NFP vs. Contraception

Anthony Zimmerman
May, 1989
Published in The Homiletic and Pastoral Review
Reproduced with Permission

Reverend Anthony F. Zimmerman, S.V.D., is an expert on population questions. He taught moral theology at Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan from 1960 to 1979. A proponent of Natural Family Planning, he is the Director of the Japan Family Life Association. Fr. Zimmerman edited the volume Natural Family Planning - Nature's Way - God's Way (De Rance, Milwaukee, 1980). His last article in HPR appeared in the July 1988 issue.

If it's wrong for spouses ever to say: "I prefer a sterile you" (Fr. Cormac Burke, see references), then it's wrong for spouses to learn natural family planning well. And if we are reluctant to argue that God reserved sex for the good of the race (also Burke), then Humanae Vitae becomes less defensible. Further discussion of the issues can sharpen our focus for a growing understanding of the timeless values of Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio.

Despite Fr. Burke's reservations, it is common experience that users of natural family planning definitely "prefer a sterile you." They intentionally use the infertile times to avoid pregnancy. Burke's too narrow focus highlighting that "love is creative," and therefore "procreative sex alone leads to the self- fulfillment of the spouses" implies too much; it implies that couples grow in love only if they desire intercourse to be procreative - that a child should issue from every conjugal act. But that would exclude growth from couples who practice natural family planning licitly; it would also contradict the common sense of spouses who have intercourse during pregnancy and after the menopause. By expanding our field of vision with a wide angle lens, we see that love can be true and fulfilling also when procreation is not possible or not desirable.

But Burke reasons this way: "God's love (if we may put it that way) 'drove' him to create. Man's love, made in the image of God's, is meant to procreate. If it deliberately does not do so, it frustrates itself" (ibid.). He refers, of course, to contraception, and in that we agree. But by implication he denies that NFP couples find self-fulfillment during the sterile times, and he downgrades the value of union during pregnancy and after menopause. Because union during such times, especially NFP practice, are banned to a moral limbo by some theologians, we do well to look into the matter.

As God's love drove him to create, argues Burke, so marital intercourse necessarily contains a desire to procreate. Salva reverentia, it is theologically more precise to avoid saying that God is "driven" by his love to create. If God were "driven" to create by his love, then he would be an automaton, not God. If God were "driven" by inner yearnings to extend his love to creatures, then his wisdom would not be in control; whereas we know that God creates with perfect freedom, with wisdom as the directive norm. In the same way, spouses should not love blindly, but direct their love to the good of the family by use of reason. "Some people ruin themselves by their own stupid actions and then blame the Lord" (Prov. 19:3), said the wise man. The idea that spouses ought to be propelled by a blind and holy force in search of life each time they have intercourse is a myth. Spouses may and ought to use their reason to practice responsible parenthood, the kind which enhances family life by spacing births reasonably, and sometimes limits their number.

Love and reason work together

Couples, then, who wish to serve family welfare by restricting the conjugal act to sterile times only, not only may hope to not conceive; they ought to intend this very thing. They have abstained during the fertile time with much sacrifice - some call this the periodic courtship; thereafter they may enjoy truly infertile sex - the periodic honeymoon. That this is fulfilling is the experience of honest users of NFP. As one lady told me: "Since my husband and I switched to NFP, our marriage feels fresh-feels clean; its like having clean stove pipes after sweeping out the soot." That NFP users are fulfilled people is reflected in statistics: their batting average for avoiding divorce is excellent, near perfect, as it should be; and NFP users love children: 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, and more children. When love and reason work together, fondness between spouses grows, and children are usually the beneficiaries.

Some decades ago a country-side gynecologist told me that he has helped many Catholic couples to practice NFP successfully, after they had 5-6 children. They were successful for only so long: after several decades of experience the doctor almost expected them to come back pregnant after some years, confessing a "failure." The doctor, who saw this happen almost as a pattern, knew it was not a real failure. The pause in births occasioned a stretching of reason to more generous limits.

Yet priests continue to spread the myth that NFP couples should at least implicitly intend procreation through conjugal acts. For example: "There is no love without the potential of new life .... Those who have recourse to the infertile periods only should at least implicitly intend procreation," claim Fr. Richard M. Hogan and Fr. John M. LeVoir in a well researched article in a prestigious journal (I RNFP, p. 241; 244). Admittedly, conjugal love speaks thus to the partner: "I love you because you are you; I want to become a parent with you, to mix our seed, to perpetuate our lives jointly in offspring; I pledge my troth to stay with you to educate the child." Love is in this sense consciously and intelligently procreative. If we look more deeply, we see that this spoken love is not primarily instinctive to the marriage act. It is spoken deliberately; the gift is bestowed freely. The automatons of the conjugal act have nothing to do with it. Instinct is not intelligent, and doesn't "intend" to procreate any more than animals "intend" to beget offspring. NFP couples should indeed intend not to procreate through conjugal acts during infertile times when family conditions indicate that this is wiser. We must not teach users of NFP to become deliberately stupid or to communicate with forked tongue. They can be very reasonable, very fulfilled in love, and still prefer, here and now, a naturally sterile partner to match family circumstances.

What is the meaning, then, of the statement in HV No. 11 that "every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life"? The Latin version reads: "ut quilibet matrimonii usus ad vitam humanam procreandam per se destinatus permaneat."

Openness to life is not altered

Fr. Gustav Martelet, S.J.- there are good reasons to believe that he had a hand in composing HV - notes that HV states forthrightly that conjugal acts "do not cease to be legitimate if, for causes independent of the will of husband and wife, they are foreseen to be infertile." And Martelet observes significantly: "The Encyclical ascribes not to a randomness of nature but to the wisdom of God the 'existence of natural laws and rhythms of fertility, which already of themselves bring about a separation in the succession of births"' (see Zimmerman, ed. p. 156). It is saying that God intentionally made humans different from animals in this respect: man and wife remain beholden to each other at all times, contrary to the animals which usually admit the mate only when offspring can result. The Encyclical does not require that "every marriage act" be under the command of procreation in a positive way, continues Martelet; what it teaches is that the openness to life which is interior to each conjugal act be not altered by the couple.

When we were editing the Natural Family Planning book for the 1980 Synod of Bishops, one of our group insisted strongly that usually couples should not seek the infertile times intentionally, but should leave God do all that choosing. NFP is only for exceptional, extraordinary circumstances, he asserted. No! said a Vatican official. God gave parents an intellect by which they can understand what is reasonable for their families. Not to use the intellect, not to act reasonably, is neglect of God's gift. If couples are then overwhelmed by family burdens, they should not blame God! One and a half years later Pope John Paul II asked that "all married people" and "above all the young people" should learn about the "body's rhythms of fertility" (Familiaris Consortio 33). NFP, then, belongs properly to the lifestyle of many couples today.

[Note added, May, 2000: the translation "especially all the young people" is closer to the normative original than the usual English translation "and young adults preparing for marriage." FC favors that knowledge of the rhythms of fertility be taught to all, not only to those in marriage preparation courses.]

Expert teachers of natural family planning rightfully encourage clients to achieve 100% success in their just plans. Dr. Josef Roetzer of Austria, during 40 years of NFP teaching, counsels clients that if the temperature is in place for 3 days after the midcycle shift, and if mucus is also dry for 3 days, then they are infertile until the next cycle. So far he has not found one pregnancy among over 100,000 cycle charts when this formula was followed (see Roetzer-Zimmerman p. 14).

Admittedly it is more difficult to ascertain the beginning of the fertile time before ovulation. But even this had been made nearly 100% identifiable, by the Doering count-back, for example. Dr. Gerhard K. Doering of Munich taught clients for many years to identify day 6 before the earliest thermal shift in six (or better 12) previous cycles, as the first fertile day of each new cycle. Dr. Petra Frank examined his retroactive studies and found a failure rate of only 00.77% when this rule is followed. To edge closer to a 100% success rate, teachers now use a countback of 7 days instead of 6 (see IFFLP).

NFP is reliable

Cardinal Eugene Pacelli, Nuncio to Germany before World War II, confided to his close friend Dietrich Von Hildebrand, that it is his daily prayer that science discover a reliable way of predicting fertility (see Marra). The future Pope Pius XII foresaw that couples in modern times will want confidence.

Today NFP is reliable for couples who use it properly. Even in the post-partum, the menopause, and extraordinary circumstances, when required times of abstinence grow long and trying, couples can and do succeed routinely with NFP; and in usual conditions the 8-14 days or so of abstinence are quite rhythmical and manageable. The focus of the NFP apostolate has shifted, from the need of knowledge to the need of promotion, and the need of solidarity among priests and people to support couples in this sometimes arduous practice.

NFP can change marriages

When there is community support for NFP, couples follow the discipline with greater ease and security. Sister Helen Paul tells how personalities grew after adopting NFP, in Bukidnam, Philippines, where she helped to teach 4,000-5,000 couples:

A remarkable improvement in the law-and order situation in the camps of the laborers was noticeable .... A change seems to occur in an individual's self-image, the way a man sees himself as a man. He becomes a person aware of his dignity, a person worthy of respect; a person who can expect respect from his peers, from his wife, and his children. His personal discovery of self-control in his sexual life opens up to him the opportunity for change in other areas: gambling, smoking, alcohol. It is interesting that a change in an individual's self-image opens to him a possibility for change in many other areas of life. The children used to comment about the change in mom and dad. No more fighting at home, they say. And when this happens within a home, the children apply it in their own relationships. We see this change in behavior of children because of the change of their parents (see Zimmerman, ed. pp. 10-11).

Sr. Paulette, M.C., pausing a moment from her teaching of NFP to mothers in a slum area of Calcutta, pointed to files with records of 37,000 couples who had learned NFP and were graded as "autonomous users." Lives change, she said. Husbands do what they never would have done before, sitting down on the floor with the wife to decipher the meaning of the signs, even sending the wife to consult with Sister when they are still learning. They learn in about three months. Then they tell friends. NFP helps couples to realize their human dignity. Such was the message of Mother Teresa to her 20,000,000 TV viewers in Japan: "The poor people told me that from the time we are practicing this way of life (NFP) our family has remained united, our family is healthy, and we can have a baby whenever we want" (see References).

NFP promotes love

We should know why NFP works like a vitamin promoting human growth: abstaining rather than using a contraceptive is an act of faith in God; it is a great and generous act, done by husband and wife together, and for each other; it is a confession of faith in God and in his commandments, a faith which is undaunted by difficult circumstances, and kept with something of a martyr's spirit. Husband supports wife, wife supports husband, in this act of loyalty and obedience to God. When they do this day after day, for months, for years, for decades-with prayer, Reconciliation, the Eucharist, their faith and their love grow just as God planned it should be. As Paul VI wrote in HV:

Those who enjoy the gift of conjugal love while respecting the laws of the generative process show that they acknowledge themselves to be not the masters of the sources of human life, but rather the ministers of the design established by the Creator. In fact, just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, with particular reason, he has no such dominion over his generative faculties as such, because of their intrinsic ordination to the bringing into being of life, of which God is the principle (HV No. 13).

Just as humans have no right to suicide or murder because God is the creator and owner of life, so humans have no right to dispose of the sex act arbitrarily, as if they owned it; they use sex only as stewards, not as owners. NFP people show this sense of stewardship under God explicitly, splendidly, obediently, lovingly, day after day, decade after decade. They abstain cycle after cycle, out of respect and love for him, and for the family. This love easily overflows to the neighbors and to the community. That is why there will never be over-population in an NFP world; in NFP territory everyone is precious. If family conditions indicate a need to space or limit offspring, NFP people do it. They enthrone God as King in their family-oriented world. And God made the earth vast and expansive enough to house all his law-abiding people.

To conclude this section: Yes! NFP users may intend that naturally infertile conjugal intercourse be truly infertile. Contrary to Burke, far from stunting growth in love, such NFP promotes growth powerfully.

Contraception is a lie

Our next discussion is about the traditional argument of a need to avoid contraception because the morally correct use of sex is conditioned by the needs of the entire human family. Fr. Burke admits that it has been traditional to explain that sex is tied to the welfare of the human species. Yet he feels that maintaining the good of the species does not explain the personal values of sex adequately: "The sex appetite - the strength of the sex appetite - surely corresponds not only to cosmic or collectivist needs, but also to personal needs" (op. cit). Then he leaves the collectivist function of sex dangle, saying nothing more about it. Downgrading the collectivist argument, however, downgrades personal values of sex in lock-step tandem.

Had God not made sex for the preservation of the species, he would not have made it at all. Sex has meaning for individuals because its proper use inserts them into the plans of God for the human race. The ban against contraception is totally tied to the collectivist function of sex. We crack the bell of Humanae Vitae, and make its sweet music a jangle of disharmony, if we neglect the argument of St. Thomas that licit use of sex is totally tied to the welfare of the race.

Fr. Burke correctly points out that contraception is a lie in communication, a lie which is spoken through the language of the body. He explains that couples trivialize themselves, the partner, and their relationship, by telling the lie of contraception. But, we ask him, why not trivialize? The wisdom of the world says eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die (cf. Eccles. 8:15). Of course, Fr. Burke will say, God forbids trivialization, and we agree. Then we ask: "Why does God forbid it so severely and so unexceptionably in the bodily communication of sex?"

The answer is that contraception, besides transgressing God's law against telling a lie, also transgresses God's law which ties licit use of sex to the common welfare of the race. God, in his eternal wisdom, made legitimate sex conditional upon marriage and non- interference with the fertility of conjugal acts. God being eternally wise, sees that to maintain family life and the continuity of the race, he must reserve the use of sex to people who are married; the sex drive thus leads to family formation. Also, to insure that the race will continue, God can allow use of sex in marriage only if couples do not manipulate fertility out of their conjugal acts. That law is necessary for the welfare of the race -- for guaranteeing that there will be offspring. No exceptions can be granted, because even one licit exception would be fatal to the entire system.

In human affairs, telling a lie is always wrong, but some lies are more wrong than others. When we are under oath in court, to tell the truth, all the truth, and nothing but the truth, perjury is a very serious offense against our public duties; perjury is justly punished, and severely. A lie told while giving public testimony could result in a miscarriage of justice, even the death of an innocent person. Therefore the state must forbid the telling of lies very severely when people are under oath to give true testimony.

Similarly, God puts humans under a serious obligation never to tell a lie with sex, never to communicate falsely with it, never to tell the lie of contraception with the language of the body, because the duty of telling the truth with sex is so very important for the welfare of family life and of the race.

God made sex pleasurable, and reserved it for married people, in order to invite people to marry. People marry because that opens to them the only legitimate way to obtain licit sexual pleasure. Let us not deny it. It is a wise God who made humans like that; who made the sexual drive pleasurable, but tied strings to its use; God thus legislates the norm that children should be born within a family circle, to parents married for life, to parents who find each other to be helpful, loving, and pleasurable. Humans have known from ancient times - from the beginning, when God witnessed the entrance of Adam and Eve into monogamous marriage - that sex is legitimate there alone. If we lose sight of that now in this age of free sex and no-fault divorce, it is because we blind ourselves to the very obvious common sense truth that family life would not be happy - and would perhaps not be at all - if the use of sex were ever licit outside of marriage.

Similarly, God forbade the sin of Onan and all contraception, so that children would be born within families, to truthful, that is, non-contracepting parents. Thus God remains in control of the environment in which he creates new humans and educates them to know him, to love him, to serve him, and thereby to merit the eternal happiness of heaven. He invites only trusting and obedient procreators to share his work. He wants to entrust the education of his children only to parents who do not tell the lie of contraception; only to parents who are genuinely truthful and authentic in their acts of love.

Furthermore, God reserves for himself the right to choose the genetic materials of his children. Oh, yes, even after rape and illicit sex, when he creates a new person, he always celebrates the occasion specially. Every one is special to him, unique, his own work, and precious to him. There are no "accidental" conceptions in the sight of God, who deliberately, thoughtfully, and lovingly creates each new person. But from eternity he foreknew whom he wished to create. When couples leave their conjugal acts open to life, then God is never frustrated from carrying out his eternal plans. But when couples block the gates of life by manipulating fertility out of their conjugal acts, then they slam the door in God's face:

In this perspective, contraception is to be judged, objectively, so profoundly unlawful as never to be for any reason justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life, situations may arise in which it's lawful not to recognize God as God (John Paul II, "Heroism in Marriage" address, 17 September 1983).

God wants to do the choosing about whom to create, whom not to create, by placing the law that spouses may never manipulate possible fertility out of their conjugal acts. By this legislation - this direction of eternal wisdom-God provides that humans marry, for life, that they do not tell lies by contraception; thus he facilitates that the children whom he chooses to create are usually born into happy families, whose parents are respectful of God and will take charge of educating the children entrusted to them. The ban against contraception is thus seen as an essential part of God's plan for the common welfare.

Had God allowed Adam and Eve to practice Onanism, they might not have had any children at all, and we wouldn't be here today. Had our ancestors, down through the centuries, not obeyed the divine law forbidding Onanism, it is very likely that you and I would not be here. Many people have practiced Onanism, and do so now, but because many people obey the law against it, we are here. If the law were removed today, the future of the race would be compromised.

But a wise God can grant exceptions, you say; if parents already have four children, they have paid their dues to the race and so should be made free to exploit joys of conjugal acts thereafter without adding new and perhaps prohibitive burdens to the family; if pregnancy would kill mother and child, God could allow contraception in such a hard case.

No exception is possible in this case, because even one licit exception would grind marriage and the common human welfare into mincemeat. Had the brave Dutch boy taken his finger out of the hole in the dike, the ocean waters would have rushed over the land behind the dike. The ban against contraception is an arch in which each stone must remain in place to support the whole. Marriage was made indissoluble from the beginning, without exceptions, because it is like a gate attached to the interests of the passions and personal interests: if it is half opened, or even opened by a hair's breadth, the tempest will grab it and blow it off its hinges. A soldier must be willing to die in defense of his country, even though he will not live to enjoy the victory. Priests must keep the seal of Confession even if justice is hindered sometimes. If God would permit even one couple to licitly, legitimately, with his approval and the help of his grace, do contraception, the system would collapse completely, and we would all suffer from it. In this case, exceptions would not prove the rule, but destroy it. We are protected in unison under an arch which bans contraception.

Then let's have courts, you say, with judges who will decide when exceptions can be granted, and so prevent wholesale abuse. It is useless; every couple would decide for themselves. If judges would start to make decisions, then other couples would immediately say they know their own conditions better than any judge. Every couple would find their own excuse to contracept. We saw the collapse of protection of the unborn when abortion was legalized for hard cases. And when we allowed divorce for hard cases, we ended with no-fault divorce, an erosion of the will to marry, and wholesale dissolution of family life.

The law against contraception, then, is a suspension bridge strung high over our passions. We march safely on that bridge during our pilgrimage from this world to the shore of eternity with God. Though contraceptors jump off that bridge, the bridge remains safely in place for those who walk on it. It is our turn now to keep that bridge in good repair, to keep it safe for the coming generations, just as our ancestors - from Adam and Eve until now - kept it in repair for us.

It is a law of God, then, a direction of Divine Wisdom that the use of sex is reserved for married couples, who may not manipulate child-bearing out of their conjugal acts.

The use of marriage thus becomes a liturgical service, a cooperation with God in procreation. This joy of union with God, and oneness with the partner while inserted into God's plan for the cosmos, is a bit of heaven here on earth. Partners who keep God's law ennoble themselves and each other, growing in true love and in holiness, and the happy children are the beneficiaries introduced to life in this happy nest.

Aquinas can shed some light

Contraceptors, on the contrary, break God's law, and induce the partner to do the same. When they break with God, they insult each other as well. To alienate self and the partner from God is trivializing their personhood and their union. The beauty of the union, the poetry of life in God's sunshine, vanishes. Like Adam and Eve after their sin, contraceptors feel shame.

The insight of Thomas should be used to perfect the argument of Fr. Burke:

The more necessary a thing is, the more it behooves to observe the order of reason in its regard; wherefore the more sinful it becomes if the order of reason be forsaken. The use of venereal acts ... is most necessary for the common good, namely the preservation of the human race. Wherefore there is the greatest necessity for observing the order of reason in this matter: so that if anything be done in this connection against the dictate of reason's ordering, it will be a sin (ST 11-11, 153,3).

Does the practice of NFP - like contraception - not undermine the structure of family life and endanger the welfare of the race? The practice is arduous and difficult, and couples can hardly bring themselves to abstain for a long time unless they do this for honorable reasons, approved by themselves; reasons which also support them in the sight of God and so sustain them in this test of loyalty. A danger that couples who avoid contraception will use NFP for inadequate reasons for a long time is minimal; the in-built difficulty of its practice sifts motives severely in the long run. Pills are taken lightly, but long-term practice of NFP requires effort, vigilance, and love. Pius X11 also taught that the limits of legitimate use of NFP "are very wide" (To Family Front, 26 November 1951). Couples should not be scrupulous. Thus the Church teaches that NFP is licit when proper reasons exist, aware that this doesn't undermine the institute of marriage nor the welfare of the race.

Fr. Burke describes how contraception is a lie spoken by language of the body. Thomas says that using sex in a way contrary to reason - that telling this lie - is very strictly forbidden by God because that prohibition is most necessary for the welfare of the race. The argument of Thomas strengthens the argument of Burke enormously. Thomas should be used more explicitly to shed light on the truths taught by Humanae Vitae.