In this post I want to do two things. First, present my exegesis of I Cor. 7 and then offer a rationale for a morally significant distinction between ABC and NFP.
I Cor. 7
When Pr. Rufner first wrote me concerning I Cor. 7 and NFP I responded thusly,
I don't think I Cor. 7 has much of anything to say about NFP directly. Your comment '1 Cor. 7:17 [sic - it's actually v. 5] speaks of abstinence as being permissable for that time of prayer and that alone' is, I think, an argument from the negative. Paul does not say that this is the _only_ reason that is permissable for abstinence,
merely _a_ permissable reason. Furthermore, the clause in Greek could be read as result rather than purpose - thus prayer would not be a reason for but a result of abstinence for some other reason. Thus, an NFP couple might always plan on their days of abstinence to include heightened prayer.
If anything, this shows that abstinence in marriage is allowable for serious reasons. This is something that too often gets left out in the NFP discussion. If you grant that there is a morally serious distinction between NFP and ABC that makes the former a lawful means of delaying pregnancy, you still have not proven that it is lawful in your circumstances. That is: you've found that a means is lawful, but
now you must decide if your end is lawful.
So are there serious enough reasons to justify the end of avoiding pregnancy for a time? I think there are (true poverty would be one, but it happens not to exist in North America; serious illness would be another). Determining whether you have sufficient reasons to delay pregnancy is the trick. If you think so, I believe abstinence (i.e., NFP) is the only lawful means to that end."
Thus, I would argue against the exegesis provided by the good Doctor. He has misread the hina clause (it's result, not purpose) and has arged from the negative. Furthermore, his reading of kairon as unrepeatable is quite odd. Kairon is best translated "season;" it means "proper time" and in later Koine can simply be used as an adjective ("proper" "appropriate") and is most commonly used for the cycles of nature.
The biggest problem with the good doctor's exegesis is that it is an argument from the negative. In this, Dr. Gregory Lockwood, author of the I Cor. commentary from CPH agrees (or so I read in the private correspondence between him and Pr. Rufner - who can post that if he likes).
Finally, I think folks have shown rather clearly that Augustine's arguments against the Manicheeans were not directed at NFP as such but at avoiding pregnancy altogether because of their doctrine of the evil of matter and procreation.
A Case for NFP
No amount of arguments on any one given text is going to solve the NFP vs. ABC question. This is the wrong tack. Rather, one must decide if NFP is morally equivalent to ABC (I write as one who holds that artificial contraception as such is clearly prohibited by Scripture - the historic teaching of all Christianity). This is a difficult question and was hotly debated in the Roman Church from about 1930 until the time of Vatican II.
The first step in this process is to recognize a distinction between goals and means. In each moral act there is a goal and means to that goal. When either one or both is evil, the whole act is evil. So, for example, my goal might be to provide for my family. Good goal. But what means do I choose to use for this? If I go to night classes to earn my MBA to get a better job, then my means is goo. If I rob a bank, the means is bad even though the goal (providing for my family) is good.
So the first step in all of this is deciding if it is ever a good goal to consciously avoid pregnancy in marriage. Some (the good doctor evidentally) would argue that no, this is always wrong. Couples should never attempt to avoid pregnancy and ever to do so is sinful. Rome after Vatican II and Humanae Vitae argues that there are reasons serious enough for couples to seek to avoid pregnancy for a time. One example of this is true poverty - however, that does not exist in the US or Canada where most of our readers reside, so I will pass over it [and don't try to tell me it does exist here - it doesn't. You can always get 2000 cal./day, clean water, clothing, and housing here (Anything less than this would be true poverty). Just knock on the welfare office door or my church door.]
One other serious reason would be a woman who has been diagnosed by a competent physician with a condition that would lead to her (or the child's) death should she become pregnant. Some would argue that in all these cases we should simply trust the Lord and not worry about it. That's a fine sentiment, but how many other moral choices do we make this flippantly? Such arguments could be made against locking your doors or wearing seat belts or cooking pork all the way through: just trust the Lord! Rather, in such situations we find it acceptable to use sensible precaution while still trusting in the Lord.
Now, at this point if you are not convinced that there may be morally serious reasons that warrant delaying pregnancy in a marriage, then you can stop reading. The only acceptable choice for you will be to avoid both ABC and NFP. God go with you. I disagree with your opinion, but I respect your effort to uphold your notion of the married life. Furthermore, don't bother arguing with me about the particularities of NFP if you simply do not believe that delaying pregnancy is ever an acceptable goal. Our argument is not that far down the road. We need to continue to argue about whether or not there are such reasons before we get to that. So if that's where you're at, you can stop reading now.
Now, if you agree with me that there may be morally significant reasons which warrant delaying pregnancy in a marriage, your work is not yet done. You've decided that goal is lawful, but now you must find lawful means.
The argument of the Church throughout the ages is that ABC subtracts something from a sexual act and that this is ungodly. God gave marriage, sex, and babies together. Barrier methods, spermacide, the Pill, and all ABC methods delete the procreative function from a given sexual act. This is a morally significant action. It is taking something God gave together - a sexual act and the possibility of conception - and willfully separating them. Is that a good act or a bad act? Anytime we separate and rend asunder what God has given it is sinful. Other examples: bulimia (the pleasure of eating without the nutrition), masturbation (the same sin as contraception actually, according to Luther: separating an act of sexual pleasure from procreation), usury or stealing (financial gain without work), etc.
Enter NFP. Does NFP separate the procreative possibilities from a given sexual act? No. Rather, it simply abstains from the act altogether. Each sexual act is received in its fullness as God gives it.
To many folks this seems to be splitting hairs because, after all, don't both ABC and NFP couples want to not have kids? Yes - that is there goal. But we are not discussing here their goal, but rather the means they are using to get to that goal. If (and you must decide this 'if' first, as I stated above) you think that the goal of delaying pregnancy is lawful in a given circumstance, then you must move on to finding out if any means are lawful. I would contend that ABC is always unlawful because it separates out the procreative function of a sexual act where God wishes to give it. NFP does not do this and is thus a lawful means.
To negate NFP on the grounds of it being an unlawful means you would have to say something to the effect that it is unlawful to ever have sex with your wife when there is no possibility of procreating. Or at least, that it would be unlawful to do this on purpose. Thus, you would have to argue that having sex when you knew your wife was pregnant was a sin - because just like NFP it enjoys the gift of sex in an infertal time. There have been those in the Church who have argued this, namely the 3rd c. Father Lactantius. That is certainly an argument worth having, but I will assume that most who read this post will not be tempted by it.
Further (and better) reading
That is a very brief introduction to a defence of NFP. What follows are two papers by friends of mine (both Romanists) which deal with the issue as well. The latter of these is some correspondence between me and my friend Tim Pawl, a Roman Catholic philosophy PhD student at SLU. This is correspondence he sent to me in response to questions I had raised that were very similar to those raised by the good doctor: what's the big difference between ABC and NFP? In that correspondence he mentions a paper by Br. James, a monk friend of his, that paper is also included directly below my signature, as I think it works best to read Br. James' paper first.
Thinking through the points raised by TP and the good monk James
eventually convinced me. The main point is this: ABC subtracts
something from a given sexual act. NFP does not subtract
anything from a given sexual act. It merely abstains from a
given act. Thus there is a real difference between them as means
- even if the goal they have is identical.
Brother James on ABC vs. NFP
As soon as one pays attention to the Church’s teaching on artificial
contraception, several puzzles arise. First, why is it okay to use NFP,
but not artificial contraception, when the results of both are the
same, namely, pregnancy is avoided? Second, why is it okay for an NFP
couple to have sexual intercourse during the infertile period, but not
okay for a couple to use artificial contraception the effect of which
is the same as having sexual intercourse during the infertile period?
Third, what morally significant difference is there between avoiding
conception by abstaining during the fertile period and avoiding
conception by using artificial contraception? My aim is to answer these
Some preliminaries are in order. The Church has a specific understanding of what it is to perform an action with one’s own free-will. Actions proceeding from our free will have three components, typically called the object, end, and circumstances. The object of an action is, simply, what it is that one chooses. The end is that for the sake of which it (the object) is being chosen. The circumstances are the plethora of conditions in which the object of the action is done. These three components can also be called the means, ends, and circumstances. At any rate, in order for an action to be morally good, all three components must be good. If even one of them is bad, then the action is morally bad. Finally, it must be noted that the goodness or badness of the object is not determined by the goodness or badness of the end alone. It is possible, and often happens, that a good end is pursued through an object or means that is bad. Objects must be evaluated for goodness or badness by looking to something other than the end alone.
One may wonder why the term object is used instead of simply saying means. The reason is because the object of the action is the object of the acting person’s consent. It is the object to which the acting person says “yes” within the depths of his heart, gives his heart to carrying out.
A simple example illustrates the three components. Jones wants to go to Chicago. Chicago is the end (or goal). From where he is, there are two roads to take in order to get to Chicago. The various roads are the potential means or object of his choice. When he says in his heart “yes” to taking this road, as opposed to the other road, the road to which he says yes within his heart becomes the actual object of his choice. The circumstances are the conditions in which his departure and traveling takes place, e.g. the weather.
The Church’s teaching on sexual morality within marriage is best understood along the lines of the simple travel story. Consider two couples. They both want to go to Chicago. There are two roads to Chicago. One couple takes one road, the other couple takes the other road. The two couples have the same end, but different means, different objects, of their respective action.
For both NFP couples and contracepting couples, the end is the same: to avoid pregnancy. There are two roads a married couple might take if they want to avoid pregnancy: NFP or artificial contraception. The Church does not condemn the end of avoiding pregnancy as evil in itself. Avoiding pregnancy can be, in some circumstances, a good thing. The Church’s teaching pertains to one of the roads that a couple might take. The couple that uses NFP to avoid pregnancy, and the couple that uses artificial contraception to avoid pregnancy, are making two very different choices precisely because the object of the action, the means, are so different. The NFP couple is saying “yes” in their heart to one thing; the contracepting couple is saying “yes” in their heart to something quite different. Let us consider the difference in the two roads.
The couple that uses artificial contraception tries to make an act of sexual intercourse to be fruitless. They do something either in anticipation of the act they know they are going to have (such as take pills, put on a condom, put on a diaphragm, or get a surgical operation), or they do something during the act (coitus interruptus, or “pulling out”), or they do something after the act (douching) to prevent conception. With their own intellect and will they deliberately make, or deliberately try to make, one or all of their own present, future, or past acts of sexual intercourse to be fruitless, barren, sterile, devoid of engendering new life.
The NFP couple, on the other hand, does not try in any way to make their own act of sexual intercourse to be fruitless. What they do instead is to abstain from sexual intercourse when they know it is going to be fruitful (and there are available good, reliable ways for them to know exactly when the act is going to be fruitful). Anticipating that an act of sexual intercourse will bear fruit in new life, they do not try to sterilize the act and perform it under self-imposed conditions of sterility. Instead, they simply abstain from it. They take no temporary or permanent measures to make one or more of their own acts of sexual intercourse to be fruitless, barren, sterile, or devoid of engendering new life.
So although the two couples have the same destination, the goal being to avoid pregnancy, there are two roads to the destination, two ways to avoid pregnancy. One way is to abstain from sexual intercourse when one knows it will be fruitful; the other way is to have sexual intercourse while also trying to make it fruitless. One way means foregoing some acts of sexual intercourse; the other way means imposing sterility, either temporarily or permanently, upon one’s own acts of sexual intercourse while also performing those acts.
But is this a difference that makes a difference? What is so wrong about self-sterilizing one’s own acts of sexual intercourse? After all, does not nature effectively do something similar for a certain time each month (roughly)? And there is nothing wrong, according to the Church, with couples having sex during the infertile time. Furthermore, in some cases biology impedes fertility for other more permanent reasons, yet according to the Church it is not wrong for permanently infertile couples to engage in sexual intercourse. So, setting aside abortifacient contraceptives, what is wrong with a couple technologically causing similar infertility conditions for a time? After all, at least then fertility is controlled, sex becomes more convenient, its pleasures become available on more occasions, without stressful fear of pregnancy, allows for romantic spontaneity, and avoiding pregnancy no longer depends on our obviously weak abilities to refrain from it. And even by the Church’s own admission sex, its pleasures, romantic spontaneity, and responsible parenting are good things.
This line of questioning requires us to get more specific about what is going on in the lives of the two different couples.
In the life of the NFP couple there are two relevant sorts of acts. First, there is their act of abstaining when they know their intercourse will be fruitful. Second, there is the act of sex when they know that it will be fruitless. With their own intellect and will, they do nothing to make one of their own acts fruitless. Let us call their sexual acts natural sex. Natural sex is one kind of activity, an activity with an essence and a goodness all its own. Now, natural sex is an activity that often takes place between couples that are in fact infertile at the time the activity is enacted – infertile either because the woman has not yet ovulated or because a spouse has a biological impediment to conception, e.g. hormone deficiency, low sperm count, etc. For the NFP couple, natural sex is enacted in circumstances of infertility, but the infertility is not an object of choice. They do not say in their hearts “yes” to sterilizing any one or more of their acts of intercourse, but they do often have sex in infertile circumstances. The Church’s teaching is that infertility, when it is a circumstance of sexual intercourse, is not a circumstance that makes the activity of natural sex wrong. Natural sexual intercourse, even if done in circumstances of infertility, is an inherent good for married couples, for society, and for the human race.
In the life of the contracepting couple, however, a different kind of activity is carried out. Contraception is the method of self-imposed sterility, self-imposed because the fruitlessness of the act proceeds from the intellect and will of the persons, and the intellect and will are the deepest part of the self. The contracepting person chooses both a.) to do something before, during or after sexual intercourse to make the act fruitless and b.) to perform the act that one has deliberately made fruitless. This is not the same kind of activity as natural sex, but an instance of an altogether different sort of activity. Let us call this different sort of activity self-sterilized sex. It is an act with an essence all of its own, distinct from natural sex, and with an apparent goodness all of its own. Self-sterilized sex often seems to couples to be the better activity to perform because it allows for greater control over one’s reproductions, allows for sex to take place more numerously throughout the month and so is more convenient, allows for greater spontaneity, and does not make the avoidance of pregnancy dependent upon the weak wills of the couple. Most people also think, falsely, that self-sterilized sex is more effective at preventing pregnancy than is periodic abstinence, but this is an urban legend and demonstrably false. NFP and contraception, when both are used right, are statistically the same in avoiding pregnancy.1
Whistling and fishing are two different kinds of activities, and so the choice to whistle and the choice to go fishing are two different choices to perform to different acts. But these activities are easy to distinguish. Sometimes activity-types are hard to distinguish: killing and letting die, murder and execution, vengeance and justice, fraternal correction and wrongly judging another. So too with sex, there is natural intercourse, sometimes done in circumstances of infertility, and self-sterilized sex. The Church’s teaching on contraception comes down to this: instances of natural sex are choice-worthy, even when done in circumstances of infertility, instances of self-sterilized sex are never choiceworthy, no matter what the circumstances or further aims of the people might be. But it is hard to see what it is about self-sterilized sex that makes it to be never choice-worthy.
Natural sex, even if done in circumstances of infertility, is inherently good for several reasons.
First, it is the an activity in which the couple affirms within their intellect and will that the design of their bodies is already perfect, and since the human person is a living body with a specific design, it is a way by which the couples affirms the goodness of the other person.
Self-sterilized sex, on the other hand, lacks this component of personal affirmation of the goodness of the other person. Persons are treated as flawed, broken, and in need of perfecting through artificial means precisely because the persons with their intellect and will take measures to alter their own or each other’s bodies.
Second, natural sex is a way by which each spouse gives the self in his or her totality to the other and receives the other in his or her totality from the other. Since fertility is part of who each person is, they give their totality in giving their fertility, whatever it happens to be at the time, to each other.
In self-sterilized sex, however, a spouse withholds an integral part of his or her self from the other. For one or both spouses deliberately suppress the inherent tendency of sex to procreate. They withhold what fertility they have at the time precisely in the act that is supposed to be the way in which they give the self and receive the other as a personal totality.
Third, natural sex communicates a certain message through the language of the body. It communicates “I give myself to you totally, and I affirm all that you are as good in itself, for your own sake”. The language of the body always says this in sexual intercourse, but whether the language of the body is communicating a truth or not depends on whether the act is an instance of natural sex or self-sterilized sex. In cases of natural sex, the language of the body speaks truthfully, for the persons in the their intellect and will really are holding nothing back and really are affirming the other person is his or her totality.
In self sterilized sex, however, because the tendency of intercourse towards procreation has been deliberately suppressed, the language of the body is lying. It is saying, indeed, “I give myself to you totally and affirm all that you are as good in itself, for your own sake” but in fact one or both of the spouses is withholding whatever fertility they have at the moment from the other, denying that the other is already perfect in the design as a personal body, and is rejecting the other for who he or she really is.
Fourth, natural sex is a way in which human beings are set free in and through their bodies. Their bodies and their bodily functions are not considered as alien intrusions upon a preconceived notion of what sex should be, but they act out a bodily activity according to its pre-established design and can become comfortable, happy, and joyful in their bodies because of their bodies.
Self-sterilized sex, however, cultivates the attitude that people need to be liberated from their bodies in order to have the goods of sex or certain goods of life. The self-sterilizing couple is trying to get away from the implications of their bodies inherent in sexual intercourse. So long as they continues to self-sterilize their own acts, they cannot but think that their bodies are a burden and a problem for being what a human body is, and an alien intrusion on what sex is supposed to be. Their concept of what sex is, and what is good about it, does not include the tendency towards procreation present in every act. So they think of sex as if the human body needs to be gotten away from, they are not comfortable in their bodies, but only to the extent that they can get away from the body as it naturally is.
Let us summarize these differences with a chart.
Natural Sexual Intercourse Self-sterilized Sexual Intercourse
The person: The person:
affirms the pre-established design of rejects the pre-established design of
the body as being already perfect the body as being somehow imperfect
gives the self in totality to the other withholds part of the self from the other
receives the other in totality from the other receives only part of the self from the other
truthfully communicates in the language of deceptively communicates in the language
the body “I affirm you in your totality, I give of the body “I affirm you in your totality,
myself completely to you” I give myself to you completely”
cultivates a sense of personal freedom cultivates a sense of needing to be liberated
in and through the body from the body and its ordinary workings
So, natural sex is an activity in which husband and wife affirm the perfection of each other’s pre-established bodily design, embrace each other as persons with that bodily design, give themselves completely as living human bodies, i.e. persons, to each other, and use the language of the body to signify in truth the deepest reality of what their love really is, and find freedom in and through their bodies. Self-sterilized sex, on the other hand, is an activity in which husband and wife deny that their pre-established design is already perfect, reject the pre-established design as something undesirable at the time, deliberately suppress the proper functioning of their bodies, and withhold a part of themselves from each other in an act of sexual intercourse, all the while signifying to each other in the language of the body “I affirm you, I accept you, I give myself to you completely”. Self-sterilized sex is convenient though, and it can be done more often throughout the month, and there is no need ever to say no to appetite should they both want to do it, and it can always be spontaneous, without stressful fear that it is “not the right time”.
It looks like the attractions of convenience, spontaneity, and self-uncontrol have duped us into setting aside the real good for its counterfeit. It is not simple dogmatic assertion in calling natural sex the real thing and self-sterilized sex the counterfeit. For glancing at the chart above, one should be able to see that the things in the left column are good, becoming to a rational creature, and in keeping with the dignity of the human person. The things in the left column, however, are unbecoming a rational creature and not in keeping with the dignity of the human person. But we have only begun to point out differences between natural sexual activity and self-sterilized sex. For so far, we have only looked at what goes on within the activities themselves. We have not looked at how the activities fit into human life as a whole. Let us first look at how they fit into marriage, and then look at the societies built by people who want and approve self-sterilized sex.
The best source of information about how these two activities differ is from couples who have practiced both for a long period of time. Typically, couples who start out enacting self-sterilized sex and switch to NFP as their way to avoid pregnancy report several differences between them. Obviously, they must learn self-control, learn to say no to the movements of appetite even when both of them want to say yes. They often describe this as learning to trust each other. The likelihood of infidelity in the self-controlled person is obviously lesser than in the self-uncontrolled person. Furthermore, they are required constantly to communicate with each other about things central to their marriage (like when and whether to have a child), the man especially learns to become sensitive to the workings of the female body, and sensitive to his wife’s body in particular. Since the person just is the living human body, sensitivity to her body is sensitivity to her. The women, in turn, feels accepted, affirmed, and loved precisely for her being a fertile being. No “ifs”, no “ands”. no “buts”, her fertility is so great and mysterious a good that he would deny himself sexual pleasure before he would try to suppress it, and she feels the same way about herself and about him. Self-control, trust, communication, and acceptance are dispositions and attitudes that can only make a marriage better. And removing them can only make a marriage worse.
Self-sterilized sex, however, removes the necessity for constant communication. It is assumed that contraception will be used until the next time they talk about kids. The freedom of being able to do it whenever you both want to, and never having to say no to it when you both want to, erodes self-control over time. Of course, some couples use neither contraception nor NFP, and simply leave everything is God’s hands. For these couples, the need for self-control typically comes when she is pregnant (which is more often than other couples probably). Women who switch from the pill to NFP typically report that they no longer felt like their fertility was being treated as a problem, they no longer felt resented for their fertility, they mistrusted their husbands less and were less suspected his motives. She begins to feel like he wants “me” rather than just sex. She no longer feared that if they got pregnant it was “my fault”.
In table form…
Natural Family Planning Contraception
cultivates self-control erodes self-control
cultivates constant communication removes motivation for
about the most important things communicating about serious things
cultivates trust cultivates suspicion
cultivates sensitivity cultivates insensitivity
cultivates a sense of total affirmation cultivates a sense of rejection
Having looked at how the two ways of avoiding pregnancy fit into marriage, let us look at how they fit into society as a whole. In the encyclical letter Humane Vitae, Pope Paul VI made four predictions about what would result in society should contraception and self-sterilized sex become something customary, approved, and desired by the people in that society. He was not arguing that contraception is wrong because it has these consequences. He is not a utilitarian. Rather, he was arguing that if contraception, and self-sterilized sex are true goods (as opposed to counterfeit goods) on an individual level, then that individual good should figure into and harmonize with the common good of society. For the individual’s good and the common good are coherent with one another, to advance one is to advance the other. But contraception and self-sterilized sex, if desired and approved by a society, poison that society in dramatic ways, undermine the common good, and thus cannot be good for the individuals who desire it and approve it. Quoting from Archbishop Chaput’s Pastoral Letter “On Human Life”:
4. In presenting his encyclical, Paul VI cautioned against four main problems (HV 17) that would arise if Church teaching on the regulation of births was ignored. First, he warned that the widespread use of contraception would lead to "conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality." Exactly this has happened. Few would deny that the rates of abortion, divorce, family breakdown, wife and child abuse, venereal disease and out of wedlock births have all massively increased since the mid-1960s.
Obviously, the birth control pill has not been the only factor in this unraveling. But it has played a major role. In fact, the cultural revolution since 1968, driven at least in part by transformed attitudes toward sex, would not have been possible or sustainable without easy access to reliable contraception. In this, Paul VI was right.
5. Second, he also warned that man would lose respect for woman and "no longer [care] for her physical and psychological equilibrium," to the point that he would consider her "as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion." In other words, according to the Pope, contraception might be marketed as liberating for women, but the real "beneficiaries" of birth control pills and devices would be men. Three decades later, exactly as Paul VI suggested, contraception has released males—to a historically unprecedented degree -- from responsibility for their sexual aggression. In the process, one of the stranger ironies of the contraception debate of the past generation has been this: Many feminists have attacked the Catholic Church for her alleged disregard of women, but the Church in Humanae Vitae identified and rejected sexual exploitation of women years before that message entered the cultural mainstream. Again, Paul VI was right.
6. Third, the Holy Father also warned that widespread use of contraception would place a "dangerous weapon . . . in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies." As we have since discovered, eugenics didn’t disappear with Nazi racial theories in 1945.
Population control policies are now an accepted part of nearly every foreign aid discussion. The massive export of contraceptives, abortion and sterilization by the developed world to developing countries—frequently as a prerequisite for aid dollars and often in direct contradiction to local moral traditions—is a thinly disguised form of population warfare and cultural re-engineering. Again, Paul VI was right.
7. Fourth, Pope Paul warned that contraception would mislead human beings into thinking they had unlimited dominion over their own bodies, relentlessly turning the human person into the object of his or her own intrusive power.
Herein lies another irony: In fleeing into the false freedom provided by contraception and abortion, an exaggerated feminism has actively colluded in women’s dehumanization. A man and a woman participate uniquely in the glory of God by their ability to co-create new life with Him. At the heart of contraception, however, is the assumption that fertility is an infection which must be attacked and controlled, exactly as antibiotics attack bacteria. In this attitude, one can also see the organic link between contraception and abortion. If fertility can be misrepresented as an infection to be attacked, so too can new life. In either case, a defining element of woman’s identity-- her potential for bearing new life—is recast as a weakness requiring vigilant distrust and "treatment." Woman becomes the object of the tools she relies on to ensure her own liberation and defense, while man takes no share of the burden. Once again, Paul VI was right.
8. From the Holy Father’s final point, much more has flowed: In vitro fertilization, cloning, genetic manipulation and embryo experimentation are all descendants of contraceptive technology. In fact, we have drastically and naively underestimated the effects of technology not only on external society, but on our own interior human identity. As author Neil Postman has observed, technological change is not additive but ecological. A significant new technology does not "add" something to a society; it changes everything—just as a drop of red dye does not remain discrete in a glass of water, but colors and changes every single molecule of the liquid.
Contraceptive technology, precisely because of its impact on sexual intimacy, has subverted our understanding of the purpose of sexuality, fertility and marriage itself. It has detached them from the natural, organic identity of the human person and disrupted the ecology of human relationships. It has scrambled our vocabulary of love, just as pride scrambled the vocabulary of Babel.
Of course, there are some people who will read this and object that contraception and self-sterilized sex are not really the cause of these things, that correlation is not causation, that this is a post hoc fallacy, that goodness of abortion does not logically follow from the goodness of self-sterilized sex, etc.. But such replies simply miss the point of Pope Paul VI’s warning. He was maintaining that it is impossible to harmonize the individual desire for and approval of self-sterilized sex with the good of society as a whole. He was urging that a people cannot have both the desire for and approval of self-sterilized sex and a flourishing society free of abortion, free of public immorality, free of high rates of divorce and adultery, free of the degradation of women, and free of the state domination of persons. For those who want to maintain the opposite, let them point to history and find a society where there is the widespread desire for and approval of self-sterilized sex without the degradation of women, without the steady declining of marriage, without rampant recourse to abortion, etc. Where there is one, there is always the other. Whether they be cause and effect or two effects rooted in an underlying cause is irrelevant. Whether they logically follow from each other is irrelevant. The point is that in such societies, the logic of raw appetite becomes the only common logic.
TP on Questions on Contraception
I sent your email on to Br. James. He is on a technology fast during lent, only using the internet on feast days, so it may be some time before we hear back from him.
I can try to provide some meager responses. As I said, though, my expertise in Catholic thought (if I can be said to have anything resembling expertise) is focused in systematics and dogmatics, I really don't know squat about Catholic moral theology. But, I'll try.
First, maybe it is wrong for you to use NFP. That is, if your conscience speaks against it, or you can’t do it with peace of heart, then you shouldn’t do it.
Acting in accord with NFP is not a failsafe for acting morally. NFP is just a means, a method of attaining (or, prolonging) a desired state of affairs. Like any method, if you employ it with a sinful intent, you are sinning. If my spouse and I use NFP because we are selfish and don’t want children, we are sinning. However, if we use NFP for the sake of the other (my wife has severe fertility problems and she my become unhealthy if she gets pregnant; it would be imprudent – really imprudent, not just mean we couldn’t buy a new SUV – for us to have another child in our current financial state) then the intent is not sinful. You need a serious reason to employ NFP.
All that is preliminary, though. I think the problem you are having with NFP is employing this all-important distinction: not acting for the sake of a good vs. acting against a good. You were close with the ensuring/making distinction you drew, though you thought it to be counterintuitive. I’ll provide some examples where we use that reasoning in the hopes of making the distinction between not acting for the sake of a good and acting against a good. Consider these examples:
- The good of truth
A large, sensitive woman asks me, “Am I fat? Be honest.” Suppose I mumble and change the subject. Here, I haven’t acted for the sake of the good of truth, since I haven’t given her the truth. Suppose, on the other hand, I say, “You? Are you kidding? Of course not!” Here, I haven’t acted for the sake of the good of truth, since I didn’t express what is true. Moreover, I acted against the good of truth insofar as I lied to her.
- The good of life
I have a very sick grandmother whose lungs are failing, is unconscious, and has previously begged that we do not keep her alive unnaturally. The doctors tell us that, if she is to live, we must put her on an iron lung machine. Suppose that my family prays about it, contemplates her wishes, and decides that it will be best for her if we don’t put her on the machine. Here, we haven’t acted for the good of life. We see that for life to be prolonged, she must go on the iron lung machine, and we decided not to put her on the machine. Suppose, instead, that I take a pillow and smother her with it. Here, we I have not acted for the good of life, but, moreover, I’ve acted against it by smothering her.
- The good of procreation
As you read this, one hopes, you aren’t having sex. Right now, then, you are not acting for the sake of the good of procreation. But, surely, you aren’t acting against it in virtue of not having sex now.
I hope these examples help show that the distinction between not acting for the sake of a good and acting against a good is a viable distinction with moral magnitude. If it is, we have what we need to draw a salient distinction between NFP and ABC. NFP sex is sex that is not acting for the sake of the good of procreation, but not acting against it. ABC sex is sex that is not acting for the sake of procreation and acting against the good of procreation.
If I answer some of the questions you raise in the email, I think it may make this position more clear.
Doesn't an NFP couple, by practicing all the temperature taking, charting, etc. choose with their intellect and will to ensure that all of their future acts of sexual intercourse will be fruitless?
What Jim meant with this line is that they try to make an act that is procreative in nature non-procreative in nature. They are taking acts that are, of themselves, life bearing, and trying to make them not life bearing. The NFP couple, in contradistinction, when charting and taking the temperature, is not trying to make an act that is of itself life bearing into an act that is not. The distinction is this: ABC couples take an act and strip it of something, NFP couples abstain from the act, and hence there isn’t an act for them to strip of a good. They are not trying to act against, or foil, a good. They are just not acting for the good.
"They take no temporary or permanent measures to make one or more of their own acts of sexual intercourse to be fruitless, barren, sterile, or devoid of engendering new life."
Again, they do take overt measures (they choose objects) which ensure that the sexual intercourse will be fruitless.
When Jim writes that the NFP couple doesn’t take measures to make an act fruitless, he means take an act that has the property of fruitfulness and strip that property away. The NFP couple, on the other hand, never takes an act and strips from that act the potency to bear fruit. Rather, they choose to abstain from an act when it could bear fruit – again, the distinction between not acting for the sake of some good and acting against a good.
Well, actually, doesn't an NFP couple say that your body is not perfect when it's fertile? I won't give myself to you if you're fertile - the message seems the same in ABC and NFP.
I don’t think this is quite right. There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with saying “I won’t give myself to you if you are x. Consider when x is ‘in a grocery store’. The message in this case isn’t that the lover is imperfect, but that prudence decrees that the marital act is imprudent at this time (and only if there are serious reasons for not having children then). Honoring the dignity of the partners and the act itself, I’d rather not act than act but have to employ instruments to change my lover. In this way the ABC act claims the lover to be imperfect in a way that the NFP act does not.
The main points are these:
- There is a morally weighty distinction between not acting for the sake of a given good and acting against that good.
- It is not immoral for a couple, in compliance with prudence and justice, to want to limit their family size – for good reasons. (the intent of limiting family size is not intrinsically evil, like the intent to rape is).
- From 2), we can deduce that the desire ‘not to act for the good of procreation at this time’ is not an immoral intention for a couple with good reasons for having it.
- A decided and deliberate act of contracepting is an act that not only is not for the sake of procreation, but is against the good of procreation.
This isn’t an argument, of course. It is just a list of important points I want to reemphasize.
I was going to write a bit in response to the last ‘historical snag’, but I don’t have anything really crucial to say now. I can’t think of a single source more than 100 years old that praises NFP. But: 1) my knowledge of Church history isn’t vast, and 2) from my tradition, that isn’t too crucial, provided I have some normative teaching now that doesn’t contradict a previous normative teaching.
Two places I’d lead you to look for philosophical and theological arguments for the morality of NFP are:
Why Humanae Vitae was right: A Reader by Janet Smith
Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later by Janet Smith
Both have arguments about section 16 of H.V., the section where Pope John VI (may eternal light shine upon him) claimed that it is moral to plan intercourse around the rhythm of the female body.
I hope that you find this, in some way, helpful. It was beneficial for me to think through these issues for myself. Give my love to the family. I hope to hear from you soon,