Fundamental Differences: NFP vs. Contraception

Many people have trouble distinguishing between natural family planning (NFP) and contraception. Catholic moral teaching has always been clear on the subject, but this clarity eludes many Catholics. Since both involve not having children, they seem as if they were exactly the same act for many people. This is also true of many health care providers.

The essential evil of contraception and good of natural family planning becomes clearer if one evaluates them using the traditional three moral determinants, which have their origin in St. Thomas Aquinas. The Church has used these for centuries in an authoritative manner. The most recent example is in both the encyclical of John Paul II, Veritatis splendor and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The three moral determinants are the object, intention, and circumstances. The object is what the act is about, its matter. This is determined in relationship to reason.

In examining the reason for marriage, the Church has accepted the fact that there are three characteristics which distinguish the love of marriage from other human loves. These are:  fidelity, fecundity, and friendship. These three characteristics turn around the act by which life is brought forth.

This is a physical act, but because it is performed by people with a spiritual soul and has as its purpose the generation of a human being, body and spiritual soul, there are special goods involved. The one is a special love which a human father and mother experience. This involves the most intense giving and receiving of self which can occur in an earthly relationship.

The friendship which must accompany this must be life-long and cannot be ended except by death. The reason for this is the fact that the act which expresses this union is directly related to the other good which is the bringing forth of human life.   For a person to deny either of these relationships is contrary to reason. In other words, it is evil.

Contraception is the attempt to deny precisely all these relationships by robbing the relationship of its relationship to human life. This results in avoiding the responsibilities of love in this special relationship and compromises both the fidelity necessary to preserve it and the freedom of friendship involved. The reason is because both the parents and the prospective child cannot be reduced merely to something material or pleasurable because of the spiritual nature of the soul.

The soul must be directly created by God, and so Aristotle maintained in his Politics that there was “something divine in human seed” because of its final purpose as a physical being, the generation of the human soul. Actions of sexual union done by couples which deny procreation are evil. They are so by their very object. Hence, these acts are intrinsically and always evil.

No circumstance, consequence or intention can make such an act good. All three of the moral determinants must be good for an action to be good. A defect in one makes it evil, and an act of contraception by artificial device of some kind makes the action automatically evil. This would include things like using a condom to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. The intention and circumstance may be good there, but the action is evil.

The Creator has rights in the physical act because physical matter is not sufficient to create the human soul. A couple who practices NFP is respecting those rights because they are controlling themselves according to the natural infertility the Creator himself has placed in this action. They are therefore respecting the order of reason.

Moreover, NFP involves self-control and unites the person in his reason with the control of the act he is performing. So it is in object good and completely different from contraception.

In addition to the object, a moral action is also judged by the circumstances in which it is found because moral actions are not carried on in the abstract. If a couple are free to have a child they should.

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The Church says that there must be “grave reasons” to space births in marriage apart from abstinence. These would be, for example, if the woman were told a pregnancy might threaten her life or preclude her child being brought to term. The circumstances must also be good then for an act of NFP to be good. Just having a bigger house or better vacations would not be sufficient reason to space births.

The final moral determinant is the intention which is the personal reason the couple have for practicing NFP. This must be based on the personal affirmation of the other and on temperance.

In other words, though one may certainly intend pleasure in a conjugal act, this cannot be the primary reason. If the intention is only contraceptive, for example, to merely have pleasure at the expense of responsible parenthood, NFP would be an evil action from intention.

So it is important for Catholics to realize that though NFP and contraception both involve a couple spacing the number of children they have, they differ completely in moral object. This is because one respects the order of reason and the other does not. However, evil intention or frivolous circumstances could still preclude a person morally practicing NFP because it could reduce a morally good act to an act of contraception.

Father Brian Thomas Becket Mullady, O.P. is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. In 1966, he entered the Dominican Order and he was ordained a priest in Oakland, California in 1972. Father Mullady received his Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Angelicum University in Rome, Italy, where served as a professor for six years. He has taught at several colleges and seminaries in the United States and is an academician of the Catholic Academy of Science, the theological consultant to the Institute on Religious Life, and the author of the Question and Answer column in Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He has been featured in several series on Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). The author of three books and numerous articles, Fr. Mullady has served as a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, and mission preacher.
Articles by Fr. Mullady:

  • Cassandra


    The fundamental confusion is created by the fact that NFP pushers rarely if ever mention that there is a need for “grave reasons” to resort to it. Do any actually catechize on what might constitute grave reasons? In my diocese there are parish bulletins that sell it this way: “Has the latest research linking contraceptive pills, patches and shots to cancer and cardiovascular disease prompted you to look at safer methods of family planning?” Shouldn’t that say: “Have concerns about going to Hell prompted you to stop contracepting?”

    Secondly, as you point out, “intentions” matter. Thus NFP used with wrongful intentions could still involve sin, right?

    Thirdly, is NFP *virtuous*? That is, while NFP is morally permissible for grave reasons, does it not still remain a more of a dispensation for concupiscence to avoid evils related to being unchaste? Whereas conjugal acts with the hope and intention of procreation trusting in God’s providence for the family’s needs is a virtuous, perhaps even heroic, act of faith. Hard to see how NFP use, absent grave reasons, would be practicing virtue which is necessary to achieve growth in sanctification.

    • Dave

      Cassandra – if it is easier to convince people to avoid contraceptives using health concerns (and it is!), it’s better than nothing. They are still avoiding mortal sin (however they are convinced) and thus an impediment to their relationship with God will be removed.

      I do see your point, though. The Church has done an extremely poor job at explaining her teachings on human sexuality, and why sexual sins are grave. The Church has also done a poor job at explaining that Her teaching is protected from error, and most Catholics are Americans first (prideful, independent, resistant to authority)

      • Cassandra

        Don’t be so sure that mortal sin is avoided. If they are closed to children and using NFP as the means of ensuring that, then they really aren’t any better off. Intentions matter.

        • Dave

          Well, they are at least avoiding that particular mortal sin (of using contraception.) Certainly, other mortal sins may remain, including that of being closed to children.

          • Cassandra

            Yet, the point is, they aren’t being taught anything about mortal sin at all.

          • Timothy

            In 1853, the Bishop of Amiens submitted a dubium to the Vatican Sacred Penitentiary: “Should those spouses be reprehended who make use of marriage only on those days
            when (in the opinion of some doctors) conception is impossible?”

            The Vatican reply was, “After mature examination, we have decided that such spouses should not be disturbed [or disquieted], provided they do nothing that impedes generation”

            In 1880 the Sacred Penitentiary issued a general response, not to any specific Bishop, as follows. “Whether it is licit to make use of marriage only on those days when it is more difficult for conception to occur?”

            The Vatican response: “Spouses using the aforesaid method are not to be disturbed; and a confessor may, with due caution, suggest this proposal to spouses, if his other attempts to lead them away from the detestable crime of onanism have proved fruitless.”

            In 1932 (2 years after Casti Cannubii) the issue was raised yet again, “Regarding the Exclusive Use of the Infertile Period

            “Qu. Whether the practice is licit in itself by which spouses who, for just and grave causes, wish to avoid offspring in a morally upright way, abstain from the use of marriage – by mutual consent and with upright motives – except on those days which, according to certain recent [medical] theories, conception is impossible for natural reasons.

            “Resp. Provided for by the Response of the Sacred Penitentiary of June 16, 1880.”

            The language of “just cause” and “grave reason” (or “well-grounded” reason) arose in response to the 7th Lambeth Conference at which the Church of England allowed for the use of contraceptives “in those cases where there is such a clearly

            felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a

            morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence.” The wording of “grave reasons” and “just cause” is not found in Vatican documents referring to periodic abstinence preceding the Lambeth conference of 1930.

          • Timothy

            In response to the 7th Lambeth Conference, Pope Pius XI laid out the moral view in Casti Cannubii; the clarification of this matter is abundantly clear.

            “The Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and the purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately deprived of its natural
            power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”

            NFP, when practiced is definitively “inaction,” and when NFP does act, the act is not deprived of its natural power to generate life.

          • HenryBowers

            Pius XI says “grave sin,” but he doesn’t say it’s contraception. It could be the grave sin of cowardice.

          • Timothy

            Henry, I haven’t perceived you to be ignorant, so I’m going to assume that the last comment was made “tongue in cheek.”

            To say that “matrimony exercized in such a way that the act is deliberately *deprived of its natural power to generate life*” might refer to cowardice and not to contraception is utterly laughable.

            I assume that you have read Casti Connubii. I assume you know that it was written as a response to the Church of England breaking with the constant tradition of all Christians to condemn contraception as immoral. I expect intellectual honesty from you.

          • HenryBowers

            My point is that it’s not the manipulation of acts and processes that matters; it’s the intention to suppress the goods of persons (not of organs, not of processes). The papal statement allows for my interpretation, but is not a place for combing out all the philosophy to arrive at my (more correct) interpretation.

          • Timothy


            In the end, we all think we’re “more correct.” It’s the narcissistic element of our human nature. Thank God for the sacrament of Confession.

            I’ll end it here, where I ended it the last time we discussed this. I’ll continue to teach and guide my diocese on these issues through classes, writings, marriage preparation and enrichment retreats and the like, at the behest of my Bishop – a successor to the Apostles.

            You can continue to try and convince other blog commenters that you are (more correct.)

          • HenryBowers

            Timothy, I’ve debated you on this before (Bowers is my pseudonym). It’s not clear what you’re trying to prove.
            While the words “grave reasons” and “just cause” might not appear, the words “upright motives” do appear. So what’s your point?
            Also, if NFP is recommended to combat onanism (contraception), then the later addition of grave/just language is irrelevant to that point, since no grave/just reasons would justify contraception anyway.

          • Timothy

            The words upright motives appear in 1932, after Lambeth. The Sacred Penitentiary doesn’t even acknowledge those words, and instead directs people to their 1880 decision.

            It is not irrelevant to the point, in fact, it is precisely the point.

            “If you have grave reasons” or “just causes” contraception remains illicit and morally evil, but there are options.

          • Timothy

            Additionally, combating onanism is not my point or even part of my point, it is merely part of the quote from the Sacred Penitentiary.

          • Timothy

            If you’ve debated me on this before, you must be Nicholas Danne. Why would you need a pseudonym?

          • Jim Russell

            There is at least a minor difficulty in the way you are framing the magisterial texts from different time periods: there was no actual “method” of periodic abstinence discovered or proposed at the time the 19th-century questions were raised and answered by the magisterium. So, those particular responses were in the context of only a very basic scientific understanding of there being days in a cycle in which conception was less likely.
            It’s not until after a more detailed discovery of the mechanisms of the woman’s fertility cycle that you have a more methodical approach taking shape (calendar rhythm), followed by a more clear use of language (including the “grave reasons”/”serious motive” language in 1951) specifically related to “methods” of periodic abstinence…

          • Timothy

            Either the intention of postponing pregnancy is illicit, or it isn’t. Reliability of the methods are of no importance when looking at the licitness of NFP.

            At it’s core, in the 1880 decision, you have people who “intend” to avoid pregnancy. The question was “Whether it is licit to make use of marriage only on those days when it is more difficult for conception to occur?”

            Notice, these couples are making use of marriage ONLY on days when they believed conception would not occur.

            This answer to the question of intention was and is, “Spouses using the aforesaid method are not to be disturbed;”

          • Jim Russell

            I’m actually not sure if we are on opposite sides of any part of this question, but we do have to acknowledge that not all moral intentions are created equal when it comes to “intending” to avoid pregnancy. There are morally legitimate intentions to avoid pregnancy, and there are morally illegitmate intentions. Do we agree on this? I think I may have missed the main point for citing the 19th century texts?

          • Timothy

            We are likely not on opposite sides of this.

            I quote 19th century texts, because the Church is constant. These are the first times that the Church spoke on the issue, and it was written by the office that deals with what is and is not sin. I quote 19th century texts because they provide context and clarity where, surprisingly, all too often there is not clarity.

            If there were older texts, I would quote them too. Texts from the third and fourth century do not get trumped by new texts, and likewise, neither do texts from the 19th century.

            I agree that there are morally legitimate intentions for avoiding pregnancy. I also agree, in principle, that there are morally illegitimate reasons. I disagree strongly, however, when people take it upon themselves to define for another what those illegitimate reasons are. The Church has remained quite ambiguous on what constitutes “grave reasons” and “just causes” and I think we would all do well to follow suit.

          • Jim Russell

            Yes and amen! In the realm of responsible parenthood, these are decisions that can *only* be made by the couple and God. We may well know that NFP can be used for the wrong reasons, but it’s up to God, not us, to address that concretely with real couples….

          • Timothy

            See, you were right! We are not on opposite sides of this.

    • nannon31

      Where do you read “grave”…cites please. HV does not use it in two separate sections.

      • Jim Russell

        Pope Pius XII’s Allocution to Italian Midwives, October 29, 1951…in which one fines both the “grave reasons” and “serious motives” phrasing that, coupled with HV’s “just cause”, points us to the great importance of a couple properly discerning, before God, what their call to responsible parenthood really is.

  • Tom

    This is from the Vatican’s own website, their own English translation of Humanae Vitae

    or at least the translation they use. from Section 16 (note the phrase “well-grounded,”

    rather than “grave reasons”:

    If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained. (20)

    The quote above is a very balanced statement from the encyclical itself, and I would add that we certainly do not want to put the interpretation of the encyclical in the hands of a rigorist, i.e., an overly strict interpretation, because such an interpretation would counteract the
    goodness of NFP and make it rather a bad thing, which was not the intent of HV. I think it is important for the couple using NFP to strive, through prayer and mutual discussion,
    to do their best to comply with intent of the encyclical (one could also consult with a faithful and level-headed confessor if there is fear of violating the intention of the encyclical). Within the parameters of the encyclical there should be hearts open to the generous acceptance of children.


    • Cassandra

      The translation there is not particularly good. The original latin is “Si igitur iustae adsint causae” which renders “just cause”, not simply “well-grounded”. This document must also be interpreted in context of the popes who have also taught on this matter. “grave reasons” is the consistent teaching.

      You are wrong about “the goodness of NFP”. It is not good in and of itself. It is a morally permissible dispensation.

      • HenryBowers

        Cassandra, how do you defend the notion that NFP isn’t good in itself? HV21 says “it brings to family life abundant fruits of tranquility and peace.” Clearly self-discipline is good in itself.

        • Trevor

          Right, self-discipline is a good in itself, but NFP is merely a tool, which may or may not be used temperately.

      • nannon31

        Cassandra….cite your sources in Latin for “grave”.

  • Vincent M Sr

    If it is so important why is it so hard to find out how NFP works? Making people feel defensive makes for good politics but not a very informative article.
    So go back to the confessional Father cause you did nobody any good by your rant.
    Next time get a health professional to provide information we can use cause I already know how to get to hell.

    • Morrie Chamberlain

      Show a little respect. It was not a rant. Google “how does nfp work” and you will find your answer.

      • Vincent M Sr

        Respect for who? Because the priest puts a couple of letters after his name and has a title? Because he is the reason priests are ill prepared after seminary for the real world?
        The writer makes half an argument condemning people for doing what they know about but offers no information on how to do what is right. Typical Catholic Priest who feels they are important.. I have said the same thing to my brother when he preaches. If your going to tell someone they are doing something wrong, tell them how to do it right and the Catholic Church and their priest are ill prepared to do that and here is further proof.
        Telling me to Google it will not necessarily give me information that has the Churches blessing. So the Church should be posting it and the links attached to the article.

    • Timothy

      It’s cheaper than contraception too.

  • Proteios

    I still think this argument is not useful. We use NFP, have 3 kids. We are open to life and use NFP the way the RCC intended. No grave reasons that we know of. But comparing intent, as in, lets say my wife intends NOT to get pregnant and still comparing this to sterilization, hormone based contraceptive drugs, IUDs or even condoms as deliberate and desperate attempts to enjoy all the pleasures of sex, without bothering thinking about the part where its all connected to creating children….is a bit ludicrous. Its such an off comparison. Its like comparing a sip of wine with someone who has been drinking a liter of booze every day for 10 years.

    I cant speak for people but the NFP program we went through was suitable for H.S. sex ed. Id like my kids to take NFP as sex Ed in school. It speaks of the required intimacy and the very detailed biological facts that help a woman understand her body and the husbands involvement…sometimes self control…a fruit of the spirit if Im not mistaken.

    so argue away, but I still think its silly to whine about NFP in a world doping themselves up with class 1 carcinogens so they can have consequence free sex….hopefully, only with their wives, but we arent all that naive.

    • Cassandra

      >We are open to life and use NFP the way the RCC intended. No grave reasons that we know of.
      Then you *aren’t* using it as the Church teaches. But I concede that you are using it the way many Catholics mis-teach it.

      • Proteios

        You may be right. I accept that. I also strive to be understanding to the sacrifices my wife makes as we both know we must ultimately remain open to Gods will.

  • Ron Conte

    The reasons for using NFP must be proportionate, and so, not necessarily grave. An older couple with several children and limited resources to care for an additional child would have sufficient reason to use NFP, but a newly-married couple who simply prefer to wait a while would not. Nothing in the three fonts of morality requires a grave reason to choose an act that has only good in the moral object, and only good in the intention. The good consequences simply must equal or outweigh the bad consequences (proportionality), as these can be reasonably anticipated at the time the act is chosen.

    • Cassandra

      Proportionalism is condemned in Veritas Splendor.

      • Ron Conte

        Proportionality applied solely to the font of circumstances (to an evaluation of the good and bad consequences of an act) is not the error of proportionalism. In other words, the good consequences must outweigh the bad for the font of circumstances to be good. But the intention and the object must be entirely good. And no amount of good consequences can justify a bad intention or a bad moral object.

  • mas

    Well written, but I would argue that the principle of double effect justifies the use of condoms in the HIV situation. What good would it be for both husband and wife to get the disease and leave their children parentless?

    • Cassandra

      No, you’re still separating the procreative aspect from the act. Worse, condoms are not even any guarantee of safeguard. You’d be placing a life at risk for the sake of a few moments pleasure. That doesn’t wash.

      The moral thing to do would be to abstain permanently.

    • Timothy

      The principal of double effect requires that:

      1) the nature of the act is itself good, or at least morally neutral;

      2) the agent intends the good effect and not the bad either as a means to the good or as an end itself;

      3) the good effect outweighs the bad effect in circumstances
      sufficiently grave to justify causing the bad effect and the agent
      exercises due diligence to minimize the harm.

      Condoms, even for the prevention of HIV, fail on the first requirement.

      • HenryBowers

        What makes applying a condom a bad act? You can say it, but you haven’t demonstrated it. Mullaly was wrong about this, because I can also insert ear plugs, which denies the relationship of my ear to its natural function, but is not wicked.

        • Jim Russell

          “Applying a condom” might be one part of the “human act” being considered, but “applying a condom” is *not* the “moral object” of the act being considered. The moral object of the act being chosen involves the use of something to deliberately frustrate the procreative dimension of marital relations, such that the unitive and procreative dimensions which are inseparable and willed by God are in fact separated by the spouses….

          • HenryBowers

            Thank you, I stand corrected in that the moral object is not “a process or an event of the merely physical order” (VS78), but you have no proof that the condom-adorner has any intention to contracept. All you know is that he must have some extra intention besides protecting the other goods in his life (which NFP protects), and additionally I think he could be intending to avoid infection instead of contracepting. Whether such intention to avoid infection is justified in those circumstances may be a separate question. But VS78 says 1st-person perspective is required for specification of the moral object.

          • Timothy

            I need no proof that the condom-adorner has any intention to contracept.

            The contraceptive act, is in and of itself objectively evil. If it needed intention to make it evil, it would merely be subjectively evil.

          • HenryBowers

            We covertly agree on this, Timothy. You don’t need proof of the 1st-person intention, because you’ll never obtain it. That’s why VS prohibits certain moral objects regardless of intention, such as contraception. [Here I think we still agree.] My argument is that the sin is against persons, not against organs, processes, or functions. [And here it appears I disagree with Fr. Mullady, and with you, but not necessarily with Pius XI.] I was relieved to read that someone else (Deacon Jim) was confused by your use of the interesting but ambiguously directed texts of past centuries. Sharpen that up for us, dear boy, it’s a team effort!

          • Timothy

            The sin is not against organs, nor is it against functions. The sin is against natural law and created purposes. The sin is against the first commandment: The Holy Spirit is the proper Lord and giver of life. If intention were the metric by which contraception were evil then double effect would apply, however, contraception is an intrinsic evil; evil by nature and objectively so.

        • Timothy

          Henry, you argue out of both sides of your mouth better than anyone I know…or is it just “argue out of both sides.”

          Here we return to the longstanding proscription on onanism, and to Pius XI’s statement “any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately deprived of its natural power
          to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature,
          and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave

          Last I checked, your ears cannot procreate.

          From the article above: “The Creator has rights in the physical act because physical matter is not sufficient to create the human soul.”

          • HenryBowers

            So the perverted faculty argument was invented for the sole purpose of trying to explain contraception’s intrinsic wrongness? Sounds like special-pleading. Material fallacy.

          • Timothy

            Be sure to let the Pope know you think he is engaging in “Material fallacy” as he guides the Church.

          • Timothy

            Again, you leave me dumbfounded. What point precisely are you arguing? Are you suggesting that NFP can be used improperly and must be stopped, or are you arguing that Popes Pius XI and Paul VI were incorrect in condemning contraception?

          • HenryBowers

            No, but thanks for asking. I just want to de-polarize the discussion. Until we understand why contraception is intrinsically wrong, we devout Catholics will keep falling into the 2 camps of Immunity (timed abstinence is impossible to change species into contraception) or Providentialism (NFP is impossible to justify morally). My position is middle-ground, as HV aptly explains and implies: timed abstinence can be used justly, unjustly, or contraceptively. They are 3 distinct outcomes, which don’t rely on the perverted faculty argument.

          • Timothy

            Are you purposefully misusing the word intrinsically?

            An intention cannot be intrinsically wrong, because an intention is not objective. An intention can be evil, but not intrinsically so.

            If contraception is intrinsically wrong, (and I believe it is) it is because of some factor other than the intention of the user.

            We’ve already discussed on another forum your gross misreading of Humanae Vitae. NFP, by definition, is not contraceptive. NFP never impedes generation. It is inactive, abstaining from the act – not active, depriving the act of it’s natural power to generate life.

            I maintain that NFP can be used Justly or unjustly, but that unjust use can only be judged by the user.

            I consistently and thoroughly reject the idea that NFP has the capability of being contraceptive.

          • HenryBowers

            Okay . . . so I tried to poison my uncle to collect my inheritance. I didn’t plant a high enough dose, however, so he survived. Are you saying my intention to murder him, in the first degree, was only contingently — and not intrinsically — wrong, because I’m the only one who knew about it? Hogwash!

            I will grant you that “NFP” by definition is non-contraceptive, since “NFP” is approved by the Church, who in her teaching already explicitly assumes an upright intention. Now I challenge you to replace the letters “NFP” with the words “timed abstinence.” With this substitution, we won’t need to question-beg about the morality of this human endeavor and its moral object.

            The moral object is a “freely chosen kind of behavior” which determines the act of the will (VS78). The only time such an object can be intrinsically evil, is when the kind of behavior (as observable in the 3rd-person) betrays an extra intention or evil willing in addition to whatever intention the agent proposes to himself or others in the 1st-person. Therefore, a woman procures an abortion with the intention of safeguarding the availability of meals and beds for her other 6 children, but since the kind of behavior observable in the 3rd-person includes the puncturing of skull and tearing of limbs of her unborn infant, we know (1) that such behavior has nothing to do with feeding kids, and (2) the only conceivable extra intention in play must be an immoral one, i.e. the destruction of innocent life as a means to something else intelligible. Therefore, the moral object may be identified as abortion, which by definition is immoral regardless of intention.

            With timed abstinence, then, the kind of behavior in question is: charting, followed by some activity to help abstinence transpire, such as washing the dishes. In the 3rd-person, it’s impossible to tell what the agent’s intention is, as VS78 explicitly states. Therefore, if the agent says, (a) “I’m protecting other goods in my life, instead of trying for a child tonight,” the acts of charting and dish-washing are each 100% compatible with that intention. The species of the moral object, which is her act, may be specified as “NFP,” per her upright 1st-person intention. But from the same set of exercises, she could alternatively say, (b) “I hate human beings. I am against life qua life, but I want neither the inconvenience of barriers nor the harm of chemical contraceptives, so I’m abstaining tonight because I am positively against the conception of any possible child.” In this case, her intention, which as contra-life is intrinsically unreasonable and immoral, is embodied by her will to occupy her knowingly fertile abstinence with other activities. Hers is admittedly a strange intention to have, and the consequence is stranger: her dish-washing becomes contraceptive in species.

            Thus finally we may observe that contraception has nothing to do with sex, and is not itself a sexual sin. It can be enacted by doping a water supply, and is an act separate and distinct from any instance of coitus. When the couple decides to embrace, they have 2 decisions to make: (1) whether or not to embrace, (2) whether or not to contracept. To the extent that timed abstinence may precede (1), timed abstinence can be contraceptive.

            On the other hand, Timothy, your view doesn’t claim enough. You pretend that anything _could_ “deprive the act of its natural power,” but how would that happen? Passive power isn’t deprived power. The generative power of coitus can never be deprived, but only impeded. But most importantly, you haven’t demonstrated why impeding such a power would be wrong, per my example with the earplugs.

          • Timothy

            Ok, Henry, we’ll try something new.

            This time I’ll speak slowly, and I’ll use small words so you can understand.

            An intention cannot ever be intrinsically evil. Intrinsic doesn’t mean “very” it means “by it’s nature.” A subjective thing can never be objectively evil. And an objectively evil act cannot ever be justified by its intention.

            Contraception is objectively evil, and it is a sexual sin. It is sin no matter the intention behind it. No amount of pseudo-logic or poorly formed logic will ever change that. Truly you are flexible in your logical gymnastics, but it will not change the Church’s longstanding position on this matter.

            Are those words all small enough? Let’s take a look at a fairly good explanation of intrinsic evil, put forth by an ethicist for a Catholic Health Care system:

            Intrinsic evil refers to actions that are morally evil in such a way that is essentially opposed
            to the will of God or proper human fulfillment. The key consideration
            here is that intrinsically evil actions are judged to be so solely by
            their object, independently of the intention that inspires them or the
            circumstances that surround them (See the Catechism,
            Part Three, Section One, Chapter One, Article 4, n. 1756). In this
            sense, “intrinsic” does not convey the notion of a particularly heinous
            act (although all heinous acts are intrinsically evil), but that the act
            is wrong no matter what its circumstances. Aquinas says that the
            goodness of the will is derived from the fact that a person wills that
            which is good (see Summa Theologica I-II, Question 19, Article 1). In other words, the object of the act must be good in itself (essentially ordered
            to the will of God or proper human fulfillment) in order for the will
            that intends that object to be good. Although Aquinas never used the
            actual term “intrinsic evil” (intrinsece malum), he does in a way define the
            term, by saying that “the goodness of the will’s act depends on that
            one thing alone, which of itself causes goodness in the act; and that
            one thing is the object, and not the circumstances, which are accidents,
            as it were, of the act” (see Summa Theologica I-II,
            Question 19, Article 2). According to this understanding, while a
            morally good action may be made more or less good by the circumstances
            in which it occurs, the circumstances of an act or the good intentions
            of the agent may never make an intrinsically evil action good. Actions
            that are intrinsically evil, then, may never licitly be performed.
            Indeed, the term itself is commonly used in a more general way to refer
            to actions that are never morally permissible.

            Let’s look at a key phrase again…
            “The key consideration
            here is that intrinsically evil actions are judged to be so solely by
            their object, independently of the intention that inspires them or the
            circumstances that surround them.”

            Periodic Abstinence is not, and cannot be intrinsically evil. The Church has affirmed this many times over.

            You keep bringing up being against life qua life. Here you try to create distinctions where none is needed. Being open to life is a requirement to be Married. If, from the beginning of their union, someone intends to avoid children at all costs, they have an invalid union. Their periodic abstinence is not intrinsically evil, it is not even subjectively evil. However they are not truly married and so their sexuality takes on the character of fornication. In this case it is not their abstinence, but their activity that becomes evil.

            If, however, someone has one child, and does not think that they can manage another, but obeys the Church and does not use contraception, [thereby doing nothing to impede generation] they are not to be disturbed or disquieted.

            Also you say that I pretend that anything could “deprive the act of its natural power.” But I do not pretend any such thing. I am simply quoting Pope Pius XI. If you believe he was in error in his encyclical Casti Cannubii, take it up with him (if you are ever so lucky to meet him).

          • HenryBowers

            You’re conflating “intrinsic” with “internal.” They don’t mean the same thing, and intentions can certainly be intrinsically blameworthy, as in never justified, like we read in Daniel 13:28, that the perverted old men were “full of lawless intent to put Susanna to death.”

            You misunderstand my argument, in that I’m not saying timed abstinence is intrinsically evil, but that it can take on the species of such a sin, just like coitus can, in the case of rape.

            P.S. Drop the snarky rhetoric, if you don’t mind. It’s unbecoming for an employee of the bishop. Peace

          • Timothy

            If I’m conflating “intrinsic” with “internal,” so are several dictionaries and moral theologians.

            Miriam Webster
            1 a: belonging to the essential nature or constitution of a thing (the intrinsic worth of a gem) (the intrinsic brightness of a star)

            Origin of INTRINSIC
            French intrinsèque internal, from Late Latin intrinsecus, from Latin, adverb, inwardly; akin to Latin intra within

            First Known Use: 1635

            Related to INTRINSIC
            Synonyms: built-in, constitutional, constitutive, essential, hardwired, immanent, inborn, inbred, indigenous, ingrain, ingrained (also engrained), innate, integral, inherent, native, natural.

            Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary,
            in•trin•sic (ɪnˈtrɪn sɪk, -zɪk)

            1. belonging to a thing by its very nature: intrinsic value.
            2. (of certain muscles, nerves, etc.) belonging to or lying within a given part. [1480–90; Medieval Latin intrinsecus inward]

            Farlex Trivia Dictionary
            intrinsic – Latin intrinsecus, “on the inside,” came to be the English intrinsic, “inner, internal” and “inherent.”

            And again from the Hospital Ethicist.
            “The key consideration here is that intrinsically evil actions are judged to be so solely by their object, independently of the intention that inspires them or the circumstances that surround them.”

            This doesn’t mean that an intention can’t be evil, it only means that an intention cannot be objectively/intrinsically evil.

            The snark relates to my personal motto, “Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.” You use your knowledge (skewed though it is) to condemn those whom the church does not condemn and has not ever condemned. I reserve my snark for extreme situations, this is one such situation.

          • HenryBowers

            Non sequitur. You have not shown intentionality to escape intrinsic goodness/badness. The Hospital Ethicist is talking about actions. That doesn’t mean there can’t be intrinsically wrong things in addition to actions, such as intentions. Jesus said, “What you are going to do, do quickly,” to Judas regarding Judas’ wicked intention. I don’t think the intention to betray the innocent can ever be justified.

          • Timothy

            I’m beginning to think you have no interest in this argument whatsoever. I think you’re just a combox troll who wants to stir up dissension.

          • HenryBowers

            Psychological fallacy. Invalid.

  • Jeremiah

    This issue is like so many others in the Church today. The miters and their bureaucrats with theology degrees have in these days misrepresented Catholic moral teaching, ecclesiology, human anthropology, and so many other areas of dogma and doctrine in. Well done, Fr. Mullady. The pot definitely needs to be stirred continually if we are going to destroy this insidious hermeneutic of rupture in the Church and reconnect with our authentic tradition.
    Watch Michael Voris’s treatment of this topic:

    The Patheos bloggers are going to go nuts, but who cares; they are, in some cases, part of the problem.

  • Jim Russell

    Somewhere below a commenter questions the use of “grave reasons” in the above post, because it does not match the “just cause” language of Humanae Vitae. It might be worth noting that the “serious motive” and “grave reason” language relative to NFP comes not from Paul VI but from Pope Pius XII’s Allocution to Midwives, Oct, 29, 1951:

    “….Therefore, to embrace the matrimonial state, to use continually the faculty proper to such a state and lawful only therein, and, at the same time, to avoid its primary duty without a grave reason, would be a sin against the very nature of married life.

    “Serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise from medical, eugenic, economic and social so-called ‘indications,’ may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life. From this it follows that the observance of the natural sterile periods may be lawful, from the moral viewpoint: and it is lawful in the conditions mentioned. If, however, according to a reasonable and equitable judgment, there are no such grave reasons either personal or deriving from exterior circumstances, the will to avoid the fecundity of their union, while continuing to satisfy to the full their sensuality, can only be the result of a false appreciation of life and of motives foreign to sound ethical principles.”
    So I think this is a “both/and” and not an “either/or”–it’s *both* “grave reason” and “just cause”–which seems to me exactly what we would expect regarding any decision to postpone or exclude the primary end of marriage–the procreation and education of children…

  • Tom

    Did you notice the last line I quoted from # 16 of HV, namely, ” thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained. (20)”, discussing NFP.
    So using NFP for a just cause or well grounded reason is “not in the least” morally offensive. That’s from the encyclical!!! Let’s not try to make things harder than they have to be, for as Father Faber says the moral law is not in good hands when in the hands of the rigorist.


    • Jim Russell

      Not sure I understand–I think we agree that using NFP is “not in the least” morally offensive when used for a) a just cause, b) a well-grounded reason, c) a grave reason, and/or d) a “serious motive”. These phrases are all used either in Humanae Vitae or in the Allocution from Pius XII. NFP is a morally acceptable and morally good choice under the right circumstances. I would hope no one would mistake me for taking an “anti-NFP” stance–I taught and used NFP for many years and recognize its place in the practice of responsible parenthood. Then again, I also have eleven kids (one of the goods of NFP is that it works “both ways” so to speak). 🙂
      I just want to make sure that the language “grave reasons” doesn’t get lost or opposed–it’s magisterial language that must be understood along with the “just cause” language of HV–the blessing of children is *so* central to marriage that we Catholics, God willing, can take the call to responsible parenthood seriously enough that our reasons for using NFP are both “serious/grave” and “just”. I think it’s good to assume that Catholics using NFP have serious reasons for postponing pregnancy/another child. Yet, the blessings of large families are also extolled by the Church’s magisterium….

      • Tom

        Jim, I’m apt to listen to the advice of a Catholic man with eleven kids.

        • Jim Russell

          Thanks, Tom!–Now if I could only get my eleven kids to see the wisdom of your view! 🙂 Thanks again, appreciate the conversation.

      • Timothy

        Jim, You get to the meat of the matter in your last sentence; “The blessings of large families are also extolled by the Church’s magisterium.”

        Oh that we all would beckon couples to the joy of a large family rather than excoriate them for using NFP “improperly.”

        Frankly, I don’t think any of us have the discernment to make the determination what is improper use for someone else. The Vatican has always remained vague on what constitutes “just cause.”

        Let’s draw people into the beauty of the mystery, rather than chase them away with our lectures. Rigorism is a close cousin to semipelagianism, don’t you think?

        (side note, I have 4 kids 5 and under with one on the way. I’m a staunch supporter of NFP, but I am not anti-Big-Family. I’m working my way to 11.)

        I think NFP has the ability to purify a couples desires and draw them into a large family in a way that a rigorist discussion never could.

        • Jim Russell

          Preach it! Thanks for these great insights!

    • Cassandra


      Not being morally offensive is not the same as being good in itself as you suggest below.

      If we were not fallen and had our passions under the full control of our intellect, then reason would dictate having sex only with the intention of procreating as the intention should match the proper end of the act. Being fallen and subject to concupiscence, sex with the intention of *not* procreating, yet open to life, during the infertile periods is acceptable to avoid evils associated with concupiscence

      • Jim Russell

        I disagree with the assertion that an “unfallen” couple would have marital relations *only* with the intention of procreating. The “proper end” of marital relations is both procreative *and* unitive, inseparable and willed by God, as Pope Paul VI eloquently states. Thus if concupiscence were absent from human nature, a married couple could engage in relations even during the infertile time, provided they remained open to the transmission of life, and precisely *because* the marital act is always inseparably unitive and procreative…

        • BrianKillian

          They could. But would they?

          Would they have less sex because they had less concupiscence, or more sex because it would be more enjoyable? 🙂

          • Jim Russell

            For the same reasons married couples who do have the wound of concupiscence have relations during infertile times or when profoundly infertile–to offer one’s total self-gift to one’s spouse in their one-flesh union. Relations during the infertile time for us “fallen” humans do not constitute a mere concession to our disordered appetites (concupiscence)–rather, relations during the infertile time, right here, right now, for married couples, constitute a renewal of the marriage covenant that is quite capable, through grace, of being a “non-concupiscent” act of self-giving.

        • Cassandra

          If you examine *unity* more closely, your argument doesn’t stand, and this applies also to the argument that NFP practiced with only the intention of *avoiding* children (rather than more appropriate openness) isn’t going to truly contribute to *unity*.

          Natural unity between couples is perfected in the child. Supernatural unity is achieved via shared communion through God.

          Unfallen humans without any taint of sin would be capable of perfect supernatural unity through God without sex. Thus the emotional and psychological aspects of sex that support unity would not be necessary for unfallen humans. This is an aid for us.

          In regard to NFP as “avoidance only”, the couple does not achieve natural unity, nor with problematic, even sinful intentions, they are not going to be able to achieve supernatural unity either.

          • Jim Russell

            I think my argument stands just fine–the unity of the spouse is not reducible to children, the supreme gift of marriage. The unity of the spouses is directly realized in the total self-gift of one spouse to another–a self-gift fully expressed in marital relations even when procreation does not occur…

  • Conor Cool

    NFP as taught is very clear on the moral necessity, though it is often separated from the nuts and bolts details of how to practice it scientifically. Still, it is presented as a form of family spacing so that those who, through the prayer encouraged, find reason to wait for children. It also sets up the couple well to accept and enjoy the children that potentially come despite the application of NFP. Still, more could always be done to clarify “grave reasons,” and NFP must also go hand in hand with the rest of Catholic social teaching.

    The use of NFP as a sex-Ed class is a fascinating idea. Rather, the scientific aspect that no girl learns about her cycle would (in a true sense) empower women, I think.

    Still, a couple that dispenses with even NFP (which can and should also be used to conceive) is to be praised.

  • HenryBowers

    Very encouraging to hear someone else admit that timed abstinence can acquire the species of a contraceptive act.

    But I don’t think Fr. Mullady has identified contraception’s intrinsic wrongness. [He has done so only half-way.] When he says: “the act which expresses this union
    is directly related to the other good which is the bringing forth of
    human life. For a person to deny either of these relationships is
    contrary to reason. In other words, it is evil,” he’s missing the mark. Contraception does commit dualism against the partner, but not against the potential child. Contraception opposes the wholesale existence of the possible child qua child. Since that’s also unreasonable, it’s evil.

    Therefore, it’s not evil to deny any given natural relationship per se. When a lactating mother empties her breasts and disposes of the milk while her child lies in ICU, the object of her action in itself denies the relationship of lactation to child-rearing. But nobody calls this a sin, nor ever would. Therefore, the wrongness of contraception lies primarily in the intention, and while we cannot know the 1st-person intention of the person adorning a condom, we can know that the action reveals an extra intention incompatible with the intentions of NFP uprightly practiced (i.e. to protect other existing goods). Timed abstinence can be filled up with acts intended against the coming-to-be of life qua life, and so can function as contraceptive in species, as Mullady said.

  • jenny

    Wondering if it is more difficult for women than for men to apply NFP……
    women have to restrain themselves right at the time when their body is “on fire” – the hormones are at the peak ; any other time, woman’s desire is more moderate and therefore, easier to manage
    …while men do not have such a peak, so, men do not have to fight against their sudden impulse when it is at the highest. Pretty constant intensity for men…..kind of predictable behavior.
    It is like when the woman is most hungry, she has to refrain from eating, while men do not have this issue, do they?
    Any input here?

    • Ed Hamilton

      It kinda seems to me that men who abstain are always on fire anyway. So he’s hungry too…lol

    • Tom

      Think of all the single women practicing complete abstinence, and this will lighten your legitimate concern. Tom

  • BrianKillian

    Oh yeah, a scholastic treatment really clears up the distinction! 🙂

  • Ed Hamilton

    Okay, if an the action of the conjugal act is done when say both people are sterile, how can the intention of the couple to be open to life if they know life can’t come to be? How can an older couple, for instance approach the conjugal act? How can you be open to life if its not even possible? I accept what Father is saying and though I understood it all, but by the end of the article, I couldn’t see where this type of case fits. I’m sure its okay for an older couple, but I’m not sure how to put that one together. Someone help me out here.

    • HenryBowers

      That’s where I think the emphasis is off-base. We shouldn’t worry about facilitating a natural relationship as much as we should be concerned about not opposing the goods of persons. If the sins of contraception are twofold, viz. dualism and a contra-life will, then knowingly sterile sex would not per-se commit those intentions. Knowingly sterile sex is not a bad object.

      • Ed Hamilton

        “we should be concerned about not opposing the goods of persons.”
        I love that explanation. It describes charity so effectively to me and seems pretty airtight. Thank you for bringing this up. I’ve heard that argument before and like it even better now.

    • Jim Russell

      Openness to the transmission of human life is necessary, regardless of whether the physical condition of the spouses makes procreation possible. Probably not a great analogy, but compare this to a person who buys a lottery ticket while realizing there is virtually no likelihood of actually winning–but their having purchased a ticket certainly makes it clear they are “open” to the possibility of being the winner. Similarly, engaging in marital relations with no intention of *excluding* the possibility of procreation–accepting whatever God may have in store for them–is a sufficient expression of openness to the transmission of life. So even an infertile couple can have marital relations because of the inseparability of the unitive and procreative dimensions of the act–they experience the unitive good of the act while consciously remaining open to the procreative dimension even though there is little or no chance of conceiving….

      • Ed Hamilton

        Good analogy Jim. I think that fits right into what Father said too. I was thinking similary but you put it quite well. But still, how can you be open to life if you believe its impossible without divine intervention? If you believe its impossible, it seems morally acceptable to be either open or closed. Actually, I just noticed that Father didn’t use the term “open” to life.

        • Jim Russell

          Think of it this way: what does it really mean to be “open” to the transmission of life? It means that the spouses are *willing* to cooperate with God in the good of procreation. *If* God should will that this unitive act of marital relations would result in new life, the couple’s own intention would be to cooperate fully in God’s will. As long as the couple does nothing to *exclude* whatever possibility there may be for God to “create-with” (procreate) this couple, then the couple approaches marital relations with an openness to new life…

    • BrianKillian

      “open to life” is a really misleading translation of the latin which more literally is something like “ordered in itself to procreation”. So as long as you’re not tampering with the way the act is ordered to procreation, you are “open to life”. It has no thing to do with the possibility of miracles happening.

    • Cassandra

      One has to remember that one of the traditional reasons for marriage is “a remedy for concupiscence”. Known sterility is not an impediment to marriage. Known impotence is, however–and impotence as defined in canon law is much narrower (and graphic to describe) than typical usage might imply.

  • Tom

    This is from Blessed Pope John Paul II, as cited in The Catholic World Report (Oct. 1994):

    “When there is a [legitimate] reason for not procreating, this choice is licit, and it could even be the couple’s duty.”

    Therefore, NFP, practiced pursuant to HV, does not violate either the procreative or unitive aspects of authentic conjugal love, but rather protects the unitive while in no way violating in the least the procreative. Since NFP might even be the couple’s duty it clearly is a moral good.


    P.S. The word legitimate added by me as clearly implied in the Pope’s comment.

    • Timothy


      Should we be adding words to Papal statements? It loses a bit of magisterial authority when the quote is “by Pope John Paul II… and Tom.”

      I recall another instance where someone added words to an authoritative document. A fellow by the name of Martin added the word [alone] to Romans 3:28.

  • Jim

    Dear Father,

    You might have a doctorate and lots of letters, but heed the words of a regular fella. When commonsense is not so common with the men with caps and gowns are capable of deceiving the world. (So says Dr. Peter Kreeft)

    Regarding NFP, nobody should be married if they are not capable of being celibate.
    NFP is just plain bad news. It’s is always an occasion of sin, plain and simple. Employing NFP is an exercise in venial sin at best… at best.

    The one thing most folks forget to remember regarding NFP. It is a sin to plain and try to have a child. Yes, you right that right. Check your moral manuals. It is a sin to attempt to intentionally have a child. NFP undermines the role of a husband and wife. Sex and pregnancy is spontaneous; never planned.

    Typical scenario…

    Hey, dear, you’re eggs are not implanting right now. Let’s have sex before you might possibly become pregnant!

    Oh, honey, I understand your testicles are empty… let’s have a bunch of sex before you manufacture more semen!

    • nannon31

      To say nfp is venial sin is to place Augustine over the modern Popes. Aquinas parroted Augustine in all things sexual so he said the same thing. Neither man preempts the Popes. Aquinas was not even a Bishop. Aquinas held for the killing of heretics which is now forbidden in sect.80 of ” Splendor of the Truth”.
      Both he and Augustine were wrong on the immaculate conception. To prefer them to encyclicals is bizarro world.

    • Jim Russell

      NFP is not an exercise in venial sin any more than marital relations itself is an “occasion of sin” merely because of concupiscence. Would you cite some sources for the claim that seeking to fulfill the primary end of marriage–the procreation and education of children–is somehow sinful?

  • patsw

    In the discussion here, I see references to “grave reasons”. In the three most recent texts of the magisterium on this topic a word other than “grave” is used.

    Paragraph 10 of the English and Latin texts of HV on the Vatican web site use the term “serious reasons”:

    With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.

    CCC 2368 uses a different term “just reasons”

    For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood.

    Evangelium Vitae 97 uses “serious reasons”

    [Obedience to the Lord’s call] happens when the family is generously open to new lives, and when couples maintain an attitude of openness and service to life, even if, for serious reasons and in respect for the moral law, they choose to avoid a new birth for the time being or indefinitely

    I concede that “a bigger house” and “better vacations” are neither serious nor just reasons, but it would be helpful to offer reasons which are serious, just, and grave other than the health of the mother and the child which would be licit. Since the dogmatic texts don’t further clarify would reasons would be serious, just, or grave, the recourse a married couple would have would be to their pastor for help in making this determination.

    • BrianKillian

      No one is in a better position to judge their situation than the couple themselves. They are the ministers of their sacrament, not the pastor.

      • patsw

        I was speaking to getting clarification of what “grave”, “serious”, and “just” mean in this context to a couple seeking to follow what the Church teaches, not the preemption of their consciences.

  • Michelle Berghout

    Magisterial documents state spouses may have physical, psychological, economic or social reasons for limiting family size using these adjectives to describe those reasons: ‘just’ ‘worthy’ ‘defensible’ ‘serious’ ‘weighty’ ‘sound’. It is surprising the article uses ‘grave’ when this adjective was a result of an incorrect translation from the Italian to English. Read the newest translation of Humanae Vitae by the Catholic Truth Society. The translation is from the Latin text and corrects the errors of the early translation. It is a pity the error is still being spread. Also read – The True Meaning of Love by Fr. Richard Rego. It gives a clear explanation of Church Teaching as well as 11 pages of resource notes citing the source of Magisterial documents so there need be no confusion. Michelle Berghout

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