Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

From the February AD 2002
Our Lady of the Rosary
Parish Bulletin

    Question:  I have always felt in my heart the NFP is a form of birth control. How do the priests on our list advise husbands and wives in this regard? Just curious. AMDG, Gwen (from an Internet discussion list)

    Answer:  This may sound a bit more clinical here than I would be in person, but I am trying to be fairly precise in what I say. We have covered the immorality of artificially preventing or bringing about the conception of children in an earlier response.1 This column will deal only with natural and non-invasive means, usually called "rhythm" or "NFP."

    The primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children. Children are the major good to be obtained through marriage, and no one may validly marry with the positive intention to exclude them altogether. Additional legitimate, although secondary, ends include the control of inordinate sexual desires, the mutual help, support, and love provided by a spouse and family, and a stable social environment in which to live life. There are times in certain marriages when pregnancy will seriously disrupt one or more of these ends, primary and/or secondary. Both spouses must be willing to make sacrifices, but at some point it may become obvious that pregnancy will be a greater harm than a good.

    If the reasons are serious, the married couple may mutually agree to refrain from exercising their marital rights. (A unilateral decision would require a very serious cause -- e.g. a reasonable fear of death or serious contagion.) The couple must weigh the effects that abstinence might have on other aspects of their marriage and their spiritual well-being. For example, a moderate economic hardship might not outweigh the possibility of infidelity or the difficulties of a stressful family life. There is no "spiritual calculus" that can be used to make such a decision easy, or to rule out the rationalizations human beings make to avoid pain and seek pleasure, so the couple ought to seek impartial advice from their confessor.

    It will be noted that the couple is never under obligation to have relations at a particular time interval, nor are they obliged to abstain at any particular time. The question then arises as to whether or not the couple may have relations during the period of time when conception is very unlikely. The answer will depend upon the circumstances and the quality of the decision to abstain from relations to begin with. If the couple is practicing periodic abstinence as a means of avoiding pregnancy for frivolous reasons, the practice would be a sinful violation of the primary end of their marriage, even though it has no effect on the secondary ends. It might be more sinful if it also impacted the secondary ends -- e.g. by causing infidelity, or an unstable family life. One might also question the advisability of periodic relations if the reason for avoiding pregnancy was so important in the first place!

    On the other hand, a couple with a serious need to avoid pregnancy would still be entitled to obtain the secondary ends that flow from their marital relations -- e.g. fidelity, reduction of concupiscence, etc. We are, by definition, talking about people whose marriage has been made difficult by serious problems, and for whom periodic relations may be one of few things preserving their marriage (not to mention their sanity). Total abstinence would be the more heroic route, and would seem more in keeping with Christian perfection, but we are not necessarily always dealing with heroes, nor can we require penitents to go beyond the moral law to our ideals of behavior.

    The Church's rationale is based on periodic abstinence placing no positive contraceptive act, the right of the couple to determine the time and frequency of their relations, a serious need to sacrifice the primary good of marriage, and a reasonable expectation that the practice would bring no sinful side effects. The techniques for determining the fertility period have probably improved in recent years, but there is no real technical difference between modern NFP and the concept of periodic abstinence allowed by the Church in the pre-Vatican II years of the 19th and 20th centuries.

    What is especially scandalous is the idea fostered by the New Order that reduction of natural family size is a right or even a responsibility, with no justifying reasons required other than living in the "modern world." Some of this is the direct result of altering the primary end of marriage -- since Vatican II the primary end of marriage, the "procreation and education of children" is always prefaced by some phrase like "the unity of the couple and...." The "unitive aspect" is always considered ahead of the "procreative aspect," so in the New Order it is possible to think of the primary end of marriage being reasonably fulfilled without any consideration of children. Indeed, fertility is treated more like a malady than a good that might have to be done without.

    Is NFP sinful? Well, if those initials denote the philosophy of limiting children or even avoiding them altogether, as a positive privilege or a duty, it certainly could be. Given such a philosophy it would seem relatively easy for the advocates and practitioners to "graduate" to positive and sinful methods of preventing conception; perhaps even to abortion. It is possible to make the case that marriages entered into with an absolute intention to avoid having children through NFP, or with the intention of categorically refusing to have relations during the fertile period would be invalid for lack of consent. On the other hand, if NFP is simply a new name for periodic abstinence, it is morally admissible under the conditions mentioned above.

    Significant reading might include:

Sacred Penitentiary, responses of March 2, 1853; June 16, 1880; July 20, 1932.

Pope Pius IX, Casti connubii, December 31, 1930 (highly recommended and easily available).

Holy Office, Instruction to confessors on dealing with the Sixth Commandment, May 16, 1943

Pope Pius XII, Address to Italian Midwives, October 29, 1951

Apart from the morality of contraception, Christians ought to realize that in many places they are contracepting themselves out of existence. Any group of people producing two children (or less) per couple will eventually cease to exist. The Jihad that we keep hearing about is being one without violence in many places -- it is being won in the maternity rooms of Europe and the Americas, as Moslem couples have natural sized families.



1   Parish Bulletin, "Q&A," October A.D. 2001: Stem Cell Research?

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