Sunday, August 28, 2011

Why Natural Family Planning Isn't Contraception

There are those who would suggest that Natural Family Planning (NFP) is really just Catholic contraception. A loophole by which the Popes can avoid the ridiculous number of babies without having to embarrass themselves and admit they were wrong.

Yes, that is the Pope in a Santa hat.
One of the most common points of misunderstanding when it comes to Catholic doctrine is that of Papal Infallibility. Contrary to popular belief Papal Infallibility does not mean that whatever the Pope says might as well issue from the mouth of God. In fact, the Pope is only infallible when he solemnly proclaims something which the Church has always believed to be true. That is to say, it is primarily the Church (as present in Scripture and Tradition) which is infallible, the Pope is only infallible insofar as he operates as the Church's spokesman, which he is empowered to do by virtue of his office. In other words, the Church has always believed and taught that contraception is objectively evil. The Pope can no more overturn this teaching than he could proclaim that Jesus is no longer the Second Person of the Trinity.

Why, then, does NFP not qualify as contraception? After all, used correctly, it's just as effective in preventing pregnancy as the pill (99%) and more effective than condoms. In order to answer this question it will be necessary to examine the Church's rationale for outlawing contraception in the first place.

Holy Matrimony, the sacramental union of a man and woman with one another, is one of the most sacred institutions there is. Scripture itself teaches us that this is so because Christian Marriage symbolizes "the union that is betwixt Christ and his Church," to quote the English Prayer Book. Like the union of Christ with his Church, the marital union is always in effect. There are, however, regular occasions of special solemnity at which the union is consummated in a special way. For the Church it is the Holy Eucharist, which the Book of Revelation refers to as the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9). It is at the Eucharist that Christ and the Church come together in love. This is one of the reasons why in many churches there is a canopy over the altar:

The baldacchino at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
It is the canopy over the marriage bed upon which Christ and his Beloved consummate their union.

Contraception hinders the completeness of the union between husband and wife. Certain types of contraception put up a physical barrier between their union. Others put up a chemical barrier. When contraception is used, it is as if the husband and wife are saying to one another, "I love you. I want to be one with you, just, not completely. I'm gonna hold this piece of myself back from you, because it's inconvenient."

The loving union between husband and wife is meant to result in a new life (cf. Gen. 1:22). If you think about it, this makes all the sense in the world. It is the union of Christ with his Church that brings new life to the world, for that is what grace is, new life: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation," (2 Cor. 5:17). Due to the natural cycles of fertility and infertility the marital embrace will not always result in conception. This is really beside the point. The Church doesn't say that marriage should only be consummated with the express intent to conceive. It does say that the couple must be open to life, which is to say, marriage shouldn't be done halfway. You've gotta mean it.

The substantive difference between NFP and contraception is NFP doesn't throw up a barrier between husband and wife. While capitalizing on the natural cycles of fertility and infertility in order to run the family responsibly, it still allows for the complete union, body and soul, of man and woman to be enacted.


  1. Thomas, it's refreshing to hear our beliefs concerning NFP in such a completely understandable and educational way. Neal and I were trying to discuss this same concept with a friend recently, and it ended up just being frustrating because our words felt inadequate. This is an excellent post.

  2. Thanks very much. That's a bigger compliment than you may realize. You know, there are at least a couple more points to be done on this issue, but this really hits at the heart of it I think.


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