Saturday, December 09, 2006

The CMF: Contracepting Christians

There is a wonderful account over at Antonia's World all about her experience of being a Catholic and discussing medical ethics with the protestant Christian Medical Fellowship. I have, of course, some experience with them myself. I found it very useful when I was initially re-exploring Christianity to socialise with other Christian medics. The CMF gave me a real kickstart in my faith, at a time when I was more and more questioning my agnosticism. Shortly after, my wife decided on converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism! I of course, followed in her wake, as my initial exploration into Christianity was solely because of her wonderful faith. I would like to base today's reflection upon this period in my life, which was only about 2 years ago.

When I was exploring Christianity I used a lot of CMF's on-line resources. I inevitably came across an anti-Catholic article within a section denoted "Other Religions and Cults". This confused me a great deal. Eventually I realised that Catholicism was not compatible with this organisation, with many aspects alienating faithful Catholics altogether. I also discovered the Guild of Catholic Doctors. Anyway, this is retracing old ground, which can be read about at an earlier post. The saga continues, with naive doctors who think that both organisations can be best of friends, to which I have decided to address in a faceless manner. What Antonia did recently is so much braver. Something that I have shied away from in previous encounters. I can see how easy it is for Catholics who aren't grounded in apologetics to be led astray into being re-baptised and all sorts of other nonsense. What I'd like to concentrate on is the issue raised by Antonia, contraception, and reflect on it with a degree of very personal experience.

Let us remind ourselves that it was only in the last century (around the 1930s) that many christian bodies permitted contraception. In 1930, His Holiness of venerable memory Pope Pius XI had to restate the sanctity and proper context of Christian Marriage in his encyclical Casti Connubii (well worth a long hard read). The following extract is particularly relevant to this topic:

Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question [contraception], the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and 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 frustrated in 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.
The one problem I have with the dogged Catholic teaching on contraception in the modern Church, is the seeming hypocrisy in the way Natural Family Planning (NFP) is promoted. I have had the contraception argument with non-Catholics before, and intelligent people point out that, with such a high success rate, NFP has the same effect as barrier methods. The means may be different, but the end in itself is identical. NFP is not simply the periodic abstinence from intercourse, but an elaborate means of ensuring that abstinence is only confined to a few days of fertility during the monthly cycle. It is a relatively modern innovation and should thus be assessed carefully in light of the Gospel and traditional Church teaching.

The Church has always held that virtuous continence, or periodic abstinence (where both parties consent) is an ethical and lawful Christian way of avoiding pregnancy. What I do not agree with is the infiltration of contraception mentality into Catholicism in the guise of NFP: posing as a somehow essential part of true Christian marriage. This is a fallacy. We need to question just when avoiding pregnancy is appropriate for a married couple, and what the actual intention of the marriage union is in the first place. St. Augustine, commenting on the book of Genesis, states simply that "Intercourse even with one's legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it". The natural state of marriage is completely orientated towards conceiving life and rearing children, as the Catholic Church has consistently taught throughout the centuries. In its wider context, Pope Pius XI rightfully states:
[The] mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, as the Roman Catechism teaches, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof.
I mean no disrespect to anyone practising NFP; it is seemingly not sinful and therefore I understand why it is promoted so vehemently (especially with the pressures from the secular world to limit family size). All I want, is to call to attention the true intention behind the practice of NFP, and question whether it fits into the Christian ideal of surrendering our will to God and dying to our own will. Marriage should be lived in the fullest way possible, and that includes its every aspect. I am probably sounding awfully condescending, judgemental, and alienating to many readers (including the one I was giving credit to initially), but that is not my intention. I believe that between married couples this debate needs to take place.

I want to end by giving an account of my own experience, going back to the time I mentioned earlier when my wife and I were approaching the bosom of the Catholic faith. A year before that time we were a newly married couple, and I was in the middle of my degree with several years to go before I would be earning money. The obvious course of action was to contracept, and having no moral objection that is what we did. We used both the combined oral contraceptive pill (or at least Wendy did!) and the barrier method of contraception, at various stages. The first thing we changed in our lives when we began to go to Mass, was eliminating our practice of contraception in one fell swoop. I also spent a lengthy amount of time in the confessional. NFP never really occurred to us, and we expected Wendy to fall pregnant immediately, since we were presenting God with no further impediment.

However, month after month went by and nothing happened. We became more and more desperate for children (even though, one might say, we weren't in the 'ideal position' to begin a family). We began praying fervently for children. It became very difficult for us being faced with people keenly aware that we were now a 'Catholic couple' without any kids (which most would assume means we didn't abide by all the Church's teachings). It was only after a weekend of frantic prayer and petition to Our Lady in Walsingham this year that our dream became a reality. Even after we had a positive pregnancy test, we were still petrified that something would go wrong.

It has occurred to us that during our years of contracepting, God was yearning for our marriage to bear fruit in a similar way that we were forced to yearn afterwards. God taught us that we must surrender our lives to him, and only then will we be fulfilled. We depend on everything for God, and realise now that we couldn't control our lives like we wished. It was all God's timing. My heart burns that all Catholic marriages would be formed in a way that they surrender control to God and let him decide when, and how many, children arrive on the scene.

O Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our most gentle Queen and Mother look down in mercy upon England, thy dowry, and upon us who greatly hope and trust in thee.

By thee it was that Jesus, our Saviour and our hope was given unto the world; and He has given thee to us that we might hope still more.

Plead for us thy children, whom thou didst receive and accept at the foot of the cross, O Sorrowful Mother, Intercede for our separated brethren, that with us in the one true fold, they may be united to the Chief Shepherd, the Vicar of thy Son.

Pray for us all, dear Mother, that by faith, fruitful in good works we may all deserve to see and praise God, together with thee in our heavenly home.



  1. Hi!

    No I am not at all offended. I think your point of view is totally understandable in the light of your reversion, and your wife's conversion to the faith.

    Your own experience of yearning for children when none came, and your belief that God was yearing for your marriage to bear fruit, is YOUR own experience, and you should not extrapolate it to others.

    What the Lord may want for one couple, He may not want from a couple who, superficially, may appear to be in a similar position.

    The Magestirium of the Church has never required that a 'serious' or 'grave' reason be required for the use of NFP.
    Rather the Church requires that the reason for its use be 'just'.

    CCC no. 2368 we see the word 'just' being used.

    Humanae Vitae section 16
    "If then, there are any just motives to space births...the church teaches it is licit ...(to use NFP)"

    (this is too frequently translated erroneously as 'serious motives', but if you look at the actual encyclical it uses the Latin word 'iustae', which is actually the word for just, and not serious.)

    Furthermore, on November 26th 1951 Pius XII spoke to the 'Association of Large Families' and said:

    "We affirm the legitimacy and at the same time the limits - truly very wide - of that controlling of births which, unlike the so-called 'birth control', is compatible with God's law."

    Note the: 'truly very wide" limits of using NFP.

    Also, in his "Allocution to Midwives" of October 29th 1951 Pius XII states:

    "Serious reasons, such as those which not rarely arise from medical, eugenic, economic and social so-called 'indications' may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory postivite debt [i.e. debt to society of having children] for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life".

    I have never read or heard a Pontiff suggest that NFP should be restricted to the narrowest of circumstances.

    Furthermore, I would like to add that I believe it to be VERY difficult to use NFP with a contraceptive mentality.
    It is probably possible in theory, but by its very essence, NFP requires couples to be open to life, and to reconsider their decision to delay children each and every single month.

    Also, yes, the remote ends of NFP & contraception may be the same (i.e. to delay children), but the immediate ends are extremly different, and this is highly significant.

    Wanting to earn money for one's family is the same remote end, whether you go out and get a job, or rob a bank.

    The Church has given her massive seal of approval to the use of NFP in just circumstances and it is up to each individual couple to prayerfully discern themselves what God desires of them in this present time.
    They must be generous and open to life, yes of course, but that doesn't not automatically equate with conceiving every time they can.

    The Church has taught that the difference between NFP used in just circumstances and contraception used in equally just circumstances are vast to the extent that the former is morally acceptable, and may even be necessary, whereas the latter is not justifiable.

    Perhaps instead of worrying so much about whether your fellow 1% of the Catholic population who uses NFP is using it with the correct spirit (which is ultimately a matter between themselves and the Lord), you could focus your efforts on the 99% of Catholics not using it, because they are definitly doing something wrong!!

    God Bless!


  2. Surely too NFP is about co-operating with God's creative purpose and involves for success a far more intimate understanding between the married couple, both physiologically and spiritually, than artificial methods of contraception. NFP also offers ways to promote fertility that are more successful than the morally horrendous means of IVF. So yes, the Church and her ministers must not promote NFP with a contraceptive mentality, but yes, NFP is potentially a gift of God to build stronger marriages and families.

  3. Matt: We let God decide for us from the beginning. We got married with 2 years to go in medical school.

    I can't tell you how much we have been blessed by making this decision. God truly listened to us, and He has helped us meet our temporal needs as we went through medical school, internship, residency, fellowship, military service, and now private practice.

    How much has He blessed us? We have twelve children: 8 sons and 4 daughters. We are praying that God will bless us with more children whom we can raise up for Him. At our ages(me - 42, my wife - 38) we realize that time is passing, and that we will not have that many more years to have children.

    God will bless you tremendously for your change of heart.

  4. My wife reminded me of a quote(which I paraphrase) from Fr. John Hardon, S.J. about NFP: you can't space children if you have never had any children.

  5. Thank you for your comments. Antonia, you are obviously well versed on the subject. You're right, I should concentrate on opposing the contraceptive culture altogether. However, I do feel that a contraceptive use of NFP undermines the Catholic argument against contraception. Either we think the procreative act should be orientated towards children, or not. There is little middle ground.

    Father: You have clearly been fed the spiel about NFP. Its ridiculous to assume that this practice is beneficial for marriage. Simply look at what dadwithnoisykids has just said - that is beautiful. I strongly object to an argument which encourages all Catholic couples to use NFP arbitrarily. It is an allowance the church has made towards the predominant culture of both contraception and assisted fertility. It should not be taken as the given Catholic way. "Because of your hardness of heart" I think Jesus would say...

  6. Matt, thank you for sharing your intimate and moving experience and struggle with us. As one who often defends Humanae Vitae, hearing the perspective of people who actually practice the teaching of the Church is a great boost.

    The issue of contraception has convinced many people of the truth of the Catholic Church. This seemingly recalcitrant position of the Church which holds on to what was formerly a universal Christian belief, when almost every other denomination has abandoned it makes people give the Church a second look when they might otherwise not do so. An example of this is Scott Hahn’s wife, Kimberly. Even Protestant theologians like Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Seminary, are also relooking the issue of contraception as they are beginning to see the dangers that the contraceptive mentality poses to the defence of human life. Contraception encourages sexual promiscuity by divorcing the act of marriage from its consequence and undermines the very foundation of morality and civilization.

    Very often the debate for me is something abstract and theoretical. To see it lived out in practice gives me more courage to proclaim it.

    Thank you for your witness and may God continue to bless you abundantly.

  7. Matt, I agree with you, a contraceptive use of NFP DOES undermine the Church's stance against contraception.

    Please correct me if I am wrong, but in your post & comments you seem to be suggesting:

    a- that *all* use of NFP is due to a contraceptive mentality on behalf of the couple, and

    b- That in order to be in harmony with God's will a couple must only
    accept children 'as God sends them'(i.e. no NFP useage whatsoever).

    It is these opinions that I am taking objection to, because they do not accuratly reflect what the Church teaches.

    Perhaps you need to refresh your understanding on the moral difference between NFP and contraception, because you continually seem to be
    suggesting, very much contrary to the Church's position, that they are morally on par with each other.

    The Church teaches that NFP *can* be used with a generous open-to-life mentality.

    It is not our place to decide which couple is interpreting God's will correctly, who is really being generous enough, or whose reason for abstaining from welcoming children is good enough - or Godly enough. We can't assume to know what is within the hearts of others or what couple's
    motivations are for abstaining. That is for each couple to prayerfully discern with God.

    The bottom line is that the Church DOES allow couples to use NFP for just reasons.

    If someone doesn't agree with the Church on this....well, that is their own issue.

    But it is not justifiable to apply one's own moral standards to other
    couples who are behaving fully in accordance with the Church's teaching simply because one don't see that teaching as being wholesome enough.

    Secondly, in defense of "Father" above, I would like to quote
    John Paul II from Familiaris Consortio:

    In this document not only does JP2 reaffirm the licitness of "recourse to periods of infertility" but he praises the practice as likely to lead to
    "dialogue, reciprocal respect, shared responsibility and self-control".

    He continues "In this context the couple comes to experience how conjugal communion is enriched with those values of tenderness and affection which constitue the inner soul of human sexuality, in its physical dimension also."

    It is well known that the practice of NFP in itself does much to strengthen and closen the relationship of the couple, thanks to its constant demand for open honest communication, self-control, mutual physical respect,
    continuous consideration of God's will etc.

    Perhaps you haven't read much NFP literature, but NFP's role in
    strengthening marriage is a theme which is well-known and described at length (even in secular NFP literature).

    Familiaris Consortio quoted above is just one place, of many, where JP2 says that NFP strengthens a couple's relationship, and he stands alongside a vast number of NFP-users whose experience says the same.

    I am obviously not saying that NFP is a necessaity for healthy marriage, but I don't believe it is justifiable to say that it is 'ridiculous' to suggest that NFP promotes certain relationship characteristics that are beneficial in a marriage.


    FINALLY: I am not saying that every couple has to use NFP and I am certainly not advocating the use of NFP as 'Catholic birth-control'.

    Children are the ultimate crowning glory of a marital relationship, and as such are a beautiful gift that should be welcomed generously and abundantly.
    Personally, it makes me very happy when I see Catholic couples who have been having a child every 2 years for the last 20 years of the marriage.

    However,I am want to defend the Church's teaching on this matter, and re-iterate what she actually says on this subject, because I find it very dishonest & unfair when people suggest that every use of NFP is contrary to "God's will".

    The only global articulation we have of "God's will" is the Church's teaching (not private opinion), and the Church is at ease with the use of NFP in the correct circumstances and does not believe that its use is indicative of a less trusting or less generous couple.


    I have found this an interesting and stimulating discussion, thanks for making me think!!

    God Bless


  8. Thank you again Antonia. I reiterate that NFP is morally entirely different from contraception: The latter being intrinsically evil. I was debating what you call "the use of NFP in the correct circumstances". It is presumptive of me to dismiss Father's comment as "absolutely ridiculous" but you might say it is equally presumptive of the Holy Father to judge whether something as novel as NFP is effective at deepening the marital relationship. I expect he was well informed by the NFP promoters. I am merely making a case for traditional Catholic practice rather than being swept away with the prevalent idea that NFP is a 'Catholic form of contraception' which I respect, Antonia, you agree is inappropriate. This discussion has probably run its course - I don't want to appear to be ultimately condemning NFP because I acknowledge it is a licit practice.


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