What IS the Difference Between Contraception and NFP

What IS the Difference Between Contraception and NFP April 12, 2008

I have been having a discussion on my own blog regarding the differences between NFP and Contraception and I thought Vox Nova readers may be interested in it.

Thanks to Melanie for telling me about this outstanding discussion on the struggles of NFP from a guy’s perspective. My husband read it and laughed.

One reader, Maria from the discussion wrote this and it is the best explanation I have found to date to explain WHY Catholics are against Contraception but NOT against NFP.

I have begun to find the use of the term “contraceptive mentality” with NFP rather annoying. It tends to betray a real lack of understanding of exactly WHY contraception is evil among even faithful Catholics. Catholics using this terminology seem to imply that contraception is wrong simply because it prevents conception. Contraception is an intrinsically evil act NOT because it prevents conception, but because it fundamentally alters the sexual act.

Obviously, the sexual act can be completely moral even if there is NO chance of conception, i.e. after menopause, within a couple which suffers from infertility, or during pregnancy. In these instances a woman cannot get conceive. Still, it would be intrinsically evil to use contraception, like a condom to prevent an STD, because it fundamentally alters the gift of self that occurs in the sexual act.

And

Both a contracepting couple and an NFP couple can have grave reasons for preventing pregnancy; both can not. Their motivations is a separate issue from the use of contraception. An NFP couple NEVER contracepts, no matter how selfish they may be behaving in avoiding pregnancy, because the couple does not alter the sexual act. They may be guilty of other sins, such as selfishness, but not of the sin of contraception. This can be a difficult issue for non-Catholics (and even many Catholics) to understand, and I think Catholics who talk about couples who use NFP with a “contraceptive mentality” just create more confusion.

For Catholics, we believe marriage is a gift of one person to another. And EVERY sexual act within that marriage is a RENEWAL of the marriage vows. Now, for a Catholic, a person’s sexuality is NOT separate from that person, but rather sexuality is part of the very BEING of that person. Our language even expresses this fact “I AM” a woman, “I AM” a man. We don’t say “I am a person who happens to be a woman.” Nope. We say, my being is female, my being is male.

Catholics also believe that ACTIONS express what is being said in the deepest resources of a person’s heart. For instance, I can tell my husband that I love him, but if I am abusive towards him or hit him, my actions tell a completely different story. The same is true in the bedroom. I can say “I love you” to my spouse and that “I give you my WHOLE self” but if I am NOT truthfully giving him my entire self INCLUDING my fertility and my body, my mouth says one thing BUT my body tells an entirely different story. In reality I am telling him “I give this to you, EXCEPT ___” Fill in the blank. The act becomes a lie to its core, which is WHY Catholics believe it is an act of Blasphemy to contracept marital LOVE. A contracepted act of “lovemaking” does NOT fulfill the Marriage Vows EVEN if both people remain exclusive and faithful to each other, their lovemaking says “I love you ,but not enough to give you my whole self unreservedly.”

It is a holistic approach to sex. We believe that when a husband and wife make love holistically they bring God into their marriage thereby making it Sacramental and Divine. It is the ultimate spiritual experience that can only be trumped so to speak by the Eucharist. Interestingly enough, the Catholic marriage vows are said RIGHT before the Eucharistic prayer. Just as Jesus gives Himself 100% and unreservedly to His Church in Communion, so does Husband and Wife give themselves to each other 100% unreservedly.

This approach is SOOO entirely different than our culture’s understanding and our Society’s way of doing things. I would just remind everyone that when the Early Church began, they were very tiny in numbers and had to celebrate Mass in the Catacombs. At one time a good majority of the Church did NOT believe in the divinity of Christ IN the Early Church yet the small numbers of Faithful were responsible for holding onto their Truths and keeping alive the Church. Numbers are irrelevant. I believe people in today’s world WANT AND YEARN for Holistic Sex and Holistic Intimacy. They want a total surrender and Love to each other that cannot be found in many places. We have the responsibility to live it out and bear Witness to such a Love.

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  • SMB

    This is great, RCM, but even here I find a bit of confusion. When we say…

    ‘Catholics also believe that ACTIONS express what is being said in the deepest resources of a person’s heart.’

    …we are inadvertently affirming the ‘instrumental/semiotic’ view of sex, which is at the heart of the problem. On this view, sex is a kind of language that expresses the content of my feelings. If I contracept, I am sending a mixed message, and that is bad. This argument assumes, however, that what really counts is the content of my feelings, and whether they are ‘selfish’ or not. In that case, it is the ‘mentality’ of contraception, rather than the act, which really offends God–and this mentality can exist apart from contraception in the technical sense. No wonder folks are confused.

    I wonder if there is some way to convince people that contraception is evil irrespective of the ‘message’ it sends; rather, it violates the OBJECTIVE nature or structure of married love itself.

  • decker2003

    Contraception is evil because it is an act “contrary to nature.” The natural end of intercourse is to fertilize the ovum. Contraception is an affirmative act which prevents the sexual act from achieving its natural end. It is like consuming food and then deliberately inducing vomiting so that the food will not be digested by the body. The evil lies not in what is being said, expressed, communicated or thought Rather it lies in using our bodies in a way that is contrary to their God-given nature. That is the essence of the teaching against contraception. The other stuff — e.g. the negative effects of contraception on married love, etc. — are all consequences behaving sexually in a manner that is “out of harmony” with the nature of our bodies.

  • Magdalena

    The “NFP is contraception” stuff bothers me, too. NFP is sometimes called “birth control” which is truly a much more accurate term for it, but of course that has negative connotations, also.

    Very interesting reflections! I would only quibble: Maria is correct that the reason contraception is wicked is because it fundamentally alters the meaning of the sexual act. But isn’t she only half-correct when she says that this warping occurs principallly with regard to the concept of self gift?

    The natural purpose of the sexual act is to procreate. That is its biological function. The theory I was taught was that contraception was primarily wrong because it violated the natural law. Of course it also has implications in terms of seflishness and self-giving, but the biggest problem is the diverting of the act from its first object. In other words, when Maria says that “contraception is an intrinsically evil act NOT because it prevents conception” I think she’s wrong. The prevention of conception is the main issue!

    I think most of these arguments have to do with whether you are on the Theology of the Body bandwagon or not. I think the main problem people have with the use or what they would call “over use” of NFP is that it places such a strong emphasis on the unitive nature of the sexual act, with lots of the TOTB overtones. The Church does still teach that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation. I do not think that John Paul II got away from this at all but some of the people who stumbled on “Love and Responsibility” didn’t quite understand him.

    I do not know if there has ever been any sustained scholarly conflict between these two schools of thought… between the Thomistic natural law camp and the personalist, Theology of the Body camp, for instance. Not to be flippant but that is a theologcal cage match I would pay to see!

  • Magdalena

    Ahhh, decker, you posted before me, but you are right!

  • Contraception is not something I’ve given a lot of thought to, mostly because at 45, I’m a confirmed bachelor – I don’t see me ever getting married (I see the appeal of it in the abstract – I just feel no particular calling to it) and thus have had no practical reason to really consider the question in depth. (All this to say, the following will probably contain plenty of errors in reasoning and gaps in theological understanding…)

    I don’t really see the distinction between NFP and using non-aborticfacient birth control methods. Both NFP and, say, using a condom have as their object preventing a woman from becoming pregnant. Condom use will be far more effective at accomplishing that mission; NFP is a less-reliable way of preventing pregnancy. How is one really different than the other? Is it that one is less sure to work, and thus one is “technically” open to experiencing/causing a pregnancy? That seems kind of…I don’t know…playing footsie with God, maybe?

    I’m not posting these questions in a “Socratic” way – I’m actually asking these questions for the first time, and saying, “Help me understand this.”

  • SMB

    The traditional argument, as stated by decker, has the advantage of establishing an objective ground for ruling out contraception. Unfortunately, it does not admit a distinction, in terms of ‘ends’, between human conjugal love and the procreative behavior of cats. That there IS a difference, however, is empirically verifiable, and it seems to reside in the ‘unitive’ dimension. The difficulty, then, is to avoid speaking of the unitive function of sex in purely subjective terms. Does it have a necessary structure, like that of the procreative function, regardless of the feelings or volitional states involved?

    Magdalena, I like your cage match analogy!

  • Daniel H. Conway

    I thank you for this post. It can convincingly comment on distinctions between NFP and contraception, while not ruling out misuse of NFP, but suggesting this misuse is to be understood as another set of sins.

    Keeps the confusion to a minimum, actually, and reduces what can become an issue of scrupulosity when it comes to sex and fertility.

    Thanks again.

  • none

    SMB–

    One needs to look at the morality of the act itself before one can bring in the intention–it doesn’t matter if the intention is good if the act itself is evil. Within a longer treatment about the vocation of marriage one can discuss intentions and such…

  • none

    a longer traditional defense of the morality of NFP is given by Fr. Harrison here:
    http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt103.html

  • How exciting! I check into see what is happening on Vox Nova and here I am quoted in a post. So glad you found my comment helpful, RMC. I’m also so glad you linked to that particular NFP discussion. I, too, found it very insightful and helpful.

    I did just want to address some of the concerns with my comment. I think there is a distinction between saying “contraception is wrong because it prevents conception” and saying “contraception is wrong because it alters the sexual act.” I agree contraception is wrong because it prevents conception, but that isn’t the whole story. My understanding of contraception would certainly include any cases in which a couple alters the sexual act to frustrate its natural end of procreation. However, I would also argue that contraception also includes any cases in which the couple alters the sexual act to frustrate its unitive end as well.

    For example, during pregnancy some women can suffer from vaginal infections due to a reaction to the pH balance of their husbands’ sperm. Could this couple use a condom during sex? The condom obviously would not be preventing conception since she is pregnant. However, the use of the condom would still alter the nature of the sexual act. Or in another instance, could an infertile couple or a couple past menopause in which one member had a STD use a condom? Again, I think this would still be contraception since it alters the sexual act, even though there is no frustration of the procreative end of the sexual act.

    The distinction I was trying to draw is that contraception is wrong not because of a couple’s “feelings” on procreation, but because contraception changes the sexual act from what God intended. This includes both the procreative and unitive ends of the sexual act. I was not trying to say that the prevention of conception is not a serious part of the reason contraception is intrinsically wrong. However, to say that it is the only reason seems to limit the sexual act to simple procreation and to deny the legitimate unitive end of the sexual act.

    And actually the point I was really trying to make in the original comment was that misuse of NFP and contraception are very different sins. Contraception is using an immoral means to achieve an end that could be either good or immoral. Misuse of NFP is simply having an immoral end.

  • SMB

    ‘One needs to look at the morality of the act itself before one can bring in the intention–it doesn’t matter if the intention is good if the act itself is evil. Within a longer treatment about the vocation of marriage one can discuss intentions and such…’

    Quite right, none (although I think you are refering to ‘purpose’ rather than ‘intention’, in the scholastic sense). My point is that we need to understand the morality of the act itself in such a way as to include both the procreative and unitive dimensions. Otherwise, we end up saying that the morality of the sexual act for humans is the same as it is for cats.

  • none

    SMB–

    Within Thomistic moral theology, there certainly is a reference within the external act to marriage, or the marriage bond between the husband and wife, but it is not necessary to go further than that for the evaluation of the external act–hence a licit conjugal act between husband and wife is differentiated from both fornication and adultery. Such moral distinctions do not apply to cats.

  • none

    That is to say the moral species of the external act is not reducible to the “physical” species of the external act.

  • All of this is helpful – I’m glad this is under discussion. I’ve been wanting to read a discussion of this for awhile.

  • SMB

    Thanks, none. But how does the differentiation between fornication and adultery relate to contraception? What am I missing here? (Or to put it another way, does the external act refer to the moral bond of marriage in a way that precludes contraception on any grounds other than the end of procreation, which we share with cats?) Like Matt, I am interested in knowing more on the topic.

  • SMB

    Oh, sorry folks. The first line of my last post should read ‘the differentiation between licit conjugal love and adultery/fornication’.

  • Otherwise, we end up saying that the morality of the sexual act for humans is the same as it is for cats.

    That would probably be a very silly thing for us to say, since cats are not moral actors.

    Contraception is intrinsically evil because of the nature of the behavior which is chosen. Note that this is not strictly ‘external’, and neither is it strictly ‘internal’: a choice requires a chooser and a behavior which he understands himself to be choosing. What it doesn’t require is an account of why he chose that behavior: no matter why one chooses an intrinsically immoral behavior it is nevertheless always evil to choose it.

    NFP chosen in order to limit pregnancies is not intrinsically evil. The nature of the behavior chosen in the sexual act is not altered by NFP. However, I do think the theology of the Church supports NFP as medicine, not as food. It should only be used when there are grave or at least serious reasons to use it, precisely because – although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the sexual acts themselves – the use of NFP can easily corrupt intentions, and there is always the temptation to use it when the reasons to do so are not really grave or serious in the theologically pertinent sense.

  • SMB

    ‘That would probably be a very silly thing for us to say, since cats are not moral actors.’

    LOL. True. But at the risk of beating a dead cat, I am still looking for an explanation of what is intrinsically evil in contraceptive sex, OTHER than that it alters the structure of the act in such a way as to prevent procreation. If there is no other argument, I am content to move on.

  • a longer traditional defense of the morality of NFP is given by Fr. Harrison here:
    http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt103.html

    Thanks, none. I read Fr. Harrison’s discussion you linked to, and I must say it shed a great deal of light on the distinction between NFP and artificial birth control.

    Thanks again, none, zippy and everyone else – interesting discussion.

  • I am still looking for an explanation of what is intrinsically evil in contraceptive sex, OTHER than that it alters the structure of the act in such a way as to prevent procreation.

    That is what is wrong with contracepted sex. It is literally a hateful physical assault on any children which might result from a particular marital act.

  • SBM,

    I think RCM was attempting to describe a way in which contraception is intrinsically wrong, not just because it frustrates the sexual act’s procreative end, but that it also alters the unitive end of the act.

    When she said that “Catholics also believe that ACTIONS express what is being said in the deepest resources of a person’s heart,” I think she was trying to articulate a point of veiw about contraception that sees it altering the unitive end of the act as well, but used a poor choice of words. Just from this sentence, one could definitely conclude as you stated that “in this view, sex is kind of language that expresses the contents of my feelings.” That would definitely be a problem.

    I would argue this: Sex is a language in which a couple speaks certain truths to each other. What sex “says” is programmed into human nature by God and is not dependent upon a couple’s feelings. It is best when the couple’s feelings are in harmony with what God designed sex to say, but if their feelings are disordered, it does not change the language of the act.

    And what is the language of the sexual act? Since sex is the martial embrace, sex should be the physical manifestation of the wedding vows. In the Rite of Matrimony, the priest asks three questions of intention to marry:

    Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage? (Do you mean your love to be a free and total gift?)

    Will you love and honour each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives? (Do you mean your love to be faithful?)

    Will you accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church? (Do you mean your love to be fruitful?)

    In your wedding vows, you promise free, total, faithful, and fruitful love. When you consummate your marriage vows through sex, the sexual act needs to express these vows. Contraception violates these vows obviously by rendering the sexual act unfruitful, but it also prevents the act from being a total self-gift. The couple is holding back their fertility, their possible motherhood and fatherhood, from each other. The couple is choosing to violate the language of the sexual act, which should be the language of their wedding vows.

    Does this make sense?

  • none

    Contraception is intrinsically evil because of the nature of the behavior which is chosen. Note that this is not strictly ‘external’, and neither is it strictly ‘internal’:

    Regarding the distinction between external and internal — this is a distinction within Thomistic theology between acts of the will (internal) and acts of other powers (such as the power to raise the arm) elicited by the will (eternal). When Thomists talk about the morality of the external act, this is what they mean.

    Hence the object of the external act wrt artificial contraception is to frustrate procreation through… etc. and is deemed to be intrinsically immoral.

    Of course–to simplify–choosing is an internal act and it also causes the external act, and thus the external act is united to choosing.

  • none

    *external, not eternal, in the third line

  • none

    SMB–

    But how does the differentiation between fornication and adultery relate to contraception?

    I brought it up not to contrast the conjugal act with contraception, but in response to your comment about the unitive aspect; it seems to me that much of what has been written about the ‘unitive’ aspect can be found in the Thomistic treatment of the external act.

  • SMB

    Thanks everybody for getting around to my questions. I appreciate the clarifications of the traditional position that none and others have provided. Cats aside, however, I think the reason we are having this discussion in the first place is that the traditional focus on procreation leaves a lot of people unsatisfied. There has to be more to it, and TOTB has tried to fill the void.

    This brings us to Maria’s post, which is very helpful. I’m not sure it gets us out of the woods entirely, because we usually think of language in instrumental terms, as a ‘sign’ of something else. On that view, whether sex signifies vows or feelings comes to the same thing–what counts is something extrinsic to the act. But I think your point, Maria, is that the conjugal act is sacramental, rather than merely significatory: it effects what it signifies. That is a different kettle of fish.

    Pax, everybody!

  • Katerina

    Regardless of the differences between NFP and contraceptive methods, the right reasons have to be behind NFP. If NFP is used with a contraceptive mentality, then it becomes very similar to a condom or the pill.

    Michael and I are about to take the NFP class in about a month and I’m REALLY looking forward to the people leading the class explaining WHEN and WHY couples should consider using NFP, because it can definitely be abused.

  • decker2003

    NFP is not intrinsically evil because its object is in harmony with nature. However, one who uses NFP for selfish reasons to avoid pregnancy commits an evil act. The evil lies not in the nature of the act itself, but in the intention of the actor. The fact that the act is in harmony with nature does not mean that each and every instance of the act is without sin — but the sin would lie in the intention behnd the act, not the object of the act. Artificial contraception, however, is evil regardless of the intention of the actor because its very object is contrary to nature — its object is to frustrate the nature of the conjugal act.

  • Exactly, decker2003.

    NFP can certainly be abused, but when the “contraceptive mentality” terminology is used I think it confuses a difficult issue for many Catholics and non-Catholics. My husband and I speak at conferences for engaged couples in our diocese and by far the most difficult issue for the couples to accept is the Church’s teaching on contracpetion. They simply don’t see why it is evil and simply view NFP as “Catholic contraception.” If you have a legitmate reason to space births (and the Church says there are such reasons), then why does it matter how you space the births? I hear this question again and again. Saying that a couple can use NFP with a “contraceptive mentality” simply feeds into this confusion about contraception. I think it better to say that a couple can abuse NFP and use it with selfish intentions rather than compare it to contraception.

  • radicalcatholicmom

    Awesome discussion, folks. I still struggle to explain in a coherent fashion so I really appreciate the help, Maria. Katerina, the Church is actually pretty liberal on the reasons for not having children, and really, they leave it up to the couple’s discernment. As the discussion that I linked to shows, though, NFP is FREAKING HARD. It is MUCH easier to have sex than not to have sex. My husband and I this year are having to use NFP strictly because of my health issues and it has been tough. At the same time, it has brought us closer because we are experiencing a shared difficulty. It has also forced us to reevaluate “why” we believe what we do. Is it REALLY that bad to use contraception? That is SUCH huge temptation. After we re-read the Church documents together and read West’s Book on the Good News About Sex and Marriage, we were strengthened in our resolve to choose the Church’s way.

  • It depends where you look. Some places are more strict than others. As for the discernment being left to the couple, you wouldn’t think the Church would have me determine when it is best for you and your husband to copulate, do you? It is true you don’t need a dispensation or an indult to use NFP. Similarily the State doesn’t need either to go to war. That doesn’t mean a 3rd party can’t objectively determine the reasons for either choice are hogwash.

    As for bringing couples closer together, closer is comparative and it implies that one would be closer by abstaining than going at it like rabbits. I think it is entirely possible to have 5 kids in 5 years, get exercise daily, and be very close to one another. I would put abstinance in the NFP periods more along the lines of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I don’t have an issue with abstinance. I’ve even practiced for much longer periods than part of a menstral cycle. I’ve even used NFP. I just wish her enthusiasts could temper it a little bit.

  • Katerina

    Of course it is couple-specific, but my conversations about NFP with some Catholics show that NFP is sometimes understood as an alternative to other contraceptive methods without asking the right questions: “Why are we using NFP to begin with?” As outlined in the post and in the comments above, the reasons for using NFP should NOT be the same as for using condoms or the pill. In our case, we don’t have any grave reasons (health, money, etc.) to not have children, so we will not be doing NFP at first. We will learn the method and all that, because it is the responsible thing to do, but we’re not going to use it entering our marriage.

  • I agree NFP can be abused, but I really don’t like to spend alot of time worrying about the 4% of Catholic couples using it instead of contraception. At least NFP couples are attempting to be faithful to the Church! We have a much more widespread, serious crisis in the use of contraception than the misuse of NFP!

  • radicalcatholicmom

    Amen, Maria!

    Has ANYONE read the discussion I linked to? I am confused when I read MZ’s “I just wish her enthusiasts could temper it a little bit?”

    I don’t think anyone here is say “Who hoo, way to go NFP!” Especially when you read the discussion.

  • I care about the pedagogy, because I desire those who contracept to be persuaded. If we are to assert for example that using contraception is often done for ‘selfish reasons’, we are going to find a lot of people tuning out because it is patently ridiculous to call one way of having sex and avoiding children selfish while denying another way of having sex and avoiding children isn’t selfish. It is not immediately apparent that the largest issue facing the American family is finding ways to have sex without having children. Some would argue that much of the problem is a failure to see children as instrumental to the marital union. These same people would argue that you would see many people abandon the contraceptives if they recognized the need to be truly receptive to more children.

  • Katerina

    Maria,

    I wouldn’t downplay it that much. I also care about the pedagogy and if we’re going to teach NFP and we take the Church’s teaching seriously, let’s AT LEAST do it right. I only have anecdotal evidence of how NFP can be abused and I am eagerly awaiting to see if there is a distinction made in the class we are attending between NFP and other contraceptive methods: a distinction of the MOTIVES.

    I guess that’s a question that I have for RCM, because you teach the classes. When somebody teaches NFP, do they go right into the method itself and that the Church teaches that NFP is the only method available or is it also mentioned the discernment that needs to take place before using NFP?

    I take very seriously the marriage vows: to “accept children from God lovingly and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church” and to go against that there needs to be a VERY serious discernment. I have not seen that (in the most part) based on my anecdotal evidence, which is all I have and what I have read on the internet.

  • Katerina

    I probably need to finish my post on this about “NFP and Grad School”, which talks about the discernment Michael and I are currently undergoing, because I’d like to see everybody’s input and own experiences.

  • Jason

    Initially, my wife and I were planning on delaying pregnancy through NFP, and to our great surprise, our daughter came about a week before our first anniversary. To echo radical catholic mom’s post earlier, NFP is no cakewalk. Abstinence issues aside, some womens’ bodies don’t efectively send the “signals” you need to practice NFP. Thankfully, our daughter is healthy and we’re doing fine, but as many a parent knows, having a baby is hard. It presented us with some very serious health concerns with my wife, which also, have passed. In addition to the unitive aspect of sex, the experience of parenting has definitely brought us closer. Now that we are practicing NFP (a different method this time) again, we are perfectly aware of all of the wonderful, serious, intimidating, and joyful aspects of sex. To all those that are trying NFP for whatever reason, I would just like to suggest that you find a good teacher, and go in expecting to take baby steps (no pun intended…that was terrible, sorry). It’s a beautiful process that accurately mirrors the nature of love between two people with all of its trials, joys, anxiety, and peace.

  • I’m not trying to say we shouldn’t teach NFP in the context of the Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood and the great gift of children. I also take seriously the Church’s teaching on NFP and needing to have good reason for its use. Hence my husband and I have THREE children before our FOURTH wedding anniversary.

    That being said, I think it is important to actually truthfully represent contraception and NFP. NFP is never contraception. Using NFP selfishly is still a different ACT then contraception. I think this is really important for couples’ to understand if we are to persuade them to reject contraception in their marriage.

    For example, one couple we often teach with had serious health issues and were told after the birth of their third child that the wife would most likely die if she were to go through another pregnancy. They have an obvious serious reason to avoid pregnancy. This is not a “selfish reason” to contracept. Why then does the Church still teach they could not use contraception?

    Because contraception is not immoral because of a couple’s motivation to avoid pregnancy. It is immoral becasue it alters the sexual act. Period. You can have the best reason in the world to avoid a pregnancy and you still cannot contracept. This is very difficult concept for many folks to grasp on to.

    This is why I find it easier to talk about a couple’s motivation/feelings about children as a seperate set of issues from the decision to use contraception or not. The couple’s intentions about children come into play when discussing whether to use NFP, but not contraception.

  • I guess I get stuck on the language: contraception is any method use to prevent pregnancy. NFP is a natural method to avoid pregnancy and yes, I agree, that because NFP does not alter the sexual act, it is still different than a condom, for instance. HOWEVER, I’m not talking about the sexual act itself but rather going back to the starting point: the circumstances that surround a couple’s decision to avoid a pregnancy. Ultimately a condom or NFP do the same thing: avoid pregnancy. That is why, in my opinion, there needs to be extra care paid attention to the education of couples with regard to NFP. I have very good friends who are good Catholics and whom I love very much, but they say they don’t want to have children yet, because they’re not ready I don’t think they would say that if marriage prep would have taught them something about the discernment associated with NFP and I don’t feel it is my place to tell them: “uhm… yeah, you’re not using NFP correctly.” You know?

  • Oh, I am not trying to say that we shouldn’t talk about discernment in the use of NFP in marriage prep. We definitely should!

    I would just disagree when you say that “a condom or NFP do the same thing: avoid pregnancy.” That isn’t technically true – which is why one is instrinsically evil and one is not. A condom sterilizes the sexual act. NFP is actually the lack of acting sexually fertile times. It never sterilizes the act. Sure, the end of the condom and NFP could be same – avoiding a pregnancy. But they are radically different means of achieving that end.

    It is important to discuss both the end and the means in marriage prep. When it is legitimate for a couple to avoid pregnancy – when is that end morally acceptable. And if a couple has a morally acceptable reason to avoid pregnancy, what means should they use to attain that end.

  • I think it depends on what one views as the state of the world presently. There are three choices: abstinance, NFP, and sex. While challenging, abstinance for serious need can comfortably cover 6 months, or at least relatively comfortably. So, post pregnancy etc can be covered with nominal effort. It isn’t like there is an incredible sex drive for the first 3 months anyway, something about not enjoying sleep for 8 straight hours. So if we remove all conditions under 6 months where NFP would be needed, we would ask what percentage of couples will need – need being not having sex for over 6 months – recourse to NFP at some point in their marriage. I would speculate under half. Others would place that number higher or even suggest all couples will need recourse to NFP. Depending on where one is on that continuum will I think have some influence over how needed people believe NFP education is. In poverty stricken areas, one may wish to make it part of pre-CANA. I’m not sure how valuable it is at the more affluent parish; in that siutation it would seem to me to be more appropriate to address it on an ad hoc basis.

  • Saying that a couple can use NFP with a “contraceptive mentality” simply feeds into this confusion about contraception.

    A problem with taking that tack though is that it is true that one can immorally use NFP with a contraceptive intention. So it doesn’t ‘simply feed into confusion’: it expresses a truth, a truth with which many NFP boosters seem to be pretty uncomfortable; a discomfort which comes through loud and clear.

  • Zippy,

    I am not trying to back away from Church teaching or insinuate that someone cannot abuse NFP. I am not uncomfortable with the fact that NFP can be abused. It certainly can.

    If you want use the terminology of “contraceptive mentality” to describe that abuse, that is fine. I just feel it is not the most precise language possible and does feed into confusion and, ultimately, rejection of Church teaching. This comes from my experience with friends and with speaking to engaged couples. I definitely could be wrong since it has only been my personal experience.

  • M.Z. Forrest,

    I think you could take that approach to pre-Cana – just leave NFP out. I used to lean this way myself. However, I think it is better to present it, at least as a general concept. Many couples are really ignorant that there is viable alternative to contraception if they would have a serious reason to avoid pregnancy. Between their ignorance, societal pressures, and often the pressure of the medical community, many couples end up using contraception in these cases, when they may have been open to NFP if they were properly educated. Also, NFP can be used both to avoid and ACHIEVE pregnancy. With infertility rates now up at about 12% for first attempts at pregnancy, I think it is good for couples who may have fertility issues to know about it as well. And I guess I would rather a couple misuse NFP than contracept. By at least engaging in the self-sacrafice of the abstaining periods of NFP, they may grow in selflessness and experience a change of heart in their selfish desire to be closed to life.

    Personally, when my husband and I have to give the “NFP talk” at engaged conferences, we give a talk on generally living out sexuality in marriage in conformity to your wedding vows. I think an overfocus on NFP can be problematic and push an assumption that everyone needs to use it. Plus, contraception isn’t the only sexual pitfall in marriage. We need to talk about infidelity, pornography, masturbation, as well as contraception.

    I must say it is an uphill battle, even in the very conservative diocese I live in. This past weekend we spoke at a conference with 80 couples. Of those 80, 30 couples put the same address on their registration forms! No attempt at even hiding the fact they are co-habitating. I guess this is where I’m coming from when I say I’m really not overly concerned about the 4% of Catholics using NFP and whether they are abusing it or not!

  • Maria: I agree that the word ‘mentality’ is vague. ‘Contraceptive intent’ is both more accurate and precise: that is, NFP can be used with contraceptive intent.

    I’m a little concerned by the notion that we just shouldn’t worry about abuse of NFP simply because the number of people who are abusing it is certainly small in virtue of the fact that the number using it is small. That is, if 100% of NFP users were abusers the absolute number of abusers would still be small. If I was marketing a medicine that would not be my attitude at all, for I hope obvious reasons.

  • I wouldn’t say we shouldn’t worry about or address misuse of NFP. It’s just when we are faced with massive dissent from Church teaching on fornication and contraception, it seems like worrying about NFP abuse is worrying about your toast burning when the house is on fire!

    I guess my position is biased by my experience. Of all of my close aquaintances that use NFP, I simply don’t know anyone misusing it. In fact, all my friends are young Catholic couples that have lots of young children in one of the most expensive areas in the country – and we certainly aren’t trust-fund kids! Everyone I know that uses NFP HATES to practice it and does so only if necessary and for as short a time period as possible. I’m sure there are those who do abuse it, but I haven’t met them yet.

    However, I have met lots of young couples who are quick to dismiss Catholic teaching on contraception because they think the Church simply has its own type of contraception (NFP) and is forcing them to use it. These couples really do not understand the difference between NFP and contraception and just think the Church is splitting hairs. So they dismiss the whole thing.

  • …it seems like worrying about NFP abuse is worrying about your toast burning when the house is on fire!

    It seems more like worrying that your medicine is poisoning the small number who use it rather than helping them during a pandemic, to me.

    Of all of my close aquaintances that use NFP, I simply don’t know anyone misusing it.

    I’m not convinced that the conditions of its licit use/misuse are well-defined enough to make those kinds of blanket judgements. I’ve discussed the problemmatic on my own blog: here is a link to a search there on the term ‘nfp’. The second and third posts down are probably the most pertinent.

    However, I have met lots of young couples who are quick to dismiss Catholic teaching on contraception because they think the Church simply has its own type of contraception (NFP) and is forcing them to use it.

    And they are exactly right — when NFP is used with contraceptive intent and/or for other than grave reasons.

  • radicalcatholicmom

    I understand you better, MZ. I agree wholeheartedly that there is a present anti-child sentiment in the culture. The question is how do we go about changing it? I do teach classes to contracepting couples and I assure you that it would be a complete failure to tell them “Quit your contraception and have more kids.” They wouldn’t hear it and they don’t. BUT, I CAN tell you, that the couples who I have seen HEAR the message and come in to take the class are already MORE open to having kids than the contracepting/sterilized couples. For instance, I had a couple come in who had two grown children. They contracepted for 20 years and then their Deacon preached on NFP being the only valid method of family planning. This same contracepting couple went home, discovered the deacon was right and spoke with their children and they were asked “Are you going to have more kids?” Before, when contracepting they would have said and did say “NO!” But all of a sudden they were in a position of saying “We don’t know where God is going to take us.” THIS is what Maria and I are trying to express. It is that window of openess that NFP allows that contraception and sterilization by their very nature do NOT allow.

    Now, Katerina, regarding your concern about the moral aspect. This has been a concern of mine as well. Now **Note: I am not an instructor, I am studying to become one and am not yet certified. We mention it only briefly at the beginning of the class. The teachers have this to say: We only have this audience for a brief moment of time. In our class only 2 hours and that is it. Our job is to teach the method. It is the Church’s job in pre-Cana to give context to it.

    My argument and concern is that we HAVE to meet people where they are at and also recognize that most pre-cana classes generally suck at educating people on basic Church teaching. IMO, 2 hours is nothing and it doesn’t give the later support couples need. The teachers argue that any couple can contact them at any time for any questions, but most people do not do that.

    Finally, I have this to say. I think most couple should know NFP for those moments when they may need to use it. But it is not a cup of tea, no matter how many Catholics try and tell me there are NFPers abusing it (why? it is so hard to do, in my book). If I had it my way in my family, we wouldn’t have to use it at all and I could have as many kids as God sends me, spacing them only with extended breastfeeding and nothing more. Hopefully, in 6 more months, health wise I will reach a point where I don’t have to use NFP anymore. But for those Contracepting Catholics who are too scared to take the plunge into complete openness for life, NFP is a good bridge to get them there.

  • radicalcatholicmom

    Zippy: “However, I have met lots of young couples who are quick to dismiss Catholic teaching on contraception because they think the Church simply has its own type of contraception (NFP) and is forcing them to use it.

    And they are exactly right — when NFP is used with contraceptive intent and/or for other than grave reasons.”

    How on earth can WE judge other peoples’ motives UNLESS they have expressed those motives to us? I don’t know how we can go around being God and knowing what only a couple should know.

  • Nina

    And yet you do judge other people’s motives when you continue to insist that ALL those who use birth control methods OTHER than NFP are not as open to life as you — I have more than twice as many kids as you, and had more kids than you do now when I was your age — I LOVED having kids, wanted more, but my body finally gave out in that area. And yet I am told by all the bright young things who haven’t gotten quite as many miles of life under their belts as I have that I don’t truly love my husband, that we aren’t really committed to each other fully and wholly, that our intimacy isn’t as…as…as something as theirs, blahblahblah — how ANYONE can make a generalization about another couple’s intimacy is beyond me, and I would imagine God doesn’t look too kindly on that sort of judgementalism, especially when it’s based on sweeping generalizations, skewed and biased propaganda, and assumptions about people you’ve never met (to me, the comments I’ve seen on your blog, RCM, here, and elsewhere about non-NFP birth control using couples are on par with the kinds of racist slurs and bigoted comments you’d find on a white supremacist forum).

    You can’t go around being God, knowing what only a couple can know, yet the original post here and similar posts elsewhere, and the comboxes here and elsewhere are filled with nothing but that attitude when it comes to people who don’t use NFP but who are just as open to life as those who do and who may even be MORE open to life than some of those who do. And that’s why people blow this stuff off — because you strike at the heart of what is most dear, most precious to them on this planet and insult and demean something God has put together.

    You don’t go about winning hearts and minds by slamming doors in people’s faces and that’s exactly what that sort of rhetoric does.

    This world sees a Church that systematically failed its people over decades and decades (and that’s just recent history!), that knowingly and willingly subjected its children to horrific abuse, that dismissed half its population in the worst possible ways, often leading to their deaths, and then they hear some johnny-come-lately spout all sorts of negative and insulting nonsense about their marriages — about the partner that has given them more in the way of love and kindness and compassion and loyalty than the Catholic Church ever did, and all they see are a pack of hypocrites who are desperately trying to convince themselves that the little hoops they create for themselves to jump through are real suffering and make them better than other people.

  • Liz

    Amen, Maria.

  • How on earth can WE judge other peoples’ motives UNLESS they have expressed those motives to us?

    RCM: I’m not sure exactly what the point was to your reply to me, in part because you quote both me and another commenter in a mixed attribution as if I were the author of the entire quote. I wasn’t judging anyone in particular’s motives. I was talking about objective criteria. We may not be able to tell everyone’s motives, but surely we can truthfully say things like “if such and such a motive obtains, it implies thus and so”.

    Furthermore, ‘serious reasons’ are not strictly interior subjective psychological criteria. Reasons are either objectively grave, or not, and if we know what the reasons are – a critical ‘if’ to be sure – then surely we can assess their gravity with some degree of objectivity.

  • Jason

    A hypothetical question that gives me pause:

    What is a couple to do when they can’t find a NFP method that they can practice? And by physically practice, I mean that a woman’s body doesn’t send the “signals” necessary to carry out the method.

    Now that I’m experiencing the responsibility that comes with just one child, I’m starting to understand just what a grave responsibility parenthood is. Somehow, the alternative, abstinence until menopause, doesn’t seem so life giving in a married relationship either.

  • Somehow, the alternative, abstinence until menopause, doesn’t seem so life giving in a married relationship either.

    Casti Connubii:

    Some justify* this criminal abuse on the ground that they are weary of children and wish to gratify their desires without their consequent burden. Others say that they cannot on the one hand remain continent nor on the other can they have children because of the difficulties whether on the part of the mother or on the part of family circumstances .

    54. But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.

    […]

    60. We are deeply touched by the sufferings of those parents who, in extreme want, experience great difficulty in rearing their children.

    61. However, they should take care lest the calamitous state of their external affairs should be the occasion for a much more calamitous error. No difficulty can arise that justifies the putting aside of the law of God which forbids all acts intrinsically evil. There is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties and preserve in wedlock their chastity unspotted. This truth of Christian Faith is expressed by the teaching of the Council of Trent. “Let no one be so rash as to assert that which the Fathers of the Council have placed under anathema, namely, that there are precepts of God impossible for the just to observe. God does not ask the impossible, but by His commands, instructs you to do what you are able, to pray for what you are not able that He may help you.”[48]

  • Jason,

    Marquette University’s Institute for Natural Family Planning has a relatively new NFP method that uses the ClearBlue Easy Fertility Monitor, a device used at home which measures hormone levels in urine to estimate the beginning and end of the time of fertility in a women’s menstrual cycle. The information from the monitor can be used in conjunction with other biological indicators of fertility. This method seems very useful in helping a woman better understand and interpret her fertility “signals” since the monitor can help back up her visible observations.

    You can check them out at http://nfp.marquette.edu

    Interestingly, their new website is going to have access to online discussion with professional NFP doctors and nurses as well as Catholic theologians with bioethics backgrounds. I am very exciting that they are treating both the physical and spiritual aspects of NFP together. They just launched the new site yesterday so we’ll see if it delivers.

  • Karl

    The difference is roughly the same as between divorce and annulments.

  • radicalcatholicmom

    Karl, that is an excellent observation.

  • Jason

    Maria,

    Thanks for the link. However, mucus (or lack thereof) was not an effective sign for my wife. We’re looking at the LadyComp (German-made). Have you heard anything about it or other options?

  • I know some couples who use a device that measures hormone levels through your saliva, but I’m not sure what it is called.

    You can do the Marquette Model without observing mucus, but it may cut you a day short at the beginning of Phase II.

  • radicalcatholicmom

    Jason, I have heard of the Lady Comp. It is supposed to be good. Meanwhile, has your wife had her hormone levels checked by a holistic doctor? I say holistic because most conventional western doctors have very limited tests for this. You could also try and see a NFP only doctor who specializes in tests like this. For years my doctors were telling me there was nothing wrong, though my charts showed otherwise. We don’t have any NFP doctors in AK. I finally went to a Naturalpath and I am getting treated.