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.