Dialogue: Contraception & Natural Family Planning (NFP)

Dialogue: Contraception & Natural Family Planning (NFP) April 27, 2018

This is a follow-up discussion with “Grubb” (Reformed Baptist), concerning my previous post, Biblical Evidence Against Contraception. Grubb’s words will be in blue. Words from an older paper of mine that Grubb cites, will be in green.


I didn’t hear good teaching about having lots of children until about two years ago

Which, of course, gives indication of how bad things have gotten in our society, and also, sadly, often amongst Christians.

and haven’t been able to convince my wife to have more. I confess my shortcoming in this area and agree with the notion that more is better when it comes to children. 

Amen! Good for you. I’m heartened that it seems like more and more people are talking like this. 20-25 years ago (when I was an evangelical Protestant) I virtually never heard anything different than the prevailing contraceptive (ultimately anti-child or anti-bearing many children) mentality. We were casually counseled before our marriage by our church pastor (in 1984) to use contraception. The notion that perhaps we shouldn’t do so, or that all Christians believed contraception was immoral until 1930, was never brought up. I never heard a word about that until 1989 or so, when I started talking to informed Catholics.

Obviously we can’t all be Duggars (they have 15 children), but children are definitely a blessing and should be encouraged.

The Catholic Church does not teach that one must have ten or 15 children. Couples are to take into consideration relevant factors, such as physical health, psychological, and financial aspects. But one must be open to life that may be conceived in any particular instance of intercourse, and not unnaturally, artificially separate the procreative function and purpose of sex from the unitive, pleasurable purpose.

I’m a little curious to the RCC’s position on this. The Apostle Paul encouraged a husband and wife not to abstain except for a season for something like prayer. Isn’t the rhythm method a form of contraception by abstinence? I’m really not trying to be contentious. Abstinence seems like a form of contraception to me. Am I the only one?

No, you are among many who misunderstand this. Again, the Catholic husband and wife must remain open to new life, and accept sexual intercourse for what it is: God’s means of producing new children, which fulfills the deepest purpose of marriage and gives extraordinary meaning to sexuality, which was not designed by God merely for our pleasure (let alone possible lustfulness, etc.). As I mentioned, there are altogether reasonable criteria to decide to not have a child at any given time, or to not have any more.

I can use my own case as an example. My wife Judy has had five miscarriages and several very difficult pregnancies (bedridden for many many weeks, etc.; difficult deliveries). That is, I think, sufficiently serious health problems and risks to justify not having further children. She has suffered through extremely serious post-partum depression (that is a good psychological / emotional reason to decide to stop having further children). And we are not the richest couple in world history (me being a writer and apologist who depends partially on donations for income, and who refuses to beg for same). So that is the financial reason to stop having kids, by deliberate choice.

Therefore, in our case, we quite arguably fulfilled all three major requirements to not have more children, according to Catholic teaching. Remember, Humanae Vitae, Blessed Pope Paul VI’s famous papal encyclical of 1968 which reiterated Catholic teaching on contraception / birth control, expressly discussed this:

In relation to the tendencies of instinct or passion, responsible parenthood means that necessary dominion which reason and will must exercise over them.

In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth. (section 10)

So this is Catholic teaching. The “problem,” then, is not that the Catholic Church demands that couples leave things “completely up to nature.” It does not. As seen above, relevant considerations for a reasonable decision on children are recognized. The problem is that couples are deciding to have no children, or just one or two, without sufficiently serious reasons to do so. 

One avid visualization of this is to note that often, today, we have couples living in huge mansions with one child, whereas in the past it was much more common to find a family with eight children living in a small house. This illustrates, I think, the vastly different priorities and life goals. Some of these people (not all, by any means) value material possessions and pleasure more than children, or reasonably more children. One hates to have to point out such things, but they can hardly be denied.

This consideration of the legitimate or illegitimate reasons for deciding to stop having children is one of the keys to understanding the distinction between contraception (and the accompanying mentality) and Natural Family Planning, undertaken for legitimate reasons. The second consideration is more philosophical: the two are fundamentally different because one acknowledges the natural order and doesn’t try to separate what shouldn’t be separated; the other does not.

If my wife and I have good reason to avoid further conceptions, then if we abstain during her fertile periods, we are accepting the natural order of things (women may very well conceive during fertile periods).

We make the sacrifice of abstinence at those times because we refuse to separate the unitive and procreative purposes of sexuality. If we were to go ahead and engage in lovemaking by using contraception, this would not be accepting the natural order and the way God designed things, because we would be, in effect, “tying God’s hands” by making it impossible or nearly-impossible for a conception to take place (even if that were God’s will).

That is where the sin lies: it perverts the natural order of things and makes sex selfish and an end in and of itself (with the partner too often being reduced to a mere object), rather than having the deepest meaning that God intended it to have: to bring couples together in a mutually-giving manner, always being open to new life. The difference has been put in the following way:

1. Contraception:

A) Deliberately willing the nonexistence of this possible child that might be conceived as a result of this act of intercourse, and the regarding of such a child as an “accident” rather than part of God’s will and providence.

B) This mentality is what led inexorably to legal abortion (not inevitably as an opinion in every individual case — I was always a strong pro-lifer when I contracepted — , but as a general principle of applying the notion of a child being an “accident” or “unwanted”).

C) Even in terms of legal case law precedent, legal contraception led to legal abortion.

2. Natural Family Planning:

A) The decision to not conceive a child at a given time, for legitimate, grave reasons, without refusing the possibilities of a child being conceived in a particular conjugal act (the non-willing of a child), since that act did not take place.

B) A refusal to separate the pleasure of sex from its deepest purpose, and willingness to always keep them together, or else to abstain in order to maintain the natural pairing and unity of the two aspects.

C) Acceptance of any children conceived as a result of improper practice of NFP as a gift of God (i.e., God knows more than we do about the future and our circumstances).

The following excerpt from the book, The Teaching of “Humanae Vitae”: A Defense, by John C. Ford. S. J., Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, John Finnis, William E. May [moral theologians and philosophers], San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988, further explains these crucial distinctions:

The Church has never taught that marital intercourse is good only if the couple desire to procreate; indeed, couples known to be sterile have never been forbidden to marry . . .

It is wrong for those who engage in marital intercourse to attempt to impede the transmission of life, which they think their act might otherwise bring about. For if they do try to impede that to which their act of itself might lead, they close it to new life . . .

‘Contraception’ signifies only the prevention of conception, but the contraceptive act seeks to impede the beginning of the life of a possible person. The distinction is only conceptual, but we think it is important, for the explicit reference to new life calls attention to the fact that contraception is a contralife act. (pp. 35-36)

While contraception is wrong for several reasons, it is wrong primarily and essentially because it is contralife. (p. 39)

Contraception aims to impede both the initiation of life and the being of the individual whose life would be initiated if not impeded . . . They imagine that a new person will come to be if that is not prevented, they want that possible person not to be, and they effectively will that he or she never be. That will is a contralife will. Therefore, each and every contraceptive act is necessarily contralife. (pp. 42-43)

An essential condition of the immorality of deliberate homicide is that it involves a contralife will . . . deliberate homicide is immoral primarily because the contralife will that it involves cannot be a loving heart . . . Our thesis is that the contralife will that contraception involves also is morally evil, although we do not claim that it usually is as evil as a homicidal will. (pp. 45-47)

Objection: Contraception does not attack a real person; it only prevents a merely possible person from coming to be . . . Answer: . . . All human acts affect only the future. Homicide does not destroy the victim’s entire life; the past and present are beyond harm. Homicide only prevents the victim from having a future. The homicidal will, like the contraceptive will, is only against life that would be, not against life that is . . . homicide is wrong not only because it involves an injustice but also because it carries out a nonrationally grounded, contralife will – a will that the one killed not be. That is why deliberate suicide is wrong. (pp. 61-62)

We concede that NFP can be chosen with contraceptive intent. But we hold that NFP also can be chosen without the contralife will that contraception necessarily involves. (pp. 81-82)

The choice of NFP need not be immoral. It is merely a case of something common in human life: choosing not to realize something one has a good reason to choose to realize, but whose realization would conflict with avoiding something else one has a good reason to avoid. (p. 86)

There is a real and very important difference between not wanting to have a baby, which is common to both [1. contraception] and [2. the noncontraceptive use of NFP], and not wanting the baby one might have, which is true of (1) but not of (2). (p. 89)

For more similar material, see my Dialogue: Contraception vs. NFP: Crucial Ethical Distinctions.

* * *

Great to hear of your view, and I hope you can convince your wife of it!

I’m glad you’re back. I read the whole article [the one cited directly above] even though I’m a slow reader. Much of it didn’t deal with my question, so in an effort to allow you to be true to your word, I’ve included every instance I thought you were addressing my concern which was basically: Isn’t practicing abstinence during a woman’s fertile time the same as contraception? It’s really natural contraception. This allows me to give a point by point reply to your initial defense. I generally equate anti-contraception with RCs but understand they’re not the only ones. As Ken pointed out, many evangelicals are on board with this too.

To have sex with no intention of ever having children, which are regarded as a “hindrance” and a “burden” and an “inconvenience” is wicked.

What’s a RC family with 8 children to do? 

Decide if there are sufficient reasons to not have any more children, of course.

#9 may truly be a burden depending on income, 

Exactly . . . but if not, nine children is not all that different from eight. The more children you have, the less it seems to be “more.” The move from two to three children (or even one to two) might arguably be a bigger adjustment than going from eight to nine.

but they still want to have sex. 

There are plenty of times to have sex without this producing a child. God designed the fertility cycle that way. It is only the mentality that demands freedom to have sex at any given time whatever that runs counter to that. Folks seem to think it is impossible to not ever control oneself once the sexual urge comes on. It’s difficult, I grant (believe me, I know from my own experience of practicing NFP!), but not impossible at all. I dare say it was far more difficult to abstain from sexual relations during the engagement period (as we did) than it is to abstain periodically in marriage.

Having done both things, I can definitely testify that abstinence while engaged was far more difficult. But again, it wasn’t impossible. We did it with God’s help, and that ought to be the norm in the Christian life, anyway, right? We don’t live for or by ourselves: we live for and by God’s power and strength to do all that He commands us to do. And such shared difficulties done in obedience to God very much bring couples together and help them appreciate each other more and to enjoy all the more a godly sexuality which is within the bounds of God’s moral law.

If they’re only 29, are they to remain celibate until menopause? 

No; only during the woman’s fertile periods. Why is this so hard to grasp? You yourself mentioned “the rhythm method,” so you must be aware that there is such a thing as periodic abstinence, as opposed to total abstinence. You’re inconsistent even with your own past statements.

Is it okay to start viewing sex in terms of unity, closeness, and pleasure but not for procreation after one has enough children? 

During infertile periods, yes (as it is after menopause, anyway). But one doesn’t make a separation by having sex with contraception during fertile periods.

That seems to be what you’re saying, but that’s still doing what you claim we shouldn’t.

NFP involves no separation of the two purposes. It honors the unity of the two aspects by abstaining when there is sufficient reason to avoid another conception.

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.

Maybe not if you abstain one time. But if every time you’re fertile (collectively, not you specifically Dave ) you abstain, you’re effectively avoiding the natural order of things.

Not so; you are respecting it. In effect, you are saying: “if we have sex now a child may result; we don’t want to separate the two aspects of sex by artificial means, and have legitimate grounds to not have more children, so we will honor the natural order by abstaining during fertile periods, rather than sinning by contracepting.” A couple who does that no more avoids the “natural order” than does a celibate priest or none or unmarried person who honors God’s moral teachings, or a post-menopausal woman and her husband who continue to have sex.

It’s the distinction between not doing a good thing because one legitimately wishes to avoid what might natural come about as a result, and doing something wrong, to deliberately make the unwanted possibility an impossibility. One is a legitimate omission of an act, and the other is a sin of commission.

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.

But that’s not what a husband and wife are doing if they practice birth control.

They have indeed separated sex from childbirth, but in a wicked way, if they want free sex without the procreation that goes along with it, and if they have insufficient grounds to limit childdren. Everyone must examine his or herself, and their motives.

Literally speaking, (sex) is (unitive) 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.

Don’t RCs do this by abstaining? 

No; per the above explanations. I understand where you are coming from, because it is the exact same argument I used to make. Hopefully I can persuade you by the same reasoning that convinced me back in 1990.

They’re separating sex from procreation, because they only have sex when they’re not fertile.

The fine (but extremely important and consequential) distinctions I mentioned above adequately account for this objection.

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

But one is trying to prevent procreation from occurring when abstaining during fertile periods.

Again, I appeal back to my distinctions above. That is what you have to consider; otherwise you will never grasp the difference that we see here. You at least have to understand the full nature of Catholic reasoning before deciding to accept or reject it.

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.

But abstaining during fertile times does separate the procreative and unitive aspects of sex. There may be instances where people think they’re infertile and end up with a child, but their intent was to separate the pleasure and closeness from procreation.

Ditto. See the above explanations.

I still don’t see how natural contraception is any different than unnatural contraception in its ideology. Both seek to have the pleasure and closeness while inhibiting the procreation. That much is undeniable. One is just more effective than the other. It’s no more a miracle for unnatural contraception to fail (it happens all the time) than for natural contraception to fail (it happens all the time too) As I said, one method is just more effective than the other.

I hope you will interact with the reasoning I have provided.

* * *

I don’t disagree there’s a difference between how natural and artificial contraceptives work. For this discussion I’m referring only to condoms, because all they do is block the path (as abstinence does). I’m not talking about the “morning after” pill or anything that terminates a life after it starts. If I’m not mistaken, the RCC’s problem isn’t with how a condom works, but rather with the fact that a couple is partaking of the closeness and euphoric feeling of sex but willfully avoiding the procreation aspect of it.

Correct. It’s the “contralife will” that is the problem. Much of the seriousness of a sin depends on the willfulness, because that is where sin (and virtue) begin: in the will. Jesus clearly taught this, and it is acknowledged in civil law as well (different degrees of murder, etc.)

But that’s exactly what RCs using NFP are attempting to do when they abstain during fertile times but enjoy closeness and euphoria during infertile times, right? You said some RCs abuse NFP and are sinning, and I presume the RCC denounces that. What’s the difference between natural contraception and artificial contraception (the non-killing kind)? In both instances, one is intending to have sex while intentionally avoiding procreation. The RCC denounces artificial contraception all the time but natural contraception only some of the time. To be consistent they should denounce natural contraception all the time or allow artificial contraception (the non-killing kind) some of the time.

Dealt with above . . . you wanted answers to important questions; they have now been provided to you. And this is undivided Christian tradition up to 1930, which is why Luther and Calvin absolutely despised contraception.

Wouldn’t that make more sense? 

Not at all.

If not, why not?

See my above remarks.

* * *

The natural state of things is: you have sex when you feel like it, and if that produces a baby, so be it. 

Now this is a classic example of the lousy moral thinking that has resulted in contraception in the first place. Sex is clearly a natural urge, and in its proper place is a wonderful blessing designed by God for our happiness. Yet it is clear that it’s not true that we must always (i.e., if we follow our natural instincts) “have sex when [we] feel like it.”

That may be true for stone age pagans in a jungle who have never heard of Christianity, for playboys, for Bill Clinton, for hippies at Woodstock, or for those atheists (or millions of nominal “practical atheist” Christians) whose highest purpose is hedonism, but it is not true for Christians. There are a number of times that require us to abstain:

1. Lengthy business or other kinds of trips apart from our spouse.

2. Military service which requires lengthy times apart.

3. Periods of illness.

4. The usual six weeks of abstinence following childbirth.

5. Abstinence due to a high likelihood of miscarriage at certain times and under certain conditions.

6. Abstinence before marriage (the failure to do so being the sin of fornication).

7. Abstinence because someone has a sexually-transmitted disease such as AIDS or various other venereal diseases.

8. Consideration of the feelings of one’s sexual partner: moods, timing, fatigue, sensitivity to other events happening at the time, lack of sleep, hurt feelings, etc.

9. The common felt need or “norm” to abstain for a period after losing your spouse, out of “respect” for the memory of that spouse, before getting married again (if that is desired).

Human beings are not animals (where they simply follow their natural urges). We have the higher powers of reason and will to control our urges when it is reasonable and right and morally required to do so. That’s why we recognize such distinctions as sex inside and outside of marriage, and monogamy vs. polygamy, and homosexuality vs. homosexuality.

You have accepted the good of children, but you have yet to understand the place and purpose of what Catholics call “marital chastity.” Like most people today, you simply assume that married couples have the “right” at all times to engage in sex, without consideration of the important things I have been discussing.

Nor is the second part of your statement true. You condemn your own reasoning, because, it is true, the natural order of things is to happily accept a baby that results from sex. But obviously, that has broken down in our society. Now we do not happily accept the “natural” babies that result from natural sex as a result of a natural urge. We kill them by the millions (sacrificed on the altar of convenience, selfishness, and materialism) or prevent them from coming to be while enjoying the pleasures of sex, divorced from the deepest purpose and function of sex.

So while you condemn the Catholic solution as “unnatural,” you have inadvertently backed right into and confirmed our contention that it is contraception and its accompanying hedonistic, anti-child mentality which is truly unnatural and immoral.

But they’re not open to new life. They’d prefer not to have a child, or they wouldn’t be using NFP. They’re attempting to thwart the natural progression of things by abstaining during fertile times . . . Granted, this is a natural act (or non-act), but it’s still a contraception. Dictionary.com defines contraception as, “Intentional prevention of conception or impregnation through the use of various devices, agents, drugs, sexual practices, or surgical procedures.” 

Of course, that is a secular slant, which attempts to be morally neutral, by taking the broad perspective of “preventing conception,” which indeed, the two approaches have in common. So we would expect to see that. But one must delve much more deeply into the question. There was a reason all Chroistians used to agree on this, but now do not. Someone has forsaken universal Christian moral tradition, and it ain’t us.

Abstinence is a sexual practice: when we think we’re fertile, we abstain; when we think we’re infertile, we have sex. That’s a sexual practice.

That’s interesting: abstinence is now a sexual practice. That means every nun and priest is engaging in a sexual practice. I’ve never heard it put that way before . . . both sex and not-sex are equally to be considered sexual practices.

According to Hatcher in a 1994 book, Contraceptive Technology here are the different types of birth control followed by their effective rates and which category they belong to:

No birth control method…..15%
Calendar Rhythm (Ogino-Knaus)…..91%…. NFP (obsolete)
Ovulation (or Billings) method….97%….NFP
Diaphragm with spermicide….94%….contraceptive
LAM (breastfeeding) (first 6 months)….98%….NFP
Female condom….95%….contraceptive
Pill (Progestin/combined)….99.5/99.8% ….abortifacient/contraceptive
Sympto-Thermal method….98%….NFP
Tubal Ligation….99.6%….sterilization
Depo-Provera, Norplant….99% (approx.)….abortifacient/contraceptive
Castration, removal of ovaries, abstinence:….100%….sterilization

This proves what we proponents of NFP have been saying: that used correctly (assuming there is good Catholic reason to do so), it has rates identical to or better than the Pill. Thanks for confirming that, as many people assume with no evidence that this is not the case. And, of course, we know now that many many birth control pills are themselves abortifacients, and kill a fertilized egg; a genetic human being.

If the modern NFP forms of contraception are 97% effective or better (as good or better than a condom), are NFPers really more open to God using their form of birth control than one who uses a condom? 

This neglects the crucial point of dictinction: whether avoiding a birth for legitimate reasons is the moral equivalent of contraception as usually practiced today. This is what you continually neglect to see, but if no one has ever explained these points to you, I can’t really blame you. I was in the same place, all the way up to age 32. I had never heard reasoning like what I am giving you in my life.

According to these numbers people who use a condom are more likely to get pregnant than those who use modern NFP methods. It would seem condom users are actually more “open to God’s gift of new life”.

This is thoroughly wrongheaded. The “openness” is in the will of the person and their intent, not in statistics as to how effective various methods are in avoiding a conception.


(originally 5-16-06)

Photo credit: Freedom from Want (c. 1943), by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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