Last January Pope Francis was quoted as saying, “Some think that—excuse my expression here—that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits…No.” He went on to say that, “God gives you methods to be responsible.”
Breeding Like Rabbits
Wait – what?! Isn’t the Catholic Church against contraception of any kind? Did his remarks signal a sudden change in Church teaching? Hardly. In his remarks the pope alluded to “licit ways” of being responsible when it came to determining the size of one’s family. What ways you may ask? Well, how about this suggestion from Roseanne Barr, “Birth control that really works – every night before we go to bed we spend an hour with our kids.” 😉
All joking aside, Pope Francis is right. There are methods that faithful Catholics can use in order to avoid pregnancies – when there is just cause to do so.
Natural Family Planning
Abstinence has long been a licit or lawful means for Catholic families to responsibly plan for the size of their family. The effectiveness of using abstinence as a means of regulating the size of a family has, of course, varied wildly – largely due to the self restraint (or lack thereof) of the practitioners!
Natural Family Planning or NFP is the method recommended by the Church in order to help families avoid pregnancies when there is just cause to do so. Here is a link to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website page dealing with all matters pertaining to NFP for those who want to learn more about the Church’s teaching on this subject and the methods of its effective use: USCCB – NFP
When used correctly NFP is very reliable. A study of 19,843 women in India (52% Hindu, 27% Muslim, and 21% Christian) using natural family planning to avoid pregnancy had an unexpected pregnancy rate of 0.2 pregnancy/100 women users yearly. A German study had an unexpected pregnancy rate of 0.8 pregnancy/100 women users yearly1 .
I also want to briefly note that NFP is not a “Catholic” form of contraception! We’ll return to that in a bit, but fundamentally NFP can be used to both avoid and achieve pregnancy, and alters neither the fertility of the woman nor the fecundity of a particular sex act.
The Problem with Contraception
Unfortunately, many Christians aren’t overly fond of self control and would much rather simply use the birth control pill or a barrier method such as a condom in order to limit their family size. “After all,” they ask, “what’s the problem with using contraception within marriage?” Of course these same Christians are typically blissfully unaware of the fact that, “One can find no period of history, no document of the church, no theological school, scarcely one Catholic theologian, who ever denied that contraception was always seriously evil. The teaching of the Church in this matter is absolutely constant. Until the present century [Until the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican church in 1930] this teaching was peacefully possessed by all other Christians, whether Orthodox or Anglican or Protestant.”2
Be that as it may, most Christians will object, “What’s the big deal? It’s not like contraception is the same as abortion.” But unfortunately that’s not always the case either. In order to allow for the FDA and drug manufacturers to market hormonal birth control only as a contraceptive, and not as an abortifacient: the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) changed the definition of conception and pregnancy from fertilization to implantation. The ACOG used to define “conception,” or the beginning of a pregnancy, as occurring at the moment when sperm and egg join to create a new human being. But now the ACOG defines the beginning of pregnancy as occurring when the embryo – which has likely been in existence for over a week – implants into the mother’s uterus, meaning that from a Christian perspective sometimes birth control pills will act as abortifacients and not merely as contraceptives.
Barriers to Birth?
Some may ask whether or not barrier methods such as diaphragms or condoms would be morally acceptable since they don’t pose the risk of unintentionally being an abortifacient? Actually, as stated above, the teaching of the Church has been remarkably consistent on this point throughout the millennia from the time of Christ until now. Effectively, a properly ordered sexual act must conform to a threefold natural and moral objective. The moral/natural object of the sexual act must be marital, unitive and procreative. This truth conforms to the observed natural order of our world, and is also faithful to the Scriptural admonishments regarding not just marriage and children, but also any other form of disordered sexual acts. Using any form of contraception will in some way create an impediment to marital intimacy either in the unitive aspect, the procreative aspect, or both.
Isn’t NFP Just “Catholic” Contraception?
I want to return to the common objection I mentioned earlier. Isn’t using abstinence or NFP to prevent pregnancy just another form of contraception? If the end result is the same aren’t you still thwarting God’s purpose in some manner? I actually had this very conversation with a close friend of mine and my brother last year at Thanksgiving. Both of them felt that it was splitting pretty fine hairs to condemn the use of a condom to prevent pregnancy but to then allow a couple to use NFP to track the biological signs of fertility in order to prevent pregnancies. Isn’t the end result the same? You’re avoiding getting pregnant – what’s the big deal with how you avoid it?
First it should be noted that the Church teaches that abstinence and NFP are only to be used when the couple has just cause – in other words not merely for selfish reasons or just because, “We’d rather not be encumbered with kids right now.” Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been there! I’m still there some days! Prior to converting to Catholicism I actually went through a voluntary sterilization process and got “fixed” via a vasectomy. Recently however, I underwent a vasectomy reversal after being exposed to the Church’s very articulate arguments against contraception and sterilization. If you’re interested you can read about my change of mind in an article I wrote called, Getting Fixed ~ A Reversal of Conviction.
The End Doesn’t Justify The Means
Secondly we should remind ourselves of an oft repeated maxim, namely, the end doesn’t justify the means.
How we achieve a goal is every bit as important as whether we achieve a goal. Sometimes more so. Even if we have just cause to avoid a pregnancy in our marriage, even if avoiding a pregnancy is the responsible thing to do for financial or health reasons, even if the Pope himself has said that we don’t have to breed like rabbits… we still have a responsibility to use morally licit methods. How we choose to conduct ourselves in our marriages matter. Our decisions, even our private ones, are a witness to others. Whether or not we choose to use contraception or voluntarily sterilization says something to the rest of the world. Our reasons for not engaging in these practices says something even more important.
Why It Matters
I want to briefly attempt to answer the objections above with an analogy. There are times in our lives when it is advisable to fast from food for a period of time. Fasting can benefit us both physically and spiritually. Although food is a good, and is in fact necessary for life, there is nothing wrong with temporarily abstaining from it when there are physical or spiritual reasons to do so. Fasting is a morally permissible, and even advisable, practice. On the other hand you could make the argument that binging and purging achieves the same end. It prevents the body from benefitting from the sustenance of food. Shouldn’t it be acceptable to enjoy the sensations of eating, the tastes, textures, and smells, before purging our body of food by vomiting? Isn’t the end result the same – namely a lack of food in our bellies?
Obviously we can see the problem with the above analogy. Even though both methods achieve the same end, one is morally permissible and one is not. One is a choice to not partake of a good (eating) in order to achieve a greater good (spiritual nourishment) or perhaps to achieve another goal such as not overindulging. The other is a perversion of a good in order to still selfishly participate in it without the corresponding natural effects. When we seek to selfishly participate in the sexual act without wanting to “risk” the corresponding natural effects, then we have perverted a great good.
What Marriage Reflects
There is one further point which should be made – our marriages are meant to reflect the relationship of Christ and His Church. The Church is to be Christ’s bride, made holy and without blemish by Christ Himself and by the righteous deeds of His saints3 . And like all brides, she has been joined to Him that the two may become one flesh. And it is through this incarnational mystery that we, the bride of Christ, become in that marital union of one flesh, the very body of Christ, with He Himself as our head. And Christ, our example, gave of Himself fully for His bride! He withheld nothing, He sacrificed everything, and He joined Himself completely to her.
When our marriages reflect anything less than the fullness of this sacrificial love and complete union, then they become a distortion of His full and sacrificial love rather than a perfect representation of it.
Is there anything more grotesque than picturing Christ giving of Himself less than fully? Giving of Himself to His bride and yet withholding His very essence? Giving of Himself with a contraceptive mentality that says, “No strings attached”? Joining Himself to His bride and yet not being open to new life?
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.4
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Ryder, RE. Natural family planning: effective birth control supported by the Catholic Church: British Medical Journal 1993; 307: 723-726. ↩
Minority Papal Commission Report of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control ↩
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.” Ephesians 5:25-27, “…and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure” – for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” Revelation 19:7-9 ↩
Ephesians 5:25-33 ↩