Since Thursday, July 25, 2013, is the 45 anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, this week is “NFP Awareness Week.” In that spirit, I want to share with you all for my Chaplain’s Corner column this week an article that I published recently in the newsletter of the California Natural Family Planning Association (canfp.org):
G.K. Chesterton famously insisted that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Not only is Chesterton’s quip wonderfully anti-perfectionistic, it’s also a profound insight into the structure of human moral psychology: we acquire the virtues by practicing virtuous behavior before we are virtuous. This wisdom certainly applies to Natural Family Planning and the integral sexuality accompanying it.
It has become common in discussions of NFP in recent years for emphasis to be placed on the necessity of just causes required by the natural moral law for abstaining from sexual intercourse during fertile periods. This is indeed a very important aspect of the virtuous use of NFP. To abstain during fertile periods without a just reason would be to stifle the full flowering of human sexuality. But this emphasis often goes too far, cautioning at times against the use of NFP because, it is claimed, it can become in practice a form of “Catholic contraception” if it’s used with a “contraceptive mentality.”
Here we have both poor moral analysis and an unfortunate case of the perfect becoming an enemy of the good. We must understand clearly and decisively that it is morally (and physically) impossible for NFP to be contraceptive. The method of determining periods of fertility and abstaining during those periods does not touch the object of the sexual act itself in the slightest and leaves that act perfectly free and open to becoming the integral union of love and life built in to the logic of sexual love.
It is true that a couple using NFP can commit, at the level of intention, real sins in their use of it. The sin of selfishness or lack of generosity comes to mind, as does the sin of avarice or failure to trust in Divine Providence. But a couple using NFP, can never, by their use of NFP, be said to commit in any way the sin of contraception. This is a vitally important point, with ramifications both spiritual and social: integral conjugal love is such a great good to the souls of married persons and to society that it’s even worth doing badly (i.e. with mixed motives or selfish intentions). If we can convert every married couple from the use of contraception to the use of NFP, we will have won a decisive victory for the spiritual and emotional health of souls and society.
At first, it is true, many couples will use NFP badly. They will bring with them the same selfishness and fear that led them to use contraception. But their sexual life will become well-ordered and whole. There will be so much more room for growth in their marriages and they will become more and more open, little by little, to the proper attitude of trust and acceptance before Divine Providence in the use of conjugal love. I would love to have a parish full of married couples using NFP badly!
Now the pervasive influence of the contraceptive mentality is a real and present danger to Western civilization and was so even before it was first identified in 1960 by the Jesuit sociologist, Stanislas de Lestapis. And, indeed, it would be possible, in the most extreme cases, for a married couple to use NFP in such a way that they would even contravene the very meaning of marriage. For example, if an engaged couple ruled out completely any openness to children at any time in the marriage, they would be unable by that very intention to contract marriage! These are grave evils that must be combated with clear reasoning and love.
But, despite all the problems surrounding us, we have to insist on this crucial distinction between the (even selfish!) use of NFP and the violence done to the sexual act by contraception of any kind. What a difference there is in the marital embrace between the use of contraception and the use of NFP! It is the difference between life and death.
Fr. Joseph Previtali
Assistant Chaplain to the Traditional Latin Mass Society