Do NFP Users Have a Contraceptive Mentality?

A recent Sunday was designated by the bishops of the United States as “Respect Life Sunday.” As we pray and work for an end to abortion, it is well to remember that there is a profound connection between the prominent use of birth control in a nation and the legalization of abortion: As Pope Paul VI foresaw in his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, contraception will always lead to abortion (if not for each individual, at least for the society as a whole).

However, there are many good and faithful Catholics in the Church who question the relation between contraception and natural family planning. Does NFP entail a “contraceptive mentality”? And, even if NFP can be used well, is it possible (or even likely) that many people in fact use NFP with a contraceptive mentality? What are the circumstances in which a couple may licitly use natural family planning?

There is Nothing Contraceptive About Natural Family Planning

We must first understand what the word “contraceptive” means. “Any action which either before, at the moment of, or after marital intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation, whether as an end or as a means” is contraceptive (Humanae Vitae, 14). Contraceptive means just that: against conception.

Now, to be very clear, there is nothing in any way contraceptive about natural family planning. Neither before, nor during, nor after sexual intercourse has a couple practicing NFP done nothing at all to prevent procreation or to render the act infertile. The sexual act may in fact be infertile (i.e. it may not be possible for the woman to conceive at that time), but the couple has not done anything to make the act infertile.

The Church has been very clear on this point, and I would recommend re-reading Humanae Vitae, 16, for further clarification. “Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception […]. In reality, these two cases are completely different.”

Natural family planning and contraception are utterly different.

What About the “Contraceptive Mentality?”

Some generally well-meaning persons in the Church have begun to question whether the use of NFP might often (or at least occasionally) entail or encourage a “contraceptive mentality” to it. While these individuals will grant that NFP is not per se contraceptive, they will claim that the intention of the couple may at times be no different (or not significantly different) from that of the contracepting couple.

We must insist on this point: There is nothing at all contraceptive about natural family planning; contraception and NFP are completely different.

Some will hold that NFP, though not contraceptive, has the danger of being used with the same intention as contraception. But this is philosophically unintelligible. The “end,” “goal,” or “intention” of contraception (speaking in terms of moral theory) is to render a particular sexual act infertile. The “mentality” of contraception is preventing procreation, i.e., making a procreative act no longer procreative.

Thinking about contraception and NFP in this way, it is quite clear that there is no possible way in which natural family planning could entail a contraceptive mentality. There is nothing contraceptive about NFP, therefore it cannot induce a contraceptive mentality. While it is theoretically possible that NFP could be used in a bad way (and even in a sinful way), it cannot possibly be used in a contraceptive way.

We may speak of the dangers of a “selfish” mentality, or even of a “sinful” mentality, but we simply cannot speak of a “contraceptive” mentality when it comes to natural family planning. Words are important; they communicate either truth or falsehood. Hence it is false and harmful to claim that NFP entails the danger of inducing a contraceptive mentality.

The Just Causes for Using NFP

It is not uncommon to hear some question what are the circumstances in which natural family planning can be used licitly. Some (even some priests) will say that natural family planning can be used to limit or space out child-birth only in the most extreme circumstances. We get the impression that, if the mother’s life is not in danger or if the family is not utterly destitute, NFP should not be employed as a means of limiting child-birth. This is not the teaching of the Church.

Very simply, the Church does not say that a couple must have “grave reasons” or be in “extreme circumstances” in order to make use of NFP. Rather, the Church speaks of “justae causae.” Even someone who knows no Latin should be able to understand what this means in English: “just causes.” Natural family planning cannot be used indiscriminately, but neither does the Church require families to have the absolute maximum number of children, nor has she ever indicated that this would be desirable.

For a couple to licitly make use of natural family planning, they must have a “just reason” — not a “grave reason,” not an “extreme circumstance,” not a “life-or-death situation,” but simply a “just reason.” The very nature of natural family planning keeps the couple open to the Lord’s gift of new life and, if they remain united in prayer, I am confident that they will be able to make a proper discernment of when to attempt to have another child.

The Catholic critics of NFP

Finally, I must note that there is something very suspicious about many of the conservative Catholic critics of natural family planning. They will often misuse language in a manner which obscures what the Church really teaches about NFP and contraception.

Whether we consider the philosophically unintelligible language of “NFP with a contraceptive mentality” or the mistranslation of “justae causae” as “the most extreme circumstances,” NFP’s critics are tying up heavy burdens hard to bear. They are binding people’s consciences in matters where there is room for freedom of opinion. This recalls Christ’s rebuke of the Pharisees, and suggests the sin of presumption.

The encyclical Humanae Vitae (10, 16) speaks of “serious reasons,” “just causes,” “worthy and weighty justifications,” “defensible reasons,” and “just reasons” for spacing children or avoiding pregnancy through the use of natural family planning. What exactly qualifies as a serious, just, worthy, and defensible reason for spacing children is certainly a point of debate — and there is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer!

It is clear that the Church has never taught that NFP should only be used in the most extreme circumstances, or in life-or-death situations. Further, it should now be clear that a couple who uses (or even misuses) natural family planning will never be in danger of a falling into a contraceptive mentality. For a more philosophical presentation of these ideas, see Janet Smith’s article on the subject.

This article originally appeared at The New Theological Movement.

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  • Joe DeVet

    As an NFP teacher I believe that the question of use of NFP with a contraceptive mentality is a valid concern, but mostly in theory. As a pastoral matter, I have seen many who began using NFP with this mentality, only to have their hearts change by the practical application of the “theology of the body” in their own lives. Thus a question with a serious theoretical concern becomes largely a non-issue in practice. I believe this is because when a couple removes a true intrinsic evil (contraception) from the heart of their one-flesh union, space is created for God’s grace to do its wonderful work on their hearts.

    Though I agree in general with the author’s main thrust, this article to me is profoundly unsatisfying. It asserts that the contraceptive mentality cannot be present in NFP use, using purely semantic arguments. In other words, the argument hinges on definitions, but “contraceptive mentality” is never really defined. Let me give it a try.

    We must first take a step back and recognize NFP as a tool, and not the fundamental issue, which is Responsible Parenthood. This teaching calls us to be generous in giving life, prudent in our planning for giving life, and when prudence calls for spacing children, to avoid contraception. (NFP may or may not be part of the practice of Responsible Parenthood.) As with many virtues, the sins against Responsible Parenthood are on two opposite extremes. One extreme involves insufficient prudence, and procreating more children than one can properly care for. The other involves lack of generosity, refusing to have the children that we are called to have. This latter is what most people refer to as a “contraceptive mentality.”

    While admitting that I should avoid being “judgmental”, I assert that I believe I have seen both these errors practiced by NFP users. However, over time the sincere use of NFP will tend to lead the couple from a “contraceptive mentality” into a proper sense of generosity, and a perception of children as the “supreme gift of marriage” (Gaudium et Spes?) that they truly are.

  • rakeys

    I find it interesting that you say that a couple who uses NFP can demonstrate both extremes, especially to include the first extreme “insufficient prudence, and procreating more children than one can properly care for.” If a couple does not use NFP, what can they use? Anything else used to prevent conception is contraceptive. Either a couple uses NFP are they can use nothing at all, which can definitely leads to having more children than they should. Using NFP shows a lot more “prudence”.
    Your statement implies that somehow NFP does not work. NFP is 98% effective, same as the Pill. And if a couple uses NFP, they can at least abstain from sexual relations when they are fertile to avoid having another child. If you don’t use NFP, you have no idea when you are fertile.
    I believe that the objections to NFP, as being contraceptive, are primarily to say that it is no different than taking the Pill or having your tubes tied. There is a big difference. If not, why doesn’t everybody use NFP since it does not put harmful chemicals in your body or require surgery?
    Suppose a couple does use NFP for other than “just reasons”, just to selfishly avoid getting pregnant for 10 to 15 years. During those ten years they have to sacrifice to abstain from sexual relations 7 to 10 days out of the month. They are not doing anything to make themselves infertile, just not having sex when they are fertile.
    Is it a requirement to have sex everytime that you are fertile? If this is the case, a couple who does not nurse their baby could possibly have a child every year for 25 to 30 years. A couple who biologically breast feeds their child for 9 months, may have a baby every 18 month. Not very prudent. NFP definitely excludes the first extreme.
    The second extreme is a “lack of generosity, refusing to have the children that we are called to have.” I would say that couples not using NFP , who use the Pill or some other form of birth control, (90% of Catholic couples), are the ones not showing generosity. The couples I know who use NFP are some of the most generous couples I have ever met, and are “open” to having children or at least talking about why they do no want to have a child at this time.. every month.

  • Joe DeVet

    rakeys–perhaps I should have been clearer in what I said.

    I don’t disagree really with anything you said about NFP, its effectiveness, its positive influence on a marriage and on the hearts of users, the generosity that NFP users routinely display. NFP is a great gift, and it was the desire to pass on this gift that moved me and my wife 30 years ago to start teaching NFP, and now moves us to continue to be very active in doing so.

    Occasionally I have seen a couple using NFP and not being prudent about the number of children they are having. Not often. It’s my judgment that they are having too many or too frequently, and I take responsibility for forming that judgment. I could be wrong about it, and I certainly don’t accuse them of sinning against Responsible Parenthood. Usually, it has been a matter of generosity outrunning prudence, but sometimes it appears that there’s a psychological or relational problem involved as well.

    When I say that NFP need not be a part of Responsible Parenthood, I am making a somewhat technical distinction. I’m using “NFP” to mean today’s scientific means, using observations of the woman’s fertility signs. In other words, rhythm is not included in what I mean by “NFP.” And in fact people can and still do use rhythm as their means of living Responsible Parenthood. Also, people with low fertility often practice Responsible Parenthood by “doing nothing.” For them it’s a valid approach.

    And, as I said, I believe I’ve seen people use NFP with a “contraceptive mentality”, according to the definition I gave. Again, I take responsibility for the judgment, knowing that I’m possibly wrong, and that I don’t dare accuse them of sinning. The fact that they abstain 7-10 days each month in using NFP doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have a “contraceptive mentality.” I also note, however, that continued use of NFP, by my observation, usually eventually works on people’s hearts, moving them out of the contraceptive mentality and into an authentic following of Responsible Parenthood.

    Hope that clarifies it.

  • Discernful NFP user

    I use NFP and fully support what it does, but I cannot agree that some people who use it might have a contraceptive mentality, if you posit that contraceptive mentality you mean still thinking you’re in charge of your fertility.  My cousin, who is not a Catholic but an Evangelical, uses NFP as the method by which to regulate births, but doesn’t use the NFP lifestyle.  He told my husband to make sure that he had bought his dream car before having a baby–which advice he had already just taken.  Obviously, this mentality is a contraceptive mentality because the focus is on what I want and not what God wants for me and my marriage.  He understood the not putting anything unnatural in the way, but what about a strange mentality?  I mean, as my moral theology professor asked, how many Ferraris are one child worth?  It’s an absurd question, but my cousin didn’t think so, even though he didn’t necessarily see that issue.  I’ve also known people who use NFP to space and then when they decide they’re done, they use direct sterilization.  It’s not a putting your fertility in God’s hands mentality, it is still an I control the outcome through this scientific data  mentality.  The most important part of NFP is the united prayer which asks does God want us to have more children and, if so, when?  If you only think of NFP as a method, then you forget this cornerstone and can have a contraceptive mentality.  Whereas we can’t know all just causes–and I think good mental health of the mother, ability to raise the children and educate them, not just birth them, definitely go in there–we can say there are some people running around advancing careers and lifestyles and augmenting wealth as though it were more important than having a baby.  Then they have a mid-life crisis because nothing they produced in life is eternal and thus, worthwhile.  It doesn’t matter the method, it matters the mentality.   If you don’t think with the Church, you can very well end up selfish in NFP and those who are unwilling to admit it are either very innocent and naive, or covering up for their own sins.  I’ve been selfish with my fertility while using NFP, and most everyone I meet who has used it will admit to not always being open to life even while using it.  Let’s all be grown ups and admit that act and intention are two separate things.

  • Uh, there’s nothing “contraceptive” about anything until it is used for the purpose…a birth control pill, for instance, is a pill only — until it is used.  Then it may be a contraceptive.  Natural Family Planning is the same — it is just an idea until it is used.  And then, like any pill, it is birth control pure and simple.  NFP then is no different than any “artificial” birth control.  It is used by the vast majority of people — to prevent pregnancy so as to plan for the family.  It is exactly like any contraceptive offered by a drug store.

  • not true. can “the pill” cause something different? The pill is taken as an artificial barrier to the marital act producing children. not to mention it can cause abortion, which is ALWAYS wrong. NFP is not about what you are doing WHEN you do it as much as it is about what you are not doing when you don’t. 🙂 meaning… you do nothing when you have sex to stop a baby from being conceived. All you do is not have sex if you want to wait for a child. COMPLETELY different. now I will say that I think touting NFP as “just as effective as the pill” is dangerous because it gives people the wrong impression about its intent. Not to mention when you use NFP it causes you to communicate and be intentional about expressing your love. Contraception says I am able to have sex with no consequences at any time. As a woman who has been in both boats I have to say being able to be used at any time leaves a woman feeling cheap. Why do you think men complain their wife never wants to be intimate?

  • I agree with you except for the statement that it doesn’t matter the method but the mentality. Act and intention are 2 different things but they are related. You can do the right thing with the wrong intentions and it still be wrong but you can never do the wrong thing with good intentions and have it be right. We all struggle with selfishness using NFP but we are human.