Catholic Bioethics: NFP vs. Contraception

ContraceptionIn the last meeting of the book study group on William May’s Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life, we had a discussion about what is morally permissible for a married couple who intends temporarily not to have children, even though they plan to have them in the future (or have already had all they believe God wants for them) and they have a just reason. (At this point, I don’t think we need to sort out what constitutes a just reason.)

The question was over the moral difference between using the natural periods of infertility in a woman’s cycle to avoid pregnancy (NFP), and using artificial means also to avoid becoming pregnant (contraception).  The Church explicitly says that it is morally permissible for a married couple to use NFP to avoid pregnancy for a just reason on the one hand, and on the other hand, their use of contraception is not, even with a just reason (Catechism 2368).

The Church teaches that the begetting of children is one of the essential ends of marital intercourse, along with the loving union of the spouses, and that these two ends cannot be deliberately separated from each other. (Catechism 2366, Humanae Vitae 12)  It thus teaches that contraception is an inherently immoral means for married couples to use to postpone of limit the number of children they will beget.  This is because when using contraception, the couple chooses to engage in the marital act with only its unitive end in tact, without its procreative end. Both ends must be chosen, it seems, for the marital act to be morally good, or at least the act must be ‘open to life.’

Further, given that both the unitive and procreative ends are essential to engaging in morally licit marital intercourse, it would seem that the Church would not allow a couple to marry where one of the spouses is known to be sterile.  The marital act of such a couple could not have the procreative end, so the couple could not intend it, but only the unitive end. Yet, the Church explicitly says (Canon Law, c. 1084.3) that a person with prior permanent sterility is still able to enter into a valid sacramental marriage.

So, the question that did not seem to be adequately resolved was this: If infertility in the marital act is what makes contraception wrong, why does it not make marital intercourse during a woman’s infertile period morally wrong?  Or, why does it not make all intercourse with a sterile spouse non-marital, and also wrong?

Canon Law is explicit that prior and permanent infertility by itself does not invalidate a marriage even though it is a frustration of one of the ends of marriage.  Nevertheless, sterility can affect the validity of a marriage, and this happens when one somehow chooses it or chooses not to disclose it. Prior and permanent infertility could make a marriage invalid if (a) it were hidden from one’s spouse, or (b) if it is caused by one’s choice (through surgical sterilization) but not if it occurred apart from one’s choosing. For more detail on this, see this article. 

In considering temporary or periodic infertility, I think Canon Law illuminates the difference between contraception and NFP: in contraception, the temporary infertility is caused by one’s choice and is morally wrong; in NFP, the infertility happens apart from one’s choosing and so is not wrong.  And after a valid marriage has been contracted, permanent sterilization is seriously morally wrong if it comes about by choice, but not if it happens without one’s choice, i.e., if the sterility comes from age or infirmity.

I think that the confusion on the difference between NFP and contraception stems from the belief that both ends of the marital act must be knowingly and actively maintained and chosen for there to be morally licit marital intercourse.  But, as I understand the Church’s law and teaching, it is not that both must be maintained, but that neither can be actively and knowingly thwarted.  If infertility occurs through no deliberate effort of one’s own (permanently through age or infirmity or periodically through a woman’s cycle), marital intercourse may still licitly take place. One may even use it as a means to the end of avoiding pregnancy (for just reason). The end of avoiding pregnancy is not itself what makes the use of contraception morally wrong, but that the use of contraception has the intrinsic intentionality of rendering a spouse (artificially) infertile. NFP has no such intrinsic intentionality.

But in reality, underneath NFP there is no method at all because the married couple is literally doing nothing. The techniques of NFP simply help the couple pinpoint when it is likely that pregnancy could occur so that the couple can refrain from relations during that time. They literally don’t do anything, and since they have a legitimate reason for not acting, their non-action is perfectly legitimate. Kevin Aldrich, Catholic Stand 

So, a couple may morally engage in marital intercourse with the intention not to have a child (for a just reason) so long as they do nothing to hinder the fertility inherently ordered to the begetting of children. If they do something to hinder that fertility (contraception and sterilization), they employ an immoral means for their legitimate end. If the infertility is not caused by the couple’s choice (NFP or sterility from age or infirmity), they may engage in marital intercourse, even though they know that no child will be begotten. And they can use this ‘natural’ infertility to space their children. And if they cannot have children, they may still have morally licit marital intercourse.

Click here for the relevant section of the Catechism on marriage and fertility.


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