The Apologetics of Natural Family Planning, Explaining and Defending Church Teaching


by Steve Weidenkopf
USCCB Forum
Vol 15, Nos 1-2
Winter/Spring 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Although it's been nearly 40 years since the promulgation of Pope Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae vitae, which reiterated the 2,000-year-old constant teaching of the Church on the immorality of contraception, contraception and Natural Family Planning (NFP) are still "hot" topics in the Church. One is confronted with contraception from the culture on an almost daily basis. Most people have seen the pharmaceutical company commercials with the strikingly beautiful models hawking the newest contraceptive invention; explaining to the TV viewing public that this new device is the most effective, least intrusive and best skincare product on the market. Wherever one confronts the issue of contraception not only from the culture but even from within the Church, the teachings on contraception and NFP continue to prove challenging to those engaged in the New Evangelization.

How are we as faithful Catholic parents, Marriage & Family Life Directors, DREs, RCIA Directors, NFP providers, catechists, and laity to respond? What we need is a way in which to explain to all audiences the timeless beauty and truth of God and the teachings of His Church. What we need is an "Apologetics of NFP" that will help us to explain and defend the Church's teaching on contraception and NFP.

The What and Why of Apologetics

Before we can develop an Apologetics of NFP we need to first understand what apologetics is and what it is not. Apologetics is not "apologizing" as our culture might understand that word. The root of apologetics, apologia, is a noun that means to give "a formal defense or justification, especially of one's opinions, position or actions." Apologetics means to give a reasoned explanation for the teachings of our faith. Why should we develop an Apologetics? Why be concerned with giving a reasoned explanation for the teachings of our faith? Quite simply, because the First Pope in his First Encyclical told us we should. St. Peter wrote: "always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence" (1 Peter 3:15). Not only does St. Peter exhort us to defend our faith but he gives us very sage advice on how to do it: "with gentleness and reverence." When developing an apologetical response to defend our faith we must always keep in mind that apologetics is not an end in itself and there are limitations associated with apologetics.

Apologetics is not a complete catechesis, but a stage in the process of sharing the Gospel. Apologetical arguments cannot make someone believe -- only God can do that. Hopefully, the Lord can use us as His instruments to help someone on the path of belief and conversion. Finally, we know that arguments are no substitute for the joyful lived witness of the faith. We should never underestimate the power and effectiveness of a lived witness. People are more apt to respond to the call to conversion upon seeing the faith lived joyfully than from reasoned arguments.

So now that we understand what apologetics is and its limitations, we need to look at how we go about "apologizing" for the teachings of our faith. There are four main points to remember when answering that question.

First. We must follow the example of Jesus, the Master Apologist. We need to study the Scriptures and see how Christ Himself called people to conversion -- how He explained and presented the teachings of God. Then we must follow His example.

Second. We must develop the proper attitude. Yelling, telling others they're wrong and that if they persist in their thinking nothing but the eternal fires of Hell awaits them, is not a prime motivator. Our attitude must be one that inspires and invites others into sharing the joy that we personally experience through a life lived in conversion to Jesus Christ and the teachings of His Church. St. Josemaria Escrivia summed up this point nicely when he wrote: "Long face, rough manner, ridiculous appearance, unfriendly attitude. Is that how you hope to inspire others to follow Christ?"1

Third. We must develop the effective habits of an apologist. Mark Brumley, in his book, How Not to Share Your Faith -- The Seven Deadly Sins of Catholic Apologetics and Evangelization, lists the following effective habits every Apologist should cultivate: prayer, study of Church teaching, clarity of thought and argument, dialogue (apologetics is not a monologue), faith, hope and charity.

Fourth. We should be mindful of the "Golden Rule of Apologetics" which Archbishop Fulton Sheen popularized: we can "win the argument and lose a soul." The idea is not to win the argument and paint another victory star on the side of our apologetical airplane, but rather to joyfully defend and explain the teachings of our faith with reason and then leave the conversion of the individual up to the grace of God.

Now that we understand what apologetics is, its limitations and a process by which we learn how to apologize, there is one last step to consider before presenting concrete ways to give a reasoned defense of the teachings of the Church regarding contraception and NFP: we must consider who our audience is. How we apologize will depend on to whom we are apologizing. We recognize that we need to present the teachings of the Church to all peoples, but when it comes to the teachings on contraception and NFP the vast majority of our efforts will involve two groups of people - Catholics and Protestants. Within those groups there are varying levels of understanding. Some uninformed, others may be informed yet dissent for various reasons. It is extremely important to dialogue with each person and ask questions that will provide insight into where this particular person may be coming from. Obviously, this approach works best in a one-on-one setting; for group settings it will be easier to explain the teaching of the Church and then address individual situations with a question and answer period.

The Game Plan

Now that we've laid the groundwork, we're ready to develop effective ways to explain and defend the teachings of the Church on contraception and NFP. The first thing we need is a game plan. This game plan lays the foundation for talking with people who oppose the Church's teachings, it consists of talking about human sexuality, contraception, and then NFP.

It is very helpful when apologizing for NFP to go back to the beginning the creation of men and women. When confronted by the Pharisees on the issue of divorce, Our Lord indicated that if we want to understand how we are to live marriage and sexuality as God intended, we need to go back to the beginning.2 Therefore, taking our cue from the Master Apologist, we need to begin with a discussion of the teachings of the Church regarding the human person: every human person is created in the image and likeness of God. Each human being is a union of a body and a soul. God created us male and female, one in dignity, equal and complimentary. Remember that in apologetics we try to explain and defend our faith, not necessarily seek to convince. Some people may disagree with what we believe about the dignity of the human person. For the purposes of apologetics, that's fine because what we are attempting to do is help that person understand that, given what we believe about the human person and sexuality, our teachings on contraception and NFP are reasonable and defensible.

Next, we need to spend some time discussing what we believe about human sexuality. This will prove somewhat of a challenge as the vast majority of people think sexuality is about the actual, physical act of sexual intercourse. However, we know that sexuality does not merely refer to the physical act through which spouses give themselves to one another as a gift but rather "concerns the innermost being of the human person as such."3 "Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others."4 We believe that the human person has an innate vocation to love -- to image the very life and love of the Trinity in the world. Based on this understanding of the human person and sexuality, we offer a reasoned defense for the morality of NFP use in marriage and the immorality of contraception.

When apologizing for the Church's teaching, we must first make certain that we know the teaching. The teaching is presented positively by Pope Paul VI, who wrote: "But the Church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law, interpreted by her constant teaching, teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life."5 This teaching derives from the natural law, i.e. from the "inseparable connection, willed by God and which man may not break of his own initiative, between the two elements of the conjugal act: the unitive and procreative."6 Armed with the exact teaching of the Church, there are a few more tools we need to place in the tool chest before we reply to the most common objections about this teaching.

More tools for the trade

Put the issue in perspective. Cultivate the attitude of G.K. Chesterton who said, "It amuses me to remember that the more my opponents practice birth control, the fewer there will be of them to fight."7

Define contraception. Contraception is the "choice by any means to impede the procreative potential of a given act of intercourse."8

Equip ourselves with Church teaching by reading, knowing and even memorizing certain passages of Humanae vitae and by using concepts from Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body. We should also know passages of Scripture (in particular, Genesis 38) and the writings of the Church Fathers. It's important to note that all the Church Fathers who mention contraception condemn it. Another helpful tool is to have quotes from notable persons of other faiths (or none) who have recognized the immorality of contraception. For example, Theodore Roosevelt, Gandhi, Sigmund Freud and T.S. Eliot have all written against contraception.9

Finally, knowing and discussing the famous "predictions" of Pope Paul VI are helpful for illustrating the reasonableness of the Church's teaching on contraception.10

Equipped with the correct understanding of Church teaching, and the above-mentioned tools we can now identify the common objections to Catholic teaching against contraception and then utilize the tools we have put in place to give reasoned replies.

Common objections among Catholics

  1. The teaching on contraception has never been infallibly proclaimed.
  2. The Church teaches "I must follow my conscience" and my conscience tells me contraception is okay.
  3. My priest said it was okay to use contraception.
  4. Although this is current teaching, the Church will change in the future.

Applying our tools, here are some suggested apologetical replies:

1. A teaching does not have to be officially proclaimed infallible to be true. The pope and the bishops have received the gift of "Apostolic Succession," and are guarded by the Holy Spirit to sanctify, govern and teach God's people. This means that when they teach on a matter of faith and morals, they cannot err. The Second Vatican Council guides the faithful on this point and says that papal teaching on faith and morals is binding (i.e. requires submission of mind and will) even when it is not taught infallibly.11

2. It is true the Church teaches us to follow our consciences. But as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, conscience is not an internal excuse box that allows us to do whatever we please. Rather it is

...the interior voice of a human being, within whose heart the inner law of God is inscribed. Moral conscience is a judgment of practical reason about the moral quality of a human action. It moves a person at the appropriate moment to do good and avoid evil.12

We might also remember St. John Neumann's comments: "You must follow your conscience but you must know what your conscience is following." Catholics are obliged to inform their consciences in accordance with God's truth as revealed in sacred Scripture and Tradition.

3. Priests are called to teach in the light of God's truth. They have a serious responsibility to teach what the Church teaches. Popes Pius XI, Paul VI, and John Paul II have all exhorted priests to preach the truth about the Church's teaching, and never to mislead the people.

4. The Church's teaching has been consistent and will not change. As Paul VI reminds us: "the Church was not the author of the moral law and therefore cannot be it arbiter; she is only its depository and its interpreter, and can never declare to be permissible that which is not so."13 The Church can neither change the prohibition of the Commandment against lying nor the teaching against contraception.

Common objections among Protestants

  1. It's not in the Bible.
  2. This is just a Catholic issue.
Here are some apologetical replies:

1. Many Protestants hold to the view of sofa scriptura -- that Scripture is the only source of God's divine revelation. This argument assumes that contraception is not condemned in the Bible. Actually, the story of Onan in Genesis 38 describes a contraceptive act committed by Onan (withdrawal) and God's punishment for that act (death). Many insist that Onan was killed not for the contraceptive act but for refusing to have children with his dead brother's wife as required by the Law (which he refused to do by his contraceptive act). However, Deuteronomy 25:7-9 describes the punishment for refusing to raise up offspring as public humiliation by the brother's wife by having her take off his sandal and spit in his face. Because of the punishment of death, it is clear that Onan was killed for his contraceptive act, not for his "refusal to raise up offspring."

2. Contraception not just a Catholic issue. All the major Protestant reformers - Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Wesley - all condemned contraception and held to the apostolic teaching. In fact, until 1930, all Christians maintained this teaching. The very fact that Christians are divided on this teaching is a modern phenomenon. It is also helpful to use quotes from non-Catholic personalities mentioned earlier to illustrate that this is not just "a Catholic thing."

Other objections

Additional common objections frequently used by all who oppose the Church's teaching on contraception is that the world is "woefully overpopulated," or that "responsible behavior" would tee to "promote condoms to stem the spread of AIDS." One should first point out that the world is far from overpopulated; most Western industrialized nations are having to deal with an aging population and a decline in fertility rates! Since the industrial revolution more people live in or near large urban areas because of the availability of employment, this causes overcrowding and transit issues, but overcrowding is not the same as overpopulation. With regard to many developing countries, a poor distribution of resources among or within nations coupled with unstable or unjust governments is the root cause of societal suffering, not overpopulation!

In terms of AIDS, the Church teaches that an evil act is not permitted even if good may come from it. Thus, contraception, an intrinsically evil act, cannot be used to help prevent the spread of AIDS. Moreover, contraceptives, including condoms, are notoriously poor preventers of AIDS. African countries that have seen a dramatic reduction in the spread of AIDS have robust educational programs that teach the need for abstinence outside of marriage. The Church urges scientists to develop medicines not only to help those suffering from AIDS, but to prevent the spread of the disease as well.

What the Church teaches

Now we can move on to apologize for NFP. Again, it is important to know exactly what the Church teaches. The teaching on NFP is found principally in the section of Humanae vitae on responsible parenthood.

In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised either by the well-thought-out and generous decision to raise a large family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with respect for the moral law, to avoid a new birth for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period.14

Additionally, Pope Paul VI outlines the fact that "God has wisely arranged natural laws and rhythms of fertility which already of themselves bring about a separation in the succession of births."15

Finally, the Pope makes explicit that married couples, for serious reasons, may make use of these "natural laws and rhythms" to postpone pregnancy.

If then, there are serious motives for spacing births, motives deriving from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that it is then permissible to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions and to make use of marriage during the infertile times only, and in this way to regulate births without offending the moral principles that we have just recalled.16

Other tools?

Some other tools that we need to have in our apologetical chest are:

Humor

Disarm a myth with humor. For example, if a person believes that the Church teaches that a woman is to have "as many children as biologically possible," launch the discussion on a humorous note. Say, "the Church does not teach us to toss reason out the window." Then continue with the truth about generosity and openness to life.

Continue the conversation with an explanation of the Church's teaching on responsible parenthood and how it is exercised.17

Resources

When ever promoting the Church's teachings on responsible parenthood and NFP, have available a list of certified NFP teachers. People need to be given the means to live out the truth. Also, keep in mind that the lived witness of NFP will be more powerful than any reasoned argument, so your example will speak volumes!

Know the facts

Never exaggerate the facts of NFP methods or use. Know what the data demonstrates with regard to achieving as well as avoiding a pregnancy. In addition, it is helpful to talk of NFP as "a way of life." Help people see that this is authentic family planning - for achieving as well as postponing a pregnancy.

Know the myths and dispel them

"NFP is just Rhythm" - we need to explain that modern means of NFP are not the same as that method which was not particularly accurate. Modern means of NFP are scientifically based, utilizing the readily observable signs of fertility present in each menstrual cycle (assuming fertility is not suppressed).

"NFP is nothing more than Catholic contraception" - there is a fundamental distinction between NFP and contraception. Discuss the definition of contraception - the choice by any means to impede the procreative potential of a given act of intercourse. In other words, the intentional sterilization of the sexual act. "Abstinence," which is a "main ingredient" of NFP for pregnancy avoidance, is never a sinful act. The end may be the same with NFP and contraception, i.e. to postpone a pregnancy, but there are moral ways of achieving that end and immoral ways. Oftentimes a question is raised regarding whether NFP can be used in a contraceptive manner. The answer is "no" because NFP is not contraception. However, NFP can be used for selfish and for less than serious reasons and those motives could be sinful. This fundamental distinction between NFP and contraception is perhaps the single most important aspect of apologizing for NFP. Even well meaning Catholics sometimes do not understand this distinction and end up causing confusion about the Church's teaching.18 It is incredibly important to know the distinction and to develop a way to articulate that distinction to others.

"NFP doesn't work" - scientific studies prove NFP as effective or more so for pregnancy avoidance than many contraceptives on the market. As with contraceptives, NFP must be used properly by the couple to ensure the high effectiveness rate. The real question to ask the person who says NFP doesn't work is: "Why doesn't it work?" Did the person take an NFP class from a certified NFP instructor? Did the woman attend class when her fertility was suppressed and thus did not really learn the method? Was NFP used properly in the marriage? I know of a case where the wife wanted a large family but the husband did not. The husband agreed to use NFP because it could postpone pregnancy. Utilizing NFP, the wife knew when she was fertile, but because she wanted a large family, she told her husband she was infertile and then became pregnant. So, the husband now believes NFP doesn't work -- actually, it worked perfectly!

"It's up to God to determine how many children we have" - although we would all acknowledge that it is ultimately God who determines the size of our family, God asks us to be responsible co-creators with Him. We are not mindless drones. The Church calls us not only to procreate but to educate as well, and married couples are asked to do both responsibly. It is also helpful to illustrate the benefits associated with an NFP lifestyle when explaining and defending the inherent goodness of NFP. Some of the benefits of NFP include: marital enrichment, it is medically safe and healthy, increases health awareness, it's inexpensive, effective and can help in achieving pregnancy.

There is a desperate need of an apologetics of NFP in our culture and in the Church. We must develop an effective way for faithful Catholics to evangelize and catechize on the truth and beauty of human sexuality. Of course, no reasoned argument can truly take the place of a joyful lived witness. More people will come to embrace the Church's teaching on contraception and NFP when they see the joy and beautiful effects this lifestyle has on married couples. With so few Catholics living and embracing these teachings (5% or less), the time is ripe for a "New Evangelization!" Imagine a Church where 95% of married couples lived an authentic Christian marriage! Then we could change the culture and build a civilization of love.


Endnotes

1 The Way, #661. [Back]

2 See Matthew 19:3-8. [Back]

3 Familiaris consortio, #11. [Back]

4 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2332. [Back]

5 Humanae vitae, #11. [Back]

6 Ibid., #12. [Back]

7 Alvaro de Silva, Brave New Family - G.K. Chesterton on Men & Women, Children, Sex, Divorce, Marriage and the Family. (San Francisco: Ignatius press, 1990), p. 197. [Back]

8 Christopher West, Good News About Sex & Marriage, Answers to Your Honest Questions about Catholic Teaching (Ann Arbor, MI: Charis Servant Publications, 2000), p. 112. [Back]

9 Cf. Ibid, p. 119. [Back]

10 These predictions included: an increase in conjugal infidelity; lowering of morality; loss of respect for women; and government abuse. See Humanae vitae, #17. [Back]

11 See Lumen gentium, #25. [Back]

12 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary. [Back]

13 Humanae vitae, #18. [Back]

14 Ibid., #10. [Back]

15 Ibid., #11. [Back]

16 Ibid, #16. [Back]

17 Responsible parenthood is exercised through biological knowledge, self-control, making a reasoned decision on the size of one's family, understanding and respecting the moral order as created by God and recognition of duty towards God, selves, family and society, cf. Humanae vitae, #10. [Back]

18 See Frederick W. Marks, How to Preach against Contraception, Homiletic and Pastoral Review. July 2003, 8-15. [Back]


Steve Weidenkopf is the Director of the Office of Marriage & Family Life for the Archdiocese of Denver. God has blessed him and his wife Kasey with four children: Madison Clare, Maximilian Kolbe, Therese.

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