There are some in the Catholic Church who argue that Natural Family Planning is the same as contraception and, thus, just as morally repugnant. They argue that while NFP is more “natural” it is only a function of aesthetics and that the act itself (timing intercourse with the intention of avoiding a pregnancy) is the same kind of act as one that uses a condom or hormonal birth control. They argue that this could even potentially be a mortal sin due to not rendering the marital act to our spouse when abstaining from intercourse to avoid a pregnancy. Let’s discover the truth from a biologic and Church teaching perspective.
It wasn’t until fairly recently that I heard these arguments against NFP in the Catholic Church. Frankly, I was dumbfounded because not only are the arguments against NFP not grounded in Church teaching, they are not grounded in biology and the essence of contraceptives versus Natural Family Planning. In this post, I venture to give 8 reasons why NFP is permitted by the Catholic Church, the moral and ethical differences between NFP and contraceptives and what Scripture has to say about the sexual intimacy between spouses.
REASON #1 WHY NFP IS NOT THE SAME AS CONTRACEPTION
CCC 1643: “Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter- appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and the will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility. In a word it is a question of the normal characteristics of all natural conjugal love, but with a new significance which not only purifies and strengthens them, but raises them to the extent of making them the expression of specifically Christian values.”
Contraception, whether that’s a barrier method or hormonal contraceptive, is inherently morally egregious because it separates the procreative from the unitive act. The Catholic Church teaches that the purpose for sexual intimacy between spouses is to be BOTH unitive (the actual coming together of bodies in a sexually intimate way) and procreative (the sexual act must be open to creating new life). Contracepted sex is an inherently closed off sexual act that says, “I love you with my body in this special, exclusive, beautiful way, but I don’t love your fertility. I want to do what I want with you without the possibility of bringing a child into the world.” This type of sexual act is inherently selfish. It seeks sexual pleasure at the expense of using the spouse’s body but not loving the totality of who they are, including their fertility. Contracepted sexual intimacy says, “I should have access to you however and whenever I feel like it without the chance of conceiving.”
NFP, on the other hand, values, honors and loves the totality of the spouse, including their fertility. The couple who uses NFP to avoid a pregnancy says, “I love all of who you are so even though our intention is to avoid a pregnancy (so we are only being intimate outside the fertile window), if we should get pregnant as a result of our intimacy, that is okay.” Both spouses KNOW that every sexual act has the POTENTIAL to result in pregnancy, even if it isn’t LIKELY due to using days outside the fertile window. Contraceptive ACTIVELY attempts to interrupt the POTENTIAL for pregnancy while NFP doesn’t.
NFP requires sacrifice of the self, and the sacrifice of seeking sexual pleasure for the self, as the cost for avoiding a pregnancy (i.e. “we don’t want to conceive a baby right now, so we must mutually deny ourselves sexual pleasure for a short period of time to avoid a pregnancy”). In using NFP, the spouses must use their God-given reason to be master of their impulses and emotions. This is rightly ordered orientation of the soul, with the intellect and the will governing the passions. Contraceptives require no self-mastery and remain selfish in seeking sexual pleasure at the expense or use of the spouse (rejecting their fertility). Contraceptives allow for the lower passions to dictate the actions of the spouses, not prudence or reason. This is inherently disordered.
REASON #2 WHY NFP IS NOT THE SAME AS CONTRACEPTION
Scripture has a lot to say about properly ordered martial love and even NFP. Here are some examples:
1 Corinthians 7:1-6: “Now in regard to the matters about which you wrote: “It is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman,” but because of cases of immorality every man should have his own wife, and every woman her own husband. The husband should fulfill his duty toward his wife, and likewise the wife toward her husband. A wife does not have authority over her own body, but rather her husband, and similarly a husband does not have authority over his own body, but rather his wife.Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer, but then return to one another, so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, however, not as a command.”
In the commentary for these verses in the New American Bible, it states: “It seems that some Christians in Corinth were advocating asceticism in sexual matters. The pattern it is a good thing…, but occurs twice (1 Cor 7:1–2, 8–9; cf. 1 Cor 7:26), suggesting that in this matter as in others the Corinthians have seized upon a genuine value but are exaggerating or distorting it in some way. Once again Paul calls them to a more correct perspective and a better sense of their own limitations. The phrase it is a good thing (1 Cor 7:1) may have been the slogan of the ascetic party at Corinth.”
Basically, the church in Corinth had gone too far to the extreme of rejecting all pleasure (asceticism), including sexual pleasure between spouses. St. Paul is bringing them back to the Golden Mean that Aristotle talks about. Complete indulgence in our bodily pleasures is a bad thing. Complete abstinence from all bodily pleasures, when you are married, is also a bad thing. He is saying that God created sexual intimacy and therefore it is an objective good when properly ordered. To reject sexual intimacy in totality (or only engaging in it twice a year) is not good because it deprives the spouse of mutual martial authority over the body of their spouse. This does not pertain to NFP unless the couple is so afraid of getting pregnant that they are abstaining the majority of the time and only engaging in the marital act once or twice a year. This is especially detrimental to marriage if one spouse is acting in opposition to the other (i.e. one spouse is afraid of getting pregnant and the other is not). Under most circumstances in my experience as a married woman, and as an NFP instructor, the couple using NFP is not abstaining to that extreme. Most couples using NFP are trying to get as many usable days as possible while trying to avoid a pregnancy. They want to be intimate with their spouse and they also have a good reason not to have another baby at this time.
I won’t quote this passage at length, rather will discuss it and encourage you to go read the book for yourself. Tobiah and Sarah are both cursed, one with blindness, the other with a demon. Through the instructions of the angel Raphael, they experience healing and then the gift of having each other for a spouse. Before Tobiah and Sarah go to bed on their wedding night, Tobiah leads Sarah in prayer, thanking God for His goodness and mercy towards them. He asks for continued protection and blessing. Tobit 8:7 “Now, not with lust, but with fidelity I take this kinswoman as my wife. Send down your mercy on me and on her, and grant that we may grow old together. Bless us with children.”
This is a beautiful example of a married couple respecting each other and properly ordering their sexual intimacy toward authentic love, not lust (or indulgence of the lower passions by using the spouse for selfish sexual gratification). They are open to children, same as with NFP (again, where the sexual act is ALWAYS ordered to the POTENTIAL for a baby, however unlikely).
“Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave [his] father and [his] mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband.”
Again, this verse speaks to the mutual respect and properly ordered love between the spouses. The goal of the husband is to sanctify his wife, to sacrifice himself (and perhaps his lower passions and sexual desires, for a short period of time to avoid a pregnancy) for her sake. This verse also speaks to the wife, telling her to respect and be obedient to her husband. Today’s culture would have us believe that this is disdainful. It takes courage for a woman to be submissive to a man because we are the more vulnerable sex. In order for a woman to be open to her husband, giving him her body, potentially having a baby with him (arguably the most vulnerable thing a woman can do- get pregnant, carry the pregnancy to term and give birth), there has to be a lot of trust. This trust is borne out through mutual self-sacrifice and authentic love for one another. These two things are thwarted in contracepted sexual intimacy, which inherently (as in by-the-nature-of-the-thing) is self-seeking and lustful (I will use you for my sexual pleasure whenever I want to).
REASON #3 WHY NFP IS NOT THE SAME AS CONTRACEPTION
When using NFP, the couple is supposed to discern, with the help of God through the Holy Spirit, whether or not to conceive a baby. There is intentionality behind this decision and couples have a responsibility to undergo this discernment while taking into account many factors, including (but perhaps not limited to) the health of the spouses, particularly the woman’s health since she is the one who physically carries any potential baby, the health and well-being of any children already present in the family, and the resources available to the family including financial, time, and mental. The Church does not outline these potential “serious reasons” for avoiding a pregnancy specifically so that the spouses can discern for themselves. Some couples are gifted with both fertility and the bandwidth and other resources to handle all the children God gives them. Other couples are very fertile and lack in some other area essential to the rearing of children, be it financial, mental, time, access to quality education, etc. These spouses have an important job in balancing the needs of each member of the family while also calling each member of the family to stretch themselves, grow in greater dependence on our Heavenly Father and trust in His goodness and provision. This is a discernment that is deeply personal and greatly affects the well-being of each member of the family so must remain a discernment between God and the spouses. It is really not the place of any outside authority, even the Church (and certainly not the casual observer from the outside looking in), to say what the spouses should do in these circumstances. It is for this very reason that the Church remains silent on how many children a family should have. Each couple retains their God given authority over their family. Again, the properly ordered marital love must remain (i.e. being open to new life) and on this the Church IS clear. And, in her wisdom, the Church leaves the specifics of how many children and when they should come to God and the spouses.
Contraceptives absolve the married couple from the necessity of this discernment because their actions are by their very nature closed to reproduction and therefore the conversation and prayer about whether or not they should be open to life this cycle is unnecessary.
REASON #4 WHY NFP IS NOT THE SAME AS CONTRACEPTION
NFP is never abortifacient. Some contraceptives are.
Hormonal contraceptives introduce artificial pregnancy hormones to the woman’s body, tricking it into thinking it is pregnant. In this way, hormonal contraceptives suppress fertility and therefore prevent pregnancy. However, it is still possible that ovulation and conception will occur, but implantation will not happen due to the endometrial lining not being thickened and prepared to implant a fertilized egg. This usually happens when the hormones are leveling off, either because the woman missed a dose of oral contraceptive or the implant or rod or IUD hormones are waning.
It is true that some couples using NFP experience fetal loss or miscarriage. In this case the couple did not ACTIVELY try to thwart pregnancy, however for some reason, through no fault of the couple, the baby did not survive.
REASON #5 WHY NFP IS NOT THE SAME AS CONTRACEPTION
NFP is not detrimental to the woman’s health. Some contraceptives are.
Hormonal contraceptives come with a whole slew of negative health effects including risk of blood clot (stroke, heart attack), depression, weight gain, and decreased libido. Natural Family Planning is, indeed, natural. Because there is no introduction of artificial hormones to the woman’s body, she does not experience the negative side effects that come with hormonal contraceptives.
REASON #6 WHY NFP IS NOT THE SAME AS CONTRACEPTION
NFP teaches a woman and her spouse how her body works and can even pick up on underlying pathologies. In this way not only does NFP not actively harm a woman and work against her body, it actually promotes better health for the woman. Contraceptives can mask underlying pathologies and make it more difficult for a woman to know what is normal and abnormal in her cycle health. Everything from benign polyps to uterine cancer are much more easily detected (and earlier!) when a woman is consistently charting her cycles. That charting comes with a deeper understanding for how her body works and when it isn’t working properly the woman knows sooner.
REASON #7 WHY NFP IS NOT THE SAME AS CONTRACEPTION
NFP can also be used to ACHIEVE a pregnancy for couples who desire a baby. Contraceptives never intend to achieve a pregnancy.
REASON #8 WHY NFP IS NOT THE SAME AS CONTRACEPTION
Some abstinence is necessary in marriage. To argue that abstinence is sinful is wrong. “Rendering the marital debt” must be “reasonable.” There are some instances when the request for sex is unreasonable or impossible. Common examples of when a couple needs to abstain from sexual relations are when a spouse is sick, one spouse is out of town for some reason, the wife has just given birth, one spouse is recovering from some health issue or surgery, the spouses are both mentally and/or physically tapped out, it’s not an appropriate time or place, and the list could go on. The fact is that even couples who use contraceptives don’t have sex at every moment of every day. In fact, research has shown that couples who use NFP tend to have sex at least as frequently and many time more frequently than their contracepting counterparts (see USCCB article). Further reading on this topic is listed below.
There are also many benefits to these periods of abstinence. Love is a multidimensional thing because people are multidimensional. We are not just our bodies. We are also our minds, our hearts and our souls. The periodic abstinence required to avoid a pregnancy while using NFP allows couples to connect on these other important dimensions. There is built in time during the woman’s cycle for non-sexual physical touch, checking in with your spouse mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. These are all important aspects of any intimate relationship and can greatly deepen the mutual affection of the spouses, which can in turn greatly deepen their physical intimacy when sexual relations resume at the close of the fertile window.
Not only is the use of NFP not against the moral and ethical teachings of the Church on marital intimacy, it can actually be a great benefit to the well-being of the family, the spouses and the woman’s health. If the above reasons didn’t convince you of not only the permissiveness of using NFP but also its merits, feel free to read the following Church documents and research articles pertaining to marital love and NFP.
Further recommended reading
Familiaris Consortio specifically paragraph 13
Humanae Vitae specifically paragraph 10
https://www.usccb.org/topics/natural-family-planning USCCB website for NFP
Advantages of using NFP research article
Efficacy of the Marquette Method research article
Effects of NFP on marital intimacy research article
Sexual satisfaction and NFP research article
Marital satisfaction NFP vs contraception research article