Catholics and Contraception

So a few of us chaplains were talking about sex and contraception recently, as is our wont. I found myself a little befuddled in trying to defend the Catholic position. In particular, I was questioned about why natural family planning (NFP) is okay but condoms are not. Aren’t they just different paths to the same end – sexual intercourse without children?

In my quest for answers, I consulted a book I’m currently reading by the Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh, entitled How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice. I also read Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), Pope Paul VI’s encyclical issued in 1968 which restates the Church’s teaching on marriage, sex and contraception.

How to defend the faith

It will be useful to start with some definitions. Contraception is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “the deliberate use of artificial methods or other techniques to prevent pregnancy as a consequence of sexual intercourse” []. Contraceptives work in a variety of ways: condoms act as a barrier between sperm and egg, whilst the Pill suppresses the release of eggs and thereby avoids fertilisation.

Natural family planning refers to the use of the female fertility cycle to achieve or avoid conception. Basically, there are times during a woman’s menstrual cycle when she is more fertile or infertile; having sexual intercourse at these times will either increase or decrease the chances of pregnancy respectively. According to the NHS website, “if the instructions are properly followed, natural family planning methods can be up to 99% effective, depending on what methods are used” [].

So far, so similar. Artificial contraception and NFP seem to have the same purpose of having sex without conceiving. For the Church, however, the difference is not in the purpose of the act, but the nature of it.

In Humanae Vitae, sex between wife and husband is described as having two aspects: the “unitive” and the “procreative” [HV 12]. Sex within marriage serves two purposes: a deepened union between the partners; and the procreation of children. These two aspects are joined by an “inseparable connection, established by God” and are “a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman.” In other words, sex must always be open to both a deeper union with the other and the procreation of children, even if procreation is hampered by infertility.

legs, couple, baby 158871

Image source:

Back to condoms. The Church doesn’t prohibit artificial contraception because it’s artificial. Austen Ivereigh points out that, if it did, the Church would logically oppose aspirin as an ‘unnatural’ cure for headaches (which it doesn’t!). As Ivereigh explains:

“What is wrong is not the ‘unnaturalness’ of [contraceptive sex], but the very attempt to have sex while simultaneously and intentionally trying to deprive it of its procreative purpose.” [How to Defend the Faith, p.34]

He refers to contraceptive sex as “anti-procreative.” Artificial contraception treats fertility as an “inconvenience” which is to be actively resisted [p.34]. The nature of the sexual act, which naturally has a procreative element, is changed by the use of a condom or other contraceptive. Sex becomes less than what it should be, because something is missing.

On the other hand, Ivereigh refers to sex with NFP as “non-procreative.” Whilst NFP may have the same end as artificial contraception (i.e. sex without conception), it approaches fertility in a different way. Ivereigh states that “the couple using NFP is accepting their fertility as it is: a great good, but a good which they are not going to use at this time” [p.34].

The couple using NFP recognise the life-giving capacity of sex. Rather than suppressing it, they seek to moderate it using their natural capacities. They are “going with the grain” by respecting the natural rhythm of human fertility and using it to their advantage. They are not fighting “against the grain” by blocking fertility altogether.

Finally, the Church sees NFP as a labour of love. NFP is undoubtedly much harder work than simply buying a condom. It requires commitment to understanding the woman’s fertility and discipline to abstain for fertile periods. As it is put in HV 21, “It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another.” The use of NFP means sex is less likely to be reduced to merely the gratification of an impulse. Sex takes on the character of a dedicated and total expression of love which mirrors the bond made in marriage.

I hope that my ramblings may have helped in some way! This is a particularly tricky issue which I for one struggle to fully understand. However, I take comfort from the huge significance which the Church places on sex and relationships. For the Church, sexual intercourse is a holy act. In sex, “married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator” [HV 1]. It should not be entered into lightly and partners must have a deep reverence for each other. In my opinion, this is a good starting point for reflection.



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4 Replies to “Catholics and Contraception”

  1. ifigeniaa

    Interesting topic. Let me share my thoughts on it. I agree with you in some of the views you express, but disagree in others. Firstly, because you seem to equal sex to penetration, and sex is much more. In this much more, sex is certainly not always procreative. And when it’s not procreative, it does not contribute less to deepening the union between the partners. In fact, all forms of sex -both in the form of penetration and in other forms- are -or can be, each one has their taste- equally important for the union of the couple. Thus, sex is not always in nature procreative.

    Taken like this, sex becomes a crucial aspect in a relationship far before the issue of having children is addressed. In my personal experience, the physical knowledge of the other is as important as the emotional or spiritual knowledge. To put it in other words: you meet someone, and when the relationship between the two becomes special, deeper, our bodies and our rationality tell us that knowing the other “in words” cannot be separated from knowing the other in a physical way too. This physical interaction, as I said, can take many forms, and if the couple wants so, does not need to involve penetration and therefore be procreative. This physical knowledge and communication with the partner is, in my point of view, crucial to the development and consolidation of any relationship, a consolidation that needs to be there before the couple decides to have children.

    In this path, both before and after deciding to have children, the couple may choose to use penetration as a further development of their physical and emotional engagement. I agree and find light in the view that a Christian couple must be open to procreation and musn’t have an “anti-procreation” attitude. But knowing how diverse sex can be, and how crucial it is to the emergence and consolidation of a relationship, I find it difficult to accept the view that using artificial contraception methods is ‘anti-contraceptive’ but NFP is ‘non-procreative’. The only thing that can really label the contraception method as one thing or the other isn’t the method itself, but the ATTITUDE of the couple using it. A christian couple being open to having children but chosing not to having them in a particular moment can do so using any of the two methods, I honestly don’t see why the ‘natural’ method makes a difference, as in the eyes of God -and our owns- the only thing that matters is our attitude, our soul, our inner truth.
    I am a woman and I am well aware of the menstruation cycle and of the benefits of “listening” to it, which by far are not restricted to allowing ‘natural’ contraception methods. I have myself used both ‘artificial’ and ‘natural’ contraception methods with my life-long partner and can’t honestly, from a personal and religious point of view, see the difference.

    • Conor Gaffey

      Dear ifigeniaa,

      Thank you very much for your considered and well-reasoned response to my blog. I found your thoughts to be very enlightening. I’d like to clarify a few points that I made in the blog and which you raised in your response.

      1. In my blog, I did indeed equate sex with penetrative intercourse. This was simply because I was only seeking to address the Catholic teaching on contraception, which is obviously only relevant to penetrative sex where procreation is a possibility.
      I’d agree with you that penetrative sex is not the only way a couple can express their intimacy and that, as you put it, “the physical knowledge of the other is as important as the emotional or spiritual knowledge.” I’d also agree that healthy expressions of intimacy between the couple are vital in developing the solid foundations upon which a long and fruitful relationship can be built.
      In terms of what kinds of sexual acts are permissible according to Catholic teaching, I’m afraid I can’t claim to have much knowledge on this subject. What I would say is that, in my view, the Church views sex as a powerful and sacred thing. In sex, partners give themselves completely to each other. This seems to me to be part of the reason why penetrative sex at least is reserved for marriage; it would seem incongruous for a couple to give themselves to each other through sex without committing to the lifelong relationship and responsibilities of marriage.

      2. Regarding the difference between NFP and artificial contraception, it is my understanding that Catholic teaching does not differentiate between these two methods based on intention/attitude but rather based on the nature of the sexual act.
      As you point out and as I mentioned in my blog, a couple using NFP and a couple using condoms can have the same intention: i.e., to express and deepen their intimacy without conceiving. However, the nature of the sexual act differs in these two cases.
      NFP does not seek to suppress or block the procreative element of sex. It respects human fertility and works within its natural rhythm to either conceive or avoid conception. A condom, on the other hand, physically blocks fertility. In so doing, it changes the nature of the sexual act.
      The difference between NFP and artificial contraception from the Catholic view is explained the document Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World) by Pope John Paul II. When a couple uses artificial contraception, they seek to separate the procreative and unitive aspects of sex. The total self-giving which sex entails is prohibited by contraception. When a couple uses NFP, the unitive and procreative aspects are not forcibly separated. Rather, the couple uses the natural fertility cycle to their advantage whilst still giving themselves completely to each other [see paragraph 32 at

      I hope this response helps clarify some of the points I made in the original blog. In any case, I am no expert on the subject, but rather wrote the blog in an attempt to clarify my own thinking on these topics!

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