How Contraception Differs from NFP

Anthony Zimmerman
Response to Inquirer
Dec. 26, 1989
Reproduced with Permission

Dear Inquirer:

You ask why the Church doesn't continue to teach us to live our married lives and trust in God like she used to teach. Let's start from there.

The Church does just what you are saying. She used to teach in the past that contraception is always wrong, she does so now, and will do forever, world without end. Amen. No amount of good intentions can make good this act which is in itself bad. You can't manufacture any truth out of this lie which is contraception.

The Church also continues to teach now as in the past that natural family planning can be permissible. For example, this answer came from the Sacred Penitentiary in 1853, which is 145 years ago: Those who use exclusively the infertile days of the woman's cycle "should not be disturbed, provided they do nothing to impede conception." We have a wonderful Church! Guided by the Holy Spirit, she doesn't teach error. So we shouldn't sass the Church nor bash the Church. We hurt ourselves when we try that. Your letter, Susan (not her real name), does give an impression that you are hurting.

Now to your point "What is the difference whether it is a pill or some other contraception, or the tool of timing ...?" Is timing a tool, as you say? You can't swallow that "tool of timing" like a pill, nor insert it like an IUD, nor put it on like a condom. You have to wait for the time to elapse. Waiting does not yield "instant" birth control. (I saw a sign on a university campus on a plot of newly planted grass: "Grass - now!" Well, grass takes its good time to grow, and NFP means taking one's good time before resuming intercourse. That's not birth control done in contempt of God and of the partner.

When couples wait for the right time to come around, they do so in obedience to God. That's great, outstanding, a bit of martyrdom, a periodic witness to faith! If waiting is painful, they make the sacrifice in obedience to God. Because they obey God together, they can also love God together. Their love is clean, then. Like Adam and Eve before the sin, they can be naked and not ashamed. Couples who use natural family planning with good reason feel strong and clean in God's sight; they can keep growing in love for each other until death do us part. This bonding of the parents to each other is important for the children too. As Pope Pius XII told midwives on October 29, 1951:

By its nature, perfect married life means also the complete dedication of the parents for the benefit of their children, and in its strength and tenderness, conjugal love is itself a postulate of the most sincere care for the offspring and the guarantee of its being carried out. (St. Thomas 3 p.q. 29 a.2 in c. Supplmt. q. 49 a.2 ad I).

Conjugal love during the infertile times bonds the parents, nourishes their love for each other and for the children. You must never say, Susan, that lawful marital concourse during the infertile times - or during pregnancy or after the menopause - is lust. Lust is instinct without love, without respect for the other person. You must not call unholy what God has made to be holy. Who are you to make yourself wiser than God?

If a couple perform the conjugal act, they must not interfere with its power to give life. That would be usurping God's will. You are right in rejecting such a thing. However, God does not dictate that you must love during the fertile times. That is not necessarily the will of God at all. If you want to love without paying attention to the fertile and infertile times, and you can manage, well and good. But if you watch the times for the benefit of the family, that is also proper stewardship, in harmony with God's will.

On the other hand, can ordinary couples really manage the family well if they have a new baby every spring because they do not watch the times for intercourse? If not, they should not blame God for all kinds of hardships. Rather, their own cussed laziness or lack of self control may be to blame, not God.

God has made the limits of what is legitimate in this matter very wide (Pius XII, To Families, 26 November 1951). If God made the limits wide, who are we to be stricter than God?

But families do well when they are generous, when they outsmart the world which values things more than children. As Pope John Paul II told Americans in October 1979:

It is certainly less serious to deny their children certain comforts or material advantages than to deprive them of the presence of brothers and sisters, who could help them to grow in humanity and to realize the beauty of life at all its stages and in all its variety.

I know that very many people think like you, Susan, that natural family planning is really unnatural. I've heard priests scoff: "What's natural about making love according to the morning thermometer readings." Yet these same priests do not mind using the thermometer to decide whether they should take medicine, or visit a doctor. We go to work on schedule, we eat on schedule, we attend the concert on schedule, we meet our friends on schedule. There is no sin in scheduling love making. If the word natural family planning bothers you, use "family bio-rhythm" instead. Now please allow me to expand and sing the praises of periodic abstinence.

Periodic abstinence has deep roots in our Judaeo-Christian way of life. Rabbi Norman Lamm in his book "A Hedge of Roses"claims that the Jewish practice of abstaining for 12-14 days during each cycle keeps marriages fresh. Jewish wisdom, he writes, associates over-familiarity in married life with sexual boredom; periodic abstinence, on the contrary, keeps marriages fresh, like a "perpetual honeymoon" (pages 56-59). Jewish law forbids a husband to approach his wife during her menses and for "seven clean days" beyond that. Some Jewish homes have an extra bed or couch which the husband uses during the periodic abstinence time. The Talmud explains why the Jews built a "hedge of roses" around marriage:

Because a man may become over-acquainted with [his wife) and thus repelled by her, therefore the Torah said that she should be considered a niddah(menstruant) for seven days, i.e. after her period, so that she might become beloved of her husband on the day of her purification even as she was on the day of her marriage (Niddah,31b).

Lamm explains, following comments of the Rabbis:

Unrestricted approachability leads to over-indulgence. And this over-familiarity, with its consequent satiety and boredom and ennui,is a direct and powerful cause of marital disharmony. When, however, the couple follows the Torah's sexual discipline and observes this period of separation, the ugly spectre of over-fulfillment and habituation is banished and the refreshing zest of early love is ever present.

There is so much insight in this comment of the Rabbis! Familiarity does indeed breed contempt, and a little absence does make the heart grow fonder .... The separation is a prelude to reunion. This separation, too, which Judaism commands as a part of the observance of Family Purity, is that which puts the poetry back into marriage, which retains the charm, the elegance, the excitement. It is the pause that refreshes all of married life (Norman Lamm, A Hedge of Roses,Feldheim, New York, 1966, pp. 56-58).

Joseph and Mary were born into this Jewish tradition. Their own parents, we assume, practiced this periodic abstinence faithfully. Joseph and Mary, husband and wife, loved each other deeply, and Jesus grew up in this holy atmosphere of loving parents (Joseph being a foster parent). Mary had made her vow of virginity in obedience to faith. "One can also say," writes the Pope, "that Joseph is the first to share in the faith of the Mother of God, and that in doing so he supports his spouse in the faith of the divine annunciation (Pope John Paul II, "Redemptoris Custos"No. 6, August 15, 1989). Their shared faith told them that Mary's Virginity is perpetual, that no one should enter the enclosed garden in which the Son of God became incarnate. In a human manner, their love for God and for each other, their chastity, and their strong faith provided a model for Jesus to grow into manhood.

Peter and the Apostles followed in this tradition, leaving home, wives, and children, to devote themselves to evangelization. It is coming to light recently that from the very beginning the Church ordained priests only if they promised not to marry, or if they were married, only if the wife consented and both promised never to use their marriage right again. Joseph and Mary are also models for priests and religious who practice complete abstinence today.

Parents who abstain periodically for reasons of the faith - for good family reasons - join this elite company of Joseph and Mary, of the Apostles, of priests (and wives of priests) down through the ages. They join with the Jews back to the time of Moses who lived over 3000 years ago.

Abstinence does not come easy to young parents who start on their pilgrimage of faith together; it does not come easy to parents with their silver jubilee, maybe not even with the golden jubilee. The very difficulty of abstinence is also its merit: it necessitates a purification of their love; it filters out lust, and leaves a purer love. It is a battle which occasions parents to do more praying and frequenting of the Sacraments. It is a great stimulus for better dialogue between partners. So the very practice of abstinence can greatly strengthen their faith and love. Like Mary and Joseph, chaste husbands and wives share their strength, share their pain, and their love. Children of such couples inherit strength from their parents, and learn how to distinguish love from lust. Very likely, children of NFP users will be spared the traumatic experience of parental divorce.

In Bukidnan of the Philippines, after a large population adopted NFP, school teachers began to notice a difference in the children: the children were more peaceful at school, after their parents had become more peaceful at home.

Contraceptors divorce en masse.Before the pill there were 393,000 divorces in the USA (1960) but by the 15th year of the pill era (1975)

there were 1,026,000 divorces. These horror statistics tell us about 2,000,000 embittered hearts of once happily married couples, and about their traumatized children who love both parents and don't know why they can love each other any more. Divorces among NFP users, however, are as rare as snowflakes in summer. Maybe you heard that it can happen; but it doesn't happen often.

I heard via grapevine at the Vatican that Pope John Paul II expects vocations, now in a state of depression, to come in future from families who use NFP. Wise Pope! He has much experience with NFP promotion in Poland.

Did I answer your doubts and queries satisfactorily, Susan? If, not, let me know, and we can take it up from here.