Monday, September 24, 2007

Why NFP Is Not Just Catholic Birth Control

These two arguments against the oft repeated ‘NFP is just Catholic Birth Control’ cliché occurred to me other day.

First (and the weaker of the two) if we strip away the excess, the bare-bones argument we’re left with is little more than the sort of Platonist influenced – neo-Gnosticism our heavily Protestant influenced culture is all too comfortable with. What I mean to say is this: (Yea, I know clever word games don’t prove anything) while it is certainly true to say that in many cases the true intention of an act can override the specifics of what was actually done, we are guilty of taking this premise one step too far when we try to focus only on a supposed “intention” and thereby feel we are justified in completely ignoring the real act.

To put this in perspective – one may say “that Baptism in sand was a valid Baptism because the intention was right – forget that we didn’t use the correct element” or “that Eucharistic celebration using milk and cookies was valid because all those present had the right intention”. On the other end of the extreme is the case where a man makes a mistake and kills another – we then look solely at his intention and not at his action. Justly, he is pronounced innocent of this act since it was not his intention to kill. The point being that there is an instant at which it crosses from being a mere formality of details to a substantive act or material which cannot be justified regardless of intention.

To further illustrate this point, I would take another example from a stand point which any reasonable proponent of contraception would agree on – abortion is intrinsically evil. While that is true, a certain would-be mother living in impoverished conditions, barely able to feed herself and having the noble intention of reducing the poverty level would not be justified in her act of abortion regardless of how pure and true her intention might have been. (This is not at all to say that the level of her moral ignorance couldn’t reduce her culpability).

The reader has probably already guessed – I am bringing this point around to another well worn truth – the ends do not justify the means. But the conclusion of the point is this: it is impossible to say that intentions comprise the only meaningful substance of any action. One would be forced to say such a thing in order to justify contraception on the grounds that the Church allows for Natural Family Planning. In both scenarios, the intentioned ends are the same – prevent pregnancy. However, the means are substantially different. While this point alone certainly does not prove that contraception is evil, it does prove that one must at least allow for the possibility that contraception is evil while NFP is morally acceptable.

The second point against the argument is this: since we have determined that the two can not necessarily be grouped together based on intention alone – we must examine the actual substance of each act. NFP works by temporary abstinence whereas contraception works by poison and or intentional harm/disruption of natural bodily functions (I am excluding from discussion any contraceptive that is abortifacient in nature which is obviously immoral by any standard).

Immediately we know that abstinence (temporary or permanent) needn’t be justified by intentions (it is intrinsically a perfectly acceptable act and even praised by the Scriptures). Conversely, intentional harm and or disruption of natural bodily functions can hardly be justified by any intention. (Notice I say – hardly for there certainly are instances which would justify bodily harm).

There was a man trapped in the woods by a tree he fell with a chain saw. After some time – he knew he would die if he couldn’t free himself and had to cut off his own leg (intentional disruption / destruction of one’s body) and lived because of it. Self-preservation became the justifying intention in this scenario (and others like it) but contraception has no such noble intention. A godly intention would be one compatible with a culture of life – and love and of truth. The intention of preventing pregnancy doesn’t fall into that category and therefore cannot justify this intrinsically disordered act. (Don’t forget that cutting off one’s own leg is also intrinsically and objectively disordered).

But as we proved in the previous point, the two acts (NFP & Contraception) cannot necessarily be lumped into one moral category based on the intention. The intention of preventing and or avoiding pregnancy is not in itself an evil one but it certainly isn’t intrinsically a holy one either.

It seems reasonable to assume that the underlying objection to NFP is refusal to exercise self control. Whether married or single, Christians are called to a life of temperance, modesty and self control. This is a proverbial slap in the face to the world’s idea of morality. So to anyone struggling with the question of how NFP is morally acceptable while contraception is not, I hope this has been of some minimal use.


Joseph said...

I'm still a bit troubled with how NFP is taught and encouraged in the U.S. I always thought that it should only be used when there was some serious reason to avoid pregnancy (health & dangerous levels of poverty).

Today, it seems to be taught as a form a contraception (though most of these Catholic catechists will deny that).

For example, the attitude of a couple using NFP (thinking they are obeying the Church and using it properly) may be the same as a couple who uses contraception.

Let's say, for example, we have two Catholic couples. Both couples make a combined income of $110,000 per year. Both live in the same upper/middle-class neighborhood. Both have the same mortgage payment on similar 3,000 square-foot houses. Both have a Lexus SUV and a Mercedes sedan in their two-car garages. Both have exactly one son and one daughter. Both decide that having another child will potentially force them to sell their house and downgrade to a merely middle-class neighborhood, thus losing the weekend BBQs and tea parties they've enjoyed having with prominent lawyers and businesspersons who share residence in their neighborhood. Both believe that the expense of another child will also put a strain on their car payments, so they may even have to downgrade to Hondas and perhaps even be forced to purchase the dreaded mini-van over the classy SUV. Both women are healthy and can bare more children without complications.

In both cases, the only reason for avoiding pregnancy is out of fear that they may slip down one rung on the social and economic ladder. Is the use of NFP not as much of a mortal sin in this case? Aren't they both deliberately avoiding pregnancy so that they can both experience the pleasure of materialistic wealth and the ecstacy of sexual climax without the "disruption" caused from the God-willed result of sexual intercourse? What if we add to the confusion. Let's say that the contracepting couple uses NFP as well but the husband "pulls out" in addition to avoiding the most fertile time periods. They aren't using contraception in that case, so it is no longer a matter of damaging the body. It is a willed intent to misuse the sexual organs, no? What is the difference between the two? I haven't heard anything on these issues coming out of the pro-NFP USCCB. I think it would be go to know. If motives don't matter and I'm not putting myself in a state of mortal sin by using NFP to ensure that I don't lose financial status, then isn't it to my (and every other Catholic) advantage to use NFP in this manner? Isn't that a moral loophole?

Unfortunately, from what I've read and heard, NFP is mostly used by and promoted to couples that fit the exact hypothetical model I constructed above. I don't think that poor Catholic families in Mexico are using NFP. I would like to see an honest statistical demographical survey of those who use to NFP (ethnicity, affluency, education, etc.).

Obviously, I'm not building a case against NFP. I believe that the Church allows it for good reason. What I am building a case against is the improper implementation of it, in my opinion, that I believe is rampant in the U.S. and supported by most bishops here. Slipping down a rung on the economic ladder from upper/middle-class to middle-class does not sound like a valid reason for using NFP.

Your thoughts?

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

I definitely agree. I didn't mean to say at all that motives must be taken out of the equation - just that they can't be the only part of the discussion we look at in determining the morality of the situation.

I think an important thing to remember is that the "be fruitful an multiply" commandment is a very broad one - it doesn't mean that we have to procreate as much as our bodies will allow us to.

(Don't think I'm making an excuse for anything I want ten kids!)

In your example, I think the family would be guilty of sin but to what degree I'm not qualified to answer.

I don't have that problem because already with 3 members of my family we're below the poverty level :-P (and living like kings so don't think for a second that I'm complaining).

But in reality, I think a couple who is willing to use NFP for the aforementioned reasons would probably just opt for contraception anyway. I'm unpleasantly surprised by the careless attitude many lay Catholics speak of contraception as if it were no issue at all.

nfpworks said...

I agree with Joseph that all too often NFP is marketed as "Catholic Birth Control," although this is no reason not to promote NFP. Instead, we need to form Catholics--especially clergy, teachers and NFP teachers--about the proper way to evangelize about the Church's teaching, and give people tools for discerning a just and serious reason to postpone. For more on a related topic, see