Contraception v. Natural Family Planning — Part 5 of 6

For several columns now we’ve been reflecting on the Church’s teaching on contraception in commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s letter Humanae Vitae [Part one, Part two, Part three, Part four]. We’ve observed that sexual intercourse is meant to incarnate the marriage commitment itself, and that an integral part of that commitment is openness to children.

So, does fidelity to the wedding vows imply that couples are to leave the number of children they have entirely to “chance”? No. In calling couples to a responsible love, the Church calls them also to a responsible parenthood.

Pope Paul VI stated clearly that those are considered “to exercise responsible parenthood who prudently and generously decide to have a large family, or who, for serious reasons and with due respect to the moral law, choose to have no more children for the time being or even for an indeterminate period” (HV 10). Notice that large families should result from prudent reflection, not “chance.” Notice too that couples must have “serious reasons” to avoid pregnancy and must respect the moral law.

Assuming a couple have a serious reason to avoid a child (this could be financial, physical, psychological, etc.), what could they do that would not violate the consummate expression of their sacrament? In other words, what could they do to avoid conceiving a child that would not render them unfaithful to their wedding vows? You’re doing it right now (I presume). They could abstain from sex. There is nothing wrong with abstaining from sex when there’s a good reason to do so. The Church has always recognized that the only method of “birth control” that respects the language of divine love is “self-control.”

A further question arises: Would a couple be doing anything to falsify their sexual union if they embraced during a time of natural infertility? Take, for example, a couple past childbearing years. They know their union will not result in a child. Are they violating their vows if they engage in intercourse with this knowledge? Are they contracepting? No. Contraception, by definition, is the choice to engage in an act of intercourse, but then do something else to render it sterile. This can be done by using various devices, hormones, surgical procedures, and the age-old method of withdrawal.

Couple holding handsCouples who use natural family planning (NFP) when they have a just reason to avoid pregnancy never render their sexual acts sterile; they never contracept. They track their fertility, abstain when they are fertile and, if they so desire, embrace when they are naturally infertile. Readers unfamiliar with modern NFP methods should note that they are 98-99% effective at avoiding pregnancy when used properly. Furthermore, any woman, regardless of the regularity of her cycles, can use NFP successfully. This is not your grandmother’s “rhythm method.”

To some people this seems like splitting hairs. “What’s the big difference,” they ask, “between rendering the union sterile yourself and just waiting until it’s naturally infertile? The end result is the same: both couples avoid children.” To which I respond, what’s the big difference between killing Grandma and just waiting until she dies naturally? End result’s the same thing: dead Grandma. Yes, but one is a serious sin called murder, and the other is an act of God.

If a person can tell the difference between euthanasia and natural death, he can tell the difference between contraception and NFP. It’s the same difference. I’m not equating contraception and murder. That’s not the analogy. Rather, Grandma’s natural death and a woman’s natural period of infertility are both acts of God. But in killing Grandma or in rendering sex sterile, we take the powers of life into our own hands — just like the deceiver originally tempted us to do — and make ourselves like God (see Gn 3:5).

This is why Pope John Paul II concludes that contraception “is to be judged so profoundly unlawful as never to be, for any reason, justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life, situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God” (address Oct. 10, 1983).

If you have resisted the Church’s teaching on contraception, maybe it’s time to give it some more thought.

[Editor’s note: Please enjoy regular features from this and other enlightening authors discussing Catholic teaching on sexuality in CE’s Theology of the Body channel.]

This column first appeared as part of Christopher West’s Body Language series for the Catholic press (

Christopher West


Christopher West is a Catholic author and speaker, best known for his work on Pope John Paul II’s series of audience addresses entitled the Theology of the Body.

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  • Claire

    Excellent article.

  • Those folks at Google just don’t get it, do they? I have an advert for YAZ on this page, Mary — thought you ought to know. Feel free to delete this comment one that’s fixed.

  • mkochan

    I blocked it but it will take several hours to disappear.

    Also, I will not be at home today so if another such ad appears, I just need for readers to understand that CE is not doing it. Just ignore them, folks.

  • janinej

    Oh yay! From the people who brought you Divorce Lite- (Catholic style), now we have Organic Contraception! It just happens naturally!

    Skipping over the deification of sex, that “highest of human activities”, let’s begin with Paragraph 2. Should couples leave the number of children to “chance”? No. Try, “to the providence of God”. We plan barbeques and teas, not families!

    Para. 3- Pope Paul IV: “You MUST plan your families (read contracept), lest you show yourselves to be irresponsible or ignorant!” Uh oh. Was that an INFALLIBLE pronouncement??

    Par. 4- I have no problem with abstaining. NFP is MUCH MORE than that. It is nothing less than the mutual and systematic prevention of life!

    Par. 5- Your definition of Contraception: Webster’s defines “contraception” as “artificial prevention of fertilization…” Okay, so it comes down to the distinction between “artifical” and “natural”. Webster’s: “artificial”= made by human work or art: opposed to “natural”. NFP is very much a “human art”, not an “act of God”! Further, you see clearly that “natural planning” is an oxymoron!!

    Par. 7- You see now that your “dead Grandma” analogy doesn’t hold water, since a human act (NFP) is NOT an “act of God”.

    Par.8- Humm… “To make ourselves like to God…” Isn’t that what TOB approvingly contends is the purpose of the sexual act??

  • wgsullivan

    Umm… at the risk of not expressing myself as well as many others have I will throw in my two bits.
    Our third child was conceived while using NFP. We weren’t planning to have a third child at that time. While our charts and experience with NFP cannot explain how her conception happened, our openness to God’s Will and our subsequent life there after says it all. Our lives have taken a twist we never expected but it becomes more clear every day we are living closer to what God called us to in this life, than we were, proir to our third child’s conception. It’s a long story that I won’t go into but in retrospect we see His hand in so many instances all along the way.
    The dead grandma analogy still holds water. It’s the act of humans (NFP) allowing an Act of God (conception or not).
    Are we also considering as mentioned (if I remember correctly) the dangers of the pill and many other ABC having abortifacient qualities? NFP doesn’t in any way cause abortions. Isn’t that enough reason?

  • janinej

    The barrier method and others don’t have any “abortifacient qualities”. Does that make THEM acceptable? NO.

    While I am happy for the failed contraception of your NFP child, it’s hard to see the failure of the method as a plus, unless it forced you to repent of your contraceptive intentions…

    Interesting that you consider that we humans “allow” an act of God…


  • gadjmljj

    What is your point in all this? Are you opposed to NFP and contraception?
    And if you are….and the pope says NFP is OKAY and contraception is not, who are YOU to contradict the pope. You know a tree by it’s fruits, and the fruits of contraception and NFP are totally different. I know from experience. No doubt, NFP could be used selfishly, but contraception is intrinscally EVIL.
    If we look at the unitive side of the marriage act we can see the difference between and act of love and rape, both use the same act but one doesn’t go with the meaning and purpose of the unitive side of the marriage act.

  • janinej

    Opposed is a good word. I’m opposed. My point is clear, see directly above your post. If you didn’t get it, NFP is CONTRACEPTION. What are the fruits of NFP (successfully applied)? No kid. Other results such as increased communiction, spousal understanding and awareness,and so on are entirely secondary. The main purpose of NFP use is to prevent pregnancy, yes? True, it can be used non-contraceptively, i.e. in reverse, to enhance fertility, no moral problems there, but when they speak of the effectness of the method, quoting a 95%+ success rate, they’re not talking about conception rates, they’re talking about the opposite, Duh.
    The Church, before it got “enlightened” used to teach that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation, and that all other benefits are secondary. I’ll stick with that.

  • Bruce Roeder


    Here is a way to look at it that I found helpful.

    Say I want to lose weight. I could exert more self control and eat less or I could vomit after I eat a few times each day. Same effect — lose weight — but different approaches to it.

    One way is disordered and thwarts the way our bodies are designed to use food and get nutrition and energy, the other way cooperates with God’s design and elevates the use of our intellect and will toward higher things.

    Similarly, NFP cooperates with God’s design and artificial birth control thwarts it and is disordered.

    Whether a couple conceives another child or not — and whether I lose wieght or not — is secondary to the approach we take with respect to the right use of our reason in cooperating with God. Or not.

  • MichelleGA


    I wasn’t quite clear on your position regarding NFP until today. The tone of your posts from the other day seemed negative, but I didn’t get your position until now. Anyway, I agree to an extent with what you are saying. We are taught from a young age and expected to adhere to a contraceptive mentality because children are seen in a negative light. (oh, sure, the idea of them is lovely, easy and lots of fun to talk about, but rare is the person who actually desires many – It’s more like Me 1st, Spouse 2nd, Kids Last cuz they’re a lotta work) I think NFP is seen as Catholic-birth-control-without-sinning because of the contraceptive mentality of our society and so it is abused, BUT I think it is a good option for those who absolutely need it because of a serious reason. The tricky part here is defining “The Serious Reason”! Hence, the abuse. So, it is much better to abstain and offer it up if the reason for avoiding another child is that terribly serious. Yeah, I guess I’m going around the block on this one.

    We learned NFP wayyyy back when we were young and sadly spaced our first children because we were “supposed to”, and then we used it again after our twins were born, (babies # 5 & 6), but after a while of charting we looked at each other in the bathroom one morning and said, “This is dumb”. I find it yucky, nothin’ “natural” about it…never got so “natural” with myself before (blech)…and recording every little thing in order to avoid the blessing of another child simply because we thought we were “supposed to” — esp. given all the negative comments directed at us due to the contraceptive mentality. So, we trashed the charts and the big fat book, went to confession, and said, “Hello God, we’re all Yours in this as You intended”, and He’s given us 4 more. No, we are not rich with money, but we make ends meet every month and manage to save, and our only debt is a bit of mortgage. Our life is much richer and sweeter (and much less gross) without NFP, and of course, we would not change it.

  • margaretmary

    Unfortunately many other Catholics also misunderstand the positive gift that NFP is meant to be. Rightly used, NFP enables a couple to listen together to God speaking to them through the women’s body (designed and empowered by God). If they indeed have serious reason to postpone having a child, it enables them to know when to abstain and when God has provided them with the appropriate time to engage fully in the marriage act. This is not a secondary benefit but a tool to make proper use of the primary purpose of marriage.
    And, as in wgsullivan’s experience above, there are times when God seems to say, “Whoops, you didn’t hear me clearly.”
    Contraception is an attitude that claims self as the sole authority in sexual matters. (I want my way and I’ll do whatever I decide to do to get my way.) This attitude allows us humans to misuse God’s gifts in order to separate ourselves from Him. This isn’t the only area in which we refuse to listen to God’s guidance for us. We just seem very prone to I, me and my.
    I don’t recall anywhere in Scripture or Tradition a prohibition against using new ways of discovering God and the intricacies of His creation. When you come right down to it, God works His ways, not mine. But I find His ways are loving designed to reach the individual and the individual situation.
    Please listen.

  • Cooky642

    janinej, I think Margaretmary did a good job in responding, but I wanted to add my own thought, here.

    First, if NFP is abhorrent to you and you don’t need it, good for you! But don’t use it to beat people who DO need it over the head.

    Secondly, I think you’re missing a point, here: contraception is doing something to prevent a pregnancy (or, to stop the process once conception has taken place); NFP is doing something to avoid a pregnancy, but allowing God the final word. If it works and no pregnancy results, good; if it fails (as with wgsullivan’s post, above), that’s good, too.

    And, lest you fail to see my point, let me tell you that I never used NFP. Back in my childbearing years, all we had was “your grandmother’s rhythm method”. Well, I’m the grandmother. We did use the rhythm method (briefly) to try to get pregnant, but found it clumsy, awkward, and unsuccessful. I have 2 live children out of 4 pregnancies, and have lived long enough to understand God’s wisdom in His choices for us. May God grant each of us the wisdom to trust Him.

  • wgsullivan

    margaretmary put it well. We had our ideas concerning a child at that point in our lives and God has His. At least at the moment of our third’s conception we bowed to His will.
    It’s funny, I was already to take offense at being told about our contraceptive mentality and when I understood your stance better I would almost have to agree with you. Almost.
    I would consider every conception an act of God. With that in mind and God’s holding everyone’s free will as gold, we can and do with ABC, disallow an act of God. Not using ABC would, of course, allow His Will and not human will unless we have made His Will ours.

  • janinej

    Bless you, my child. You are not far from the kingdom of heaven. A holy priest once told me that all mommies recieve a GET OUT OF HELL FREE card. I believe him.

  • c-kingsley

    Now that gave me a chuckle, JanieJ — you don’t want to allow the popes to say that NFP can be used, but you’ll listen to the priest giving a “Get out of Hell Free” card. (I’m sure you’re kidding here, it made me smile. :o)