A student from my Theology of Body class asked a very common question a few weeks ago. Apparently she was discussing the moral implications of contraception with a friend when this friend posed an unanticipated question. The question went like this: “If it is true that the Catholic Church believes marriage must be open to life, then wouldn’t Natural Family Planning (NFP) also be immoral when used to prevent pregnancy in light of the Church’s teaching? After all, both NFP and contraception are being used as a means to prevent life which the Church says one must be open to in marriage. It appears as of the Church is arbitrarily picking and choosing what is moral and immoral.” The question is a good question worthy of a good response. I must admit that my initial answer to this student was deeply unsatisfactory in my own mind, so I spent the next week looking for a better answer. What I discovered was rather alarming.
When I followed up with the question at my next class, I began with a true/false quiz to the students. I asked them to answer ‘true’ or ‘false’ to the statement, “The Catholic Church believes marriage must be open to life?” The answer was a unanimous ‘TRUE’ which I then replied, “You are unanimously incorrect.” Before I continue I feel obligated to try and curb any initial responses one might have when reading what I just wrote. I am NOT saying that the Church approves of contraception. I simply ask for your patience as I unpack the Church’s wisdom on human sexuality.
My alarming discovery mentioned above was in the realization that many people (including myself) have a misconceived notion of the Church’s understanding of marriage and its relationship to life. If it were true that “marriage” was to be open to life at all times then it would follow that NFP used to prevent pregnancy would be morally illicit since it would be closing the “marriage” to life. However, this is not what the Church teaches. Humanae Vitae (Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on Human Life) states that “each and every marriage act must remain through itself open to the transmission of life” (HV, 11-12). Notice that Paul VI carefully stated that it is the “marriage act” not marriage itself* that must be open to life! One may argue that since the Church views the marital/conjugal act to be reserved exclusively for marriage (even “consummating” the marriage itself) then the marital act and marriage ought to be considered equivalent. It is true that the conjugal act is intrinsically related to marriage but we must not mistake a part of marriage for marriage itself otherwise we risk reducing marriage simply to the conjugal act (this is called the Fallacy of Composition).
Another way to express this necessary distinction is through an example: It is true that all atoms are colorless. We also know that all dogs are made of atoms. However, no one in their right mind would make the conclusion that this means all dogs are colorless. The error is in attributing a quality from a part of something to its whole. Thus, the Church’s teaching does in fact permit couples in marriage the right to delay pregnancy as long as such reasons are just and moral and the means by which they obtain this end are just and moral.
With the misunderstanding corrected, we may now begin to understand why the Church views contraception and the use of NFP differently. The questions the Church seeks to address are: 1) Is it possible to engage in the marital/conjugal act in a way that is morally illicit? 2) If so, what does such a marital/conjugal act look like? The Church answers ‘yes’ to question one and proclaims such an act exists when the nature of the sexual act is compromised. I recognize that the previous sentence desires extrapolation but space limits me from addressing this which is not necessary for the subject at hand. The important element to notice is that the object of moral inquiry is the activity of the conjugal act within marriage. Thus NFP, even when used morally and justly to prevent pregnancy, has no voice in the discussion above. When NFP is used to prevent pregnancy it is done so through abstaining from the sexual act during the woman’s fertile period. Again, the Church’s teaching is about the actual engagement of the sexual act and its morality. There is nothing wrong with abstaining as I’m confident all of you are doing as you are reading this column! While the couple may be intending not to get pregnant, they do so in a way that respects the value and nature of the conjugal act through abstaining. This is fundamentally different from intending not to get pregnant by sterilizing the womb before intercourse so as to remove a fundamental and natural value of the conjugal act. In the same way we make moral distinctions between death by means of “natural death” and death by means of an “unnatural death” (i.e. murder, euthanasia), the Church is calling us to apply the same distinctions to the conjugal/marital act.
Where the use of NFP appears to become the subject matter of Humanae Vitae is when the married couple actually engages in sexual activity during the infertile periods. If the object of moral inquiry is the sexual act and if each sexual act necessitates an openness of life, then is not the couple breaking the Church’s teachings by engaging in the sexual act during infertile periods? While they may not be actively sterilizing the act, their intentions are to engage in a sexual act without getting pregnant. Do not their intentions make this equivalent to a contraceptive act? The answer is no since you cannot intend something which cannot actually happen. While the statement “I do not intend to get a woman pregnant” has meaning, the statement “I do not intend to get a man pregnant” sounds absurd! The reason for its absurdity is based upon an absurd intention which is in fact no intention at all. One cannot engage in a conjugal act that is infertile with an intention to either get pregnant or not get pregnant any more than one can intend to make a square circle. Thus, even the marital/conjugal act during infertile periods is free from this particular moral scrutiny as the act maintains the integrity, value and nature of the sexual act.
Contraception was NOT invented to prevent pregnancy as there was already a fully effective way to prevent it which, again, I’m confident all of you are practicing as you read this column: abstinence. Contraception was invented to sterilize the fertile period so that if the urge to have sex were to arise during that period, neither the man nor the woman would need to muster up the energy to deny that urge in the fear of pregnancy. It is precisely this truth that opens new horizons of understanding between contraception and NFP. While contraceptive sexual acts risk enslavement to the sexual urge, NFP frees one from the all-too-real threat of sexual addiction through periods of abstinence. This makes NFP not only permissible but even virtuous! After all, one’s ‘yes’ is meaningful only when one has the self-mastery to say ‘no.’ However, this level of self-mastery is impossible outside the grace of God concretely and most powerfully manifested through the sacramental life of the Church! May God be Praised!
* I have received some questions/criticisms about the statement that “marriage” must not be open to life but rather the “marital act.” While I firmly believe the statement is technically accurate, I do acknowledge that it can be misleading to some. As an accurate compromise, another way to articulate what I have mentioned above is to say that marriage must be open to life as it corresponds to the marital act.