Over at Human Life International’s “Truth and Charity Forum” [here], Father Brian Mullady O.P. has an interesting little article on “Fundamental Differences: NFP vs. Contraception”.
While the majority of the article is quite insightful, Fr. Mullady falls into the same error which has plagued many scholars and lay-folk alike who enter this discussion: He fails to realize that a sinful use of Natural Family Planning is still not “an act of contraception.”
What he gets right
Fr. Mullady speaks well in his discussion of contraception. While his language is rather obscure in places – as when he defines contraception as, “The attempt to deny precisely all these relationships by robbing the relationship of its relationship to human life” – his analysis is essentially correct.
I would have preferred him to define contraception as:
“Every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.” (Humanae Vitae 14, CCC 2370)
But Fr. Mullady speaks well when he states that, “Actions of sexual union done by couples which deny procreation are evil. They are so by their very object. Hence, these acts are intrinsically and always evil.”
He is correct. The act of contraception is an evil act, always and everywhere. No circumstance or intention can make this evil act to be good.
Furthermore, Fr. Mullady is right to state that Natural Family Planning is not evil in its act – because there is no activity which renders the conjugal act to be infertile. There is no fertile act which is made to be infertile by the taking of temperatures or the observance of fluids, etc.
Therefore, Fr. Mullady is correct to state, “So [NFP] is in object good and completely different from contraception.”
There are many other good points besides.
However, here we come to the essential error in Fr. Mullady’s reasoning. Because an action, in order to be morally good, must not only be good according to the act in itself but also according to circumstance and intention, Fr. Mullady begins to emphasize that it is important for the couple to have the proper circumstances and intentions when practicing Natural Family Planning.
In this, I am in complete agreement – NFP can indeed be misused, and then it is a sinful action. Where I am convinced that Fr. Mullady is wrong is in his analysis of what NFP becomes when it is misused and is sinful.
Fr. Mullady first states that the couple’s “intention” can be “only contraceptive” if NFP is used in a selfish manner – i.e. without grave reasons or in improper circumstances. Now, we grant that NFP can be used in a selfish manner (perhaps this is even fairly common), but we do not grant and must not grant that a selfish intention is a contraceptive intention.
Sinful but not contraceptive
To be clear, Natural Family Planning may indeed be used in a sinful manner, but this does not make it contraceptive. The intention of the couple may be selfish, but it is not contraceptive.
Indeed, for an intention to be “contraceptive”, the couple must intend to “contracept.” That is, a contraceptive intention would mean that the couple is seeking to make a particular conjugal act to be infertile.
However, this is precisely what Natural Family Planning CANNOT do! A couple who misuses NFP might be selfish, they might be hedonistic, but (unless they are fools) they cannot possibly be “contraceptive” – because they are not doing anything to render the conjugal act infertile.
If a couple were so ignorant as to think that taking temperatures (and so forth) could make the conjugal act to become infertile AND if they then performed such actions with that intention, then that couple would indeed have a “contraceptive intention.” But this is clearly a stretch.
A particular use of NFP may originate from a sinful intention, but that doesn’t mean it comes from a “contraceptive intention.”
Why this error is serious and worth correcting
Fr. Mullady supplies us with the evidence as to why this error of linking Natural Family Planning to contraception is quite serious. Consider the final line of his article:
“Evil intention or frivolous circumstances could still preclude a person morally practicing NFP because it could reduce a morally good act to an act of contraception.”
After skating along the edge, Fr. Mullady finally takes the plunge and equates the misuse of NFP with contraception. In the end, the misuse of Natural Family Planning is said not only to be sinful and selfish (which it is), but also to have a contraceptive intention (which it doesn’t) and even further to be “an act of contraception” (which it cannot possibly be).
Nothing can reduce Natural Family Planning to an act of contraception. Nothing. Because NFP and contraception are completely different. At no level is NFP “contraceptive” – not in the act itself, not in the circumstance, not in the intention.
“Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception […]. In reality, these two cases are completely different.” (Paul VI, Humanae Vitae 16)
Contraception and NFP, mortal and venial sin
Contraception is always and everywhere a grave sin. Thus, if done with freedom and knowledge, it is a mortal sin:
“Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.” (Pius XI, Casti Connubii)
Notice the language: It is a grave sin deliberately to frustrate the conjugal act’s natural procreative power. Contraception does precisely this by rendering the conjugal act infertile through some action either before, during, or after the union of the couple. However, Natural Family Planning includes no such action and, therefore, is not contraception.
Contraception is always a grave sin, but the misuse of NFP may be only a venial sin. This difference is important to notice. If, as Fr. Mullady suggests, the misuse of NFP is “an act of contraception” that would entail that every sinful use of NFP is a grave sin. However, it is quite possible that some sinful uses of NFP are only venial sins.
Now, if a confessor were to hear a penitent confess the abuse of NFP (say, the excessive spacing of children without a serious reason) and were to immediately conclude that, since it is a sinful use of NFP it must be “an act of contraception,” he would then be forced to see the sin as pertaining to grave matter (because every act of contraception is a grave sin). But, it is very possible that the sin is only venial.
In any case, St. Alphonsus together with the Catholic moral tradition holds that, if the confessor mis-diagnoses the seriousness of the sin and proceeds to bind the conscience of the penitent in this manner, then he is guilty of a very grievous abuse of authority and of a potentially grave sin.
Certainly, we want priests to help penitents to avoid even venial sins! There is no question as to whether or not the misuse of NFP must stop – of course it must. However, it is precisely when priests start to say that venial sins are mortal sins (thereby inciting scrupulosity in the faithful) that the moral teaching of the Church begins to seem more a burden than a blessing.
If Fr. Mullady and others are convincing people that their misuse of NFP is “an act of contraception,” he and they are causing great harm to souls.
Call is sinful. Call it selfish. But don’t call it contraceptive.
(please consider an article on this same topic, from about a year ago [here])