Alright, I am getting really behind here. The second and third installments of Fr. Euteneuer’s mini catechesis on contraception are out. This second topic addresses the misconception that natural family planning is just “Church approved birth control.” The third topic regards the myth of overpopulation.
A few words on NFP and contraception. First, it is important to remember that for Catholics the act of sexual intercourse is meant to be the physical expression of the wedding vows. To quote Christopher West, from his book “Good News About Sex and Marriage”:
At the alter, bride and groom commit themselves to each other freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully until death – these are the canonical promises they make, the promises of fidelity, indissolubility, and openness to children. Then that night, and throughout their marriage, they enact their commitment. They express with their bodies what they expressed at the altar with their minds and hearts. In doing so, they consummate their marriage. That is, they complete it, perfect it, seal it, renew it.
Anything else is a cheap imitation at best and immoral at worst.
Notice the key words openness to children. Yes, in the Catholic Church, married couples make a promise to remain open to new life throughout their marriage. In his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI states that “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” This is a hard concept for most people to understand because some people have taken it to mean that couples must then have as many children as they possibly can. But the Church recognizes that there are serious reasons for avoiding pregnancy and spacing births and this is where the difference between NFP and contraception needs to be understood. For these purposes it might be easier to understand the intention of Pope Paul VI’s words in the negative: the marital act may never be knowingly or willfully closed to the transmission of human life. He explains the responsible regulation of births in this way:
If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles, immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles (HV, 16).
Couples must speak the language of their marital vows (fidelity, permanence, and openness to children) every time they engage in the marital embrace. But they are not obligated to engage in intercourse if there is a good reason to refrain – such as a serious reason for avoiding pregnancy. Yes, in this case, abstinence can be an expression of love! At the same time a couple can, while avoiding pregnancy for serious reasons, use the natural periods of infertility to express their marital love. This is the profound difference between NFP and contraception. Infertile intercourse is an act of God, whereas, through contraception, the couple, “takes the powers of life into their own hands with the intent of thwarting God’s creative designs.” It is the difference between being non-procreative (NFP) and anti-procreative (contraception).
Of course NFP can be abused and used as a form of contraception. That is why it is important that it be used with a “procreative attitude.”
The right and lawful ordering of birth demands, first of all, that spouses fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life and that they acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions (HV, 21)
Natural family planning is not simply Church approved birth control in the sense that it can be used like other forms of artificial contraception to refuse the gift of life. Used properly, it is a way for couples to cooperate with the body’s natural cycle of fertility for the responsible regulation of birth.
Contraception is to be judged so profoundly unlawful as never to be, for any reason, justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life, situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God (JPII, October 10, 1983).
To experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source (HV, 13).
How Can There Be Too Many Children?