Openness to Life, Technology, and the Role of Virtue: Contraception vs. NFP

This is Part III of a series; find Part I here and Part II here.

In boldly reaffirming the Church’s constant and centuries-old teaching on contraception (cf., e.g., HV, 6), the pope would famously, if controversially, proclaim that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship [or remain open] to the procreation of human life” (per se aptus vitam generandam, HV, 11; cf. Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii; Pope Pius XII, “Address to Midwives”). This moral norm is not exactly compatible with radical feminism’s sexual liberation manifesto or television’s Sex in the City! But all Christian churches had taught it up until the Anglican Communion abandoned it at its 1930 Lambeth Conference.

Although this teaching would prohibit the use of contraception as intrinsically evil (see HV, 14) without at the same time requiring a procreative intent in each conjugal act (but condemning an anti-procreative one), it did not mean that the Catholic Church was opposed to either sexual pleasure (as was usually thought to be the case) or, as Humanae Vitae says, “the application of human intelligence to an activity in which a rational creature such as man is so closely associated with his Creator.” Rather, “she affirms”, as HV continues, “that this must be done within the limits of the order of reality established by God” (HV, 16).

Billings Method NFP Chart

Billings Method NFP Chart

In a word, man must use the gift of technology in such a way as to exercise responsible stewardship with it over creation in all areas of his life, including his own sexuality. The moral standard for our use of any technology is whether it serves the true good of the human person or enslaves and degrades him.

St. John Paul II described this “stewardship” or “dominion” over the visible world as consisting “in the priority of ethics over technology, in the primacy of the person over things, and in the superiority of spirit over matter” (St. John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 16). This is why, we might add, that the intellectual and moral virtue of prudence (concerned as it is with right action, with “doing” rather than “making”) must have priority over “art,” over techniques as the late Catholic French philosopher Yves Simon argued in such mid-20th century classic works as The Philosophy of Democratic Government.

Being able to grasp the main difference between morally acceptable uses of Natural Family Planning (NFP) and so-called “artificial” birth control methods (i.e., contraception) comes down to being able to wisely discern these two contrary ways of understanding technological intervention in the “generative process” (cf. HV, 16) – one of which works with God’s plan for generating human life, the other against it. It also entails understanding the following crucial distinction: Couples using contraception and those using NFP may have the same “remote intention,” in not wanting to conceive a child, but their “present intention,” that is, what they freely choose to do in this specific action (or their means to the end) radically differ.

In brief, as the late moral theologian William E. May and others have argued, contraceptive intercourse (as well as direct sterilization, see HV, 14) is always anti-procreative – ultimately anti-life and anti-love. NFP, however, is non-procreative (i.e. it involves couples chastely restricting sexual intercourse to the infertile period when trying to avoid pregnancy for legitimate reasons), but it can also be employed both to help couples achieve pregnancy when they desire to do so and to foster greater marital harmony, mutual love, friendship, and fidelity (cf. HV, 16).

Again, the practitioners of the two “methods” may have the same further ends, but their immediate choices and actions actually differ significantly. Contraception is always a choice/act to impede the procreative good of a freely chosen act of sexual union; NFP is a choice/act to abstain from sexual union during the fertile period. In doing so, the former method spurns the good of human life-in-its-transmission while the latter method respects it.

Bl. Pope Paul VI well articulated the moral difference in HV, teaching that married couples who take advantage of “the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system” (i.e. what we today call NFP), “rightly use a faculty provided them by nature”; when couples engage in contraceptive practices, however (e.g. using the Pill, condoms, IUDs, the withdrawal method), “they obstruct the natural development of the generative process” (HV, 16).

“It cannot be denied,” the pope continued, “that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love” (HV, 16).

Let it also be noted that NFP is truly nature-friendly – friendly both to man’s personal biological nature and to the non-personal nature outside of him. Indeed it works with nature, not against it, similarly regarding one’s fertility – one’s power to give life – as it is regarded in Sacred Scripture: as a blessing rather than a curse. One would think that the secular mind, with its “Green” values, would welcome such a natural and highly reliable means of family planning, “birth control,” if you will.

The hermeneutical “key” to understanding the personalist moral vision of Humanae Vitae, then, is this “balanced” approach to technology, rooted both in its “wholistic” anthropology or “integral vision” of man (see HV, 7; see also 17) and in its call to a virtue-based approach to solving human problems, for example, in its recognition of the essential importance of self-discipline (see HV, 21; see also 10) and the virtue of chastity (see HV, 22).

Thus, the encyclical “urges man not to betray his personal responsibilities by putting all his faith in technical expedients. In this way [the Church] defends the dignity of husband and wife” (HV, 18). The Pill is one such expedient harmful to man’s personal dignity as an embodied soul who is created in God’s “image” and “likeness,” as either “male” or “female” (cf. Gn 1:26-27).

At the same time, the pontiff can appeal, without a trace of hypocrisy, to governments (see HV, 23), to scientists (see HV, 24), and to doctors and nurses (see HV, 27) to develop and rely on family planning methods that are totally sound – both morally and medically. Thus, Bl. Paul VI had great hope for man and his intellect, but he placed his faith in God, who alone provides the grace Christian spouses need to live the demands of a good and holy conjugal life (see HV, 20; cf. 8).

Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 23 years. He is co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), as well as author of What’s a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) and numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals.
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