Humanae Vitae: NFP vs. Contraception

Kevin Aldrich - NFP


This is the fifth in a six-part series on Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s profound and heroic 1968 encyclical. The series’ introduction is here. The question of “responsible parenthood” as the Church defines it is taken up here. Questions about the unitive and procreative meanings of sex and why they should not be separated are discussed here. Questions of conscience are taken up here. This post will examine why NFP and contraception are so different, even though they kind of look the same.

For the sake of simplicity, natural family planning (NFP) is any of the methods by which married couples can determine when the wife is potentially fertile, so that they can practice periodic continence (abstinence) if they don’t desire pregnancy. Under contraception, I will include anything the couple does before, during, or after the marital act to attempt to render it infertile.

What kinda looks the same when you compare NFP and contraception?

What is the same when comparing the use of NFP and contraception is that in both cases the couple has made a decision to try to avoid pregnancy. As we discussed in the last column, the couple ought to have made a decision in conscience that they have a serious (just) reason to postpone having a child at this time.

Those who have a serious reason to try to avoid pregnancy and who use NFP have the seriousness of their reasoning confirmed for them many times during each of the wife’s fertile periods. The reason is that they have decided to refrain from having sexual relations during this time, even though they still want to have relations, so it is not easy to stick to their decision. On the other hand, for those who resort to artificial means, there is no such confirmation, because they simply continue having sexual relations as if nothing were at stake. If their reason is trivial, there is no motivation to rethink their decision. In addition, the fact that they are performing an objectively wrong act each time they contracept doesn’t help their moral reasoning in general.

Another possible point of contact between NFP and contraception is that married couples who do not have a serious reason to avoid pregnancy yet who do so using natural methods can be said to have a “contraceptive mentality.” This means that they are illegitimately saying no to the primary good of marriage, which is children. They are also saying no to God who may want to be giving them a new child. Some have questioned whether it is possible to use NFP and actually have a contraceptive mentality. I don’t know the answer to that question.

How are NFP and contraception actually radically different?

We English speakers who support NFP (or no planning at all) are at a disadvantage when trying to explain to people the difference between NFP and contraception. The reason is the nature of the words we are forced to use. Natural family planning is called a “method”—indeed, there are different methods of natural family planning a couple can choose from, just as there are many artificial methods. Vocabulary-wise, both groups “use” a “method.” But in reality, underneath NFP there is no method at all because the married couple is literally doing nothing. The techniques of NFP simply help the couple pinpoint when it is likely that pregnancy could occur so that the couple can refrain from relations during that time. They literally don’t do anything, and since they have a legitimate reason for not acting, their non-action is perfectly legitimate. They are saying yes to God’s plan in every way. They are convinced that their will is in agreement with God’s will that they should not get pregnant right now. They are also obedient to the God-given rhythms of fertility built into the wife’s body by not having relations when they could result in a pregnancy. If it should happen that a true “surprise” pregnancy results, they are open to that and take it as God’s will.

On the other hand, couples who use artificial methods do something. They have sexual relations that they attempt to render infertile. They are saying by their actions yes to sex and no to procreation. These artificial contraceptors are rejecting God’s will in a serious matter. As we have seen, God has designed into the human sexual act a two-fold meaning which the couple on their part ought not separate: love-making with life-making. The contracepting couple says no to God. They are saying—maybe not consciously but with their bodies and with their actions—I will have the sex but I will not have the procreation.

Road to perdition or paradise: Consequences of NFP and contraception

The seemingly obscure but very real differences between NFP and contraception have consequences that reverberate on the whole of marriage and family life. For example, the decision to use NFP means a serious and on-going communication with one’s spouse and God. It also requires humility and helps one grow in that same virtue. The couple realizes and lives the truth that they are not God and that they cannot do anything they want. In this way, the practice of NFP helps the couple see their creatureliness. Concretely, they cannot have sex right now if they want to uphold their decision not to get pregnant. They grow in the virtues of temperance and fortitude as they endure not doing something they would like to do. NFP can also help the couple develop the virtue of gratitude because when they do come together when the wife’s natural infertility returns, their relations are even better.

On the other hand, contraception is not only morally evil; it is also a road to vice in general. As we have pointed out above, the decision to contracept can be made without a serous reason. Since there is no difficulty in having sex when you want it, you have no motivation to reevaluate whether you really have a serious reason to not have a child now. In addition, for the contracepting couple, Paul VI warned in Humanae Vitae that contraception opens “wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards” (§17). In addition, the pontiff wrote, “a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection” (§17). In other words, the husband is tempted to see his wife no longer as a person but as an object of his pleasure to be used. This is a direct result of the joint decision to say no to God by saying yes to sex but not to its procreative purpose.

Given all this, is it really surprising that divorce among those Catholic couples who live NFP is practically non-existent, while it is about 50% for Catholic couples in general?

In the final column, we will turn to the question of whether American Catholic couples should aim for large families.

© 2014. Kevin Aldrich. All rights reserved.


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36 thoughts on “Humanae Vitae: NFP vs. Contraception”

    1. Does this author also have a fun article on why the main purpose of eating is not nutrition and another on why the main purpose of the respiratory system is not taking in oxygen and expelling CO2? Think of all the things we do with our lungs besides respirate. Play harmonicas, sigh, blow bubbles, get high, repell with bad breath, whistle.

    2. It could be said, that the most important function of our lungs, socially, is to vibrate our vocal chords and allow us to communicate. Repiration is the physical function, but the social function is at least as important. Sex may he similar. Their is more than one function for sex, and the pure physical function may not be the predominate one.

    3. No more breathing, no more human race in about four minutes. No more eating, no more human race in forty days. No more sex, no more human race in about seventy years. Those are pretty important functions.

      In the view of the Church, which I find completely sound, sex has two primary purposes which are intrinsically connected. They can be named using very homely language: babies and bonding.

    4. Sex, actually, has more than two purposes, just like breathing has more than one. The importance of sex to a relationship also varies by individual. Have you ever read the book ” The Five Love Languages?” Why should the simple biological purpose, override the more complex social and psychological purposes?

    5. I thought we were talking about primary purposes?

      I think your question is a good one. I would phrase it this way: Why should anyone accept the principle that we ought never intentionally to separate sexual intercourse from its procreative purpose?

      One answer is that “Because that is how we are made.” This answer presupposes we have a human nature that we should live according to it. It assumes we should live according to it because it is fundamentally a good nature, God made it and us, and we ought to want to act like creatures, not gods.

      Another reason is that this is perennial Christian morality. If it is legitimate to separate sex from procreation, then premarital sex is fine, adultery is fine, masturbation, homosexual acts, and orgies are fine. IVF and other reproductive technologies are fine. And contraception is fine.

      I think there are many other convincing and converging arguments and that all of them are rationally defensible. These may sound like religious arguments, but Catholics think we can know an awful lot about God and morality by reason.

    6. “I thought we were talking about primary purposes?’

      Not really.

      “One answer is that “Because that is how we are made.” This answer
      presupposes we have a human nature that we should live according to it.”

      But that’s such an incredibly poor answer. For one, it reduces us to breeding stock, for another, it ignores what we know about how we are Psychologically made. Sex fulfills human needs other than reproduction. And, honestly, what if reproduction is no longer the primary need for sex?

      Let’s look at this image of world population growth, for instance.–/YXBwaWQ9c3JjaGRkO2g9NjE3O3E9OTU7dz05MDQ-/

      What changed? Science, that’s what. We no longer need to have 6 or 8 kids for 4 to survive. We no longer have a maternal deathrate of 1 in 8 or 1 in 10.

      “and we ought to want to act like creatures, not gods.”

      Why? Why should we be relegated to the status of creatures? We are homo sapiens sapiens, the most advanced life form on this planet so far. We have the ability to decide for ourselves, think abstractly, make our own rules aside of what Natural selection might intend for us. We already have, for the most part.

      “If it is legitimate to separate sex from procreation, then premarital
      sex is fine, adultery is fine, masturbation, homosexual acts, and orgies
      are fine. IVF and other reproductive technologies are fine. And
      contraception is fine.”

      And, it absolutely is fine, and it is absolutely fine for society to set it’s own limits and it’s own rules given changing situations. The Churches desire for no contraception, with modern survival rates and ancient birth rates, would probably lead to dire consequences. This is where Dogma meets reality, and the majority of people realize that Dogma needs to lose. Whether it’s finite financial resources or finite natural resources.

      “but Catholics think we can know an awful lot about God and morality by reason.”

      For the 5000th time, no, you can’t. For the simple fact that reason without induction is blind. This should be completely obvious, and for all but the religiously blinkered, it is.

    7. Of course sex fulfills other human needs than reproduction. It also creates new human needs. In addition, I’d say very few people have sex because they are thinking about having a child. In fact, I’d say more people eat for nutrition than have sex for procreation.

      There is no contradiction to wanting to live as a creature and having an exalted dignity.

      If society gets to decide everything we are all in big trouble. I prefer a law above human law that can judge any human law’s justice or injustice. Society usually acts the tyrant.

      If we can’t know morality through reason then how can you judge the morality of any act? How can you say any condition is fine or dire?

    8. “I prefer a law above human law that can judge any human law’s justice or injustice.”

      Yes, that would be great. Unfortunately, it’s never been demonstrated.

      “Society usually acts the tyrant.”

      And? The Church didn’t spend the better part of two millenia acting the tyrant? Where it has power today it doesn’t?

      “If we can’t know morality through reason then how can you judge the
      morality of any act? How can you say any condition is fine or dire?”

      Because results matter. This is shown it the Church’s brain dead stance regarding contraception and abortion. It’s been clearly, very clearly, unequivocally shown, that the best way to reduce abortions is sex education and contraceptive availability. Yet the church can’t see it’s way to the fact that if they are really worried about abortion, the clear way to lower abortion rates is through contraception. Their stated policies make the problem worse, not better. Furthermore, morality is CLEARLY a human construct. There need not be any divine component to the ideas of human morality. Morality is how we treat each other as humans, and the Church has clearly failed in this category too many times for it to be coincidence. Morality is how humans relate to and treat one another. One only has to look at how morality has changed over time, and how it differs from society to society to realize that this is correct. Now, at this point, you’re just down to arguing how terrible society is, because you know you can’t defend your own positions from either reason or results. I’m happy to leave it here.

    9. The law that says do not kill the innocent as a higher law that can judge both the Nazis and Planned Parenthood. The higher law that says all men are created equal is able to judge Jim Crow.

      It has NOT been shown that the best way to reduce abortions is through sex education and contraception availability. It has merely been repeated over and over by those liars Planned Parenthood and her offshoots whose major business is profiting from abortions.

    10. The lawgivers that says do not kill innocents burned people at the stake who didn’t agree with them and imprisoned women in “laundries” for centuries. Who wouldn’t marry Catholics and non Catholics. Don’t give me that crap. Hell, the Church owned slaves. Christians were on both sides of the slavery debate.

      You can be in denial all you like, but it won’t change the statistics.

    11. I think you are distorting history to suit your ideology.

      But at least have agreed there is an objective moral law that we should submit to and that we can be judged by.

    12. I don’t think I’ve agreed to any such thing. If there was an objective moral law, the Church would have known it was wrong to own slaves before secular society said so. Ditto putting unwed mothers in work houses, etc, etc. As we progress, I think we are typically becoming more moral, but I don’t see any appealmto objective morality, because quite often society is throwing off old ideas of morality to make positive changes.

    13. I think that is a pretty incoherent comment.

      You seem to be saying that objective morality does not exist. If that is so, you are just emoting when it comes to evils done by Catholics. You just don’t like them but otherwise have no basis for objecting to them. But if they really were bad, then a moral standard independent of our opinions really does exist.

    14. Moral standards exist. Moral standards change. Society decided it was no longer appropriate for heretics to be burned at the stake. This doesn’t mean that there is some objective moral lawgiver to be tapped. This just means that society judged it not good. In the same vein, society judged slave labor to be bad, even thought the Catholic Church employed it up until the mid 1990’s. I didn’t judge anything bad, society did, and I agree with it. The basis of most of this is the emerging views of humanism. Societies change, morals change. I have a hard time believing that you can’t see it.

  1. My humble feeling is that divorce is not the result of NFP or adoption of contraceptives. It is mainly due to selfishness and utter disregard to one”s promise to God. A firm faith thst the spouse is gift of God will never encourage any selfish thought that leads to divorce.

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  3. I have never heard the difference explained in such a compelling way. This is must-reading for serious faith formation programs, in my opinion.

    Very profound! Abstinence is not a “method.” It’s always awkward when critics argue against abstinence education by saying that the abstinence method is error prone. This reveals such confusion.

    Thank you for this, it is truly significant.

  4. Phil, You said, ” You are right in that couples who use NFP pr Billings have significantly lower divorce rates than couples who use contraception”. Now go back and read “Hamanae Vitae”. When the Church teaches truth why do so many people think it is wrong? You also said, “… the Church is wrong….something I feel they will soon admit.” Why do you think that? If the Church would teach error, you would REALLY come down hard on the Church. You know the Church is right, your just looking for a way out! Jesus Christ IS the Truth and it’s HIS Church. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a change in truth.

    1. Is the position on birth control designated as infallible? Did the several encyclicals that were mentioned promulgated “ex cathedra”? I think not…And by the way, Jesus never spoke about “the pill”; it wasn’t around in His days…

    2. Why do we obey the Law?

      The Law exists for the common good. It makes for stable, peaceful, prosperous, social interaction. Everyone enjoys benefits.
      How does a law come about?

      A Lawgiving Institution with the necessary power and authority decides and declares and the Law comes about.
      Who can deny that God has both the power and the authority to lay down the Law?

      God the Father created us in his image and likeness.
      He gave us the freedom to choose.
      He wants us with Him forever.
      GOD loves us.

      Christ, our Redeemer was born of the Virgin Mary, lived and allowed Himself to be crucified to bring about His Church on Earth so that we might have a conduit for His Saving Grace.

      Our Lord set up the structure of His Church with St Peter and his successors at the helm to feed his sheep and lambs.
      He gave St Peter awesome delegated power to bind and loose, both here on Earth and in Heaven.
      He promised to be with His Church and His Vicar, St Peter, until the end of time.
      He ordered St Peter to confirm his brethren.
      GOD loves us.

      After the Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit came down to stay with and guide both Christ’s Vicar and His Church from error.
      GOD loves us.
      Our Triune God loves us.

      Who are we to argue with God?

      In any event, because He loves us His rules are sure to be for our benefit. What is the point of resisting His kind Wisdom?

      We should rather thank God on our knees that we have the continuing certain guidance of the Papacy & the Church

      The Pope speaks with the authority of Almighty God – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

      If I am a servant of God and have freely chosen to serve Him, then I hear and obey my Master. What else is there to do?

      Where there are two opposing views, both sides may be in error.
      However, should one of the two be correct, then logically, the other must be wrong.

      Given the knowledge and the certainty of the inspired Word of God and the unique position of St Peter and his successors, then “Humanae Vitae” cannot be ignored.

      The use of any contraception device is a serious sin against
      the Creator “of all that is, seen and unseen”.
      I purposely do not use the term “artificial” contraception because that might lead one to imagine that there must be a “natural” form of contraception.
      There is no such thing as natural contraception as opposed to artificial contraception..
      Contraception and contraceptives all involve purposefully unnatural interventions.
      Natural family planning (NFP) by its very nature is not contraceptive. There is always the possibility of conception.

      NFP unites the couple in mutual abstinence and discipline.

      Contraceptives like the Pill, a condom or an injection of a laboratory concoction are “quick fixes”.

      With contraception, discipline and mutual abstinence are absent and replaced by selfishness to a greater or lesser extent. One partner alone experiences the inconvenience of whatever device is used.

      NFP is nothing like vasectomy or any other form of permanent or temporary sterilization.

      Only by stretching the imagination can natural methods of spacing the conception of children be equated with contraception.

      My father was not a Catholic
      When I was young, my father and I discussed sex, marriage, children and what was right and what wrong.
      My father considered any form of contraception or contraceptive device to be “brothel tricks” which were a lewd defilement.

      Such things were disgusting, made a perversion of sexual intimacy and accordingly debased the voluntary user.

      No man who truly loved his wife would insult her by contemplating the use of a contraceptive. My father firmly believed that women were not put on this earth merely for the sexual gratification of men. They are mothers, daughters, wives and sisters. They are to be respected and protected.

      These same opinions were apparently held by my paternal grandfather.

      I have passed on the same message on to my sons.

      Children are not a disease. They are gifts from Almighty God to be accepted and treasured.

  5. Fr. W. M. Gardner

    I think that if we attempt to change the meaning and force of words and things in order to avoid assiduous tasks (such as having and raising children), then we will have to deal with the consequences of resulting human behavior which does not conform to the right order of things. So when married couples are no longer having sexual relations for the purpose of having children, then the society will not have enough children for a hopeful future.

    1. Let’s check the Bible:

      The Song of Songs is a long, sexy, romantic poem that many are surprised to find in the Bible. It is an unusual text in that it makes no mention of God or law, just a young, unmarried couple chasing, and lusting, after one another and eventually, as I and others believe, consummating their relationship. Over the centuries, religious scholars have argued that the poem is a metaphor for divine love. Still, it is pretty hard to ignore the poem’s graphic descriptions of the longings of the flesh. I doubt that it is a so called metaphor for divine love.

      Now since Jesus was a Jew, he was familiar with the Song of Songs and never repudiated it…just wasn’t an issue with him. Wonder why the liturgy avoids many readings of the Song of Songs?

    2. People will always have relations for the purpose of having children. However, most do not want to be reproducing on a regular basis for 20-30 childbearing years, depending on the age of marriage. Gaming the menstrual cycle to cope with 15-20 years when pregnancy must be avoided for all good reasons of sanity, solvency, and general health makes for a stressful, unsatisfactory way of life. The wife becomes the “gatekeeper” of the method and must “get it right” EVERY day. Many of those who practice it say one cannot miss a beat. Lives have been ruined using NFP. I know some of them. Some of them write blogs about how bad they are at it. One blogger has gone so far as to say it sucks. Couples will always want children, BUT they will always want to choose a method of birth control they have confidence in.

  6. I am at a loss as to where to begin to challenge this post. You are right in that couples who use NFP pr Billings have significantly lower divorce rates than couples who use contraception. The rate of divorce for Catholics who use contraception hovers about 50% and the rate of divorce for those who use contraception runs about 2%. Since estimates have it that 2-3% of the world population use NFP and that the rate drops to 1.5% in developed countries, a statistician would have a field with the assumption that NFP really leads to lower rates of divorce as it is rarely practiced.

    One must also remember that the majority of Church going Catholics reject the Church’s position on contraception. Remember in 1968, right after HV, the Canadian Bishops released the Winnipeg statement and re-affirmed it in 1969. The bishops of Canada stated:””In accord with the accepted principles of moral theology, if these persons have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives, they may be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.” The primacy of good conscience.”Even the encyclicals Casti Connubii andHumanae Vitae are considered by most, though not all, Catholic theologians to be non-infallible documents.

    Bishop Robert Lynch, in February of 2014 was pretty clear to the Vatican: “”On the matter of artificial contraception, the responses might be characterized by saying, ‘That train left the station long ago,’ ” he wrote in a Feb. 7 blog about his report. “Catholics have made up their minds and the sensus fidelium [the sense of the faithful] suggests the rejection of church teaching on this subject.”

    In reporting on the 6,800 responses to his questionnaire, Lynch noted, “The survey responses generally reflect the ‘choir,’ those people who faithfully attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, if not daily. They do not represent the feelings of those who have fallen away from the practice of their faith, are angry or frustrated or feel alienated from the Church. How I wish I could have heard from them as well.”

    Even the “choir” — the 78 percent of respondents who said they attend Mass at least every Sunday and holy day (including 9 percent who said they go to Mass every day) — overwhelmingly said that most Catholics they know do not accept church teaching on natural family planning and birth control. Of all respondents, only 13 percent agreed that Catholics they know accept church teaching in that area; 81 percent disagreed, and 6 percent said they were uncertain or declined to answer.

    The German bishops’ report said that such differences are seen “above all when it comes to premarital cohabitation, [the status of the] divorced and remarried, birth control and homosexuality.” The report represented the views of Catholics from all 27 German dioceses and about 20 German Catholic organizations, Catholic News Service reported.

    CNS said the Swiss bishops’ report, based on responses from 25,000 Catholics, drew results quite similar to those expressed in Germany.

    Also in early February, Univision released results of a poll it sponsored in 12 countries with some of the world’s largest Catholic populations, reaching at least 1,000 Catholic respondents in each country. The results of the Univision survey of European and U.S. Catholics seemingly matched the reports of responses to the Vatican questionnaire.

    The sentiment of Catholics is overwhelmingly a rejection of the Church’s position on artificial birth control.

    And realistically, the UN reports that 1.5 million children die of starvation each year…a case for family planning that can be easy and understood by all in developing countries. In this instance, the Church is wrong….something I feel they will soon admit.

    1. Thank you Phil D. for that most thoughtful comment on contraception. One size does not fit all. NFP for lots of people is not at all natural. It places a big burden on women to “get it right” every month. Intimacy in marriage should help us with our crosses in life, not become one more to bear. Also, it should be remembered that there are many ways for women to be open to life; having babies, though very important, is but one. Most people are not called to have larger than the average range of children, 2-5. Think about it. There is good reason for this.

    2. Kevin Aldrich

      All you have said is that many Catholics have rejected Humanae Vitae and some, evidently, are hoping to abolish it. Nothing new about that.

      And at the end you make the unsupported claim that children dying of starvation have something to do with the Church’s teaching.

    3. Let’s see and use logic…live in the SubSahara; be fearful of intolerant missionaries who promulgate the evil of birth control and do not recognize the need for intimacy; have unrestrained breeding without birth control in areas with no resources to support life (because of the greed of industrialized countries and you get death by starvation. Make sense?

    4. Ok, Kevin, let’s check which “facts” do not correspond to reality:
      (1) Because of war, genocide, blockades, political chaos, lack of rain, desert-like conditions, lack of agriculture knowledge, these areas in under developed countries lack the ability to sustain population growth.
      (2) RC missionaries work hard in these countries to convert people to Catholicism.
      (3) The message of these missionaries is that birth control is intrinsically morally evil, and uneducated, illiterate masses but this message without questions.
      (4) B16 sent mixed messages to people about the use of condoms to prevent disease (HIV).
      (5) People should not live a life of abstinence and live with an inability to express loving relationships with spouses.
      (6) The UN reports that 1.5 million children die per year from starvation in these areas.
      (7) Unfettered breeding when resources to sustain life are absent because of whatever political or geographical causes death from malnourishment.

      So where are my facts not corresponding to reality?

    5. > Children starve to death not because there are too many of them but for political reasons.
      > Catholic missionaries work not only to spread the Gospel but also to promote the common good through development of the societies they engage with, providing education, medical care, and so on.
      > Natural Family Planning does not in any way require more than a moderate abstinence and increases spousal loving relationships.
      > Natural Family Planning allows even poor and relatively uneducated people to exercise responsible parenthood.

      I will give you the last word on this thread.

    6. Thanks, your right if every illiterate, impoverished, nomadic refugee in a county whose political strife prevents aide to women and children carries around a basal thermometer, and a pen and paper to chart her cycle, and be trained to NFP or Billings….thanks for the last word.

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