider whether or not they are being selfish.

    It is a process, a journey, and it takes time to trust God and their fertility. If promoters interrogate couples interested in it, not many people will stay interested. It would make them feel as if they can't win for losing.

  18. Kate, your comment seems to confirm that many people enter into the use of NFP so that they won't resort to artificial contraception (such as the Pill). But this implies, then, that many ARE coming into NFP-use with a "contraceptive mentality".

    I don't really want to quibble over the term, and I agree it has become a "loaded" phrase.

    But the point is, NFP is promoted at least in part because it's a licit way to avoid pregnancy as opposed to illicit contraception. Yet the constant teaching of the Church prior to the Anglican acceptance of the Pill was that large families were desired and encouraged...and even the norm. NFP does nothing to add to that teaching and encouragement, and much to detract from it.

  19. "Claiming that a couple using NFP is “open to life” while they abstain from sex during the woman’s fertile period in order to intentionally avoid pregnancy – well…that’s a contradiction in terms" (Boyd).

    I too would point to Love and Responsibility for insight.

    With regard to periodic continence, which is used to regulate conceptions:

    "For as long as a man and woman in marriage, having sexual relations together, do not employ any procedures or artificial means that aim at excluding procreation in potentia, they retain their consciousness and will this 'I can be a father,' 'I can be a mother.' IT IS ENOUGHT THAT THEY ARE READY TO ACCEPT THE FACT OF CONCEPTION, EVEN IF THEY 'DO NOT WISH IT' IN A PARTICULAR CASE. It is not necessary for them to will procreation explicitly.

    Thus [if this consciousness is missing], they ought to refrain from intercourse "when they 'cannot,' do not want to' or 'should
    not' be a father and a mother..."

    "Conjugal abstinence is more difficult than abstinence outside of marriage because the spouses get used to sexual intercourse in accordance with the nature of the state, which they have consciously chosen. From the moment they begin conjugal life together, a wont and a constant inclination are created....With regard to this, refraining from intercourse must encounter certain resistance and difficulties. On the other hand, without refraining from congugal intercourse they can cause an excessive increase of their family in number. This problem is extraordinarily relevant."

    "...from the viewpoint of the family, periodic abstinence as a method of regulating conceptions is permissible insofar as it does not clash with a genuine parental attitude." (i.e. a general readiness to accept additional children, and consciousness of the fact that I could be a mother)

    "Nonetheless, circumstances occur in which precisely this attitude DEMANDS A RELINQUISHMENT OF PARENTHOOD, AND A FURTHER INCREASE OF THE FAMILY WOULD BE INCOMPATIBLE WITH THAT ATTITUDE. IN THAT CASE, MOVED BY TRUE CONCERN FOR THE GOOD OF THEIR FAMILY AND BY A FULL SENSE OF RESPONSIBILTY FOR THE PROCREATION, SUPPORT, AND EDUCATION OF THEIR CHILDREN, a man and a woman limit their conjugal intercourse; they refrain from it in the periods when it could bring a new conception that would be INADVISABLE in the concrete conditions in which the marriage and family exist."

    I don't think he is here speaking in a narrow sense. In a homily on the Washington Mall in 1994 he said that parents "must have an EXTREMELY RESPONSIBLE ATTITUDE. IN DECIDING WHETHER OR NOT TO HAVE A CHILD, THEY MUST NOT BE MOTIVATED BY SELFISHNESS OR CARELESSNESS, BUT BY A PRUDENT CONSCIOUS GENEROSITY THAT WEIGHS THE POSSIBILITIES AND CIRCUMSTANCES...(emphases mine)Therefore, when there is a reason not to procreate, this choice is permissible and may even be necessary."

    You seem to denounce the concept of "responsible parenthood." But surely we aren't supposed to be irresponsible? How could that be virtuous?

    I'd say that for many couples choosing to having a large family is heroic (something not commanded by the church, though upheld as an ideal, as helping us to grow in holiness and sanctity.) Saints like St. Maximilian, St. Gianna, and St. Maria Goretti weren't required to do what they did, but they were sanctified as a result.

    Yet while the Church upholds the large family as the ideal, it condones NFP use under the right conditions. Periodic continence is not the lesser of two evils; it is morally neutral and depends for its licitness on the intention and circumstances.

  20. "It condones NFP use under the right conditions". True. That does not mean NFP should be promoted. Also, there are Church teachings that predate JPII, believe it or not, and JPII's teaching is not always consonant with that of the Church fathers. That's just a fact. And JPII saying it doesn't in and of itself make it infallible.

    Parenthood should not be "responsible"; it should be heroic. That is where virtue comes in. Look at the posts listed under the NFP tab above, and read the one on "Heroic Parenthood", which reviews an article by Christopher Gawley.

    1. On what do you base the assertion that parenthood *must* be heroic? For some, practicing NFP borders on the heroic.

  21. Surely you wouldn't deny that practicing continence for the right reasons can be an avenue of grace, and opportunity to practice virtue for the good of the family already procreated?

    NFP use isn't always done for merely calculated self-interest. I think it is patently unfair to tar NFP users with the same brush as used for contraceptive users. (Guilt by association.)

    If I sound defensive, well, I am attempting to defend the principles at play. As you know, the percentage of Catholics periodically abstaining to postpone or avoid pregnancy is about 2 %. I believe that the majority of them are genuinely attempting to follow Church teaching, even when doing so is difficult-sometimes extremely so.

  22. I didn't mean to say that parenthood MUST be heroic; just that heroic parenthood is a path to virtue and holiness. NFP is not. Periodic continence (without trying to circumvent the chance of pregnancy by calculating fertile and infertile times) might be.

    I think it's also patently unfair to paint artificial contraception users with the brush of calculated self-interest. Some, I'm sure, would offer the same reasons for their use of contraception that NFP users provide.

    The point is, NFP really is an attempt to control births. I with NFP promoters would start admitting that, along with examining whether the "providentialism" they decry might actually have some merit.

    I think that for most people, limiting family size is something done first out of concern for what they perceive as their limited financial resources. At least that is a reason often given. But many don't want to examine how they might "be able to afford" another child. The same is true for many other concerns that might prompt the limiting of births. The problem is, couples are provided right off the bat with an excuse not to have more children ("gotta be responsible!"), and Church leaders are currently not doing a very good job of extolling the virtues of large familes, trusting in God's providence, and turning away from the cultural values that promote small families.

    1. You say this:

      "I think it's also patently unfair to paint artificial contraception users with the brush of calculated self-interest. Some, I'm sure, would offer the same reasons for their use of contraception that NFP users provide."

      which makes me think that you really can't wrap your mind around the fact that there is a distinction, and what it is. You seem to discount Familiaris Consortio, saying that it is not consistent/consonant with Church teaching.

      Yet, JPII's predecessor Paul VI says:

      19. Our words would not be an adequate expression of the thought and solicitude of the Church, Mother and Teacher of all peoples, if, after having recalled men to the observance and respect of the divine law regarding matrimony, they did not also SUPPORT mankind in the HONEST regulation of birth amid the DIFFICULT CONDITIONS which today afflict families and peoples. The Church, in fact, cannot act differently toward men than did the Redeemer. She knows their weaknesses, she has compassion on the multitude, she welcomes sinners. But at the same time she cannot do otherwise than teach the law. For it is in fact the law of human life restored to its native truth and GUIDED BY THE SPIRIT OF GOD. (24)

      NEITHER THE CHURCH NOR HER DOCTRINE IS INCONSISTENT when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice MAY APPEAR TO BE UPRIGHT AND SERIOUS. In reality, these two cases are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, FOR ACCEPTABLE REASONS, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for REASONABLE MOTIVES the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love."


    2. (Presupposing reasonable motives, then, NFP is not mutual masturb ation as you mischaracterized it in your rant. Such an assessment is completely off the wall. And would be in exactly the same category (using your logic) as a sterilized couple EVER again having relations, knowing that no new life is likely be brought forth. In the former case, the couple's intention could change the next month, whereas in the latter it could not.

      On a different blog I inquired whether a couple posting on the forum (who had about 8 or 9 kids) but who had been sterilized/repentant would be required to abstain, and was told that no, such would not be the requirement. Why then, is the couple limiting their family via 'natural means' supposed to be held to your strict standard, which is not that of the Church, or Our Lord? You say there is no difference, given the same intention. Why then, should they even bother to stay away from each other during phase 2 (fertile), or contracept for that matter if they're already sinning in the manner you say? You are reinforcing the misunderstanding you point to, that people have concerning the difference when you say they ARE NO different! If people are to have clarity, the distinctions need to be drawn clearly. They are going to be more confused than ever.

      Please explain your reasoning for this, or does the book go into it? Your commenters have repeated these quotes FROM THE HOLY FATHERS over and over, but it seems not to have any effect. So perhaps this is more a matter of papal authority than NFP per se.

      Call it a concession to weakness. But please, don't call it a sin where it isn't.

    3. "I didn't mean to say that parenthood MUST be heroic; just that heroic parenthood is a path to virtue and holiness. NFP is not." (Boyd)

      This is a complete assumption. If NFP use is in accord with right reason it rises to the level of heroic parenthood and absolutely can be a path to virtue and holiness.

      If there were a life and death reason to preclude pregnancy and a couple permanently abstained, would that be more virtuous? Either way accomplishes the same end, except that one allows for the mutual support of spouses.

  23. Dr. Boyd,

    The fact is that the Church HAS talked lately talked about responsible parenthood. I for one am not going to question it. She just does!

    I think that you set up a false dichotomy, since most NFP users do in fact, have large families. Are we really going to say that they were wrong to do what they thought was best for their family (space a few births here and there), when the Church says such action is not immoral, as opposed to contraceptive use (no matter how well-intentioned) which is always and everywhere immoral.

    (I am sorry if I sound strident, but I happen to have some "skin in this game, and we are talking about objective sin here.) I think we might trust individuals to make decisions based on objective criterion of morality, balancing our duties to our spouse, our children, our community, our Church, etc. My husband and I for one are quite well catechized. He is actually a doctor of philosophy (Thomist), fwiw.

    It just seems a pretty big generalization to say that everyone, across the board, needs to embrace a large family if physically able to do so, since there are so many factors at work.

    For that I would need to see some backing of the assertion. I have not yet read your book, (just perused the blog posts) but will try to do so. Yes, I've read the address to Large Families. I have 5 children, so by modern standards, at the very least medium. Should I perhaps feel guilty that I don't have 6 plus one in utero by now? I'll admit to feeling rather uneasy by the position you espouse.

    -Mrs. Mike

  24. I've also suggested that not everyone is on the same place along the path. I'm talking mainly about general principles. A couple may think a reason is "serious" at one point in their development, and come to realize it is not later on. But I think pastors could go a long way by encouraging large families. Many are afraid to do so, I think, because they will be told "You don't know what it's like!" etc. Well, one's attitude toward a situation goes a long way toward making it "what it's like". Not completely, of course; but it does make a difference in actual experience and in one's growth in virtue.

  25. I understand that; attitude is everything. However it is only part of the picture. There are so many different factors, including the temperament of the parents and children, family dynamics, resources (physical and psychological) etc. These make applying the principles different for different couples.

    You have acknowledged this. It would be great if large families were more encouraged and supported!


Please be courteous and concise.