I know that the Catholic Church teaches that artificial contraception is wrong but that natural family planning is acceptable. I do not understand how these two are so different that the Church approves one and not the other. Aren’t they, in reality, both a form of birth control?
This is a very difficult issue that many Catholics as well as Non-Catholics struggle with, so it is very important to be clear on what the Church does indeed teach. First, let us define the terms. Artificial contraception is the intentional prevention of conception or impregnation through the use of various devices, agents, drugs, sexual practices, or surgical procedures before, during, or after a voluntary act of intercourse. Natural Family Planning (NFP), on the other hand, is a scientific method involving systematic observation of a woman’s bodily signs of fertility and infertility through daily changes in body temperature and cervical mucus. All of these signs are carefully charted and studied to determine a woman’s fertile period, and, on those days, the couple would have no sexual intercourse. Thus, no pregnancy would occur. This is not, by the way, the old “rhythm method” that is often confused with NFP.
Without careful consideration, one might conclude that these two practices amount to the same thing since both seem to be an attempt to prevent pregnancy. To the world, this may be so, but in the eyes of God, and the Church, they are very different, in the moral sense. What do we mean by that? Scripture tells us that God, out of His infinite and powerful love, created man and woman for each other. He then said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1: 28). Even after they fell from His grace, He did not destroy them, but rather He continued to love them and immediately made a way for them and all their descendants to find their way back to Him. Here we see the creation and the plan of God for marriage. By giving them the gift of sex (which was life-giving) He made it clear that He intended to be a part of marriage and the marital act.
This plan of God for marriage is attested to in the testimony of Scripture and the teachings of Jesus Christ that have been handled down to us by the Apostles (Tradition), and, therefore, the Catholic Church has always and consistently taught that each and every marital act (intercourse) must remain open to the transmission of life. This is not something that the Church invented. It has come to us from God. He made marriage for two purposes: to be unitive, love-giving (uniting the spouses in love) and to be procreative, life-giving (to bear children, if and when it was His divine will). These two purposes are inseparably connected in marriage, and man and woman can do nothing to break this connection, for to do so, would go directly contrary to the plan of the God. (CCC# 2366)
Knowing that God wills that every marital act of intercourse be open to the possibility of life, we can see that Natural Family Planning (if practiced for serious reasons) would not violate the natural law because with NFP there is no intercourse at all. Instead, there is abstinence, the man and woman say no to their own desires. With artificial contraception, however, there is sex with little or no possibility of life. Thus, artificial contraception is always wrong because it violates both the unitive and procreative purposes of marriage, whereas it is different with NFP in serious circumstances.
Sex is a beautiful and holy gift from God. Therefore, the husband and wife (under normal conditions) should not deprive each other. However, there may be times in their married life when a pregnancy would cause an undue hardship for either of the spouses or the family. Is the intention to cooperate with God’s plan or to go against it? By practicing artificial contraception (knowing that it is contrary to God’s plan for marriage) the couple is essentially saying, “We want this and it does not matter what God wants” because, in this case, they have sex but say no to life. And God is life itself. When we say no to life, we say no to God. How can we wonder then why the Church can never teach that artificial contraception is right?
Science teaches us that normally there are, on the average, only a few days in a month when a woman may conceive a child. Even knowing this, many couples feel they cannot handle that. Yet, there are many times in a marriage when they must abstain from sex, such as when one is ill, traveling, or when the wife is about to or has just given birth. This is truly something to think about. Often, we forget that we do not belong to ourselves, but to the One who made us out of love. The beautiful mystery is that in doing His will and living the life He meant for us will always and forever be where our true happiness and fulfillment will be found. When we say yes to life, we say yes to God.
Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine and teaches in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: email@example.com. You may also visit her online at www.DearGrace.com.