If we listen to the stories of all women, not just those for whom natural family planning works in the way that the magisterium says that it does, we will see that natural family planning is not always good.  In fact, in some cases, it is natural family planning, rather than artificial birth control, that is harmful to marriage and families.

In her article, “Papal Ideals, Marital Realities: One View From the Ground,” Northwestern professor Cristina Traina critiques magisterial teaching on sex and marriage, especially as it relates to artificial contraception and sexual complementarity, from the standpoint of her experience as a married, Catholic woman.   Her argument is not so much theological as it is practical— she offers her experience as evidence that church teaching on marriage and sex does not always “work,” and in some cases can actually harm, rather than protect, particular marriages.   This approach is particularly effective since the magisterium often argues that contraception and betrayal of gender roles do great harm to marriage and family.

Traina recalls,

“in my experience there is no necessary, exclusive connection between physical openness to procreation and genuine openness to my husband in a particular sexual encounter. Even in loving procreative sex, I may not focus on him; in intentionally non-procreative sex, I generally do; and in sex that even minutely risks pregnancy when it is unwise, unsafe, or both, I welcome neither partner nor child.”

With this, Traina calls into question John Paul II’s repeated insistence that to practice artificial contraception is necessarily a type of selfishness that interferes with the agapic self-gift demanded by marriage.  Therefore, in contrast to JPII who claims that, unless one is “open” to procreation one is not truly open to one’s partner, she shows that, sometimes, being physically “open” to procreation is actually an impediment to being open to and loving towards one’s spouse. In other words, the unitive and procreative functions of sexual intercourse not only do not always go together in practice, but sometimes these ends cannot go together.

She also calls into question the wisdom of unlimited self-gift of the embodied self whether in sex or in pregnancy, recalling a time in her life in which “another pregnancy would [have] spelled physical and professional disaster for me and economic hardship for my family.”  Thus, her decision to forego a fourth pregnancy was not an act of selfishness or rejection of her husband, but a rational and prudent judgment “consistent with [her] ‘natural’ ends of responsible parenthood and citizenship.”

Because she and her husband were trying to obey magisterial teaching and therefore not using artificial birth control, what started as a “fear of pregnancy” became “a visceral fear of sex itself” as her “fertility symptoms were in uninterpretable chaos for well over a year, making intercourse an unconscionable risk.”  She further details how her inability to have intercourse with her husband during one of the most stressful years of their marriage was a severe threat to their marriage.  Keep in mind also that, according to magisterial teaching, even married couples are not allowed to bring each other to orgasm by any means other than sexual intercourse.  In fact, they are not even allowed manual or oral stimulation except as a preparation for intercourse.  The only exception to this is that a husband can bring his wife to orgasm by manual or oral means but only after he ejaculates inside of her during intercourse.  So clearly, if a couple is not having intercourse, they are forbidden all types of genital intimacy and expression.  She concludes,

“if, as John Paul II insists, mutual delight in intercourse is proper only when conception is not impeded and when the possibility of its occurence is met with relaxed, joyful expectation; and if, as he also insists, intercourse is the only proper expression of marital sexuality; then for the typical couple enmeshed in ordinary responsibilities, opportunities for generous, appropriate marital sexuality are few in a lifetime.  This is not, in my experience, the path to a happy marriage.”

Traina reminds the reader not only of the danger inherent in pregnancy, especially for impoverished women, but also of the unreliability of women’s fertility signals in situations of “malnutrition, violence, or displacement.”  Especially for poor women or women living amidst war and violent conflict, “non-contraceptive pregnancy prevention—even with a husband’s cooperation—becomes very difficult.”

Traina’s insight is affirmed by the experience a friend of mine had working with indigenous women in central America.  For these women, pregnancy and childbirth were physically depleting; however, artificial contraception was highly taboo, in large part because of church teaching.  My friend, Elena Tsinikas, worked at a medical clinic at which they tried to teach these women Natural Family Planning.  However, this was almost a complete failure since the women’s husbands were unwilling both to abstain from sex and to take ‘no’ for an answer. It would also seem as though this situation would fall even further from John Paul II’s standard of total self-gift, since there is no gift without freedom.

Elena tells the story of a married woman who, after giving birth to three children, decided with her husband to take some time off before having a fourth child.  After asking around in her community about using artificial birth control, she was told

“if she used birth control she would be murdering her future children and denying them the right to a life God had planned for them. Dominga said she felt very ashamed at the women’s reply, so she went to a priest, who taught her about natural family planning methods.”

However, the very thing that makes natural family planning morally acceptable in the eyes of the magisterium is the very thing that made it an unrealistic option for Dominga.  As Elena explains,

“Because this method of family planning confines sexual activity to only specific days of the month, each time Dominga’s husband wanted to have sex on the wrong day and Dominga told him, ‘not today,’ an argument would ensue. Her husband accused her of having an affair. He would say, ‘if you don’t want to have sex with me, it must be because you have been out having sex with your lover.’ Inevitably these arguments would end with her husband saying, ‘I am the the man and you are the woman. I tell you when we have sex, you don’t get to decide.'”

Dominga would go on to have 9 children, who at the time of this post were in between 7 and 24.  To Elena, Dominga said:

“she wishes she had planned her pregnancies and used birth control because it is has been and continues to be very difficult to care for all 9 children, to feed them all and make sure they get an education. ‘People say it’s a sin to use family planning,’ said Dominga, ‘but I think it’s a sin to bring more children into the world if you can’t take care of them the way they deserve.’ She told me that her life as a parent has been very difficult, and the struggle to provide for the children has been a constant stress and worry for her and her husband.”

In contrast to John Paul II’s insistence that artificial birth control is a violation of marriage which inherently and therefore always produces harm, we have the testimony of two women from very different context telling us that, sometimes, it is the inability to use artificial birth control that is the source of harm and marital tension.

In the story of Cristina Traina, it would seem that the only way she could have complied with church teaching would have been to have given up her job as a professor and her participation in civic life and confined her responsibilities to the home.  In Traina’s case, this would have resulted in economic hardship for her family as she was the “breadwinner.”  Moreover, given John Paul II’s personalistic emphasis on sex as a means of expression and fulfillment for the human person, it would seem strange to conclude that women are allowed the expression of their person during sex but not in other spheres of life.

In the story of Dominga, the problem is that while her husband is the one unwilling to follow NFP, she is the one who most immediately responsible for the consequences of his sin.  Also, while her husband has the freedom to choose when and how often he wants to have sex, Dominga lacks any sort of sexual autonomy and therefore ability to make prudential decisions about bringing new life into the world.   According to the magisterium, it would seem as though the only option open to a woman like Dominga is that she submit to the sexual impulses of her husband, no matter what the cost to her.

This can’t be God’s will for women and men, can it?

77 thoughts

  1. Thanks, Katie. This is an excellently done piece! I have friends who speak highly of NFP and many others that do not, all of whom are faithful women and men trying to do the morally right thing. You’ve highlighted some real great issues well worth considering further. I’ve been bouncing an idea for an article on the construction of a theological anthropology in light of some of my other work and in response to the all-too limited notion of complementarity that seems to be ‘all the rage’ in certain circles. Your blog post has got me thinking about that again. I also went ahead and ordered a used copy of the Patricia Beattie Jung’s book to read the full text of this article and others.

    Keep up the good work here!

    1. Thanks, Dan!
      Yes, from my experience of listening to my married friends, it is certainly true that NFP has been a blessing for some of them. Listening to others, however, the reverse is true. From this, it seems silly to conclude that using artificial contraception is always immoral no matter what the circumstances!

      Thanks for reading and I look forward to your work on complementarity!

  2. These situations are impossibly hard. It seems to me rather like trying to determine when it is “best” to kill innocent people. After all, sometimes the choice is between risking the death of civilians or allowing terrorists to get away and then possibly kill more innocent people. But those who say that the solution is to go about our normal warring ways and simply try to kill as few non-combatants as possible as we continue to bomb residences seem inevitably to slip immediately away from guarding life in the most practical ways possible.

    I know that insisting that contraception is simply not good is incredibly idealistic. But coherent idealism is an important aspect of my faith.

    If I’m not misreading here (and do correct me if I am, as I recognize that this likely took hours to write and only minutes to read) then you’re switching back and forth between magisterial teaching and JPII. I’m not sure precisely what you mean by the magisterium (Doctors of the Church? Pius XI? Paul VI? The current Pope? the CDF or USCCB?) and I think it matters because they have not taught the same thing, at least not in the details.

    But if I read “magisterium” as JPII in your last full paragraph, then I don’t think that can be true. After all, would not JPII insist that Dominga’s husband must submit to her as much as she to him? The whole concept of a “personalistic emphasis on sex” requires sexual autonomy.

    So then the question seems to me to be whether one is obliged to uphold personalistic ideals for sex in a situation which fundamentally disallows them. And if I follow the jumping around then I think one can turn to other aspects of magisterial teaching to say that Dominga is not responsible for the sin of her husband, should he insist on contraception. There would obviously be a debate over what constitutes insisting on contraception and how this should be applied to particular situations, but it seems to me that provides one example of a way in which the magisterium could offer more answers than the one you conclude they are stuck with.

    1. I’m actually not sure what JPII would say. He does say something about mutual submission (this flies in the face of the plain reading of Paul and of the entire preceeding tradition) but he also evaluates sex through the lens of self-gift. It could also be possible that he would say that it is wrong for Dominga to withhold her sex from her husband for in so doing she is not truly giving all of her self to him. My point is, I think there is ambiguity on how to read his theology. Also, even if JPII would definitively say the husband should submit to the wife, the problem is what to do when this doesn’t happen.

      Also if we look at the tradition until very recently, the church pretty much always taught that each spouse owes the other one the marriage debt. In order to prevent a spouse’s infidelity, if one spouse asked for sex, the other spouse had the obligation to say yes. So, it is not at all clear that the catholic tradition supports a woman’s right to say no to sex with her husband.

      In other words, perhaps JPII’s ideals work in a perfect situation, but what about when the husband is sinful or when a couple lives in poverty. My point is that, in these non-ideal circumstances, women tend to be the ones who suffer, and in light of this, we should accept that, in the real world, NFP doesn’t always work. This is a problem for JPII because much of his argument for NFP over birth control is that it is “better” for people and more conducive to marital goods than birth control.

      And I used “magisterial teaching” because Benedict has more or less ratified JPII’s personalistic theology of sex as self-gift. But yes, earlier thinkers would not have thought this way. See the following for this http://witheology.wordpress.com/2010/10/30/a-church-that-changes-part-i/

      1. It appears that you decided against your original “charitable reading” (I can’t remember how you phrased it) and that there is a rather short time period allowed for coming back to clarify. Such is the blog world!

        Anyway, I realize that this is not going to be a forum in which I will be able to contribute to a fruitful discussion, but I do wish to clarify that you’ve misread my comment. I should have simply quoted
        Mary McCarthy: “If someone tells you he [sic] is going to make “a realistic decision”, you immediately understand that he is going to do something bad.”

      2. Hi Rae,
        I mean no disrespect at all, but could you be a bit more specific as to how I was uncharitable towards you? And yes, I did edit my initial response to you because I realized that I had totally misread you. Would you rather I had left my initial misinterpretation unamended? (my misinterpretation was solely my fault, your wording was quite clear.) If I am interpreting you correctly now, you are troubled by the fact that I changed my initial response–perhaps you feel it is unfair for me to edit my comment–again, I would give any reader the same opportunity to amend or completely reverse something they had previously posted.

        Could you also clarify your inclusion of the quotation from Mary Mccarthy? I’m confused because I don’t remember saying I was making a “realistic decision” about anything so I’m not really sure where you are going with that.

      3. So let me ask, what would you need me to do to make this a space where you feel able to contribute to a fruitful discussion? Given that we don’t know each other, and communication via internet is often fraught with peril, I am very open to hearing how I can make this space more welcoming for you.

      4. Hi Rae,

        What specifically made you think that you weren’t being read charitably? Watching this conversation from the outside it looked like you guys were getting right to the issue.

        There’s something rhetorically powerful in the quote you give, and there is a certain sense that the world of ethics is a world of ideals. I think what Katie’s post and comments are trying to point out is that this difference between idealism and realism is not always a subtraction and/or dilution (as if we compromise in the real world by acting pragmatically). I think she’s arguing that the separation of idealism from real world experience actually *impoverishes* the ethical ideals that are formed. To speak metaphorically, NFP involves some decisions that were made before all the data was in.

        Am I misreading either the content or the tone of this discussion?

        As for time to respond, we are all unfortunately addicted to the internet. Time moves quickly here! :)



      5. Wow, I’m really open to a discussion on this issue, but this conversation just fell VERY far away from the Catholic teaching on personhood. If we aren’t all coming from the same perspective that life begins at conception (not some random scientific view that it may or may not be at implantation or some random time after that) then this ceases to be an open discussion about the joys and challenges of NFP as used and promoted (or cursed) by Catholic couples. I’ve had an ideal 25-year NFP situation (loving and supportive husband, perfectly normal cycles, no reproductive issues, solid marriage, faithful Catholic couple, middle-class American, etc.) so I have not often explored the negative aspects of the method, even with friends who have described their NFP experience as less-than-perfect. Therefore, I found this blog entry fascinating and educational. I wish that everyone could have my situation, but not everyone does. However, if we are denying that life begins at conception and/or the abortifacient property of hormonal birth control (a fact that I read on the warning/instructional insert of a hormonal birth control pack while I was engaged which led me to look into NFP) then this discussion just excused itself from being orthodox. You’ll disagree, I’m sure. But I would love to discuss this issue within the teachings of the Church, exploring the real life experiences of Catholic couples who are struggling with the confines of the method as I am now that I have ‘completed’ my family (remaining open to life) and will soon be 46 with potentially many years of fertility remaining and a desire to live in God’s will. When we get down to it, it’s not about us; it’s about our faith in the Church that either has this and everything else right or nothing right at all. Still, I appreciate your observations and the points made.

      6. I think you meant the accusation “this conversation has excused itself from being orthodox” as an insult but I don’t consider it to be. Also, the magisterium (aka the bishops and the pope) decide what is orthodox–you are not a bishop or pope, so your declaring this as outside the bounds of orthodoxy is itself a violation of catholic orthodoxy. I assure you, no woman has ever been deemed competent to adjudicate issues of faith and morals.

        second of all, please at least read what we actually said. as sonja and erin pointed out, there are different types of birth control. While some may have the effects you worry about, others don’t.

        And this may shock you, but the catholic church actually DOESN”T teach that life begins at conception. Instead, church teaches that direct abortion at any stage of fetal life is immoral not because it knows the fertilized ovum to be a human person but because we should always give the benefit of the doubt to life.

        and if you are only interested in “discussing the teachings of the church” within “the confines of the method” then you are not really open to looking at things from a different perspective; instead, you only want to recite what you think the churches teaches verbatim. If that is what your conscience tells you God wants, then I wouldn’t expect you to act otherwise, just be honest that, no matter you hear or see or are told, your mind will never change no matter what.

    2. I would say that coherent idealism is an important aspect of my faith, too, which is why I lean very much towards pacifism. On the other hand, though, when my idealism oppresses others, marginalizes their experiences, or actually causes people to suffer, I think that idealism should be questioned. Especially given that I come from a place of privilege.

    3. as to your point about this being like trying to decide when it is best to kill innocent people, I would say that it is different in at least one very crucial way. In the question of asking when it is ok to kill innocent people, we know that we are not only taking the life of an actual living human person, but also we are gravely harming and injuring all those who loved him or her.

      In other words, the “intrinsic evil” of killing an innocent person is intrinsically evil because there is no scenario in which the direct and intentional killing of an innocent person does not do great and unjustifiable harm to human beings.

      In the case of artificial contraception, these women’s stories testify that it is NOT true that the use of artificial contraception always harms or injures human persons. TO the contrary, in SOME circumstances it is a very good thing to do both for your marriage and for your family.

      The other difference with the killing analogy is that, while the killing of innocents may accrue benefits to some (the foreign army doing the killing for example) causing us to get into a very immoral and problematic weighing of benefits and harms, in the case of these women, it is NOT a matter of the benefits outweighing the harms, but instead the obvious fact that artificial birth control is NOT harmful, or at least not in a morally significant way.

      So yes, your desire to speak out against a utilitarian situation in which we say that tremendous losses to some people (the slain civilians) can be justified by tremendous gains to others (the victorious nation) is awesome and very praise-worthy. I would simply say that it does not apply in these women’s cases.

      1. I think there’s one other important way the killing analogy is problematic:

        Contraception doesn’t kill anybody.

      2. yes, exactly. instead of asking whether good of birth control outweighs the evil, I am instead asking, where is the evil here? In other words, JPII’s reasons for why birth control is evil do not apply to these women’s lives.

      3. Contraception doesn’t kill anybody? Many forms of contraception act as abortifacients by creating a hostile uterine environment, preventing implantation by a newly created embryo which effectively kills a brand new life. If that happens due to miscarriage, that’s God’s design for that life. If that happens due to a couple’s choice to contracept, that’s killing someone.

      4. whether not birth control has ever prevented the implantation of an embryo in a uterus is something that is un-knowable. So it’s only speculation. So no one can say that birth control pills have ever prevented an embryo from implanting. Also, even in catholic thinking, there is doubt whether or not a fertilized egg prior to implantation is actually a “human person.” The American Medical Association for example does not define pregnancy as starting until implantation occurs.

        It is also true that in between one-third and one-half of all fertilized ova never become implanted. This, to use your terms, would seem to be part of God’s plan. Do we really believe that God would design a universe in which 50% of all human persons never even make it to the uterus? While such “pre-embryos” undoubtedly deserve respect, I personally think it would be quite strange to consider pre-embryos as possessing the same status as a 2 year old, for example, or even a 3 or 4 month old fetus.

        Also, note that this is not at all a reason mentioned in magisterial teaching for why birth control is wrong. So this is not a “catholic” reason to be opposed to birth control. If I am wrong, please correct me, but dont you think JPII would have mentioned this if there were sound scientific evidence for it? Why go to the trouble of making all sorts of other arguments, like the ones presented in Humane Vitae and in JPII’s theology of the body? If birth control caused abortions, that would be all the church would have to say about it to show that it is immoral.

        It is also noteworthy that, when doing a google search, the only sites discussing this were pro-life ones. Given that many doctors and scientists are pro-choice, I don’t think that the fact that birth control pills cause abortion would be a source of embarrassment for them (in other words, they wouldn’t hide this.) Why isn’t this “side-effect” mentioned more often? So I am very suspicious both of the veracity and moral significance of this claim.

      5. also, remember that “twinning” can occur up to a week or so after fertilization. In other words, what was for several days, one embryo, suddenly splits into two. This should also make us wonder if a 1 or 2 day old embryo is really a human “person.”

      6. Hi Kimberly,

        Sonja and Katie have already pointed out the scientific difficulties in confirming whether hormonal contraceptives ever actually do act as abortifacients, as well as the difficulty of talking about pre-implanted fertilized eggs as “life.”

        I want to add that while some contraceptives may affect the uterine environment (and therefore prevention of implantation is hypothetically possible), in these cases the operation of the device or pill that prevents ovulation or fertilization is the very same operation that prevents implantation. So these succeed or fall together. To say that some forms of birth control act as abortifacients, you have to posit that the birth control fails to prevent ovulation or fertilization, but then somehow, miraculously works in preventing implantation. But these aren’t different, unrelated processes.

  3. THANK YOU for this very important post, Katie! I am so glad there is finally something on the blog dedicated to this issue.

  4. I agree that we need more on this issue. It seems that most people quietly don’t follow the magesterium here, but silently, lonely in their disobedience. Any statistics on that?

    1. I will look for concrete statistics in a bit when I have more time, but, as I recall US Catholics do not use contraception any less than non-catholics.

  5. Very interesting post.

    I have one question about the overall method: by showing the negative “real-life” consequences of the Church’s teaching on contraception, are you attempting to show that the teachings are wrong? Or that we should do more reflection on those teachings?

    If you are attempting to do the former, it would seem like a different approach is required. After all, on the standard account of the Church’s moral theology, one is never permitted to (for instance) torture another human being, no matter the consequences.

    Some other issues to consider:

    1. “in my experience there is no necessary, exclusive connection between physical openness to procreation and genuine openness to my husband in a particular sexual encounter. Even in loving procreative sex, I may not focus on him”

    In this first quote, Traina equivocates between “genuine openness” and psychological “focus” on one’s partner. She may have reasons for doing so, but it is not clear to me that this is what JP2 meant by openness.

    2. “She also calls into question the wisdom of unlimited self-gift of the embodied self whether in sex or in pregnancy,”

    The phrase “unlimited self-gift” doesn’t seem particularly accurate in describing JP2’s views. A better phrase might be “integral self-gift,” a gift that must be given as a whole, rather than divided.

    3. “Thus, her decision to forego a fourth pregnancy was not an act of selfishness or rejection of her husband, but a rational and prudent judgment “consistent with [her] ‘natural’ ends of responsible parenthood and citizenship.””

    I don’t doubt that this is the case. The question, though, isn’t about whether the end (avoiding pregnancy) is responsible, but whether it is acceptable to pursue that end with contraceptive means.

    4. “The only exception to this is that a husband can bring his wife to orgasm by manual or oral means but only after he ejaculates inside of her during intercourse.”

    This isn’t relevant to your overall point, but I believe this statement may be mistaken. Lawler, Boyle, & May do state that orgasm may only be brought about within the overall context of intercourse, but do not specify that it must occur afterwards. Do you have a specific source for your statement?

    5. “if, as John Paul II insists, mutual delight in intercourse is proper only when conception is not impeded and when the possibility of its occurence is met with relaxed, joyful expectation;”

    Here I believe that Traina may be amplifying beyond what JP2 actually said. Do you know of a source for the phrase “relaxed, joyful expectation?” My understanding is that while such a response is good, all that is required is a responsible acceptance of said possibility.

    6. The final example of Elena and Dominga is ambiguous, but seemed to imply that Dominga was sexually coercive. Given the Church’s acceptance of contraception in the case of rape, there may be a case for using contraception under those circumstances even following the Church’s current teaching.

    1. as to point 4. how would a woman be brought to orgasm in the context of intercourse in a non-intercourse way? Also, given that most women are very sensitive immediately after orgasm, it would not be very good practice to bring your wife to orgasm manually for example and then attempt to insert your penis inside of her.

      as to 6. first of all, while her husband’s coercion was certainly unjust, I’m not sure Dominga would or should classify it as rape. And one, if you could use contraception in the case of rape, then artificial birth control (the pill, not condoms) cannot be said to be instrinsically evil. Also, the use of contraception requires some foresight and planning. Yet, no one expects to get raped. The only potential solution would be to tell women to always go on birth control or wear diaphrams due to the fact that so many women get raped. But one can’t use the pill selectively–one can’t start and stop. So, even if the church teaches this (they teach that women can’t use emergency contracpetion in the case of rape, but only after it happens, and this also requires that a woman can get to a hospital and afford said pills. I doubt that a woman living in extreme poverty would even have access to emergency contraception…) it’s so impractical as to render the teaching irrelevant. You might also want to see my response to Rae about the ambiguity in church teaching about whether a spouse can or should actually say no to her/his spouse.

      as to 1. JPII’s use of “self-gift” which is an elaboration of the unitive principal defined at Vatican II does actually involve pyschological and affective openness since, as your rightly note, it implies a gift of the WHOLE person–body, mind, soul, emotions. In fact, this is what the unitive function is–the affective, and tangibly so, union of whole persons through genital union. In other words, the unitivie function isn’t just the parts fitting together in a certain way.

      5. how can you be open in a holisitic, integral way to procreation if you are secretly having sex but hoping against hope that you don’t get pregnant? I don’t think Traina is claiming that as a direct quote of JPII, but I don’t doubt it’s a fair interpretation. I will try to look through his theo of the body to back that up.

      And yes, I am arguing that artificial birth control is not always immoral. I am not necessarily arguing that NFP is not an ideal but only arguing that the use of artificial birth control is not always immoral and that in fact creating a culture in which people feel condemned for using artificial birth control is immoral.

      1. to elaborate on my response to point 4. I guess I’m unsure what you are envisioning. is the husband stopping during intercourse and then bringing his wife to orgasm manually and then returning to intercourse? again, I’m not sure why people would actually do this.

      2. familiaris consortio:
        “Consequently, sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is by no means something purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and a woman commit themselves totally to one another until death. The total physical self-giving would be a lie if it were not the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving, in which the whole person, including the temporal dimension, is present: if the person were to withhold something or reserve the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future, by this very fact he or she would not be giving totally.”

        “The content of participation in Christ’s life is also specific: conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter- appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, the unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility (cf Humanae vitae, 9). In a word it is a question of the normal characteristics of all natural conjugal love, but with a new significance which not only purifies and strengthens them, but raises them to the extent of making them the expression of specifically Christian values.”

        When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two meanings that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion, they act as “arbiters” of the divine plan and they “manipulate” and degrade human sexuality-and with it themselves and their married partner-by altering its value of “total” self-giving. Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality.

        When, instead, by means of recourse to periods of infertility, the couple respect the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of human sexuality, they are acting as “ministers” of God’s plan and they “benefit from” their sexuality according to the original dynamism of “total” selfgiving, without manipulation or alteration.(90)”


        as to whether JPII thinks people can have a closed attitude to new life even if they don’t use contraceptoin:

        see his talk on “Natural Family Planning” given on Dec 14, 1990.

        “In short, it allows people to see that it is not possible to practise natural methods as a ‘licit’ variation on the decision to be closed to life, which would be substantially the same as that which inspires the decision to use contraceptives.
        Only if there is a basic openness to fatherhood and motherhood, understood as collaboration with the Creator, does the use of natural means become an integrating part of the responsibility for love and life. ”

        here, there is some ambiguity about whether or not people are allowed to use NFP to prevent conception.


        as to Traina’s use of the phrase “relaxed and joyful” i think a charitable interpretation of her work will see it as a legitimate interpretation of JPII”s repeated insistence that moral sex, that is, marital sex, will always be an expression of the most profound and total love. If one is going through the mechanics of having sex but emotionally disengaged or pyschologically resentful, I do think we can with integrity say that one is “giving oneself” to the other; instead, you are just lying there, giving nothing, just waiting for the whole thing to be over.

      3. and I should clarify my response to point 6.

        I’m not sure how a woman can use contraception in the case of getting raped prior to getting raped and still be in compliance with church teaching. To do this would require all women of childbearing years to “get on the pill” just in case they get raped. Since one just can’t start and stop the pill, this would also mean that one would be disrupting one’s marital sex. I don’t think the church would approve of this, do you? The church does let women take emergency contraception AFTER getting raped, and my previously stated objections still apply.

      4. Hey Katie. I do think that generally, yes, preemptive contraception to prevent pregnancy resulting from rape IS allowed. This is the reason why Catholic hospitals, though some require “ovulation tests,” DO dispense the Plan B pill to rape victims. And while it’s true that you can’t just stop and start the pill in the way that you could strap on and take off a bike helmet, wouldn’t such a “pre-emptive” use of the pill fall under double effect? I also feel like I once heard a story about Paul VI giving the OK to a group of nuns to take birth control pills because they lived in an area where they were in constant danger of being raped.

        But this opens up a larger can of worms, I think, in that it makes “consent” the central issue in determining whether it’s OK for a woman to use contraception. And given that sex for many people doesn’t take place in situations of 100% consent, but usually involves some doubt, some second-guessing–and all of this in normal, healthy relationships–what this sets up, I think, is a situation where pregnancy becomes something like a punishment for “wanting” it. I mean that in the sense of: “If you didn’t want to have sex, OK, you get the pill. If you did want to have sex, No, you can’t have the pill; you made your bed, so now lie in it.” And that gets dangerously close to the awful “Was it rape or was she asking for it?” question.

  6. Great post.

    To be honest, I’ve never even tried to make sense of the church’s stance on birth control/NFP – it just seems so out of touch with the real lives of women (and men), not to mention the world’s over-population situation and AIDs problem.

    I had a past post with some quotes from “What Happened at Vatican II” on contraception which mentions John Rock – for the most part, the Council was for birth control.

  7. Thank you for a thought-provoking post, Katie! I was really looking forward to someone bringing this up at WIT. A few questions:

    I’m unsure about the following assertion:

    “In contrast to John Paul II’s insistence that artificial birth control is a violation of marriage which inherently and therefore always produces harm, we have the testimony of two women from very different context telling us that, sometimes, it is the inability to use artificial birth control that is the source of harm and marital tension.”

    Here’s why: just because something is intrinsically wrong doesn’t mean that it must be apparent that it is wrong; it might in fact appear good. Just because something is the virtuous thing to do doesn’t mean that it must appear good. Contraception is not murder, but especially since our culture–including us within the Church–is so screwed up about sex, it would not surprise me that a natural reaction to an intrinsic evil would be to see it as a good. After all, we see lying as a good thing to do sometimes, and Augustine would hold–rightly, I think–that lying is an intrinsic evil. Nor do I think that the apparent harm caused by natural family planning might be an actual harm. This is where the Patristic idea of the development of “spiritual senses”–especially as appropriated by Sarah Coakley–comes in for me. (A side-question I’ve wanted to ask you, Katie: what room can we leave for the development of “spiritual senses” in moral experience, especially regarding sexual morality?)

    Another thing has already been pointed out above: many of the situations in which refusing artificial contraception seems especially heinous–as with Dominga–are situations which have more deeply rooted problems than just contraception. As far as moral discernment goes, how do we separate out the evils that often accompany sexual expression to gauge our experience accurately?

    Just two questions/comments to raise: I wanted to thank you for a well-written piece which seems especially compelling to me when we see it as a double-bind (no “right” action here). Thank you!

    1. Michael, I agree with what you say about our inability to perceive evil rightly–in other words, we often perceive evil as good and good as evil. no doubt.
      However, at least in the catholic tradition, which has tended to shy away from a divine command perspective of morality (it’s right just because God says it is), we can are not completely unable to use our reason to make moral distinctions.

      So, for example, most people do not perceive our economic structure as being morally problematic. Like you say, we are screwed up and don’t always see rightly. However, we can still make an argument demonstrating why our economic structure is morally problematic. So, even though many of us cannot perceive the injustice of our economic structure in our daily lives, if we look in the right way–from the perspective of the poor, or the environment, or with the eyes of Christ, we CAN see its injustice. Whether we are willing to do what it takes to rectify it is another matter of course.

      So, I would ask, if birth control is an intrinsic evil, show me how to see its unconditional and exceptionless evil in the cases discussed in this post.

      And yes, I agree with you that, in many cases, birth control may not be an “ideal” but a solution to a less than ideal situation. But this does not make the use of birth control wrong. I would love if catholics got as upset at men who control their wives as they do couples who use birth control. that would be awesome. however, until that day comes, what should women do? Shouldn’t they be allowed to protect themselves and exert some measure of control over their own lives?

      And also, note that I don’t think Traina’s predicament was the result of sin, either personal or structural. Her husband was loving and egalitarian. They did not live in poverty. Their desire to not have more children was not out of selfishness or a desire to pursue frivolous or unworthy ends. I ask this with all sincerity and not a hint of snark–show me how to see the evil here? My argument is not necessarily that birth control is a marital ideal, but only that it is not always sin.

      And as to your analogy with lying. How can lying be an instrinsic evil if it is good to do sometimes? Knowing you, if you had lived in Germany during WWII and were asked by Nazis if there were any Jews hiding in your house, I honestly think you would say “no.” How could God want us to tell the truth if it meant turning a Jewish person over to the Nazis? What about the actions of Raul Wallenburg and Oscar Schindler, who used all sorts of deception to hide Jews? Those actions were sinful? I guess I don’t think that God first made rules and then the world, but that God made the world and then the rules emerge for the sake of that world.

      1. Oh, I’m glad somebody finally brought up the issue of lying being intrinsically evil! From what I know, the church most definitely still teaches that it is an intrinsic evil. In fact, if you flip to the back of your Catechism, on p. 841 of the revisions, you’ll see this at work:

        “2483. The second sentence of this paragraph presently reads: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth.” This sentence will be modified to read: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.”

        Shocking, huh? But it’s the intrinsic evil of lying that gave rise to the concept of “mental reservation,” which is a wild and crazy thing.

        I think Augustine is famous for arguing for the intrinsic nature of lying, even in cases to protect the lives of others, but I don’t know the specific reference. But surely, there must be some stuff written on this recently, right? Or is it just not a “sexy enough” topic for people to care about?

      2. All excellent points, Katie: thank you for taking the time to reply so thoughtfully!

        I would agree with you wholeheartedly that natural law–as God’s law running through our experience which is accessible to our intellects–prohibits us from a “divine command” theory. Sometimes the Church’s arguments make this situation seem like Flannery O’Connor once wrote: “I will rejoice in the day when they say: This is right, whether we all rot on top of each other or not, dear children, as we certainly may.”

        But that’s not what I’m advocating: it’s something a little more nuanced. Rather, that the experience of evil which contraception gives us may be engrained into our “normal” way of looking that it doesn’t appear evil. I wholeheartedly believe our wounded reason can come to use the natural law well in all situations, but it requires restoration through growth in union with God. This leads me to the unappealing idea of asking the saints about their sex lives, but there does seem to be a middle ground here between “general experience” and “divine command” which allows us to distinguish between experiences and favor some. Do you think that’s possible? Do you think that–perhaps–this is what the Church is hoping for: that the sometimes logically weak arguments about birth control are to be supplemented by the experience of those close to God? (I want to say that this is emphatically NOT saying that the often difficult experiences of couples who’ve given up on NFP reflects on a lack of sanctity: I’m just struggling to pose the question.) If anything, it just goes to show that I’m too far from being a saint to avoid being confused on this particular topic.

        Which leads me to Traina’s case: I have to play the moral agnostic there, especially because it only shows me that avoiding contraception was difficult for her. From what I read–and I may have misread this–it doesn’t sound like Traina used artificial birth control, so her experience wouldn’t qualify for having an experience of evil there. I can see that her adherence to the Magisterium made a situation difficult and made another more ambiguous situation appealing, but I don’t see from her experience that artificial birth control was used in such a way that no evil came from it.

        And I’d agree with you that I too would lie if I were hiding Jews from the Nazis: heck, I lie just to make people think more highly of me. But that doesn’t keep me from thinking–rightly or wrongly–that I’ve done wrong.

        Thanks again for your feedback!

      3. i think the point with traina’s article is that birth control doesn’t always do what the church says it does. if the reasons the church gives for prohibiting birth control do not always apply, how can we say birth control is always wrong?

        And I hear what you are saying about the difficulty of seeing evil. But could you speak to the specifics of these women’s stories? Why would it have been sinful for Traina or Dominga to use artificial birth control?

        And I really don’t understand why you think if you lied to Nazis you would have done wrong. That position baffles me and I don’t mean to be rude, but I have a hard time believing that you would actually feel bad about lying to Nazis asking for the whereabouts of Jews.

      4. For Traina’s story, I will have to read her article fully and more slowly before I’m willing to give a deeper comment on that. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Dominga’s story seems a little more obvious: her use of artificial birth control would have given her husband full license to use her sexually. I think that tendency came out quite clearly in his remarks about her use of Natural Family Planning. It’s hard not to judge that this should have been resolved by something other than the male’s appeal to sexual satisfaction on his terms. Whether or not that is in the same boat as having children you cannot afford to care for is worth discussing. But I think John Paul II’s worries about exploitation would ring very true here.

        In the same respect that a pacifist would feel guilty for punching a drunk threatening her date, I would feel guilty for lying to Nazis. Call it malfeasant Catholic guilt, but I’m convinced by Griffiths’ case for Augustine.

  8. Hey Michael R! I get your point about intrinsically wrong things (and even other kinds of wrong things, I would say) appearing to be good, and vice-versa, since our moral bearings are already so screwed up. This makes me think of two things:

    First, this has always been my argument when I want to *critique* the idea of natural law! (Someone once told me it was Barthian but I don’t know.) In other words, I’m not confident in our ability, in our fallen state, to even perceive what is and isn’t “natural.” Now, I wouldn’t want to go down a slippery slope of saying, “We can’t have any idea of what’s good or bad, then!” I think we most definitely can, but I think that our articulations of it should not take place exclusively, or even normatively, in terms of what is and is not natural. Why? Because if you already know what is natural, you don’t need to listen to real people. And I feel like all of us, particularly the church, have enough of a history of doing that that some suspicion towards systems that devalue experience is warranted.

    Second, and unrelated and perhaps even contradictory in some way, I get nervous about any systems of thought that function by excluding actual lived experience of individuals, most especially when they are experiences of those who have historically been powerless and especially when those experiences don’t “fit” within whatever system we’re working with. That is how oppression, all oppression, historically, has worked.

    1. Sonja, I totally agree with you about the dangers of devaluing experience: my post was just to ask the question, “Whose experience?” (to cite MacIntyre without reading him, as is vogue in my line of dilettantism). Your second point is the one that really worries me, because I am speaking from a position of power, and the poor effects of my reasoning–taken as universal–could be used to justify oppression. This is the last thing that I would want. However, I think this applies also to me being a paternalistic Western liberal man: that is to say, if artificial birth control does have evil effects as the Church claims, I don’t want to advocate that for the powerless either. This seems like a double-bind too!

      Also, if you really want to read a sexy defense of Augustine’s position on lying, pick up Paul J. Griffiths’ “Lying: an Augustinian Theology of Duplicity.” Never have metaphysical reflections on lying and truth been so readable! I loved it!

      Thanks for your comments.

      1. also, michael. in dominga’s story I’m not sure that birth control would just “enable her husband’s sexual use of her.” In her story, she doesn’t say it is sex with her husband she doesn’t like, only the procreation that can result. The only reason she wanted to start refraining from sex was so that she could be on NFP. So I don’t think she had a problem with the frequency of their sex. Only with having so many children.

  9. I have always been kind of ambivalent about arguments that contraception encourages the exploitation of women by men. I think it’s somewhat like saying that the existence of ice packs and makeup encourage domestic violence: Men know that with ice packs and makeup, bruises won’t show and so they can beat their wives with more liberty. Without the ice packs and makeup, the bruises would show, giving men an incentive not to beat their wives.

    In other words, there could be two situations: (1) men go on exploiting their wives regardless of whether pregnancy results, which very often happens, or (2) men refrain from exploiting their wives *only* out of fear of getting them pregnant, not out of any respect for their wives as human beings. I don’t think I’m willing to say that (2) is in any way a positive value.

    1. Also, Erin just reminded me that sometimes sexual exploitation is *intentionally* also reproductive exploitation, so in this kind of situation, the woman, by using artificial birth control, would be limiting at least one of the ways her body was being “used.”

      I think the fact that reproduction itself is one of the ways women are exploited was just really not on JPII’s radar at all (probably because he believed so strongly that reproduction was something near an absolute good).

  10. Nothing to further the conversation, except to say that I really appreciated this piece. It belongs to a world of discourse and practice I neither belong to nor understand well, so insightful engagements like this are a great help. Wonderful work!

  11. You’re right, Katie, that it’s not possible to know with certainty whether certain forms of contraception–namely the morning after pill–prevent implantation. This was the position taken by the Connecticut Catholic bishops when they approved the administration of Plan B in hospitals to rape victims. In fact, even as conservative a source as the St. Joe Province of Dominicans has an article arguing this! http://www.op-stjoseph.org/blog/the_scientific_evidence_suggests_that_plan_b_is_not_an_abortifacient/

    Also, the most commonly used kinds of contraception–condoms and pills–do NOT prevent implantation. Pills prevent *ovulation.*

  12. This issue has been one that I too have struggled with for years, as I desire to follow church teaching and yet have a chronic disease that makes pregnancy a much more serious condition than it would otherwise be. After being blessed with the birth of my daughter (she is nearly 4), I know I have not had the time and energy to pour into my health to make another pregnancy a healthy possibility. Therefore, I am one of those that ‘quietly don’t follow the magisterium” as Jonathan Post said.

    As much as I try to have faith in our church leaders, the longer that I am married and experience what that relationship is all about, the more convicted I am that an unmarried man with no experience of this kind of relationship has no possible ability to truly understand the challenges faced in the marriage relationship and in raising children. Because of this, I have sincerely changed my own tendency to judge priests, because I feel that I can only expect out of them what I wish they would expect out of me – a willingness to try and understand the other, without judgement, when both have the goal of growing closer to Christ and bringing others along with them.

    Much of what the church teaches about sex is idyllic, which is lovely. But anyone who regularly practices any sort of sexual relationship knows that it is never so neat as the church makes it out to be. I often feel that church leaders, perhaps because of their own lack of experience in sexual matters, imagine the act of sex much differently than it actually occurs. And in addition, much of church teaching gives me the impression that church leaders think that those of us who are involved in sexual relationships are constantly refraining ourselves from our lust-filled sexual appetites. Any couple who has small children, jobs, homes, and normal American lives know that sex is often something that has to be forced because everyone is so tired from the strain of everyday life. Fitting it in is a challenge that must be done for the sake of a relationship but often can’t be conveniently arranged around a woman’s menstrual cycle.

    1. Thank you, Julie. I feel incredibly privileged and honored by your willingness and courage to share your personal testimony. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

      Yes, sadly, I fear that your experience of losing faith in church leaders in general because of the church’s teaching on this issue is quite common.

      In the 60s, Paul VI actually appointed a papal commission to study the issue of artificial birth control. Quite amazingly and unprecedently, this commission was composed of lay men AND women, theologians, priests and bishops. The commission voted overwhelmingly to declare birth control not always sinful. Paul VI was persuaded by the argument of one of his advisors that changing the church’s teaching on this issue would destroy the church’s crediblity on other issues. So, it is important to keep in mind that Paul VI’s writing of Humanae Vitae was at least as much about preserving the appearance of magisterial infallibility and therefore authority as it was about the actual merits of birth control. Sadly and quite ironically, as your testimony demonstrates, excepting the sex abuse crisis, there has been no single issue so destructive to magisterial credibility as its teaching on birth control. What Paul VI did to preserve the magisterium’s credibility has actually done much to undermine it.

      Again, thank you for sharing your wisdom and life with us.

      1. Thanks for your response Katie. I really appreciate your taking the time to put together such an insightful article. Though I have an emotive response to the contraception question, I never had a good theological response to it. It’s so nice to feel an affirmation from other women on an issue that the church so evidently does not understand.

      2. wonderful, Julie. I do hope you stay in touch and keep reading. This is exactly the type of community we are hoping to build. :)

      3. Thank you for this post. I realize I am about a year late… but I thought I would jump in anyway. I would argue that the Church’s teaching on contraception in combination with the sex abuse crisis to discredit the magisterial credibility.

        I have gone back and forth on the issue of birth control, but was committed to NFP when we first got married. The sexual inexperience combined with the long periods of abstinence was definitely a strain (often felt like we’d been sold a bill of goods) but it worked as a means to delay conception for over a year so that I wouldn’t give birth till I finished my master’s program. I experienced a severe bout of postpartum depression after the baby was born and in this context — infant, depression, and very isolated having just finished school and having no friends anywhere close to the same place in life — that we resumed NFP. It was a disaster: my fertility signals were all over the place and between the baby and the NFP we didn’t touch for months, which didn’t help with the depression or our relationship. Then we did – once – and I got pregnant again. In between conception and figuring out the extreme fatigue was not just another symptom of the depression, I decided I couldn’t handle having any more children, which my husband very generously accepted. I was devastated when I found out but I started a new treatment and I got through the pregnancy. We were managing but it wasn’t great – we had a newborn and an 19 mo old and I was better but still struggling. Again, we attempted NFP, same issues with the fertility signals and I got pregnant again. I miscarried very early on and I would have never thought that could be so welcome. At that point, my husband and I decided that that we were not willing to subject my mental health or our marriage to the anxiety of that came with the “threat” of another pregnancy – that is what it felt like – or the isolation of extended periods of abstinence and I went back on birth control.

        Almost seven years and I still struggle with depression so we have come to the conclusion that our family is probably complete. We are both at peace with that but it has been an isolating decision. We were part of a young families group in our parish — all very gung ho about NFP (we think) – it is certainly not a group in which anyone openly considers the “grey” of contraception… and we weren’t comfortable anymore so we dropped it. The priest we had at the time was not especially understanding (used the example of *mothers* “dumping their children at daycare” as an example of how we are always “looking for the quick fix and easy way out” in a homily — I got up and left).

        So, I listen to these celibate, childless men — many of whom were complicit in, lied about, or continue to make excuses for those who lied about sexual abuse and consequently ignore the suffering of the victims — unequivocally and without a trace of compassion condemn my choice and I struggle with being very angry at them. I think their recent history indicates that there has been far too much concern with protecting magisterial authority at the expense of discerning the truth — which might require talking to a few women. In light of that and stories like Dominga’s, the AIDS epidemic and, frankly, the fact that the earth does have a carrying capacity, I have profound doubts about the the truth – even worse, the motivation – of this particular teaching and by extension magisterial authority in general as exercised by this particular group of men.

        Whew! That was longer than I intended.

      4. Wow. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I cannot adequately express how grateful I am to you for this. I so so so wish the church were a place where it was safe for women (and men!!!) to speak openly about their experiences like this.

        If you don’t mind my asking, what would you like to see the church do in response to this issue? Not just in terms of magisterial teaching but also in terms of what the church, as a community, could have done to better support your husband and you. What would it look like if we were really committed to contributing to the flourishing of your family?

        Again, thank you so so much.

      5. My mom tells this story of one time of going to mass out of town when we were small. As we were leaving the priest said to my parents “were those your brats making all that noise?” and my dad told him “If that Church is going to tell us to be open to having all of these children, it better damn well welcome them when they get here.” In short, that would be it. I find it really frustrating that the “pro-life” agenda is, in practice, confined to pre-birth.

        I find that difficult to answer because what I want to find answers to is not what could have been done but what should I have done or what should have been there for us. But I will take a stab at it:

        -One of the greatest acts kindness anyone has ever down for me is when the OB nurse who ran my new parent’s group *told me* I was going bring the baby to her house so I could go to my doctors appointments (I still cry when I think about it). I think it would have helped to have had someone keep the baby for an hour or two much earlier. Eventually, I formed connections with other moms and we traded babysitting, but I really needed it before I had those connections. I know some parishes organize meals for families with a new baby but I think organizing a list of people willing give the new mom (and/or dad) a break would be more valuable.

        -The new parent’s group was great but it was facilitated by a nurse and sponsored by the hospital. The parish one was a flop. It was apparent that the parish thought this was something that “should” be done, so they asked 4 or 5 women who did not know each other beforehand to gave us some workbooks and sent us to the nursery to do scripture study by ourselves in a room full of babies and toddlers. No one got much out of it except a case of hand-foot-and-mouth disease.

        -Along the lines of childcare, when I did decided to go back to work, finding quality childcare was difficult. We live in a very Catholic metropolitan area, our town of 20,000 had 3 K-8 parochial schools, but there was only 1/2 day preschool 3 days a week for 3 and 4 year olds. I work at a Catholic university, the extent of their “support” is an outdated webpage of nearby daycare centers. Our choice ended up being between to a Lutheran and a non-denominational affiliated daycare. We were happy. However, given all the research of the impact of quality early childhood education on lifelong health and achievement, I find it embarrassing that our very large community isn’t providing that, particularly to lower income families.

        -We went through a thorough marriage prep, my husband is a convert, so we went through a very involved RCIA process, but to prepare for our 1st’s baptism, it was one weekday evening. I think at the time I would have balked at yet another multi-week prep course but in retrospect it would have been useful. For work, I have had to observe participants in Bringing Baby Home relationship courses. While I am not overly fond of the curriculum, I think we would have been better prepared and, more importantly, we would have made some connections with other soon-to-be parents and been made better aware of the resources for new parents.

        -If we can’t have married priests, I think priests should have a month with one of those home econ baby dolls as part of their formation – throw in the belly for good measure. One priest told some of us he knew what it was like to be a parent because he cared and was responsible for all of his parishioners as a parent… one woman’s response was “Sorry, Father, when was the last time you were up all night cleaning up one of your parishioner’s vomit?” A little humility on the part (of some) of our celibate clergy regarding having and raising children would go a long way.

        Again, I had more to say than I anticipated. Thank you for asking for my input.

  13. I just looked around the website – my friend had forwarded me the article yesterday. I graduated from the IREPM in 2001 with a degree in Religious Ed – glad to hear that BC grad students are continuing to do such good work!

  14. I think that problems you bring up are not problems with the teaching of NFP, but are certainly issues that should be addressed. For example, I don’t think we need to be asking whether birth control should actually be considered acceptable in situations where a breadwinner mother would no longer be able to support her family if she became pregant-instead we should ask how we can support families so that they don’t have to make that choice (i.e. better maternity leave, lower taxes on families with more kids, whatever). Instead of asking whether Dominga should’ve been given the Church’s blessing to use artificial contraception, we should be asking how the Church can educate men like her husband on the workings of NFP and on respecting their wives.
    I don’t think anyone claims that NFP is some sort of magical cure-all that means no marriage will ever be difficult and no family will ever have to wonder where the next meal will come from. But I think we’ve grown so accustomed in our society to regarding artificial contraception as a norm that we tend to blame NFP for problems instead of looking at ways we can change society to be more family friendly so that a new life won’t be regarded as a burden but as a blessing.

    1. Hi Maman!
      I would agree wholeheartedly that we as a church and as a society should be working to “support families so that they don’t have to make that choice” just as I affirm your recognition that we should also be “asking how the Church can educate men like her husband.” That is a day I pray and hope for!

      My only point of disagreement would be to ask what these women are supposed to do in the meantime.

      For example, we can all say that, ideally, a child should obey her parents. If we looked to a situation in which a parent was incompetent, cruel, abusive, or commanding their child to do something immoral, I think we could all recognize that it would not be sinful for that child to disobey her parents. Just as we could all recognize that we should also be striving for a world in which parents are able and willing to be good parents. But the fact that we should be making it easier for alcoholics and drug addicts (to pick one possible cause of parental incompetence) to get treatment does not make it sinful for a child to disobey her alcoholic parent. Does that make sense?

      I guess my point is these things are NOT mutually exclusive–we can address the structural roots of some of the reasons why NFP is unworkable or unjust while also recognizing that in some cases it is not sinful to use birth control or condoms. Also, not all cases of birth control use result in response to circumstances arising from structural or personal sin. I encourage you to check out the testimony of Julie, a commenter, who has a serious medical condition that makes pregnancy risky. There were always be women for whom pregnancy is a grave danger or women for whom their fertility is difficult to predict and interpret.

      And I would also agree with you that it is quite possible that some couples too easily resort to birth control for illegitimate reasons rather than giving NFP a try; I would disagree only in saying that the fact that some people resort to birth control too quickly or for bad reasons does not mean that all uses of birth control are immoral.

  15. Thank you so much for this post. I would like to share a comment that I posted on this subject at dotcommonweal back in February when they had a good discussion going about Humanae Vitae (link at bottom):

    When my husband and I graduated from college about 15 years ago, we belonged to a perhaps unusual social group (although not that unusual if you hang around Catholic colleges): we and a bunch of our friends were getting married in our early twenties and were gung-ho for NFP. We had heard lots of talks about the evils of contraception and many testamonials about the wonders NFP did for marriage. Above all we were eager to live as young Catholics who were faithful to the Church. However, almost all of our cohort of friends, including us, abandoned the practice of NFP within a few years because of the strain to our marriages. This wasn’t the healthy strain and struggle of trying to live virtuously. It was the strain of doing something that was actively hurting our relationships. For some it was the way it lead to poor decisions about when to have children. (One marriage was struggling and close to failing and the couple chose to risk conception so that they could have greater intimacy and bonding during that difficult time in their relationship. The added strain of the child they conceived to the problems they already had was the last straw in their marriage.) For others it had to do with the inability to work through sexual problems (e.g. painful intercourse) because NFP required long periods of abstinence when they couldn’t do the exercises their therapist was recommending. For another couple it had to do with the wife’s irregular cycles that would frequently mean going for months without intercourse. Even now, I know my husband and I would never go back. We have four young kids and are exhausted at the end of most days. The chances for all the stars to align for us to be sexually intimate are rare enough as it is without more days blocked out by the NFP calendar. I don’t think anyone can accuse us of not being open to life (heck, we are even thinking about going for #5), but I think NFP at this point would mean sacrificing the unitive part of our marriage. So we are contracepting for the sake of our marriage.

    There are lots of people who have had good experiences with NFP. But there are also a lot of people who have whole heartedly embraced it and had very negative experiences. (And I should add: for some, this has broken their relationship with the Church because of the resentment they feel about this and/or their ongoing sense of being rejected for doing what was best for their marriage.) The Church really needs to listen to the experiences of both groups. I have found that priests and bishops are quick to trumpet NFP success stories and quick to discount stories where NFP had a negative impact. They assume the couple just wasn’t trying hard enough.


  16. I would venture to guess that if you poled the people who have been happy with their NFP experience, and the ones who haven’t, you would find a direct correlation with the regularity of the woman’s menstrual cycle. I don’t believe using NFP is an emotionally healthy endeavor for a person who has extremely irregular menstrual cycles. I don’t think that erratic menstrual cycles are “unnatural” yet NFP doesn’t work well without a regular cycle. A cycle that is anywhere from 45 to 90 days between periods, doesn’t make for a happy couple (even when communication is ideal).

    I think it was on a Catholic talk show that someone (with health issues) was told they could take the pill, but abstain from sex on the days they would normally be fertile (if they weren’t taking it). That seems more realistic and doable to me.

    The pill isn’t 100%. God can still find a way if that is what he wants.

    1. We’ve found NFP both a blessing and a burden in our marriage.

      We found it a burden when we tried to follow the Church’s teachings and a blessing when did not follow them so strictly. We do not use contraception, but we are OK with other forms of physical intimacy during the fertile period. (I guess you could say we use FAM, not NFP) We don’t use NFP 100% as the Church would like, but probably 95%. I have noticed this pattern on NFP/FAM message boards: FAM couples rave about it, NFP couples hate it.

      So, no, we don’t completely follow the Church, but we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater either.

      Billings and Marquette work very well for women with irregular cycles.

      As for the Pill, that’s horribly unhealthy. As is the IUD and sterilization. It was side effects from contraception that got us trying NFP again.

  17. Laura,

    Re: your point about taking the pill yet abstaining on days when one would normally be fertile. Interestingly, Karl Rahner made a very similar argument in one of his Theological Investigations. If the pill could merely ensure that on naturally infertile days, the woman truly was infertile, then it should be morally licit. And, unsurprisingly, that very position was shot down in Zenit a while back. (Specifically, the person was asking whether condoms could be licitly used on days when his wife was already infertile, since his wife had a health condition in which another pregnancy would spell grave danger for her. The author responded that such reasoning was “proportionalism.” Horrendous!) I want to say it was Martin Ronheimer who shot it down, but it could have been one of the other moral theologians who regularly writes for that paper.

    But also, a problem I rarely see addressed by advocates of NFP is the fact that sexual desire is often at its lowest in women during infertile periods, and that, for many of them, sex is in fact uncomfortable if not downright painful during those periods. That pain can be a factor for women, but not for men, depending on the time of the month, is something that seems to me to be totally ignored.

  18. I am doing my academic research on ” THE INFLUENCE OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ON FAMILY PLANNING IN DODOMA MUNICIPALITY, TANZANIA.” Would you be the important persons who can send me some journals and articles for my literature review. thanks

    1. Hi Denis,
      Could you be a little bit more specific about what you are asking for? Would you like me to recommend articles that have dealt with the issue of family planning?

  19. In the description of her experience that MJ generously contributed to the discussion, I wanted to highlight one element:

    I miscarried very early on and I would have never thought that could be so welcome.

    The only other context in which I’m aware that Catholics speak of death as welcome, or sometimes even a blessing, is in the case of death after long or severe bodily suffering due to illness or injury.

    The difference here is that the bodily suffering has been occurring in the body of the pregnant woman who is speaking, rather than in the separate body of a separate person who is lying on a bed over there.

    It’s my impression that theological anthropology has simply not yet sufficiently grappled with the state of pregnancy. Most theological anthropology, and the moral theology deriving therefrom, tacitly assumes that a person is (not has) a body and a body is a person. The person is coextensive, coterminous, with her body. But pregnancy breaks that assumption.

    I’d love to know about any work in this area, especially any work that is based on the experience of pregnant women including all sources, outcomes, and experiences of pregnancy.

  20. Many very sad harrowing tales; strange that almost nobody asks fundamental questions. Have suspicion that there is a huge psychological problem. How I know ? Had it myself !
    Women, and I suspect the husbands as well, plead here for mitigation of the RULES. Forget about it, what counts is: meticulous RATIONAL intellectual reasoning, step by little step, in formal language (= we have agreed on what every word used means) is what brings us truth (so tell us the theologians) ! On the contrary this rationalistic approach of the theologians engenders only inconsistency (= it does not follow, it makes no sense, it is nonsense) and is also ALWAYS incomplete.
    Should the theologian take exception, refer him to the INCONSISTENCY THEOREM of Kurt Goedel (look it up in Wikipedia). If he disagrees, let him tell the international fraternity of philosophers that what Goedel states is a fallacy and then let this theologian ‘take the flak’. Once again: the more rational their reasoning is, the more certainly is it non-sense. The rational reasoning pharisees of Jesus’ time did the same and ‘manufactured’ over one hundred ‘sins’. We know how Jesus compared their teachings to the deadly poison of a viper, thus stay away from them (= do not listen to them) !
    CHURCH TEACHING, is often mentioned, do not be ‘bamboozled’. THERE EXISTS NO INFALLIBLE TEACHING that mechanical contraception is sinful; its condemnation does even not appear at all in Denzinger (the book where all Church teachings are written down). Emotional appeals like: ‘surely 150 theologians cannot all be wrong’, should be countered by: ‘even fifteen thousand theologians can be wrong. Ask if the statement that 150 cannot be wrong is an article of faith.
    Ladies I had similar emotional problems like some of you seem to have, may I offer my support, saves you some 30 years of insecurity, may even save you from the pharisee-theologians damaging your marriage. It seems to me that their STRICT RATIONAL THEOLOGY IS RUINING THE MYSTICAL BODY OF CHRIST !
    I cannot relate any harrowing experiences in my marriage, because we escaped, while solidly staying inside the orthodoxy of the mystical body of Christ.
    T.A.H. de Ruyter, MB. ChB. South Africa.

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