Dialogue: Contraception vs. NFP: Crucial Ethical Distinctions

Discussion with a Catholic woman. Her words will be in blue.


1. Something occurred to me about your argument against people saying that God can interfere with artificial contraception if he really wanted you to have kids. You said, I could hold my breath and choke myself and say God would intervene if he wanted me to live, but that would be ridiculous. I’m paraphrasing. Remember?


Isn’t it pretty much the same thing when you practice NFP and think, if you are in an infertile period and have sex, you’re still being open to life because if God really wills you to have a child, he’ll let it happen. To me that sounds every bit as superstitious for some reason.

God can always do a miracle. To act as if He is even remotely likely to do so in the above situation would be silly and perhaps superstitious as well (because miracles by definition are extremely rare and “non-normative”). But short of that, “openness to life” is not a particularly relevant consideration during the infertile periods (in a certain sense), because there is no need to contracept then anyway.

The evil of contraception lies in the “contralife will,” and that is primarily exercised (in a practical sense) by frustrating the natural state of things during fertile periods. That’s why, when I first became convinced of the wrongness of contraception in 1990, while still a Protestant, the first thing we did was abstain during the fertile periods. There was no need to during the non-fertile times. But it doesn’t follow that artificial contraception becomes moral during infertile times, because it is intrinsically a grave sin; contrary to the nature of things and the natural law (as, for example, we would say homosexual acts also are).

Having sex during non-fertile times in the context of NFP is entirely different. That involves no frustration of nature or natural law, but rather it is acting “naturally within nature,” when nature happens to be such that no conception will take place. The Catholic Church has never said a couple can’t do that. If that were true, then couples would have to abstain after the woman’s menopause, or always, if she were infertile (or if the man had a low sperm count). But that has never been a Church teaching either. You are interpreting this far too hyper-literally. Couples do not need to have ten kids to be good Catholics, as there are permissible reasons to limit the numbers (financial, emotional, and physical).

2. Why would preventing transmission of life be so grave anyway?

The answer is complex and multi-faceted, and I am afraid I will have to ultimately refer you back to the many links on my Life Issues page. But the “short” answer is the attempted deliberate frustration of the primary essence of sexuality (procreation), and of placing our own “contralife” will above God’s possible will. The will is central in the Catholic notion of what is a sin, and in considerations of degrees of culpability for sin. NFP (rightly understood and practiced) does not entail this “contralife will.” It is essentially different, though the method can be abused and used in a contraceptive fashion, for the wrong motives.

It is just as wrong to have sex for procreation alone (sort of the stereotypical Victorian outlook, where couples wouldn’t even see each other naked, as if that were “wicked”) as it would be to engage in it for pleasure alone (which is the prevailing opinion today), because God designed things so that the two elements should be together. We don’t eat purely for pleasure, do we? Or purely for health reasons, to the exclusion of good taste. If someone does that, we think they are weird, because, well, “it is unnatural.” We don’t go around sticking our elbows in someone’s nose, or our toe in their ear (what would you think of a guy who did that on your first date?). We instinctively know this is “weird” and unnatural.

Likewise, we don’t use balloons and rubber cups and pills which mess around with the natural functions of the female reproductive system, in relation to something as sacred and beautiful as moral sex, within marriage. Christians used to instinctively know this, too, but we have bought into the Planned Parenthood / Overpopulation / children are a burden pagan mentality. Margaret Sanger (the founder of Planned Parenthood) was a eugenicist who wanted to have less black people around. She was also quite promiscuous as well, so her motives for contraception were quite clear, I think.

Read Humanae Vitae itself. The fact that all the predictions in it have come true is yet another verification of its profound truths. Also, it has been demonstrated sociologically, legally, and historically, that legal abortion inevitably follows a societal and moral relaxation of the prohibition of abortion. Ever hear of the Griswold v. Connecticut case? That had to do with contraception, and was a direct forerunner to Roe v. Wade.

Am I being anti-life and sinning because I do not join the Peace Corps and save people (who already exist) from dying a horrible unnecessary death? No.

That’s right, but this has nothing to do with a “contralife will” so it is a non sequitur. You are not willing that these people die, or that they never should have existed. You are simply not engaging in one particular good (because it is impossible for one person to do every conceivable good thing).

There are many opportunities to be generous in this world and God does not hold it against us that we can’t do all of them. So why would I necessarily be sinning if I decided my generosity should not be expressed in the form of bearing children?

That would be fine if you wanted to remain single, as your calling in life. That’s what nuns and monks do. But part of the primary function and essence of marriage is to bear children. Sex with no intention of ever having children is unnatural and perverted, short of extreme physical problems, etc. It is part of Catholic marriage vows, in fact, to bear children. If one doesn’t want to do that at all, then it’s not even a valid marriage, according to Catholic teaching.

For the Church to tell us that there are most likely going to be times when we’re going to have sex because God has it in mind to give us a child, so we’d better not practice artificial contraception, smacks of the notion of predestiny.

That is not the basis for the reasoning behind this moral teaching, which is the contralife will and perversion of the natural law and function of sexuality, not abstract notions of predestination with regard to when God might act to cause a child to be created (as if it were routinely supernatural rather than natural).

But Catholics declare the notion of predestiny as heretical.

Not exactly. We believe in predestination. Unlike Calvinists. however, we do not oppose it to human free will, or accept predestination of the damned to hell, with no choice in the matter at all on their part. Those beliefs are heretical, not predestination per se.

Anyway, if we do assume the premise that God wills a particular child on us,

We can’t know that. What we can know, though, is that if we contracepted all the time, we would definitely not have a child. If everyone in the world did this all the time (quite hypothetically, obviously), then God’s decree to “be fruitful and multiply” would be entirely frustrated, wouldn’t it? (and the earth would be barren of all people in a 110 or so years). Conception is in His Providence, as all things are, even though it is natural, and the “miracle of life” is, technically, a metaphor or a synonym for “wondrous and marvelous.”

any abstinence out of fear of pregnancy when you are really in the mood to do it would seem to be tantamount to telling God, “No, not now, I am not open to life at this moment”.

This confuses things. It depends on whether the couple has legitimate reasons to limit children or not. If they do (as in our case), then they abstain, no matter how they feel, during fertile periods. Such is the discipline of a virtuous life, where the assumption of the “freedom of unlimited sex at all times” is denied. We just went through a 9-day period of abstention ourselves. It’s not easy. No one ever said it was. But the good thing is that it actually helps to keep the “spark” in marriage, by simulating the “waiting” and the drama and tension which was present before marriage (i.e., in those who didn’t sin by fornicating). Catholic apologist and convert Steve Ray (a friend of mine) has a cute saying. He says: “I had a lot harder time accepting the prohibition of contraception than I did accepting the pope, because I don’t have to sleep with the pope.”

If they don’t have a legitimate reason, then they ought to have sex whenever they like, enjoy it (without having to adhere to the disciplinary “strictness” of NFP), and joyfully accept any child that is conceived.

I’m talking when things get really heated up and sex looks like it’s going to happen, and then you say “No.” If you did have sex, then you’d be pregnant with Joe or Jessica. We can never know, but God does. We would have said after the fact that it was God’s will that we had Joe or Jessica.

All children who are conceived are “God’s will,” because they are beautiful and made in His image, and intrinsically infinitely valuable. They have an eternal soul. That’s why slaughtering them is so wrong. And it’s why thinking they are a “burden” is also wrong (though not as evil as abortion).

But in reality, we chose not to have sex. Did we commit sin? It would sound like by Catholic logic, yes.

We are never compelled to have sex at any particular time, so it is not a sin to abstain. This is not “Catholic logic” at all. It’s fallacious “logic.”

We didn’t know that we were to be pregnant, but we knew that we could have. Maybe this is too hypothetical to really be a real argument, though :-)

Yes, it is too abstract, and it doesn’t illustrate Catholic ethics or morality on the subject, because I don’t think you fully understand the rationale behind that, which I am trying hard to explain (most inadequately, I suspect and fear).

3. Natural law = procreation?

During fertile periods, quite possibly yes. :-)

Catholics say something like, is it any accident that the female body has these cycles of fertility? It’s natural law to procreate.

Yes, I would say that it is natural to expect that if you have sex, that sooner or later a baby will result. It’s self-evident (as the delightful Dr. Laura would point out). And a baby should eventually result from sex, or else we should not engage in it (again, excepting an infertile or post-menopausal woman or man with inadequate sperm, where “contralife will” is not relevant).

But that backfires. Is it any accident that females are infertile most of the time?

No; nothing in God’s creation is an accident, ultimately. It all has a purpose.

Pregnancy can be seen as an aberration to the usual order of things if you take that stance.

But that would be pure paganism, not Christianity, let alone Catholic Christianity. And that is where our culture is at today. Pregnancy is an “abnormality.” Childbirth is a sort of disease, and treated as such by many (most?) doctors, rather than as the natural, beautiful thing it is (even with all the pain). It has to be “induced” so that everything can be on schedule, etc. Many more C-sections occur than need to. Don’t get me goin’ on the great faults and sins of the medical profession . . . :-)

4. Just because I can do something, does that mean I should do it? No. Just because we’re given certain organs might not mean we need to procreate with them. (I’ll address abstinence later though).

Hmmmm. Again, it is permissible to limit children, for sufficiently serious reasons. A desire for an extravagant, materialistic, narcissistic, self-centered lifestyle, e.g., is not one of these sufficient reasons. To have sex with no intention of ever having children, which are regarded as a “hindrance” and a “burden” and an “inconvenience” is wicked. Sex is supposed to be essentially an act of giving oneself totally to another, within the context of total commitment and love, not “taking” and “abusing” the other solely for lustful or “conquest” purposes. As such it is natural that it produces children, where the love of the couple can be expressed also outward to others who came from them, as a result of their love and unity.

5. Is a couple being “anti-life” if they do have kids but desire to practice contraception some of the time, too?

Yes. They must abstain when necessary, if they have sufficient reason to not have more children.

Why does every act have to be open to the transmission of life?

Because that is the essence of things, and the “ontology of sexuality,” and because breaking down this natural state in fact leads to the horrors of abortion and the appalling lack of respect for life that we see today. As I noted in my conversion story, I figured out in 1990 that if a couple feels they can thwart a possible conception, then they can — by a diabolical logical progression — come to regard an unplanned conception as unwanted, therefore able to be killed, by the same reasoning which concludes that they “own their own bodies,” etc., rather than being stewards of God’s gift, as the Christian view holds. The same reasoning applies to “assisted suicide.” Read Humanae Vitae, and articles about it, particularly by Janet Smith. Many people explain these things far better than I do.

Why couldn’t being “open to life” be regarded as a general attitude, and not something to take issue with each and every time sex is performed?

Because it violates natural law, each and every time we engage in contraception. Abstention during fertile periods doesn’t do that, because there is no deliberate separation of the procreative and unitive functions of sexuality. The couple acknowledges that nature is what it is, and that if they have legitimate, moral reasons to not have a child at the time, that they must abstain, so as not to violate natural law and mess around with goofy devices, which even animals would not stoop so low as to use.

I don’t eat three meals a day because I need to live. If I skip a meal, it does not mean that I want to kill myself. I don’t need every meal that I eat. It’s the general attitude that yes, I must nourish myself adequately. That is sufficient.

You’re not violating the essence or nature of food and nutrition by skipping a meal, just as you’re not violating the purpose of sex by abstaining for some valid reason or other. This bolsters my case. The true analogy to food is the one I gave above: an attempt to separate the pleasure of taste buds from the nutritional aspect by absurdly following one path to the exclusion of the other. Why do we think that is “weird?” Because we instinctively know it is unnatural. Same thing with contraception (or homosexual acts, for that matter).

If I lived solely on Twinkies and cotton candy, you would think I was weird; an oddball. If I wanted to eat bark and cow’s intestines and slimy, filthy tarantulas and dog vomit and nothing else (say they had excellent nutritional value), you would think I was weird too (and I don’t think you would have me as a boyfriend if we were both single). It used to be that the playboy and philanderer or loose woman was considered a wicked, abnormal person, because they separated sex from commitment and childbirth, and joined it to profit or ego and the manipulation and cruelty of selfish conquest.

And we think Victorian prudery (or that of some strains of Christian fundamentalism today) and refusal to enjoy the pleasure of sex in its proper bounds is equally odd and abnormal. All these things are of a piece. Nutrition and taste buds were designed to go together by God. So were sex (as pleasure) and procreation, and male and female sexual organs (just by looking at how bodies are designed, one can readily see that).

But being open every time, because God has a child in mind for you, seems to go back to the notion of predestiny.

This is not the rationale, as I’ve explained.

Why can’t sex only be unitive sometimes?

Literally speaking, it is that during infertile periods. One accepts nature as it is at those times. But one tries to pervert nature (i.e., God’s creation, which is good) by contracepting during fertile periods, and to separate what shouldn’t be separated.

Why do we say sex needs to be unitive and procreative? They say it’s because sex is procreative by nature (natural law).


But most completely natural sex that we have will not result in procreation no matter what we do. Therefore some sex is completely not procreative, no matter how “open to life” we are in our mind.

Being “open to life” means not deliberately trying to prevent it from occurring. That is where the evil lies.

Yet it says something, that we are still able to have sex during those times. What could the message be? That God is emphasizing that sex is always unitive, but not necessarily has to be procreative? Looks like it to me. If God meant for sex always to be procreative as well as unitive, he probably would have made us only able to have sex when we were fertile, as some other species of animals are. The fact is, there is a lot of non-procreative sex going on out there. And therefore to say that sex = procreative = natural law (which we must follow) is false. Sex is proven not to be procreative at times, by nature. But we can prove that sex can always be unitive (unless we’re talking abuse or rape).

All of this rhetoric presupposes the false assumption that Catholics supposedly teach (by logical implication) that one must always have sex during fertile periods, or have as many kids as they possibly can (leaving it completely up to nature, etc.), or that all sex must be literally procreative. Rather, it is a matter of accepting nature as it is and being “open” in spirit to a new life which might result (rather than being hostile to it, being willing to exterminate a precious child as an “inconvenience”).

The evil lies in attempting to “mess with nature.” Therefore, it’s not “anti-procreation” to have sex during infertile times because procreation isn’t an issue then. We aren’t saying that it is wrong to have sex unless procreation is possible; rather, we are saying that it is wrong to make pleasure an end in itself, or the other person the means to an end (purely selfish pleasure), or to separate the procreative and unitive purposes for this evil goal by a deliberate act of the will.

Why God made the female reproductive system and menstrual cycle as it is might have any number of possible (but speculative) explanations. Scientists used to think that the appendix had no function, then they figured out that it did. There is a reason for everything in nature. We didn’t have a clue about DNA or sub-atomic particles or black holes 150 years ago. Why is a woman pregnant for nine months instead of one? Why can’t the child be born at one month gestation so it wouldn’t hurt as much, then grow rapidly once born (maybe in a pouch, like a kangaroo)?

For that matter, God could have made men and women so that they only desired to have sex with exclusively decent, loyal, committed people, or after they were married, or only till the age of 25, etc. We can’t answer any of these questions with finality, as to why God did or didn’t do this, that, or the other.

Oh, you can say but “Generally, sex is procreative, though, since it is how we do get pregnant sometimes”. But then I could say, “Oh, okay, so then ‘Generally’ is good enough; therefore it’s enough to (see above) have a generally pro-child attitude, but I don’t need to be open to life every single time I have sex!”

It is the contraceptive “anti-child” mentality which is evil.

6. Procreation keeps the species going. But does that mean everybody should do it?

No; some ought to be celibate. That’s also God’s plan.

We need food. Do we condemn everyone who is not a farmer?

Again, it’s not the refraining from certain goods which we all do in one way or another (the priesthood is good, but I’m a married man, so I haven’t participated in that good — i.e., in the Latin western rites, where celibacy is required –, etc.) which is at issue, but the positive commission of the sin of contraception.

I realize there are many other complex arguments, but these ones really get me.

You ask good, probing questions. I respect that. But I think you have enough information with this, and all the links on my site to fully understand this position, and to have all your questions answered adequately (it might take a little time to read all that you need to read). The bottom line is (if you are a Catholic): are you willing to accept the authority of the Church on this matter (and it is infallible) and render assent whether or not you fully understand it?

It’s good to understand as much as we can (don’t get me wrong, and my whole purpose on the Internet is to help facilitate such understanding in my own feeble manner), but we all have to accept things we don’t understand in many areas of life. In this instance, it is a matter of authority and what Christ intended for His Church, and its “claim” over the lives of His followers.

I have as much fun with this as you do. If I’m bothering you, just say so. I’m not trying to antagonize you, but as you said of yourself, “I love this stuff!” I feel as if I need to know why I believe something; otherwise I don’t really call it a true “belief”.

As long as you are seriously inquiring after truth and morality (as I believe you are) and not playing some sort of “intellectual game,” as some do, then I think it is both fun and educational. We can both learn and sharpen our arguments. Thanks again for the stimulation and good conversation.


(originally 2-16-01)

Photo credit: image by Vargklo (uploaded on 8-28-07) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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