A Contraceptive Mentality? The Limit Case

A Contraceptive Mentality? The Limit Case March 27, 2010

Catholic theology has often found that one way to get clarity on a difficult question is by looking at extreme situations and seeing how the principles under scrutiny apply in such cases.  In my own area (the theology of Eucharistic presence), the most famous of these questions was “Quid Sumus Sumit Mus?”  That is, “What happens to the Body of Christ if a mouse eats the host?”  The answer to this (that the mouse does not access the substance of Christ’s Body and Blood but only eats it per accidens) tells you a lot about what the Church means by the claim that Christ is bodily present in the Eucharist and what it doesn’t mean by this claim.

One common question that arises in the discussion of the Church’s  teaching about Natural Family Planning is whether or not it is being used with a “contraceptive mentality.”  I have dealt in the past with some of the conceptual problems that lead to confusion on this question.  In this post I want to ask readers to look at the limit case and see what insights that holds for our understanding of the idea of a “contraceptive mentality.”

Natural Family Planning is, essentially, periodic abstinence.  As I understand it, the basic idea of using NFP with a contraceptive mentality is that a couple whose reasons for avoiding children are suspect could use NFP to avoid the consequences of their sexual intimacy, whereas NFP used properly always reinforces the consequences of sexual intimacy.  I wonder how well this distinction holds up to scrutiny (and I invite others to offer a better definition of the contraceptive mentality than I have achieved here).  The idea of a “contraceptive mentality” has never struck me as the strongest part of the Church’s explanation of NFP and the acrimonious debates about it often act as a counter-witness.  I wonder, then, what clarity might be found from looking at the limit case.

Periodic abstinence can include a very broad range of sexual frequency.  In can mean a couple that refrains from intercourse 5 days per month and it can include the couple that only has intercourse 5 days per month.  It can even include the couple that cannot discern their fertility with any certainty whatsoever and so abstains indefinitely.  My question to the readers is, “Is it possible to use complete abstinence with a contraceptive mentality?”

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto.  He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.

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  • Excelsior

    Good question.

    Here’s a hypothetical for you (but it’s based on actual experience of two or three couples):

    Protestant minister starts reading the Church Fathers and decides to become Catholic. In addition to losing his job and half his friends, he runs into problems with his wife. She hasn’t read the Church Fathers, isn’t really interested in the topic, and is comfortable with her Presbyterian identity. She isn’t anti-Catholic, but is indifferent about the significance of “denominational distinctives.”

    Also, after four children, she is frightened of the possibility of having additional children. This is partly because they’re having trouble paying the bills (remember, he lost his job), partly because at her age the likelihood of birth defects is high, and partly because she feels overwhelmed by the task of raising the four they already have, who are 1, 3, 5, and 7 years old.

    So they are at an impasse: He feels compelled by conscience to practice NFP. She wants nothing to do with it and refuses to do all the measurements and whatnot because she refuses to inconvenience herself in response to what she regards as the unreasonable and intrusive demands of an authority figure whose authority she doesn’t even recognize.

    So in the end, the husband begins tracking her cycle, estimates purely on the basis of date when her ovulation is likely to be, adds six days on either side, and begins to abstain — not by mutual consent, really, since his wife thinks it’s all absurd, but on his own initiative — for thirteen days in the middle of her cycle. (That’s six days before what he estimates to be her ovulation, the estimated ovulation day itself, and six days after.)

    As a result, intercourse is limited to the days between when her period ends and the abstinence time begins, and the days after the abstinence time ends and before her next period begins: About nine or ten days in all.

    (Not that they have intercourse on nine or ten days, of course: It’s only that those days are possible opportunities, and the others aren’t.)

    Does that constitute a contraceptive mentality on his part?

  • Excelsior

    I just realized that my last post probably looks like a bit of a non-sequitur. Here you’re trying to give an extreme case, to clarify the issue, and instead of answering you, I gave you a tangled-up case.

    So let me clarify why I ask: Once we clarify what does and doesn’t constitute a “contraceptive mentality” on the basis of the extreme case, I want to take what we learn there and see if it provides us guidelines which can be used to untangle tangled-up cases. Like the one I described.

    So I guess that means I should have posted my question sometime after a lot of folks posted responses to yours. Sorry if I jumped the gun.

  • I suppose it’s possible to use abstinence (complete or partial) with a contraceptive mentality. But if that was really one’s attitude wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier just to use contraception?

  • Here’s how I’ve explained the issue with the “contraceptive mentality” and NFP in the past (please bear with me):

    1. True love involves the disinterested gift of self to the other. This mutual self-gift is the unitive meaning, and the openness outward to an other (to life, the third, the child) is the procreative meaning. (“Procreative” does not mean that a child will/should result from union, or even that a couple should intend for a child to result. It simply means uniting in such a way that there is an opening outward beyond the couple.)

    2. Each and every conjugal act has its own inherent dignity and must retain both the unitive and procreative meanings in order to be a marital act. Otherwise, it becomes a different kind of act.

    3. Contraception is not wrong because it is artificial; it is wrong because it interferes with and undermines the language of the body, the inseparable meanings of the marital act.

    4. Contraceptive sex is not truly unitive (not a total gift of self – withholding part of self, i.e. fertility, from the other) and is not truly procreative (the action of contracepting is the opposite – a “closed-ness” to life, to the other). That is why it is a different kind of act, not the marital kind that retains the unitive and procreative meanings. [Thus the Church strongly opposes all forms of contraception.]

    5. The “contraceptive mentality” is having a mindset that affirms turning the marital act into a different kind of act.

    6. The “contraceptive mentality” is never present in a couple using NFP, even if they are using NFP for the “wrong” reasons. They may have a selfish mentality, but their acts retain the marital (unitive and procreative) character, the right kind of act. If they sin, it is a sin of selfishness.

    To me, the NFP-using couple must continually be discerning whether their reasons for avoiding conception are worthy – and this is something only they (with God) can determine. (And while the couple may seek guidance from a spiritual director/pastor, I’ve never understood the notion of needing a dispensation for the use of NFP – does Humanae Vitae say anything of the sort?) Periodic abstinence – and more so complete abstinence – are heroic or saintly, if you will (if both spouses are in agreement, of course). The idea of continence for a noble purpose (i.e. whatever good reasons there are for avoiding conception) is absurd in our culture, especially when there are ways to avoid continence and still readily avoid conception. How can such continence be seen through a Catholic lens as “contraceptive”?

  • Cindy

    Ok, this begs the question. Is sex only for reproduction? Even if you are married, is one to only view sex in the light of reproduction?

  • Chris Sullivan

    “Is it possible to use complete abstinence with a contraceptive mentality?”

    Thought experiment: apply that to the marriage of Mary and Joseph.

    God Bless

  • GodsGadfly

    Perpetual abstinence could not be used with a contraceptive mentality because “contraceptive mentality” includes intercourse.
    My understanding of the term “contraceptive mentality” is the idea that a couple can “plan” their children in an absolute sense. My understanding of _Humanae Vitae_ is that one of the key differnces is “child spacing” versus “family planning,” the latter of which emphasizes a kind of control.

    A more important moral issue with periodic abstinence, the issue which Casti Connubii and most traditionalist arguments on NFP focuses on, is that of occasion of sin. NFP promoters tend to fall into a kind of Pharissaism that demands a perfect chastity. If a couple struggle with a healthy desire for one another during fertile times, they say, “You are lusting after your spouse. That’s evil!”

    The “contraceptive mentality” has more to do with the *effects* of NFP: the emphasis on limited family size, etc.; most importantly, the fact that even 4 kids is now considered a “big family,” and Catholics get negative comments even from their fellow Catholics for exceeding some socially accepted standard of a “proper family size.”

    It comes from the refusal of Catholics to act as a community, and the refusal of society to support the family. While a couple should certainly exercise some prudence in determining family size, the avoidance of mortal sin must always be a higher priority than the avoidance of financial hardship, and financial hardship wouldn’t be an issue if society–or at least Catholics as a subset of society–operated according according to the Church’s economic teachings.

  • David Nickol

    Contraceptive sex is not truly unitive (not a total gift of self – withholding part of self, i.e. fertility, from the other) and is not truly procreative (the action of contracepting is the opposite – a “closed-ness” to life, to the other).

    Say a man has AIDS and his wife is past childbearing age and/or has had a hysterectomy. Let’s say he has had a vasectomy. Physical intimacy is very important to them, so they want to continue to have intercourse, but they want to use condoms to protect the wife. Neither have the gift of fertility to give, so they can’t withhold it. If they use condoms and have intercourse, are they practicing contraception?

    • I think Bernard Haring has an interesting point, and one which I have also thought:

      There is no doubt that all forms of contraception do manipulate the physiological processes. The rhythm method is something different, since there is no chemical or physical manipulation of biological functions; but the calculated use of the infertile days in order to deprive the conjugal relationship of its normal fertility contains evident elements of manipulation. This insight alone does not, however, justify a negative judgment about the method. The decisive question about all the various means of contraception is whether there is an unfavourable and unacceptable manipulation of human relationships. Each method has to be tested as to how far it manipulates the spontaneity of the marital union and endangers reciprocal love and respect. All effective means of contraception do separate the unitive end from the procreative end of the sexual act. We cannot say that the rhythm method is simultaneously effective in avoiding procreation and open to procreation. It is open to procreation only to the degree of its uncertainty and partial ineffectiveness, but this is surely not the intetion of those who make a thoroughly calculated use of the method.

      Bernard Haring, Ethics of Maniupation, (New York: Seabury Press, 1975) 94.

      For me, as someone not married and looking on to the married life, I see NFP itself as manipulative. And while it can be used to help procreation, many use it to do just the same thing as any other contraception. As Haring points out, people talking about its effectiveness point to their real intent and use of it. It is still an incomplete, imperfect union going on — it is a desire to manipulate instead of to let things go entirely according to nature. It is imperfect. But it is an imperfection which I see as being given a dispensation because of many aspects of the modern world (including, but not limited to, population issues, and the extent the modern world has made children a burden to those in poverty). And what is argued for NFP — that it is open to imperfection so God can create pregnancy — in theory can be used to justify other forms of imperfect contraception (how many times do we hear about condoms breaking)? In this way, I think there are still two issues: the moral position which must never be ignored, but also the practical, pastoral one which allows dispensation because of various burdens. Dispensations do not negate but reinforce the moral point.

  • cassianus

    “Contraceptive mentality” sounds like a whole lot of Jesuitical nonsense. Sex is okay as long as I form the intention of having a baby? That is really the problem with modern Catholicism: rampant subjectivity that gets into all sorts of weird speculation about what “I feel” when I do something. Really, all of this is quite confusing: it seems far more simpler to say that sex is for procreation, and everything else is just commentary.

    I will be perfectly honest: I think all of these conversations are quite foolish. We all know that most Catholics do not and never will abide by the letter of the law of Humanae Vitae, and we all benefit from this. If all of us had eight kids and lived in ghettos, how much economic clout would the Church have? How much more empty would the Church coffers be? We spent decades getting out the ghetto fifty years ago, yet a small, scrupulous cyber-group of pundits want all of us to return in the name of “avoiding mortal sin”. Well, usury used to be a mortal sin. Look where we are on that now.

    Hey, I don’t think it’s ideal either, but that is just where we are at. My wife and I are trying to have a baby, but really, children are more a liability now than when my mother was growing up in Mexico, where they went out to work at three. All of these conversations seem to be a whole lot of wanting your cake and eating it too, and we all know that no one is going to buy it. Sex may very well have a whole lot of sin around it. Welcome to the human race.

  • brettsalkeld

    I would appreciate if we can try to stay on topic. I am hopeful that the question I initially posed could be fruitful. Let’s not get sidetracked debating one another about related topics. They may be important, but here is not the place.

  • David Nickol

    “Is it possible to use complete abstinence with a contraceptive mentality?”

    To answer the question Brett poses without going off topic, it seems to me that nothing more needs to be said than what Ashley Marie says in points 5 and 6 of her exceptionally clear summary of Catholic teaching on sex within marriage. Contraception is deliberately altering an act of heterosexual vaginal sexual intercourse that could otherwise result in conception so that it cannot. You can’t alter — or intend to alter, or have a mentality set on altering — an act you are not performing. So neither NFP (periodic abstinence) nor total abstinence can be practiced with a contraceptive mentality, since the goal is not to render infertile any act of intercourse that could otherwise lead to conception, but to avoid any act of intercourse that could lead to conception.

    Also, it would seem to me that couples who engage in non-vaginal intercourse or other sexual behaviors as an alternative to vaginal intercourse are not practicing contraception, because contraception is all about rendering infertile what would otherwise be fertile. So these couples would be doing something wrong, according to the teachings of the Church, but they would not be practicing contraception.

    Ashley Marie’s point 4 is, I think, a succinct but accurate statement of Catholic teaching, and there is a question in my mind as to whether sex deliberately engaged in during infertile periods is not withholding the “gift” of one’s fertility. It would clearly not be contraceptive, but if contraception is wrong because it is wrong to withhold one’s fertility, then I don’t see why it isn’t wrong to do so by periodic abstinence.

    So it seems to me a couple who would otherwise divorce but are staying together for the sake of the children (or some other reason) and have grown to loath each other but continue to have sex and practice NFP are experiencing neither unitive nor procreative sex, but are not doing anything sinful.

  • ES

    I must say that I quite like the phrase “Quid sumus mus?” (“Why are we a mouse?”). Perfectly understandable typo (dittography through homoioteleuton, as paleographers call it).

    Alas the person that let the mouse nibble has to do 40 days penance, but the mouse should be burned up and its ashes placed in a shrine (sacrarium):

    (Debet autem ille cujus negligentia hoc accidit quod mus species comedat, secundum canones, quadraginta diebus poenitere; et mus si capi potest, comburi debet, et cinis in sacrarium projici.)

    This comes from a commentary on Aquinas’ commentary on Lombard’s sentences:


  • Charles Robertson

    My short answer to your question would be “no”. I hope that I have enlightened your mind and dazzled your intellect with my response.

  • brettsalkeld

    I really don’t know how the question came to be called “Why are we a mouse?” Perhaps you could explain in laymen’s terms?

  • ES

    The phrase in Latin is “quid sumit mus?” (what does a mouse consume?)
    Quid = what (direct object form)
    sumit = uses up/takes up/consumes
    mus = a mouse (subject form)

    But “quid” can also mean “why”
    “sumus” = we are.

    So as you typed it (Quid sumUS mus?) you actually said, “Why are we a mouse?”, instead of “Quid sumIT mus?”

    I prefer your typo.

  • brettsalkeld

    As far as I know the typo is not original to me. I am going to have to have another look at Father David Power’s The Eucharistic Mystery and get back to you.

    In any case, thanks for the explanation.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    My short answer to the original question is yes: one can use total abstinence with a contraceptive mentality. Of course, this requires defining the phrase “contraceptive mentality.” While Ashley Marie has done a masterful job of summarizing her position, I feel that her definition is carefully crafted to achieve a desired end: that NFP, by definition, can never be used with a contraceptive mentality. And, based on personal experience and viewing the broader culture, I don’t think that I find this definition satisfactory. Bernard Haring, quoted above, is on the correct track, I believe, with his discussion of manipulation. If we are to take seriously the idea that sexual intercourse is both unitive and procreative equally and is intrinsic to the marital relationship (in the ordinary course of events), then I would say that to sacrifice the unitive aspect completely to avoid having children is precisely a contraceptive mentality since it places avoidance of pregnancy above all else.

  • Peter Farley

    ES and brettsalkeld: is that like “Mea mater sus est mala”?

  • It seems to me that if one needs to spend so many words, needs talk about it so very much, in order to decide what it is, then it is very probably something else altogether. And that “something else” is most probably the very thing that one is trying so hard to talk oneself away from.

  • Brian Killian

    “Contraception mentality” has to do with the reasons why one is having intercourse and the reason(s) why one is avoiding pregnancy while having intercourse.

    Since complete abstinence does not involve intercourse, it is by definition not possible to be done with a contraceptive mentality.

    However, NFP can be done with a contraceptive mentality, because the intent to avoid pregnancy can be for selfish reasons, as opposed to reasons that are just and charitable in the context of Christian marriage. For example, a couple avoiding pregnancy because they already have 5 kids and getting pregnant again would endanger the life of the Mother is a reason that is consistent with justice and charity. But a couple using NFP simply because it is a “green” method to avoid having a family for ever are not acting within the purposes of marriage but are motivated by more selfish reasons.

  • Brian Killian

    That characterization of NFP from Bernard Haring is not correct. There is no depriving the act of its normal fertility. The woman’s cycle is naturally infertile at certain periods of time. This infertility is totally natural. Hence, there can be no “depriving” her of her “normal” fertility, because she is naturally infertile at the time of intercourse and this infertility is normal. You can’t deprive something of something normal if that “thing” isn’t normally there in the first place.

    What is happening is that the couple is timing their intercourse to coincide with the infertile time. You can argue that this is immoral or imperfect or whatever, but “manipulation” is too strong a word, and an abuse of language in my opinion.

    What NFP has in common with contraception is the intention to avoid pregnancy, and this intention may or may not be immoral.

    But even when the reason is selfish, what NFP can never share with the contraceptive mentality is precisely the manipulation whereby the couple is deprived of their normal fertility.

    Haring is misusing the words “deprive” and “manipulate”.

  • David Nickol

    “Contraception mentality” has to do with the reasons why one is having intercourse and the reason(s) why one is avoiding pregnancy while having intercourse.


    If that is the case, then a couple using “artificial” birth control could do so without a contraceptive mentality. If they want a large family and are merely using contraception to reasonably space the pregnancies, then they don’t have a contraceptive mentality (by your definition).

    See Luke Timothy Johnson’s article A Disembodied ‘Theology of the Body’:

    First, the encyclical represents a reversion to an act-centered morality, ignoring the important maturation of moral theology in the period leading up to and following Vatican II, which emphasized a person’s fundamental dispositions as more defining of moral character than isolated acts. I am far from suggesting that specific acts are not morally significant. But specific acts must also be placed within the context of a person’s character as revealed in consistent patterns of response. The difference is critical when the encyclical and John Paul II insist that it is not enough for married couples to be open to new life; rather, every act of intercourse must also be open, so that the use of a contraceptive in any single act in effect cancels the entire disposition of openness. But this is simply nonsense. I do not cancel my commitment to breathing when I hold my breath for a moment or when I go under anesthesia. Likewise, there is an important distinction to be maintained between basic moral dispositions and single actions. The woman who kills in self-defense (or in defense of her children) does not become a murderer. The focus on each act of intercourse rather than on the overall dispositions of married couples is morally distorting.

  • David Nickol

    What is puzzling is that the same “rules” seem to apply whether a couple is fertile or sterile. As I understand Church teaching, it is still wrong for a man to use a condom even if his wife is past childbearing age. It is also wrong for a sterile couple to have “non-procreative” sex (that is, something other than vaginal intercourse). The fundamental rule seems not to be about fertility, but about where sperm is deposited as a result of sexual intercourse. This is one of the reasons many people find Catholic teaching difficult to understand or believe.

  • I would tend to think, in answer to your extreme example, that total abstinance cannot be done with a contraceptive mentality.

    To reach that conclusion, however, one has to define “contraceptive mentality”. Certainly, one could choose to be celibate for selfish reasons. Say that someone thought he could maximize his earnings and pleasure if he never had sex (and thus never had children). Clearly, that would be a selfish reasong for being celibate, but I don’t think you could say it springs from a “contraceptive mentality”.

    Perhaps part of the problem here is that the phrase “contraceptive mentality” (hereafter CM for short) is subject to a variety of definitions. From experience of marriage and NFP, I would tend to think of a CM as being a state in which one believes one can have an enjoyable “sex life” without having to worry at all about having children unless one wants to.

    In this regard, I would tend to think that one can never have a fully CM when using NFP, because it’s rather hard to shove the husband and wife’s sexual desires into the format of two weeks on, two weeks off. That said, to the extent that people do have regular enough cycles and moldable enough desires, it would certainly seem that you could develop some sort of a CM-like feeling in regards to sexuality even with NFP.

  • brettsalkeld

    Thank you all for your thoughtful contributions.

    The impression that is growing in my mind is that, if “contraceptive mentality” means nothing more than “using NFP for unjust reasons,” the term ought to be scrapped as misleading. (On the other hand, if it means something more than this, I would love to see an explanation of what that “more” is.)

    Everyone understands that there are things, perfectly legitimate in themselves, that can be used for evil. NFP (read, “abstaining from sex”) seems to be one of those things. To use a phrase that suggests that what is evil is its use to avoid children is only to confuse. Of course it is used to avoid children!

    If all we mean is that sometimes it is evil to avoid children we should just say: “Sometimes it is evil to avoid children. In such circumstances it is immoral to do something perfectly legitimate in itself (i.e., abstaining from sex) for that end.”

    All of which is to say, “The ends don’t justify the means (contra artificial contraception), and the means don’t justify the ends (contra avoiding children when they should be welcomed).”


  • brettsalkeld

    I should like to add that one of the things that I find confusing here is that this discussion entails talking about abstaining as if it were an act in itself and not the absence of an act. It is as though we presume every couple has sex with a certain regular frequency and it takes a concerted effort to not do it. It such a discussion, sex functions like eating or breathing in that its occurrence is totally natural and not doing it is unnatural. But clearly this is not the case.

    Anyone want to tackle that one for me?

  • brettsalkeld

    From experience of marriage and NFP, I would tend to think of a CM as being a state in which one believes one can have an enjoyable “sex life” without having to worry at all about having children unless one wants to.

    I had written my last two posts before reading this. It seems at least the beginning of an answer to my question about “more”. I’d be interested to see how you might flesh it out with reference to my latest posts.


  • brettsalkeld

    One more thought:

    Even if it is sometimes evil to avoid having children, it strikes me that this is an area where a black and white answer is often hard to come by. My wife and I have numerous interrelated reasons for avoiding children at this point. When one of those reasons disappears or alters somewhat, we reconsider, but it isn’t always easy to see where the tipping point occurs.

  • ES

    Regarding the “sus mala est” question:

    To be brief, in some ways, yes, in others, no.

    The case of the different sentences versus is not like the case of the visually identical (but phonetically different) sentences and .

    For those who want an explanation, here it is. It is ridiculous (if you get the Horace reference, I love you).

    I hope that the long and short marks come through on this.

    Mater mea sus ēst māla = my mother the sow is eating apples.
    Mater mea, sus est mala = O my mother, the sow is bad.

    The latter plays on the need to know that the different vowels are phonemically distinctive which produces semantic and syntactic variation in subjects (mater in the first and sus in the second). There is, however, no different in their forms. What makes the different is in ēst (is eating) and māla (apples). When the macrons are absent, this is a visual equivalent of a Gestalt image. I’ve inserted the comma in the second sentence to mark the pause that allows us to assign mater mea to the sub-lexical category of addressee rather that subject.

    In the case of sŭmus versus sūmit, there is a difference of vowel length (sŭ- vs. sūm-) that makes the stems distinctive words, but -mus and -it are non-lexical-category-shifting bounded morphemes that can go on almost any verb.
    In other words, these suffixes create lexemes (like, likes, liked) and do not change the basic word.

    This is more a matter of two different (not visually identical) sentences, each of which has a meaning, and there has only been a mistake of verb (a linking verb, sumus) that still allows mus to be in the same form. Putting these sentences next to each and saying that they are different (or putting up one sentence and saying that it has two syntactically possible configurations) cannot happen here.

  • ES

    Darn html. Didn’t realize it was enabled. Used a mark-up code unintentionally and so…

    The sentence that begins “The case of” should read

    The case of the sentence “Quid sumus mus” versus “Quid sumit mus” is not like the case of the visually identical (but phonetically different) sentences “Mater mea sus est mala” and “mater mea sus est mala.”

  • ES,

    I’ve really enjoyed your Latin bits on the thread. Brings back happy memories…


    I’ve been wanting to write a post or two on the topic, but given how slow I am about keeping up with such promises lately I’ll go into a bit more detail immediately — and with your indulgence if I’m able to get a post up in the next week or two I’ll come back and post a link. (I do very much enjoy your posts on NFP, BTW.)

    I would indeed say that a CM is definitely something other than simply unjustly avoiding having children. But to be honest, I think we need to look into what we could mean by “using NFP for unjust reasons”.

    Marriage is, I would argue, essentially a blessed mate relationship. One could get into a lot more detail than that, but at root, we’re primates, but since we’re primates with souls we see the act of mating and producing more souls as being sacred.

    However, Christianity has never held that one _must_ reproduce. Indeed, if anything, Christianity has traditionally praised celibacy as superior to mated life.

    It’s also always been the case that we have understood, as human creatures, that sex leads to babies. As such, if a couple can’t support more children at the moment, not having sex has always been an acceptable approach. The Church in no way condemns it.

    To take an extreme example: If a husband and wife decided for some reason (practical or spiritual) to abstain from sex for the rest of their lives, I don’t think that the Church would hold that decision (so long as it was free and mutual, rather than the impositon of the one spouse’s will on the other) as morally wrong. If the reason for this permanent abstinence was that the children did not think they were able to support more children, I don’t think the Church would have a problem with that motive either, so long as it wasn’t undertaken for selfish reasons.

    Now, NFP, I would argue, is simply a more precise form of this sort of abstinence. Rather than abstaining all the time, the couple abstains 30-50% of the time and achieves if not the impossibility of having children which results from abstinence, at least a low likelihood of having children.

    Here, however, is where I would argue there’s a difference between NFP and total abstinence. As one becomes able to reliably have sex frequently while remaining fairly confident, one comes in danger of coming to see sex in separation from its purpose. Contraceptive sex, it seems to me, is seen as wrong because it attempts to have the pleasures of sex in isolation from its purpose — in effect creating a new act which is consequence free sex. NFP does not actually allow this, but if it is sufficiently predictable, it can allow something like that: the feeling that one may build a “sex life” around pleasure in isolation from what sex is for. Thus, in effect, turning the mate relationship into a sexual partner relationship.

    Attempting to draw analogies to other kinds of act: Think for a moment about gluttony. One of the practical reasons we avoid gluttony is because we don’t want to suffer the ill effects to our health of consuming excessive food. However, I’d argue that even if one selects a food with no nutritional content (and thus no ability to make you overweight) excessive consumption is still gluttony. For instance, if someone drinks 10 diet cokes a day, he may not be experiencing the effects of eating a great deal, but he is still committing gluttony. Indeed, if one consistently ate calorie free foods in order to enjoy eating without risking weight gain, I’d argue one was falsifying the act of eating.

    Now, I wouldn’t say that this means it’s wrong to count calories and to enjoy eating while avoiding weight gain by eating more of tasty food with less calories and less of foods with more calories. Yet, if one considers eating to be an act that deserves to have its integrity preserved (I’d tend to argue it does) then at a certain point eating by calorie in order to enjoy food while avoiding weight gain would start to constitute eating out of relation to its purpose.

    I don’t think that in either case there is a clear, bright line. But it does seem like at a certain point you’d divorced pleasure from purpose, and at that point there comes some element of sin, which is in danger of growing and corrupting one’s life.

    In relation to sex, that would be a “contraceptive mentality”, the idea that one has sufficiently tamed sex such that it is no longer something which relates to reproduction.

  • (Hope the above is vaguely coherant. It’s not words that take me time, but organiztion.)

  • Yowza, lot of typos in the above. The one that seems most unclear should be: “while remaining fairly confident IN NOT GETTING PREGNANT, one comes in danger…”

  • brettsalkeld

    Do feel free to link to your future piece in this comment thread. Now that you’ve piqued our interest and all . . .

  • brettsalkeld

    Once upon a time a debate using the food analogy actually led to my entering an ethics professor’s office and asking him:

    “OK, I can’t tell you why I’m asking this until you after you answer, but would it be immoral to put a banana in your ear?”

    I’ll leave it to the reader to reconstruct this argument.

  • Though the thing with the banana-in-the-ear analogy is that one does not gain the sensory satisfaction of having eaten a meal by shoving food in one’s ear. Putting food in one’s ear is an amusing concept because it doesn’t work, and if done would be painful rather than pleasurable.

    Sex becomes trickier in that there are a great many ways to achieve sexual release without actually having sex.

    And (rightly or wrongly) we assign more moral weight to sex than to just about any other bodily activity (except perhaps violence).

    I will try to get something put together on the contraceptive mentality question in a more thought-out format during the next week or two. May I ask, does the initial forray into what CM might be seem to make sense or answer any questions as it stands?

  • Peter Farley

    Reductio ad apples and pigs. To be honest I did not get the Horace reference but rather Fr. Healey in 2nd year Latin in 1947 Brooklyn. Here is (was) his take:
    Mea, mater, sus est mala. Go (or hurry), mother, the pig is eating the apples.
    My mother is an evil pig.

    (If est is related to edax I do get the Horace, which Shakespeare renders “Devouring” in Sonnet 19 “Devouring time.”)

    I admired your close reading. But I’ll stop now.

  • brettsalkeld

    I’m glad for your response to the banana bit. Someone was insisting that everyone knows that putting bananas in our ears was immoral (because that is not the ontological goal of a banana) and the only way to not hold that it was not was to be confused about sex in the first place. I thought that most people would think putting bananas in our ears had very little to do with sex and that most people would think it rather harmless regardless of their views about sex. Any anecdotal evidence I have collected since that time has confirmed my initial suspicion.

    As to your direction, I think it can be pursued fruitfully. I just ran across this article by Don DeMarco:


    Parts of it may be of use to you. He does spell out an idea of the contraceptive mentality in your direction (and does show that it is more than using NFP for unjust reasons) but he does not talk about the possibility of using NFP with such a mentality and what that means. That is the thing I am interested in here.

    At one point he says, “At any rate, the “contraceptive mentality” implies that a couple have not only the means to separate intercourse from procreation, but the right or responsibility as well.” I think this is probably right, but I am more and more sure that this is very difficult to do with NFP. I’m not saying it is impossible, but I have a hard time imaging how someone using NFP would get this far.

  • brettsalkeld

    After reading DeMarco, I think my basic error (or oversight) in my original question was to limit the idea of a contraceptive mentality simply to those using NFP. It might have been more useful to ask what it is in and of itself and then see how that could apply to people using NFP.

  • David Nickol

    Of course, maybe “contraceptive mentality” isn’t a very meaningful or helpful concept, and applying it to people is just a way of feeling morally superior to them without any particular justification. I am not accusing anyone here of doing that, since no one here has actually accused anyone else of having a contraceptive mentality.

    The banana in the ear is one thing, but the various ideas about food — i.e., food that you actually consume — are very provocative. One might easily make the case, I think, that taking the weight-loss drug Alli is immoral in the same way that using contraceptives is (allegedly) immoral. Alli blocks some of the fat your body absorbs from food, thereby lessening your caloric intake. Why not simply eat less fat? And in a world where millions of children a year die of hunger, how can you justify (1) eating food and deliberately blocking some of the nutrients and (2) paying $30 or more a month to do it? It seems worse to me than using condoms!

  • brettsalkeld

    Whenever I go to the gym in downtown Toronto, I walk through Yorkdale, a consumerist paradise, and see the same street people each day. I find it sad and ironic how much we consume and that we then pay exorbitant prices to personal trainers in order to burn it off. We are burning the world’s resources in order to burn off the world’s resources while our brothers and sisters ask for a quarter.

  • With all due respect to St. Thomas Aquinas, whom I count as one of my patron saints and often look to for theological answers, I would like to pose another answer to the question: What does the mouse consume? Since the whole substance of the bread is transubstantiated into the Body of Christ and the whole substance of the wine is transubstantiated into the substance of the Blood of Christ, I would argue that the Real Presence does not leave the Eucharist if a mouse would consume it because ex opere operato, because the substance has changed. The mouse eats not only the accidents but also the substance. Arguing that the substance departs before entering an unworthy soul, would create three problems. 1) Where does the Substance of the Real Presence go? and 2) Does the same disappearing substance happen when someone receives the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin? How can the reception of accidents confer the penalties sacrilege on a soul? 3.) Why would Satanists what a consecrated host for a Black Mass if Christ was not present? Rather, while it would be a great tragedy if such things would ever happen, I would argue that while the mouse does consume the Real Presence, because of the ex opere operato transubstantiation; however, the mouse fails to benefit spiritually from the reception, ex opere operantis, because it does not have a rational and immortal soul capable of benefitting from the reception. The theology preserves the doctrine of the Real Presence better than the Thomistic argument of only receiving the accidents. Since I am not a Latin Scholar, please excume me if I have used these terms incorrectly. Your analysis of my argument would be appreciated.

  • brettsalkeld

    Father Larry,
    I will get back to you soon. Though this was not the real issue of this post, I find myself unable to avoid answering sincere questions about the Eucharist. Right now my glasses are getting the lenses replaced and so I must work with my face 6 inches from the screen. When that is rectified, I will try to respond.

  • Maria

    I find the terminology of “contraceptive mentality” very unhelpful in current Catholic culture. From my experiences of speaking at numerous conference for engaged couples, most Catholics seem to have no real understanding as to why contraception is immoral, namely, that it changes the sexual act. Instead they believe that it is immoral because the couple is trying to avoid a pregnancy. This leads to all kinds of confusion and resistence to the Church’s teaching on contraception by couples, who correctly point out that there are many very valid, if not almost morally obligatory, reasons to avoid pregnancy. It is difficult, uphill work to explain the real teaching of the Church on contraception. Introducing terms like “contraceptive mentality” simply further confuses the issue, by using the term contraception to refer to a different, though related, sins of selfishness, lack of generousity, and use of another in the martial act. While I think these issues are real, I think it is important to be careful with our language since we are dealing with wholesale rejection of Church teaching on a serious issue. To come to accept the Church’s teaching, it is important to truly understand it and that simply is not happening today.

  • Dan

    If all we mean is that sometimes it is evil to avoid children we should just say: “Sometimes it is evil to avoid children. In such circumstances it is immoral to do something perfectly legitimate in itself (i.e., abstaining from sex) for that end.”

    All of which is to say, “The ends don’t justify the means (contra artificial contraception), and the means don’t justify the ends (contra avoiding children when they should be welcomed).”

    This is perhaps the best summary of the issue that I’ve ever heard.

  • brettsalkeld

    Thanks Dan.

    And Maria, this is my impression as well and what led me to ask this question.

    I have checked with Power’s book. The error is mine. I’m sure everyone is shocked.

  • Pingback: Quid Sumit Mus?: Sacramental Presence, for Father Larry « Vox Nova()

  • brettsalkeld

    Father Larry,
    I have my glasses back. My response is here:


    Thank you so much for you questions. I am happy to follow up with you in he comboxes.