A recent Sunday was designated by the bishops of the United States as “Respect Life Sunday.” As we pray and work for an end to abortion, it is well to remember that there is a profound connection between the prominent use of birth control in a nation and the legalization of abortion: As Pope Paul VI foresaw in his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, contraception will always lead to abortion (if not for each individual, at least for the society as a whole).
However, there are many good and faithful Catholics in the Church who question the relation between contraception and natural family planning. Does NFP entail a “contraceptive mentality”? And, even if NFP can be used well, is it possible (or even likely) that many people in fact use NFP with a contraceptive mentality? What are the circumstances in which a couple may licitly use natural family planning?
There is Nothing Contraceptive About Natural Family Planning
We must first understand what the word “contraceptive” means. “Any action which either before, at the moment of, or after marital intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation, whether as an end or as a means” is contraceptive (Humanae Vitae, 14). Contraceptive means just that: against conception.
Now, to be very clear, there is nothing in any way contraceptive about natural family planning. Neither before, nor during, nor after sexual intercourse has a couple practicing NFP done nothing at all to prevent procreation or to render the act infertile. The sexual act may in fact be infertile (i.e. it may not be possible for the woman to conceive at that time), but the couple has not done anything to make the act infertile.
The Church has been very clear on this point, and I would recommend re-reading Humanae Vitae, 16, for further clarification. “Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception […]. In reality, these two cases are completely different.”
Natural family planning and contraception are utterly different.
What About the “Contraceptive Mentality?”
Some generally well-meaning persons in the Church have begun to question whether the use of NFP might often (or at least occasionally) entail or encourage a “contraceptive mentality” to it. While these individuals will grant that NFP is not per se contraceptive, they will claim that the intention of the couple may at times be no different (or not significantly different) from that of the contracepting couple.
We must insist on this point: There is nothing at all contraceptive about natural family planning; contraception and NFP are completely different.
Some will hold that NFP, though not contraceptive, has the danger of being used with the same intention as contraception. But this is philosophically unintelligible. The “end”, “goal”, or “intention” of contraception (speaking in terms of moral theory) is to render a particular sexual act infertile. The “mentality” of contraception is preventing procreation, i.e., making a procreative act no longer procreative.
Thinking about contraception and NFP in this way, it is quite clear that there is no possible way in which natural family planning could entail a contraceptive mentality. There is nothing contraceptive about NFP, therefore it cannot induce a contraceptive mentality. While it is theoretically possible that NFP could be used in a bad way (and even in a sinful way), it cannot possibly be used in a contraceptive way.
We may speak of the dangers of a “selfish” mentality, or even of a “sinful” mentality, but we simply cannot speak of a “contraceptive” mentality when it comes to natural family planning. Words are important; they communicate either truth or falsehood. Hence it is false and harmful to claim that NFP entails the danger of inducing a contraceptive mentality.
The Just Causes for Using NFP
It is not uncommon to hear some question what are the circumstances in which natural family planning can be used licitly. Some (even some priests) will say that natural family planning can be used to limit or space out child-birth only in the most extreme circumstances. We get the impression that, if the mother’s life is not in danger or if the family is not utterly destitute, NFP should not be employed as a means of limiting child-birth. This is not the teaching of the Church.
Very simply, the Church does not say that a couple must have “grave reasons” or be in “extreme circumstances” in order to make use of NFP. Rather, the Church speaks of “justae causae.” Even someone who knows no Latin should be able to understand what this means in English: “just causes.” Natural family planning cannot be used indiscriminately, but neither does the Church require families to have the absolute maximum number of children, nor has she ever indicated that this would be desirable.
For a couple to licitly make use of natural family planning, they must have a “just reason” — not a “grave reason”, not an “extreme circumstance”, not a “life-or-death situation,” but simply a “just reason.” The very nature of natural family planning keeps the couple open to the Lord’s gift of new life and, if they remain united in prayer, I am confident that they will be able to make a proper discernment of when to attempt to have another child.
The Catholic critics of NFP
Finally, I must note that there is something very suspicious about many of the conservative Catholic critics of natural family planning. They will often misuse language in a manner which obscures what the Church really teaches about NFP and contraception.
Whether we consider the philosophically unintelligible language of “NFP with a contraceptive mentality” or the mistranslation of “justae causae” as “the most extreme circumstances,” NFP’s critics are tying up heavy burdens hard to bear. They are binding people’s consciences in matters where there is room for freedom of opinion. This recalls Christ’s rebuke of the Pharisees, and suggests the sin of presumption.
The encyclical Humanae Vitae (10, 16) speaks of “serious reasons,” “just causes,” “worthy and weighty justifications,” “defensible reasons,” and “just reasons” for spacing children or avoiding pregnancy through the use of natural family planning. What exactly qualifies as a serious, just, worthy, and defensible reason for spacing children is certainly a point of debate — and there is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer!
It is clear that the Church has never taught that NFP should only be used in the most extreme circumstances, or in life-or-death situations. Further, it should now be clear that a couple who uses (or even misuses) natural family planning will never be in danger of a falling into a contraceptive mentality. For a more philosophical presentation of these ideas, see Janet Smith’s article on the subject.
This article originally appeared at The New Theological Movement.