Can you use NFP with a Contraceptive Mentality?

This article is an unexpected follow up to an article I wrote recently called “The Myth of the Contraceptive Mentality.” Based on the feedback from that article I thought it would be good to dive into what exactly a contraceptive mentality is and why couples who use Natural Family Planning (NFP) can never be guilty of such a thing.

To figure out what a contraceptive mentality is we have to start with what contraception is. Pope Paul VI, in Humanae Vitae, defines contraception as “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” (HV 14). Therefore, a contraceptive mentality is only possible when a couple is actually using contraception, that is, when a couple intends to have a disordered sex act (an act that removes the procreate end of sex) in order to avoid conception. It becomes clear then that a couple using NFP could never have a contraceptive mentality because choosing not to have sex during fertile periods is the polar opposite of choosing to have a disordered act of sex.

However, many people don’t agree with this definition. They argue that a contraceptive mentality is the desire to avoid pregnancy, temporarily or indefinitely, for trivial or unjust reasons. They would say that a contraceptive mentality is present whenever a couple sets their will against (contra-) conceiving a child. Thus a couple who uses NFP could easily be guilty of such a thing.

I think this definition is inaccurate and muddies the actual reasons why the Church opposes contraception. Contraception is wrong, not because of the user’s desire to avoid pregnancy, but rather because it disorders the act of sex. Let me illustrate with an example. Say there are two couples. Both have had four kids in pretty quick succession, and while they both want to have more kids in the future, they both have legitimate reasons for waiting a few years before they have another child. Couple A gets a temporary contraceptive implant. Couple B suffers through weeks/months of abstinence practicing NFP.

What is different about the mentalities of these couples? Both want to have as much sex as they can for the next few years while at the same time both are taking extraordinary measures not to get pregnant. Their opposition to conception is identical, so is their desire for sex. So what’s different? Couple A intends to distort the sexual act well Couple B is willing to suffer in order to maintain the integrity of the act. In other words, the desire to avoid pregnancy is neither good nor evil.

Pope Paul VI affirms this in Humanae Vitae. He readily acknowledges that couples who “take advantage of the infertile period” (i.e. use NFP) are doing so with the “intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result.” And not only does he not condemn the NFP couples for having such a mentality, but he he praises them saying, “In doing this [practicing NFP] they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love” (HV 16).

A contraceptive mentality has literally nothing to do with wanting or not wanting to avoid pregnancy. Some Catholic couples, dare I say probably most Catholic couples, who use contraception are still open to life in that they already have, or want to have, children. So if a contraceptive mentality is rooted in not wanting to have kids then even a couple who is using contraception wouldn’t necessarily have a contraceptive mentality.

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Photo by Joseph Rosales on Unsplash

Now, interestingly enough, Saint John Paul II defines “contraceptive mentality” in a slightly different way than I do. In Evangelium Vitae, he uses this term in the context of how contraception relates to abortion. He says:

“It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation of abortion. But the negative values inherent in the “contraceptive mentality”-which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act-are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived…[Both contraception and abortion] are rooted in a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfilment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs…” (EV 13).

However, this definition would still make it impossible for a couple using NFP to actually have a contraceptive mentality because NFP requires people to deny themselves sex when they want it most. It requires a couple to “respect for the full truth of the conjugal act.” In other words, if you use NFP, and don’t want a kid, you are forced to accept the responsibility that comes with sexual activity and abstain from sex for sometimes prolonged periods of time.

All of this isn’t to say that couples can’t misuse NFP, they certainly can. Like any tool, NFP can be abused. An example would be a couple who uses NFP with the firm intent of never having children because they both “just don’t like kids.” They have no dialogue with God and no concern for his will in their marriage. But this couple doesn’t have a contraceptive mentality, they are simply rejecting their wedding vow to be open to life and accept children lovingly from God.

However, we do not, and cannot, know if a couple is misusing NFP. First of all, that would require an intimate knowledge not only of their marriage and family life, but also their conscience. Furthermore, concerning responsible parenthood and the decision to have children, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et Spes, state that “The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God” (GS 50). In other words, the criteria that the Church gives us regarding the sufficient reasons to avoid pregnancy (see Humanae Vitae section 10) are for us to use when examining our own families. They are a tool to help us form our own consciences, not a weapon to cut down other people with.

If we feel that we have the authority to judge the size of other people’s families, then we should heed the words of Christ when he says, “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). Instead of questioning if other people are or are not living out their marriage vows, perhaps we should ask ourselves how well we are living out ours?

 

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles, read his articles at Where Peter Isor follow him on Facebook.

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The Myth of the Contraceptive Mentality

If you have run in Natural Family Planning (NFP) circles you have likely come across an idea that I’m going to call (though I’m not the first person to use this term) “providentialism.” This is the idea that Catholic couples should completely rely on God’s providence when it comes to how many children to have. I am not here to criticize couples who are providentialist. God does indeed call all of us to trust in His providence (see Matthew 6:22-34), and He calls some people to live that out in a radical way. What I want to talk about is when folks take the particular path that they believe God has called them to and then try to impose it on others.

This providentialist perspective I mentioned is often, bot not always, accompanied by the belief that there’s a grave moral obligation for a couple to have as many children as possible outside from life threatening health problems . This belief, in turn, gives rise to the infamous evil of “contraceptive intent” or a “contraceptive mentality.” It is these false ideas, that are regularly used as a way to judge or shame other people, that I want to address.

I have seen people who believe that there’s a grave moral obligation to have as many kids as possible cite Pope Paul VI’s famous encyclical, Humanae Vitae, to justify this idea. The pope said that the decision to not “have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” should be motivated by “serious reasons” (HV 10). The argument goes something like: If the Church says that we need serious reasons to avoid pregnancy, then there must be a moral obligation to have as many kids as possible outside of extraordinary circumstances.

The problem with this argument is that it fails to take into account the rest of what Pope Paul VI says in that encyclical. In that same section, the Holy Father said the following about the need for couples to be responsible parents:


“With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.”

In other words, there are a number of reasons besides grave health issues to avoid having another child, including the “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions” of one’s family. These are what the Church would define as “serious reasons.” Furthermore, later in the encyclical, the pope appears to change his tone and says that couples can use the infertile time to avoid pregnancy (NFP) for “well-grounded reasons,” “acceptable reasons,” or even just “reasonable motives” (HV 16). Something being “reasonable” is a noticeably lower bar than something being “serious.” Essentially, the Church wants couples to err on the side of having kids unless they have a reasonable reason not to. This isn’t a matter of grave sin.

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[Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash]

Next I want to address the all too common belief in such a thing as “contraceptive intent” or a “contraceptive mentality.” This idea can be summarized as thinking that a couple who intentionally avoids having sex during fertile periods, for less than grave reasons, in order to avoid getting pregnant is guilty of “contraceptive intent,” a grave sin, the spiritual brother to actually using contraception. In other words, any couple that uses NFP to avoid getting pregnant, unless they are in extraordinary circumstances, has a “contraceptive mentality.”

However, this belief isn’t consistent with Humanae Vitae either. Pope Paul said:

“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, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love” (HV 16).

Three things to note in this passage.

  1. The reason contraception is evil is not because of an intent to avoid children, but because it obstructs the “generative process.” I.e. “…any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation” (HV 14).
  2. Pope Paul VI readily acknowledges that couples who “take advantage of the infertile period” are doing so with the “intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result.”
  3. He then praises those couples saying, “In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love.”

In other words, the intention to not have kids is not “contraceptive intent” unless there’s the intention to actually use contraception. Deliberately avoiding sex during fertile periods isn’t anything like the evil of contraception. Rather, according to Pope Paul, it’s “proof of a true and authentic love.”

Making up new sins like “contraceptive intent” and then judging others for them is an offense to both truth and charity. Catholics who are living out the teaching of Humanae Vitae should be applauded and supported. They are swimming upstream in our current culture. They have taken the burden of the moral law upon themselves and yoked their marriage and family to Christ and the Church. But instead of encouraging them, fellow Catholics will bash them from the left flank as the fight in the front. We need to keep our personal pieties and moral preferences to ourselves and stop wielding them as weapons to cut down our brothers and sisters.

As we begin the great season of Lent, let’s take the prayer of St. Ephrem to heart: Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother, since you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen.

 

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles, read his articles at Where Peter Isor follow him on Facebook.

What to do when NFP isn’t good enough?

Recently I’ve had a few conversations with Catholic friends about family planning where they’ve opened up about their own struggles. One friend, who has several kids, said something like, “The method we were taught failed us many times, or perhaps did not work at all. And when we spoke up about this our concern was dismissed” Not too long after that another friend of mine was telling me that after having one of their kids they had to abstain for six months in order to avoid getting pregnant again right away because their cycles were so weird that following the NFP method meant simple don’t have sex. Another friend is deathly afraid to get pregnant because she has a medical condition that has caused multiple miscarriages and will cause more in the future, so the failure rate of NFP really scares her.  These are the stories about NFP that I’ve come to hear on a regular basis now, couples that find themselves in a place where NFP, indefinitely or for a time, simply isn’t good enough.

When the Catholic Church talks about family planning there are three principles that frame the discussion. The first is that parents have the obligation to be responsible, to look after the common good of one’s family. This means that the “physical, economic, psychological and social” circumstances of the family should be taken into consideration when a couple is considering having another child (Humanae Vitae 10). The second is that artificial contraception, that is, “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation” is absolutely prohibited by the moral law (Humanae Vitae 14). And the third principle is that long periods of abstinence in marriage due to spacing children have the possibility of damaging the vows of faithfulness and fruitfulness in that marriage (Gaudium et Spes 51).

In other words, couples need to be discerning about having children, but they can’t use contraception, and an extended lack of sexual intimacy could harm the marriage. Clearly then, there are very limited options for Catholics here, two options to be exact. The first option is do nothing. To let Divine Providence guide one’s fertility and family size. The second option is NFP. For many couples I imagine that the first option is a privilege they wish they had, that they didn’t have the health issues, psychological conditions, economic problems, etc. that force them to do whatever they can to avoid pregnancy. This leaves us with NFP, but what does a couple do when NFP isn’t good enough?

Like the friends I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’ve encountered many people over the past few years who have found themselves on the margins of both the Catholic community and the secular world. These folks are apart of a silent minority of “hyperfertile” NFP users. They have tried multiple NFP methods with multiple instructors but ultimately their only recourse to prevent having a dozen kids back to back has been months (or more) of abstinence at a time. Then there are the couples who have serious, life threatening reasons not to get pregnant, and who also have irregular cycles that make NFP difficult and less effective. These couples are on the margins of a secular society that just encourages contraception and sterilization, but they have also found little support from their Church. Their suffering gets dismissed out of hand with statements like “God must have wanted the baby” or “carry your cross” with little empathy or actual support.

Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

It’s often said in Catholic circles that fertility isn’t a disease, that “hyperfertility” is just someone’s body acting the way it’s supposed to. However, while this is technically correct, it’s also very dismissive. Due to health issues, family issues, financial issues, and the other consequences of sin, hyperfertility can be a genuine and severe source of suffering. In some cases fertility has all the characteristics of an illness. If a woman truly risks death every time she gets pregnant then at the end of the day her and her husband’s fertility is reasonably treated like a disease.

The Catholic community needs to know that these struggles are legitimate. The Church, from clergy to regular Catholics, needs to offer more support for our brothers and sisters who find themselves carrying this cross. We need to recognize that couples in these situations need actual assistance, not just platitudes. Telling someone to just “carry their cross” without at the same time offering to help them carry that cross is the Catholic version of saying “just suck it up.”

We need to listen to people’s actual stories about the suffering in their life caused by NFP instead of constantly being on the defensive about how great NFP is. We need to offer to make dinner or babysit or simply be a friend for the parents of large families. We need to invest more resources into developing easier and more effective methods of NFP.

I think that Catholics (at least in the circles I run in) have done a good job in the past several years of recognizing the heavy burden and real suffering of infertility. We’ve invested resources into ethical treatments for infertility and we’ve made efforts to empathize and support those in our life who we know suffer from this. My hope is that the suffering that comes from hyperfertility and irregular cycles could likewise be acknowledged and supported.

Bishop Barron recently said, “At the core of Jesus’ program is a willingness to bear other people’s burdens, to help them carry their loads. And this applies to the moral life as well. If we lay the burden of God’s law on people, we must be willing, at the same time, to help them bear it.” There are people freely embracing the full weight of the moral law but are finding little support from their Catholic community, what can we do to help change that?

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles or follow him on Facebook.

Trump: Pulling Back the Curtain on America’s Hypocrisies

I think that Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency have unveiled, and exploited, the hypocritical underbelly of the Left, the Right, the media, and Conservative Christianity and put those faults on a national display.

(Obviously I’m making generalizations here, not every individual in these groups is responsible. Though it’s clear that these generalizations aren’t void of some truth.)

First, in the past few months we have seen the violent intolerance of the tolerant left. One of my old professors used to say “The tolerant cannot tolerate the intolerant,” and this has been displayed at places like UC Berkeley where free speech is something to fight against and not for.

Second, one of the things that set Trump apart early in his campaign and helped attract such a loyal base was his nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric. He taped into the underbelly of American Conservatism that in one breath wants the Ten Commandments in courtrooms but also ignores the command to welcome to stranger. Who in one breath says “we are pro-life” and “all lives matter” while also saying “America First” and refusing to recognize the dignity of the foreigner fleeing violence and poverty.

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Third, Trump has revealed and exploited the subtle (and not so subtle) liberal bias within the media. The very bias that has refused to call pro-lifers anything by “anti-choice” and has consistently ignored the March for Life every. single. year. The very bias that has driven conservatives toward “fake news” for years because people do not like being continually deceived and misrepresented.

Finally, Trump’s campaign put the hypocrisy of American Conservative Christianity on full display. For years the Christian Right spoke of “family values,” the “sanctity of marriage,” and, in the era of President Clinton, they insisted that “character matters.” Then when Trump was the only Republican left standing they, without apology or hesitation, publicly endorsed a thrice married adulterer who makes money off of porn and who treats women as sexual objects. They proved that their Party comes before their Faith.

Politics runs downstream of culture. President Trump isn’t the cause of our woes, he is the symptom. We who made winning a higher priority than our principles created President Trump. We who claimed a moral high ground with lectures on tolerance while totally demonizing those we disagreed with created President Trump.

He is my president because I am guilty of this hypocrisy, he is our president because he is who we deserve.

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles or follow him on Facebook.