A young physician asked me recently to explain the difference between contraception and Natural Family Planning (NFP) following a talk I gave in his parish. Since this is not something I had written about recently, my answer was rather weak. Also, this is not something that can be explained in a minute or two standing in a church. But it is a question that needs to be answered.
Sex Is a Unique Act
The first consideration is the fact that the conjugal act is not some peripheral, or merely biological act which does not engage the person. It is rather a highly personal act which touches a person at the very core. One can attempt to relegate it to the periphery of one’s experience, but most people understand sexual intimacy as far more than a recreational activity. Of course, one may do violence to the essential meaning of a conjugal act by treating it as merely an act of pleasure without any other significance (as in “hooking up”). But most intelligent, reflective persons would see this as in fact “doing violence” to the very nature of sexual intimacy.
Our laws reflect this. To verbally abuse a child is considered bad enough, but to sexually abuse a child calls for prosecution and incarceration. And well it should. Our laws acknowledge that sexual contact is unique and has a profound effect on the person. Thus, arguments that contraception is analogous to using earplugs or using sunglasses, fail to take into account that the sex act is unique insofar as it has a profound effect on the participants. It is a kind of core act unlike hearing or seeing.
It is more analogous to a kiss, with all the rich meaning of that act. The kiss of Judas is considered deplorable because it made use of a sign of affection and love to turn Jesus over to his enemies. It was a shameful lie.
Contraception is said to brand its participants with an “anti-life mentality” as Pope John Paul II wrote in Familiaris Consortio (No. 30):
Scientific and technological progress, which contemporary man is continually expanding in his dominion over nature, not only offers the hope of creating a new and better humanity, but also causes ever greater anxiety regarding the future. Some ask themselves if it is a good thing to be alive or if it would be better never to have been born; they doubt therefore if it is right to bring others into life when perhaps they will curse their existence in a cruel world with unforeseeable terrors. Others consider themselves to be the only ones for whom the advantages of technology are intended, and they exclude others by imposing on them contraceptives or even worse means. Still others imprisoned in a consumer mentality and whose sole concern is to bring about a continual growth of material goods, finish by ceasing to understand, and thus by refusing, the spiritual riches of a new human life. The ultimate reason for these mentalities is the absence in people’s hearts of God, whose love alone is stronger than all the world’s fears and can conquer them.
Thus an anti-life mentality is born, as can be seen in many current issues: One thinks, for example of a certain panic deriving from the studies of ecologists and futurologists on population growth, which sometimes exaggerate the danger of demographic increase to the quality of life. (Emphasis added)
But the Church firmly believes that human life, even if weak and suffering, is always a splendid gift of God’s goodness. Against the pessimism and selfishness which cast a shadow over the world, the Church stands for life: In each human life she sees the splendor of that “yes,” that “amen,” who is Christ himself. To the “no” which assails and afflicts the world, she replies with this living “yes,” thus defending the human person and the world from all who plot against and harm life.
Of course, when a couple contracepts it is usually not because they are against life, or do not value life. However, when they contracept, they slide into this negative view of human life because the act of contraception is an effort to prevent a life from being conceived in a deeply personal human act.
It is analogous to what happens to a man who uses pornography. When a man looks at pornography, he ordinarily doesn’t begin to do so because he holds women in low esteem, or considers them as mere objects of enjoyment. However, once he has used pornography for a time, that is the mentality he emerges with. Women are subconsciously seen as his playthings.
An Excluding Love
Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes taught:
[Conjugal] love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the act proper to marriage. Hence, the actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy. Expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions signify and foster the mutual self-donation by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and a ready mind (GS, No. 49b).
This is an important phrase: Conjugal love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the act proper to marriage. In other words, it symbolizes married love and forms the future of that love. So the symbolism of the marriage act has a formative power for the couple.
Now, the symbolism of contracepted sex is to communicate love toward one’s spouse, but to at the same time exclude children. It is akin to what the French call an “egoisme a deux.” When a couple has sex, they not only symbolize their marital commitment of love, but they also form their love, in this case, an excluding sort of love.
It is not the intention not to have more children that is the problem. That is an acceptable intention for just reasons. It is the act (of contracepted marital intimacy) itself in its rich symbolism which forms a love that excludes others.
It should be noted that natural family planning could be carried out with a contraceptive mentality, especially if the motive for using it is selfish.
Not Total Self-giving
Pope John Paul II wrote:
When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings that God the creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion, they act as “arbiters” of the divine plan and they “manipulate” and degrade human sexuality and with it themselves and their married partner by altering its value of “total” self-giving. Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life, but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality.
When, instead, by means of recourse to periods of infertility, the couple respect the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of human sexuality, they are acting as “ministers” of God’s plan, and they “benefit from” their sexuality according to the original dynamism of “total” self-giving, without manipulation or alteration (Familiaris Consortio, No. 32).
In other words, when using contraception the spouses are in essence saying, “I give you all of myself except my fertility,” and “I want all of you except your fertility.” This falls short of an authentically total self-gift.
There are other differences between contraception and NFP, of a non-philosophical nature. For example, birth control pills (combination or mini-pill) are part-time abortifacients; depo-provera, another progestin hormone injected every three months is also a part-time abortifacient as are the morning-after pill and the IUD; and, of course in this age it should be mentioned that NFP is the only “green” (i.e., ecologically friendly) birth control method.
So, it seems that contraception has a powerful negative spiritual effect on those who use it, not to mention all the medical drawbacks it entails. Natural family planning, on the other hand, is a wonderfully “green” way of controlling family size, one that avoids all the negatives of contraception. It involves a similar intention as in contraception, but an entirely different profoundly formative act.
Is this an easily understood difference? No, it is subtle and requires some thought to grasp. But it is true, and understanding this is a key to marital happiness for those willing to embrace this truth and live it.
In an age when Man travels far and wide to find the beauty of an untouched lake, an undiscovered forest, a pristine beach, he is invited to find within, a natural beauty, an enriching harmony, a glory which he can honor, or a glory he can drag down into the commercial technology of his often self-alienating world. If he honors it, he can, for a time, become like God, symbolizing and forming a love which is total, superabundant, and creative. And, by so doing, he expresses his own inner glory and shares it with the world.
FATHER MORROW is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. He has a Licentiate in Moral Theology from the Dominican House of Studies, and a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. He is founder of the St. Lawrence Society, which is for single young adult men seeking spiritual growth, and the St. Catherine Society, the female counterpart to the St. Lawrence Society. His book Christian Courtship in an Oversexed World was published in 2003 by Our Sunday Visitor and is in its third printing.