When we were in marriage preparation class many years ago, there was one evening devoted to instruction on Catholic sexuality. The teaching couple said, “You guys have heard about NFP, right?”
And we said, “Yes.”
And they said, “Whew.”
And that was pretty much it. I’m paraphrasing, but that was pretty much all we got, other than the advice to keep the lines of communication open, and to invest in gold. And that was okay with me. I thought we knew everything already anyway. We did intend to use NFP, eventually, once we had a grave enough reason. But we weren’t afraid of babies, like some people, and we certainly didn’t intend to be one of those couples who used NFP with a contraceptive mentality.
Oooh, that contraceptive mentality! Boy, it sounded pretty bad whenever it came up in the Catholic groups and message boards I frequented as a new wife. The context was always, “Most couples these days are using natural family planning with a contraceptive mentality.” Or, “The contraceptive mentality has crept into our marriage prep classes. Whatever happened to being open to life and trusting in God?”
The phrase “contraceptive mentality” is loosely used to mean, “Using natural family planning in such a way that you might as well be using artificial contraception.” It’s used to mean, “cheating the system.” It means, “You can’t fool God. You may be using NFP and calling it Catholic, but if you are making an effort not to have babies, then that’s what contraception is: trying not to have babies. God is not deceived.”
Is this true? Is it possible to use NFP with a contraceptive mentality?
origins of the phrase
Before we answer this question of whether it’s possible to use NFP with a contraceptive mentality, let’s find out where the phrase “contraceptive mentality “actually came from. It’s not in the catechism! And it’s not in Humanae Vitae. This phrase was coined by John Paul II, first in the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio in 1981, and then in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae in 1995.
Strangely enough, he wasn’t talking about contraception, exactly; and he definitely wasn’t talking about natural family planning. In Familiaris Consortio, he mentions the “contraceptive mentality” in the context of a bunch of things that have gone wrong in the modern family. He references
a disturbing degradation of some fundamental values: a mistaken theoretical and practical concept of the independence of the spouses in relation to each other; serious misconceptions regarding the relationship of authority between parents and children; the concrete difficulties that the family itself experiences in the transmission of values; the growing number of divorces; the scourge of abortion; the ever more frequent recourse to sterilization; the appearance of a truly contraceptive mentality.
And in Evangelium Vitae, he uses the phrase in the context of how artificial contraception leads to abortion. He says:
[T]he negative values inherent in the “contraceptive mentality” – which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act – are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived. Indeed, the pro-abortion culture is especially strong precisely where the Church’s teaching on contraception is rejected.
In both of these cases, he’s using “contraceptive mentality” to mean “the mentality that one has when one uses contraception,” or perhaps “the mentality that leads one to use contraception.”
Tellingly, in both cases, he’s contrasting the contraceptive mentality with obedience to Church teaching. He’s not using “contraceptive mentality” to mean “using NFP for less-than-dire reasons” or “using NFP selfishly.” That simply isn’t in the text. He’s not talking about NFP at all, or about people who are trying to follow Church teaching. He’s talking about people who are rejecting Church teaching with their behavior by literally using contraception.
He’s saying, “When we reject the Church’s teaching on contraception, i.e., by using contraception, bad things happen. The family is weakened. Marriages break up. We start killing babies.” And so on. That’s how he used the phrase that he invented.
The phrase “contraceptive mentality” also turns up in one more document, also in 1995, in The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality from the Pontifical Council on the Family. It’s in a passage warning parents to make sure that nobody teaches your kids to fear and despise virginity and babies, and it uses the phrase: “the contraceptive mentality, that is, the ‘anti-life’ mentality”
So that’s what the phrase means: it means the mentality which teaches you to use contraception, which also teaches you to be promiscuous, to not value love, marriage, family, and fidelity, and to have abortions. It means rejecting Church teaching and being anti-life. It’s not about your NFP attitude, it’s about literal contraception and the bad things that go along with literal contraception.
Is it possible to use NFP contraceptively?
When the phrase was coined, it wasn’t intended to mean “doing NFP wrong.”
But does that really matter? It’s a pretty good phrase. Can we stretch it a bit past what JPII originally meant, and still make a valuable point? Is it possible to do NFP wrong? And is that a big problem in the Church? Is it really true that a majority of couples who use NFP are doing it wrongly and are probably committing a mortal sin because they don’t really have good reasons to space or avoid pregnancy?
First of all, let’s look at some numbers. According to various studies, anywhere from 2 to (maybe, maybe) 20% of Catholic couples do what the Church asks them to do, and reject contraception to avoid pregnancy. There’s a lot of dispute about the numbers, but they are all low numbers. So even if most of these couple are using NFP selfishly or for trivial reasons, that’s still an extremely small number of people, and not a widespread problem. A widespread problem is when fully half of American Catholics don’t know what the Eucharist is.) So you’d have to live in a bit of a bubble to think there’s massive numbers of people using NFP for less than saintly reasons.
But I mention numbers just to get it out of the way. A serious sin is a serious sin, and even if only a few people are doing it, it’s worth addressing, because nobody wants to fall into serious sin.
First, let’s look at the idea that it’s possible to use NFP as contraception. If two couples want to avoid a pregnancy, and one uses NFP and the other uses contraception, what does it really matter? Their goal is the same, right? They both are trying not to have a baby.
In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI directly answered the claim that contraception and NFP can be the same when they have the same intention of avoiding conception. He said:
The Church is coherent with herself when she considers recourse to the infecund periods to be licit, while at the same time condemning, as being always illicit, the use of means directly contrary to fecundation, even if such use is inspired by reasons which may appear honest and serious.
In other words: no, the Church is not illogical for saying that there’s an important difference between using NFP and using contraception, even if you think you have a good reason to use contraception. He says:
In reality, there are essential differences between the two cases; in the former, the married couple make legitimate use of a natural disposition; in the latter, they impede the development of natural processes. It is true that, in the one and the other case, the married couple are concordant in the positive will of avoiding children for plausible reasons, seeking the certainty that offspring will not arrive; but it is also true that only in the former case are they able to renounce the use of marriage in the fecund periods when, for just motives, procreation is not desirable, while making use of it during infecund periods to manifest their affection and to safeguard their mutual fidelity. By so doing, they give proof of a truly and integrally honest love.
What he’s saying is that it matters why we do something, but it also matters how we do it. Doing it the right way matters. Our intentions are important, but so are our actual bodies, and what we do with them. What we do with our bodies, what happens when we have sex, has significance. Contraception messes up that significance.
Let’s put it in different terms. Let’s say you want to lose weight. You could either start eating different foods, eating less food, assessing your habits, and spending time figuring out why you eat in a way that causes weight gain, and fixing that, and therefore losing weight . . . or you could have your esophagus fitted with a rubber bag, so that you eat whatever you want, as much as you want, and then when you’re full, you can just drag the bag out and throw away the food. Same result: you lose weight.
Are they the same thing?
It’s pretty easy to see that they are not. Being healthier, exercising self-control, taking a closer look at the rest of your life – these are the right way to lose weight. Doing the rubber bag thing is gross and weird and dangerous, and it shows that you don’t really understand what eating is for. The same is true for NFP and contraception: your goal may be the same, but how you get there matters a lot.
Let’s take another example. Let’s say you have a very old grandmother who needs some help. You could move across the country and take wonderful care of her because she’s your grandmother and you love her, and when she dies peacefully in her sleep, you get all her money, which makes you very happy.
OR, you move across the country and take wonderful care of her to lull her into trusting you, and as soon as she tells you where she keeps her will, you put your name on it and then smother her with a pillow. And you get all her money, which makes you very happy.
Same result, right? Grandma’s dead, you’re rich. But the way you got there matters a lot. The end result is the same, but how you get there matters a lot.
The same is true for NFP and contraception: you can have the same goal of not having children, but how you achieve that goal matters a lot.
Okay, but don’t our motives matter, too? It’s all very well to say that NFP is licit because Humanae Vitae says so, but isn’t it possible to have bad intentions or trivial motives, and wouldn’t that be a bad thing? Can’t we have such bad intentions that NFP really is a kind of contraception?
Going back to the example of losing weight: say I lose weight in the right, acceptable way – diet, self-control, assessment of habits, leafy greens – but I’m doing it because I want to fit into a slinky dress and make my fat sister feel bad about herself at the next family reunion.
Horrible motive for losing weight. I’m doing something bad. But I’m still not doing the same bad thing as putting a rubber bag down my throat. It’s a different kind of bad thing. So most of us can recognize that, while your motive is important, and may say a lot about where you are spiritually, your actual behavior is also significant.
Your intentions matter, but so does your actual behavior. It would be a bad thing to use NFP with selfish or petty motivations. On this we can agree. But it’s not the same bad thing as using artificial contraception. Even if your motives are not very good, still, the thing that you’re doing is entirely different in nature from the alternative. You may possibly be committing a sin, but it’s not the sin of contraception, and shouldn’t be called contraception. Contraception, as Pius XII said, is “a perversion of the act itself,” and NFP cannot be a perversion of any act.
I’ll get back to your rich old grandma later.
This is part one of a two-part essay. Next time, we’ll slip into a slinky dress and examine the idea that many couples using NFP don’t have sufficiently grave reasons for avoiding or postponing pregnancy.
Image via Pixnio