Responsible Parenthood in a Birth Control Culture, Part One

You may be surprised to learn that prior to 1930 every Christian denomination agreed in their opposition to artificial birth control. In 1930, the Anglican Church, motivated by increasing social pressures, stated that artificial birth control could be allowed in some circumstances. Shortly thereafter the Anglicans gave in, allowing contraception. Since then, all other Protestant denominations followed the example of the Church of England. Today, the Catholic Church stands alone in opposition to artificial birth control. However, even though the Catholic Church affirms that artificial birth control is intrinsically evil, the majority of Catholics in America completely rejects and ignores the Church’s teaching on procreation.

The first cries for change within the Catholic Church came about in the late 1950’s and the early 1960’s with the availability of the birth control pill. In July of 1968, Pope Paul VI published an encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) which reaffirmed the constant teaching of the Catholic Church that artificial birth control is intrinsically evil. The encyclical was confronted by a massive revolt within the Catholic Church and it is believed that 96% of Catholics in this country completely reject Humanae Vitae.

Why does the Catholic Church affirm that artificial birth control is intrinsically evil? The reason is founded on this principle: every marital act must keep together “the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 12).

This fundamental principle contained in Humanae Vitae is true because the nature of sexual intercourse, which is both life-giving (pro-creative) and love-giving (unitive), reflects the plan of God for marriage. A man and a woman must not intervene to separate their fertility from their bodily union. To do so is to disrupt the plan of God for marriage, sexuality, and married love. Therefore, the Church’s teaching is not only affirmed by Divine law, but by natural law as well.

Sexual pleasure within marriage becomes unnatural, and even harmful to the spouses, when it is used in a way that deliberately excludes the basic purpose of sex, which is procreation. God’s gift of sex must not be abused by frustrating its natural end — procreation.

weddinghands.jpgHowever, this does not mean that married couples only have sexual intercourse when they want to conceive a child. Mutual love or the good of the spouses, one of the three purposes of marriage, indicates that sex is good, sex is holy, and that the sexual union between the spouses enhances, in a very deep way, the intimate love between husband and wife. Nevertheless, we must keep in mind that the three purposes of marriage, the good of the spouses, the procreation of children, and the education of children, are equal and form one single entity. The first purpose of marriage is not superior to the other two.

The Catholic Church continues to affirm that every conjugal act must be open to the transmission of life. The Catholic Church continues to affirm that all forms of artificial birth control are intrinsically evil. However, the Catholic Church does teach that there is a moral or ethical way to regulate births. The moral way to regulate the procreation of children is through the use of Natural Family Planning.

Humanae Vitae explains this clearly with these words:

If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which we have just explained” (Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 16).

However, since Natural Family Planning can only be used for serious and legitimate reasons, what constitutes serious and legitimate reasons?

Humanae Vitae and years later, Pope John Paul II’s teachings on marriage, list four reasons: physical, economic, psychological and social conditions.

Regarding the physical reason for using Natural Family Planning, one example could be the situation where the health of the mother does not allow her to have more children for a definite or even an indefinite period of time. An economic reason may be that a husband lost his job and cannot responsibly afford the cost of bringing another child into the world until he can get back on his feet again. A psychological reason may involve the inability of a mother or a father to properly handle a larger family. Finally, there can be social conditions, such as a time of war, famine, natural disaster, or persecution that may indicate that a husband and wife should wait before they bring another life into the world.

“With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” (Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 10).

Since there are serious and legitimate reasons that permit married couples to use Natural Family Planning, married couples need to be aware that hidden forms of selfishness could cause them to use Natural Family Planning for inappropriate reasons. As a priest, I am beginning to understand that some very good people are falling into this trap. In part two, I will discuss these inappropriate reasons and the erroneous reasoning behind them.


Fr. James Farfaglia is the pastor of St. Helena of the True Cross of Jesus Catholic Church in Corpus Christi, TX. His Sunday homilies and blog can be found at You can contact Father James at

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  • cmacri

    I will be eagerly looking for the next article. Between a large family, a new job for hubby, homeschooling, complications during the last pregnancy, age, and the feeling that I am just barely holding everything together and anything can tip the balance; I am really struggling with the idea of “serious”. None of these in itself is “serious,” but combined, especially the mental aspect, I am dreading the thought of having another child for the first time in my life.

    We prayed for signs that the last one was “it” and appeared to get many signs pointing in that direction. So, if we just say, “go for it, His grace is sufficient,” would I be ignoring God and throwing prudence to the wind?

    I am feeling like I can’t win for losing and would love some guidance on this issue.

  • redwallabbey

    Dear cmarci,

    As the father of 11, and in very similar situation, I would say that you do have serious reasons to avoid a child at this particular time. However, I, too, look forward to Father’s reasoning of appropriate reasons for avoiding pregnancy.

  • Loretta

    do you have a priest that you are confident can give you and your husband proper guidance? That would help put your mind and heart to rest with you decision.
    And remember, decisions have to be re-evaluated again and again.
    Personally, I would repeat what redwallabbey said above…AT THIS PARTICULAR TIME, you seem to have serious reasons to avoid a child. One sign that you are still remaining open to life is that you and your husband continue to re-evaluate the times and see if/when circumstances change again.

  • momof11

    I also concur that you probably have serious reasons to avoid a future pregnancy. I am in a similar situation. My youngest is now 5 years old and I would love to have another baby in the house, but my last pregnancy ended with my blood pressure too high and protein in the urine causing early induction of labor 6 weeks premature. My blood pressure has remained high and I have to take medication for it. There are very few BP meds approved for safe use in pregnancy. If my blood pressure was suddenly cured, I would still have the age factor (I’ll be 50 this year), and with homeschooling for 20 years already I’m just plain tired! It is clear to us that to avoid any more pregnancies at this stage of our lives is a reasonable and responsible decision. But it is a decision made with a sense of sadness. Not doubt that this is the right decision.

    I think the danger is that many people have serious reason to avoid pregnancy at certain times and instead of using NFP and re-evaluating their situation periodically they do something permanent and immoral. They forget that as the children get older they can be a help around the house and take less of Mom’s attention. Job opportunities can change. Health issues may be able to be resolved. I suspect that if the decision to avoid pregnancy is made with rejoicing and no regrets it has probably been made for the wrong reasons.

    When we were first married a wise father of 8 grown children told us that if you wait until you can “afford” them you’ll never have children, but if you have them, God will provide.

  • gk

    All the sources in the world cannot define “a serious reason” (or “set of reasons adding up to a whole serious reason”) for a given couple. Each couple must evaluate their own circumstances and decide together what is go or no-go. They need to be able to take that reason(s) before God and know that it is sufficient.

    How wise the Church, that she has not published a list of reasons or an “serious reason equation.” This really shows that the Holy Spirit is behind Humanae Vitae. Because each person, and therefore each couple, knows their own abilities and limits. God also knows. Christ knows. But, no tribunal knows the inside of any couple’s heart.

    The loving God who creates each and every one of us asks nothing more from us than love. And in love and honesty, all our dreams come true … from here to eternity. Sometimes that love has more than just gushy-sweet feelings. True love, asks us to offer ourselves and requires some resposability to bring it to fruition.

    I don’t know any more than you have told us, cmarci, but I’d say you are on track to making the absolute best and most beautiful decision. I think the Holy Spirit is guiding you.


    -God is good!

  • rakeys

    I find it interesting that with 96% of Catholics using artificial contraception, we are more concerned with the <1% who may use NFP “for the wrong reasons”. I pray that all Catholic couples would use NFP, then all of us would appreciate God’s gift of sexuality as being linked to both the unitive and procrative aspects.
    My wife and I have used NFP for all 36 years of our marriage, and we have 5 married children also using NFP and are open to life. We now have 14 grandchildren.
    On another issue, I don’t believe a tribunal can decide if our reasons are “serious” enough. We already have a tribunal that decides if a marriage can be anulled. Jesus said “what god has joined together let no man put asunder.” How does man then decide if God joined a marriage together? Are we annulling marriages that God joined together? No marriage can live up to the Ephesians 5 criteria. Can a tribunal also then decide if our baptism is valid? or our confirmation? Marriage is the only sacrament performed by the couple. The priest is only a witness.
    Everyone on the planet knows what the vows of matrimony mean. “Until death do us part” is pretty clear.
    Also, if any of you consult a priest about “serious reasons”, make sure they at least believe in NFP and Humanae Vitae. Unfortunately ther are many priests who think that the Pill is OK.

  • Nice Post. I find some reasons that NFP cannot work as indicated (economic/physical) cannot see psychological reasons really, but I think a wonderful book to read about the topic is Holy Sex:A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving by Greg Popcak. He really outlines how NFP is the best means of birth control and the dangers of all the artificial contraception (dangers involve both environmental and physical). I recommend the book to anyone that may question NFP and the churches stance on using artificial contraception.

    Catholic Chump

  • katieL

    I have read many of these Birth Control type articles in the past. Not to convince myself that the Catholic Church is correct about contraception. I already agree that they are and we’ve have been using NFP for the past 3 years. However, it took me about 25 years to realize the great wisdom in the Catholic Church. The reason I read these articles is hoping to find support or comfort or something that speaks to couples that let themselves be influenced by society or selfishness for such a long time that they are now out of childbearing years. I know many such couples that chose not to have children and are heading down this path (mostly non-Catholic). I know now we were wrong in this choice and I look at them and wonder when they will realize that they are too. It would be nice if there was an article written someday that would address this particular situation. Sort of a “now what” article. The is so sad really. I blame myself for my lack of knowledge and stubborness, but I do believe that a sort of lukewarm Catholic upbringing and the poor Catholic education that I received originally didn’t help matters. Thank God we found a good Parish and a good Priest to help us.

    God bless the Catholic Church

  • mkochan

    It sounds like you are just the person to write that article.

  • fletcher doyle

    This is one of the most difficult questions facing faithful Catholics. I discovered one thing in researching my book on NFP: All of us are on a journey, and using NFP — whether to conceive a child or to avoid conceiving a child — keeps us heading in the right direction in our journey. Using NFP can change the heart of people, make them more open to life, even if they are currently using NFP for the wrong reasons. Couples described the effects NFP had on their marriage: All of them were good. People using NFP for selfish reasons often change their minds. I believe this is a sign of the grace one receives by living your marriage in the way designed by God.

  • frau

    I am a priest and have been involved with Engaged Encounter for over 25 years. It has been my experience that when it comes to NFP issues, couples seem to focus mainly on the issue of “how many kids”. Very few couples begin their discussion on this and any other issues from the position of prayerful response to God’s mission for them as married couples. What is God asking of us, now?

    Practicing NFP does not, by itself, mean a couple is God centered. It is only ONE of the many areas of a couple’s life that require discernment. If a couple is NOT prayerful in other areas of their life, NFP becomes merely another difficulty a couple has to “endure”.

    God intends that a couple be missionaries of His love through the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, not just in the area of children and family, but in their daily decisions in all areas.

    Having said that, I do think that the practice of NFP, because it is intended to be practiced by both the husband and the wife, has more open communication that practicing artificial birth control does not. When a couple close themselves in one area of their married life from God, they will close others areas as well. That is why, I think, that Catholic couples practicing artificial birth control have as high a divorce rate as the national average while those practicing NFP have less than 10% divorce rate.

    I would like to hear from those who are “converts” to NFP describe how that change in mindset impacted their marriage and decision making.

  • katieL

    “What is God asking of us now?” is something that I should be reminding myself of daily. The past is past and I’m almost certain that God doesn’t want us wallowing in misery, what good would we be to anyone then. But those old ghosts are persistent and I can believe that this is the trickery of the evil one to get in the way of our spiritual progress. So the battle is on. That being said, as a convert to NFP, I do believe that our marriage is better and others have noticed it too. My husband and I have always been very close, like two peas in a pod, and are even more so now. We are more loving and patient towards each other. It’s almost something that you can’t really put your finger on, but it’s there, no doubt. We do not find practicing NFP a hardship at all. We feel that this is God’s will, it’s healthier and I believe that taking birth control pills made me into a big old grump most of the time.

    We were young when we got married and never discussed children, how many, having them or whatever. I can count on one hand how many times we attended Mass in the 25 years after our marriage. When we finally came back into communion with the Church, that sort of coincided with ceasing artificial birth control, so I’m not sure if the changes came from our new found faith, or from using NFP. Probably a little of both. However, there is a strong urge now to do something meaningful for God. Myself, I almost feel hounded with it. We began a couple ministries through our Church. One lasted a year, one just a few months, before I realized that I am not the one to orgainze that type of thing, and not to bite off more than I can chew. We are basically extremely shy people, so just the act of setting up training sessions and talking so much to people we didn’t know, is amazing for me to look back on now. I don’t know how we did it, except that it couldn’t have been us alone. The Holy Spirit had to have something to do with it.

    It often plays in my mind that maybe getting involved in RCIA classes at the point when the Church position on artificial birth control (hopefully) comes up, may be our calling in life. Sort of a “how not to begin a marriage” segment.

    What is God asking of us now??….We wait with baited breath.

  • gk

    As someone who used NFP through out his marriage I feel shunned by most of the Church. (We are currently NFP teachers and generally just feel burdened with NFP – though we know it is the Holy Spirit who has put us in this position). Most people don’t want to hear about NFP. And if they do they only want to hear of conversions stories.

    (I do not feel terrible as I know this is just my weakness and “feelings” – my goal is only to share and hopefully bring the Holy Spirit more into the Church’s consciousness. I do wish there was more of a marketing effort through out the Church and the world to get the word out to young adults about the Theology of the Body and NFP. And I think the cold shoulder good NFP users and teachers normally receive does not help the Church.)

    I am impressed with those that convert to NFP! I am amazed even, because the force against NFP is so smothering and huge. I know it is only due to the Holy Spirit!

    So, when people are pushing the conversion stories and slowing down clean decent NFP users I hope they take the time to energize and build those NFP users up on the side. I think there is so much fear involved in pushing NFP, that most times people error on the side of caution and stop the energy of the Holy Spirit. We must find a way, and I bump into this all the time, to promote NFP and build NFP networks that can openly grow and openly speak of the goodness of NFP without all the hedging and hawing and back peddling … or else it will not move forward as it could.

    I do pray that more people come to see NFP as another viable option. I can only hope that NFP is seen more as a safe, healthy and very effective option. It does work as good, if not better than every form of contraception out there. It will boost your marriage. It will leak into your entire married and spiritual life. But, it does not make me a better person or a closer follower of the Church/Christ. Without Christ’s grace I am nothing … even with His grace I feel as the same nothing. NFP is an opportunity to share more of God’s grace. Though, like any other good thing that might lead to God’s grace, it can also be a source of hypocriscy and sin and one’s undoing.

    The final word: NFP just basically rocks, regardless of my feelings or anyone else’s.

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