Recently, all hell broke loose (At least, that’s what I call 100+ comments on a small-time blog like mine!) when one of my contributors wrote a post questioning the Church’s position on NFP. Rather than taking the more common stance that NFP puts undue burden on couples and artificial contraception should be permitted, Lightwave seemed to be suggesting that NFP is on a moral plane with certain artificial methods of birth control. I found myself siding with Lightwave, if not with the same tone or delivery, at least with similar sentiment. Neither of us could not understand how NFP does not frustrate "the procreative potential of the marriage act". Furthermore, the arguments that NFP is somehow not a contraceptive because it is natural and involves the omission of an act, rather than the commission of one, seemed spurious. In order to alleviate my ignorance, I’ve decided to find out what the learned teachers and evangelizers of NFP had to say in defense of the practice. I began with Couple to Couple League International (CCLI). They seemed as competitent in this area as any organization I could find. They are well-known and well-respected.
"The Couple to Couple League (CCL) is an international, interfaith, non-profit organization dedicated to teaching Natural Family Planning (NFP) to married and engaged couples. It is essentially a volunteer organization because services are provided by professionally-trained volunteers who are supported by a relatively small staff at the international headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio. Local Chapters of the organization consist mainly of certified Teaching Couples and Promoters, along with other supportive members."
"When Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the traditional Christian teaching against unnatural forms of birth control in 1968 through the encyclical Humanae Vitae, he recommended that married couples help other married couples with Natural Family Planning. In response, John and Sheila Kippley founded the Couple to Couple League in 1971…"
"First, we believe that God is the Author of nature; He is the one who put together in the marriage act what we call ‘making love’ and ‘making babies.’ It is God who in His providence has allowed us to learn in the late 20th century about woman’s alternating fertility and infertility — and about Natural Family Planning — at the same time that other medical advances greatly increased the population survival rate. NFP allows couples to prudently regulate births without recourse to unnatural, immoral methods of birth control that interfere with the way God designed our fertility."
"As astonishing as this statement may seem, throughout history natural methods have never been less effective than the unnatural, non-surgical methods. (Moral methods may not be as convenient, and they do require self-control, but that is a wonderful and rewarding virtue to acquire, as many NFP couples will attest.) In the 1930s the Ogino-Knaus Rhythm Method of NFP was as effective as the most effective "new" contraceptive barrier methods. In the 1960s, when the Pill launched the Sexual Revolution, the Sympto-Thermal Method of NFP (as taught by CCL today) was as effective as the Pill."
It is worth noting that the dialectic is not NFP vs birth control, but natural versus artificial birth control. "Birth control" is just another way of saying "contraception". This would seem to indicate that to at least CCLI, contraception is not objectively immoral, but artificial contraception is. They wiggle out of the notion of NFP being a method of contraception on their page "NFP vs. Contraception" by defining "contraceptive" narrowly.
"‘Isn’t NFP the same as contraception if a married couple is using it to postpone or avoid a pregnancy that they are not ready for?’"
"The short answer is ‘No.’ The reason is, contraception involves the deliberate frustration of the marriage act; NFP does not. In some ways, that may seem like a small difference, but in reality, the difference is huge and very important."
That’s not how I’d define contraception. Here’s how the American Heritage® Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, via Dictionary.com, defines contraception:
"Intentional prevention of conception or impregnation through the use of various devices, agents, drugs, sexual practices, or surgical procedures."
This seems like a valid definition to me. NFP is clearly a contraceptive method that utilizes sexual practices to achieve its goal. I propose that if one wishes to meaningfully classify NFP separately from artificial methods, we need to speak of "contraception by omission" and "contraception by commission". In the former, conception is avoided by abstaining from intercourse during potentially fertile periods in women’s menstrual cycles. In the latter, the purpose of fertile periods is violated by putting barriers, chemicals, devices, or surgical procedures between gametes so that they cannot meet and/or join. More on this later. CCLI continues:
"Traditionally, the Catholic Church has always taught that married couples have the right to ‘plan’ their families, provided this is done in a responsible and just manner, and is done with the proper motivation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:"
"2368 A particular aspect of this responsibility concerns the regulation of births. For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. (emphasis in original text)"
"So, it is not ‘birth regulation’ that the Church opposes, but selfishness and any immoral means of accomplishing that."
What qualify as "just reasons"? I think this question accounts for much of the discussion in the comments on the previous NFP post. People need clear guidelines and the Church does not seem to be providing them. Under the Old Law, rabbis spoke of putting hedges around the law, that is, setting boundaries stricter than the law itself so that crossing the boundary does not necessarily mean one has transgressed against the Law. Clearly, this can be taken too far, and the Pharisees did just that (Matthew 23:4). True, as Christians we are no longer under the Law. However, as St. Paul pointed out, not being under the Law does not give one free license (Galatians 5). We still need behavioral guidelines to follow. In modern civil and criminal law, a concept analogous to setting up hedges is a "bright line rule". My wife and I, and other faithful Catholic couples, have found ourselves in a quandry as to where NFP’s bright line is. Are our reasons for avoiding conceiving just? CCLI continues:
"The Church teaches us that it was God who made us male and female, and therefore, it was by His design that the marriage act has the dual purposes of the procreation of offspring and the nurturing of love between the spouses. These purposes, designed into the marriage act, must always be respected in order to follow God’s will. When a couple deliberately frustrates the procreative potential of the marriage act through contraception, they are acting against God’s plan and design for marital love. On the other hand, when a couple who have a ‘just reason’ for avoiding pregnancy choose instead to abstain from the marriage act during the fertile time of the cycle, they are not acting in violation of God’s design."
I’m confused. How is NFP not deliberate frustration on the procreative potential of the marriage? By not having sex during fertile times, one gets the pleasures of intercourse with very low likelihood of major consequences, i.e. the responsibilities of parenthood. It’s the "free lunch" that isn’t supposed to exist. NFP is, by its evangelists’ own admission, a very effective means of avoiding conception. If marital sexual intercourse is to be both procreative and unitive, and one deliberately frustrates the procreative aspect, how is that not a desecration of the marital act? How is that "not acting in violation of God’s design"? CCLI attempts to explain:
"Abstaining from the marriage act does nothing to deliberately change the procreative potential of the marriage act because there is no act. Again, it is not a sin to postpone or avoid conception for a just reason, but how a couple postpones or avoids conception can be sinful or it can be virtuous."
True, the individual act is not violated, however, I fail to see how the act in toto is not violated. The pleasurable aspects are enjoyed with no strings attached. It seems to me there would have to be very grave mitigating circumstances indeed for that to not be selfish.
"Author Christopher West addresses the difference between contraception and NFP in his book, Good News About Sex & Marriage:"
"Suppose there were a religious person, a nonreligious person, and an antireligious person walking past a church. What might each do?"
"Let’s say the religious person goes inside and prays, the nonreligious person walks by and does nothing, and the antireligious person goes inside the church and desecrates it. (I’m framing an analogy, of course, but these are reasonable behaviors to expect.) Which of these three persons did something that is always, under every circumstance, wrong? The last, of course."
"Husbands and wives are called to be procreative. If they have a good reason to avoid pregnancy, they are free to be non-procreative. But it’s a contradiction of the deepest essence of the sacrament of marriage to be anti-procreative."
I think this analogy is deeply flawed. Here’s the analogy I’d give.
Suppose that there were three people who are called as witnesses in a criminal case. The first person tells "the truth, whole truth, and nothing but the truth". The second lies by omitting facts, thereby not telling the whole truth. The third lies by deliberately telling untruths. Which one of these persons did something that is always, under every circumstance, wrong? The last one, of course. I’m inclined to believe that the second person is also wrong always, and under every circumstance wrong, though. However, lest someone should triumphantly wave an extreme example in my face in which omitting information under oath is objectively moral, I’ll not press that inclination. I feel safe in saying that, at the very least, one ought to have very grave reasons for ommitting requested information under oath. Should not similar criteria be applied to contraception by omission?
"To put it another way, the Church calls spouses to love each other as they were created in the image and likeness of God. When a couple contracepts, they are deliberately acting to change the way one or both of them were created; i.e., their actions are saying to God, ‘We don’t like your design and have a better idea.’ When a couple uses NFP and abstains during the fertile time, they are respecting God’s design and honoring it by waiting for the infertile time."
I don’t see how NFP doesn’t reject God’s design. When you deliberately avoid having sex during fertile periods, you are, IMHO, effectively saying, "During fertile periods, the human body behaves in undesirable ways. Therefore, I will avoid employing the sexual aspects of that design during times when its natural functions might produce undesireable results." That’s like avoiding the use of your TV or radio during certain hours because there’s too much static. The TV and radio are only doing what they "naturally" do, receive signals in a manner compliant with FCC regulations, but we find that functionality irritating when static is received.
Before I get too worked up over how CCLI presents NFP, I should acknowledge that they are not the only source of information on this topic, and probably are not the best. In order to better understand why the Church teaches what she teaches, I’ve decided go back to the relevant papal encyclicals and discover what they have to say. Then we shall see where the fault lies – the unversal Church, the Church in America, lay representatives (including CCLI), or me.
To that end, I will be posting a series of analyses. The first will focus on the thoughts of Popes Pius XI, and second on Pius XII. The third will be dedicated to Paul VI’s landmark encyclical Humane Vitae. The fourth will look at the teachings of Pope John Paul II. The fifth and final installment will examine the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the USCCB, and various lay organizations, and reexamine CCLI’s statements. This post will serve as a clearinghouse for the others. It will be updated with a link to each post as it is completed. Feel free to comment on what I’ve already said, but please bear in mind that my investigation of the matter is incomplete and that I’m in the midst of "thinking out loud".