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.
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” [http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/contraception]. 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” [http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/contraception-guide/Pages/natural-family-planning.aspx].
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.
Image source: http://pictures.4ever.eu/love/couples/legs-158871
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.