Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Natural Family Planning

There’s a very lively and surprisingly civil conversation (all things considered) about NFP going on over at Amy Welborn. Having only a few weeks ago concluded my conversation with “Bob” where I was vociferously defending the Magisterium, I am loath to enter the argument now, as I might wind up on Bob’s side of the argument.

HOWEVER, I do think there are a few salient points, that ought to be mostly points of agreement for all sides, so I am going to go at least that far.

First and foremost, I can’t see as anyone has criticized the method of NFP on its own merits for otherwise healthy women. So, let’s not confuse the theology of NFP with NFP as such.

Second, no one has argued that husbands and wives abstaining from sex on occasion is inherently bad. Indeed, there appears to be an implicit consensus that abstention undertaken for the right reasons (which vary from person to person) is considered a good thing, as appetites are both controlled and allowed to grow by periodically placing restraint on them.

Third, people on both sides appear, on the whole, to agree that “the pill” is at best a mixed blessing. The effects on the user’s body are not to be scoffed at, and suspicion lingers that there is an as-yet unproven causal relationship between the pill and certain diseases. The specific mechanism of the pill is also potentially troublesome.

The biggest points of disagreement center on the nature of the moral differences between NFP and other methods: if one, why not the other? Additionally, though the terms have not appeared, the power of the Magisterium to “bind and loose” is very much in play. Some are arguing that since the Church says it, it doesn’t matter whether it’s logical or consistent, while others say that since it isn’t (to their thinking) logical or consistent, the Church’s power to bind and loose doesn’t apply (or it really doesn’t have that power anyway).

Barrier methods of contraception are inconvenient at best and positively disruptive at worst. They intrude to a greater or lesser degree upon the intimacy that is the greatest gift of the act. When St. Paul talks of “one flesh” he seems not have been including one of Monty Python’s “little rubber thingies.” What CS Lewis calls the “transposition” from the spiritual to the physical cannot be aided and may be harmed by the emplacement of a literal physical barrier.

Many women for whom NFP would be problematical have health problems of some sort. Those might bring the moral principle of “double effect” into play, meaning an alternative form of contraception, whose purpose is not to prevent a pregnancy as such, but either to treat those problems directly, or avoid aggravating them by a pregnancy, would at least arguably be permitted.

Thus, we would appear on balance all to agree that:

1) NFP is an excellent choice for those in good health;
2) other methods of contraception may have defects that in fact render them less desirable for a married couple than NFP; and
3) those unable for health reasons to practice NFP may have other options licitly opened up to them.


1) It should be desirable to all married Catholics to make use of NFP as a means of deferring child-bearing in appropriate circumstances;
2) Not all married Catholics can practice NFP;
3) Catholic clergy and laity ought to emphasize the practical aspects of NFP vs. other methods, as it is mostly on pragmatic grounds that hormonal and barrier methods are allegedly chosen; and
4) The underpinning issues ought to be resolved, but the actual behavior need not depend on who is right.


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