Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Natural Family Planning with a "contraceptive mentality"?

This coming Sunday has been designated by the bishops of the United States as “Respect Life Sunday”. As we pray and work for an end to abortion, it is well to remember that there is a profound connection between the prominent use of birth control in a nation and the legalization of abortion: As Pope Paul VI foresaw in his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, contraception will always lead to abortion (if not for each individual, at least for the society as a whole).
However, there are many good and faithful Catholics in the Church who question the relation between contraception and natural family planning. Does NFP have a “contraceptive mentality”? And, even if NFP can be used well, is it possible (or even likely) that many people in fact use NFP with a contraceptive mentality? What are the circumstances in which a couple may licitly use natural family planning?

There is nothing contraceptive about natural family planning
We must first understand what the word “contraceptive” means. “Any action which either before, at the moment of, or after marital intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation, whether as an end or as a means” is contraceptive (Humanae Vitae 14). Contraceptive means just that: against conception.
Now, to be very clear, there is nothing in any way contraceptive about natural family planning. Neither before, nor during, nor after sexual intercourse has a couple practicing NFP done nothing at all to prevent procreation or to render the act infertile. The sexual act may in fact be infertile (i.e. it may not be possible for the woman to conceive at that time), but the couple has not done anything to make the act infertile.
The Church has been very clear on this point, and I would recommend re-reading n.16 of Humanae Vitae for further clarification. “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.” (HV 16)
Natural family planning and contraception are completely different.
Contraceptive mentality?
Some, generally well-meaning, persons in the Church have begun to question whether NFP might often (or at least occasionally) have a “contraceptive mentality” to it. While these individuals will grant that NFP is not per se contraceptive, they will claim that the intention of the couple may at times be no different (or not significantly different) from that of the contracepting couple.
We must insist on this point: There is nothing at all contraceptive about natural family planning, contraception and NFP are completely different.
Some will hold that NFP, though not contraceptive, has the danger of being used with the same intention as contraception – this is philosophically unintelligible. The “end”, “goal”, or “intention” of contraception (speaking in terms of moral theory) is to render a particular sexual act infertile. The “mentality” of contraception is preventing procreation, i.e. making a procreative act to no longer be procreative.
Thinking about contraception and NFP in this way, it is quite clear that there is no possible way in which natural family planning could have a contraceptive mentality. There is nothing contraceptive about NFP, therefore it cannot have a contraceptive mentality. While it is theoretically possible that NFP could be used in a bad way (and even in a sinful way), it cannot possibly be used in a contraceptive way.
We may speak of the dangers of a “selfish” mentality, or even of a “sinful” mentality, but we simply cannot speak of a “contraceptive” mentality when it comes to natural family planning. Words are important, they communicate either truth or falsehood – it is false and harmful to claim that NFP is in danger of having a contraceptive mentality.
The “just causes” for using NFP
It is not uncommon to hear some question what are the circumstances in which natural family planning can be used licitly. Some (even some priests) will say that natural family planning can be used to limit or space out child-birth only in the most extreme circumstances. We get the impression that, if the mother’s life is not in danger or if the family is not utterly destitute, NFP should not be employed as a means of limiting child-birth. This is not the teaching of the Church.
Very simply, the Church does not say that a couple must have “grave reasons” or be in “extreme circumstances” in order to make use of NFP. Rather, the Church speaks of “justae causae” – even someone who knows no Latin should be able to read, “just causes”. Natural family planning cannot be used indiscriminately, but neither does the Church require families to have the absolute maximum number of children (at least, she has never said indicated that this would be desirable).
For a couple to licitly make use of natural family planning, they must have a “just reason” – not a “grave reason”, not an “extreme circumstance”, not a “life-or-death situation”; a “just reason”. The very nature of natural family planning keeps the couple open to the Lord’s gift of new life and, if they remain united in prayer, I am confident that they will be able to make a proper discernment of when to attempt to have another child.
The Catholic critics of NFP
Finally, I must note that there is something very suspicious about many of the conservative Catholic critics of natural family planning. They will often misuse language in a manner which obscures what the Church really teaches about NFP and contraception.
Whether we consider the philosophically unintelligible language of “NFP with a contraceptive mentality” or the mistranslation of “justae causae” as “only in the most extreme circumstances” – these individuals are tying up heavy burdens hard to bear, they are binding people’s consciences in matters where there is room for freedom of opinion.
The Encyclical Humanae Vitae (especially in nn. 10 and 16) speaks of “serious reasons”, “just causes”, “worthy and weighty justifications”, “defensible reasons”, and “just reasons” for spacing children or avoiding pregnancy through the use of natural family planning. What exactly qualifies as a serious, just, worthy, and defensible reason for spacing children is certainly the point of debate – and there is no easy one-size-fits-all answer!
Still, it is clear that the Church has never taught that NFP should only be used in the most extreme circumstances or in life-or-death situations. Further, it should now be clear that a couple who uses (or even misuses) natural family planning will never be in danger of a falling into a contraceptive mentality.


Anonymous said...

You should read Pope Pius' letter to midwives which states pretty clearly the standards which are to be taken into account. Also see this homily: http://www.AudioSancto.org/auweb/20071014-Series-on-Marriage-Part-4-Periodic-Abstinence-and-NFP.mp3 If you do not agree with this priest, please feel free to make arguments against his position (which I agree with) so if necessary I can change my own preaching.

Rev. Respondeo

A Sinner said...

Thank you!!! This is one of my pet peeves too.

I mean, I suppose if a couple on NFP were to be so warped as to somehow see their unimpeded natural sex act (on an infertile day) as no different from sex with a condom or something...that might be a "contraceptive mindset." But that has nothing to do with the using of NFP, it has to do with a warped notion of moral object and sex in our society that sees things in a basically consequentialist manner, rather than realizing that the will can still be ordered towards a good without that good needing to be actualized (or that even being desired or possible).

Really, the only way NFP can be problematic is in the exact same ways TOTAL abstinence can be.

Namely, outside extraordinary cases (say, a "Josephite" Marriage approved by spiritual director, or cases of total infertility)...couples are called (by positive obligation) to have a certain number of children. That's sort of the whole essence of marriage (even if it is accidentally impeded sometime and must only remain in potentia). At least one child, certainly, and probably two or three (the replacement rate). At the very least.

If a couple abstains (either totally, or through NFP) in such a way as to NEVER have the number of children they reasonably discern they are called to, that they can reasonably and appropriately and sustainably support...this isn't "contraceptive" but it may still be shirking a positive responsibility.

Paul said...

Wow - Thanks so much for writing this. All I can say is "exactly." Perhaps, a couple who intentionally uses NFP to avoid pregnancy and children altogether for clearly selfish reasons would be an abuse of NFP but the sinfulness of that lies outside of the use of NFP. Couples who use NFP to space children are not going to "catch" and NFP mentality.

Anonymous said...

The Church yes has used the term "just cause" at times in regards to the use of NFP to avoid a new conception (perhaps in part for a variety of language in writing), I believe the term most used though... especially in the more recent documents is "serious reasons".

It would seem to me then that in order for a reason to make use of NFP in this way to be a "just reason", that reason
must be a "serious reason".

(just as the for example the reason for the use of deadly force must be a serious reason in order to be just...and so on)

Now of course that serious reason can have many variants for life is full of potential serious reasons (they do not have to be extreme or "grave" etc as you noted some seem to think!!)...they do not have to be life threatening etc...but they do need to be serious in order to be just.

I do of course agree that many make things out to mean that it must be extreme etc. Certainly such is not the Teaching of the Church. But I do think that the continued use of the term "serious reasons" by the Church is bringing to light that they do in fact need to be serious...that to be just they need to be serious.

It is up to the couple (perhaps with advice..and of course a well formed conscience) to judge before God if this reason or that reason is a serious reason. Or just some selfish reason etc. Sometimes it can be real easy: Wife has to say take some medication for a few months that would harm a child..well that seems to me an easy one to see. But as I said they can be many and varied. Life is full of twists and turns.

In Christ


Here are some examples of more recent documents:

From the Encyclical of Pope John Paul II Evangelium Vitae

This happens when the family is generously open to new lives, and when couples maintain an attitude of openness and service to life, even if, for serious reasons and in respect for the moral law, they choose to avoid a new birth for the time being or indefinitely.

From the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church -- approved by Pope Benedict XVI

497. When is it moral to regulate births?


The regulation of births, which is an aspect of responsible fatherhood and motherhood, is objectively morally acceptable when it is pursued by the spouses without external pressure; when it is practiced not out of selfishness but for serious reasons; and with methods that conform to the objective criteria of morality, that is, periodic continence and use of the infertile periods.

From the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church

232. The family contributes to the social good in an eminent fashion through responsible motherhood and fatherhood, the spouses' special participation in God's work of creation[519]. The weight of this responsibility must not be used as a justification for being selfishly closed but must guide the decisions of the spouses in a generous acceptance of life. “In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised both in the duly pondered and generous decision to have a large family, and in the decision, made for serious reasons and in respect of the moral law, to avoid for a time or even indeterminately a new birth”[520]. The motivations that should guide the couple in exercising responsible motherhood and fatherhood originate in the full recognition of their duties towards God, towards themselves, towards the family and towards society in a proper hierarchy of values.

From a vatican guide for confessors:

The witness of couples who for years have lived in harmony with the plan of the Creator, and who, for proportionately serious reasons, licitly use the methods rightly called "natural," confirms that it is possible for spouses to live the demands of chastity and of married life with common accord and full self-giving.

Sarah said...

Thank you so much for writing this Fr. Another thing people forget is that NFP isn't just used to avoid pregnancies! It is information, nothing more or less. I have used NFP to both abstain from and achieve pregnancy.

I like the part where you talk about trying up heavy burdens.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I have a five month old son, and would love to have up to four if God so allows...maybe more...we also try to enjoy a healthy sexual relationship (whenever we have a private moment, lol..), we have been using ovulation tests in order to conform to NFP standards, but sometimes, as a result of the birthing process, my wife can be too sore for intercourse, so we will engage in non-intercourse sexual activity. Is that ok? And, are we allowed to 'space out' our having children? We don't want to wait a whole two years between kids (the popular time span these days), but, we also don't want to have 'irish twins' (within a year of each other), because my wife is breast feeding, and that could be problematic with trying to feed one child, yourself, and nourish another in the womb. Any thoughts? Thank you!

kkollwitz said...

Yes, the Church has all sorts of limits and clarifications and clauses about using NFP in such a way that it won't promote a "contraceptive mentality."

But in the meantime, NFP is a method that can be used to either seek conception or avoid it, independent of anything the Church says. Even atheists can practice NFP. In itself, it's neither good nor bad. And does "Humanae Vitae speak of “serious reasons”, “just causes”, “worthy and weighty justifications”, “defensible reasons”, and “just reasons” for spacing children or avoiding pregnancy through the use of natural family planning?" So...is it ok to "postpone" another child so the one you have can go to the best private schools & have music lessons? Yes? No? Maybe? Good grief, you could drive a brand-new BMW through those holes.

I'm reminded of this bit:

"Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience." (Lambeth 1930) Yeah, sure, whatever...who would try to "control conception" for anything less than the noblest reasons?

Sure, NFP can "conceivably" be used to avoid conception without promoting a "contraceptive mentality," but it's much easier to misuse it to avoid kids for reasons that surely wouldn't meet the Church's vague but high standards. NFP is a system that just begs to be used without meeting the standards that allow for its licit use. And if it's being misused, then it's promoting a contraceptive mentality.

It's also true that sex during infertile periods is of course- infertile. That doesn't change the bigger decision to have sex tonight, or this month, or this year or (you time period here) without having to worry about making a baby; that is, deciding to "control conception" as Lambeth put it 80 years ago.

Blessing the technique isn't also a blessing of the motivations for its use.

Terry Carroll said...

As you have said, words have meanings and meanings have consequences. Perhaps the concerns about NFP being practiced with a "contraceptive mentality" would be better understood if we avoided use of the word "contraceptive."

A "contraceptive mentality" is a mentality which is opposed to the conception of a child. One can be opposed to the conception of a child and pursue that goal via natural or artificial means. If the goal is the same, then the means become incidental to the intention, and there can be serious sin in the intention itself.

It would seem to be obvious that NFP wouldn't even exist as a method were it not for the desire to exercise control over one's fertility. How many married couples begin their married lives with the desire to begin having children immediately and use NFP to achieve that end? No, NFP is taught and required in marriage preparation because couples want to have a Church sanctioned way to avoid having children until they're ready. I fail to see how this intention is indistinguishable from the intention of those who will use artificial means to prevent conception.

There is absolutely nothing intrinsically immoral in sexual relations within infertile periods. There can be, however, an intrinsically immoral "mentality" within marriage that is opposed to conception, and marital relations pursued with a "mentality" opposed to conception is immoral.

Exactly how "open to life" is a couple who exhaust all possible means to make sure that conception won't happen? How can one say, with a straight face, that after 4 children and 10+ years of potential fertility ahead, that they know that they cannot afford to have any more children? How can anyone know that? How can anyone place such limits on divine providence?

I'm not suggesting maximizing one's biological potential. I'm just suggesting that, perhaps, we give ourselves too much credit for accurate discernment in an area of life where self-deception is pretty easy. I think it's hubris to elevate ourselves to equal partnership with God when discerning whether God wants to love another human being into existence with our cooperation.

jeremyschwager said...

Father Ryan,

I think you make an important distinction. NFP can be abused, (as any good thing can be) but it cannot be contraceptive.

Anonymous said...

What is meant by a "contraceptive mentality" is that couples are determined to be in charge of their family size, and determined to make their lives easier by carefully restricting their family size, rather than to allow God to "'send" them the number of children He chooses. Yet, although it is possible for couples to use NFP with such an attitude, using NFP is never equivalent morally to using contraception, because whereas contraception violates the natural ordination of the sexual act, NFP does not. Couples who use NFP with a "contraceptive mentality" are guilty of having a selfish and sinful attitude rather than being guilty of performing disordered actions.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

kkollwitz, Terry Carroll, et al.

I'm sorry, but you are failing to grasp the philosophical idea of intention.

An action cannot have a "contraceptive mentality" if there is nothing in that action which is contraceptive.
Can it be a selfish mentality? Sure.
Can it be a sinful mentality? Sure.
But it simply cannot be a "contraceptive mentality" because there is nothing in any sense contraceptive about NFP.

Are there "nature" forms of contraception? Yes, coetus interuptus ... if we consider "natural" as opposed to "artificial".
This has a "contraceptive mentality", precisely because it is contraceptive - both in the act itself and in the intention.

When a couple uses a condom and the condom "fails", the sex act is in fact not rendered infertile, but the intention of the act and of the couple was still contraceptive ... so this would be a case where there is a contraceptive mentality (and a contraceptive act) even though the particular sex act is not in point of fact contracepted.

But there is nothing at all in the intention or mentality of the couple using NFP which is contraceptive ... at no point do they do anything or desire in any sense whatsoever to render a particular sex-act infertile.

There is nothing in the "mentality" of the couple which takes a sex act and frustrates it, making it infertile ... there is nothing in there mentality which even desires to do this to any sex act ... nowhere at any point, neither in the intention nor in the act itself, is there anything which is in any sense contraceptive.

If the critics had only said that NFP could be used poorly, even sinfully and selfishly, I would have agreed.
But, instead, they say it can be used "contraceptively" and "with a contraceptive mentality" ... that is nonsense, and it doesn't do anyone any good at all ... it is a lie, plain and simply, a lie.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thank you for the very good quotes!

My point here was not to go into the times when NFP can be used ... or what counts as a "just" cause. Hence, I am very grateful for your added citations which bring further clarity to that point.

What I am saying is that, even when a couple uses NFP without a just cause (i.e. uses NFP in a sinful way), it cannot be said to have a "contraceptive mentality" ... no matter how much NFP is abused, it will never promote a "contraceptive mentality" ... a selfish mentality, yes; a sinful mentality, yes; but never contraceptive.

And thank you for pointing out that the more recent documents use the words "serious reasons" more often than "just reasons" ... indeed, a "just reason" must needs be a "serious reason"; but, of course, this is still different from an extreme life-or-death situation.
[the choice to have a child is always a "serious" one, hence we should expect that the choice to delay should be based on "just and serious" reasons too!]

Peace and blessings to you! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anonymous (12:19pm),
Please use at least a pseudonym - even just at the end of the comment will do.

I understand what people "mean" when they say "contraceptive mentality" ... but my point is that the language is a lie, it is not helpful, it is (in fact) tying up heavy burdens and can incur guilt for misleading people into thinking that they are committing a sin which they are not in fact committing (they may be committing some other sin, but it is not contraceptive).
Finally, when these Catholic critics say that NFP can have a contraceptive mentality, they also make it easier for the pro-contraception crowd to call NFP "Catholic contraception".

Words have meaning, abuse of language is wrong ... call it a "selfish mentality" or a "sinful mentality", but if you call it a "contraceptive mentality" you are a liar, you expose the Church's teaching to the critique of secularists, and you mislead the faithful.
End of story. +

kkollwitz said...

An action cannot have a "contraceptive mentality" if there is nothing in that action which is contraceptive."

Yes. But NFP isn't just the occasions of lovemaking during non-fertile periods. It's also the deliberate avoidance of sex that would otherwise have occurred during fertile periods for no other reason than to avoid a pregnancy.

Those occasions of abstinence aren't the product of a contra-ceptive mentality?

Terry Carroll said...

The phrase "contraceptive mentality" means "a mentality opposed to conception but open to sexual expression." In other words, do you want to be open to the possibility of conception when having sex or not?

When you adopt NFP as a "way of life," you are intending to control the possibility of conception in specific sexual acts. How is that "intention" different from the "intention" of those who use other, intrinsically problematic methods?

In the December 2010 issue of Homiletic and Pastoral review, Dr. Peter A. Kwasniewski, Wyoming Catholic College, contributed an article titled "The Primacy of Charity in the Question of Family Size."

He begins by making a clear distinction between contraception and NFP. Contraception, in terms of both act and intention, is intrinsically evil and "unnatural."

NFP, since it takes advantage of natural cycles of fertility and infertility, cannot be condemned as an act. There is nothing in the "act" itself which is inherently contraceptive.

However, moral neutrality, or "naturalness" of the act is "not the only relevant aspect to consider." It is necessary to include "intention" in an evaluation of the NFP "act." Is this "natural approach" to regulating family size being followed for a good or a bad reason? His response is quite compact and on target (IMHO):

"When used in circumstances that are not defensibly serious in comparison to the primary end of the great vocation of marriage in the Church, NFP is abused and can thereby turn sinful, even mortally so, for the couple."

He then goes on to give examples of what he considers "not defensibly serious in comparison to the primary end of the great vocation of marriage," such as newlyweds who "want to enjoy each other's bodily comfort" until they're ready to have children, or "professional couples" who marry and put off having children while they pursue their doctorates. Better not to marry than to abuse "a sacrament whose fruitfulness is the primary form of their sanctification." Or, more poignantly, "it amounts almost to a sacrilege to set the chief good of marriage at a level below that of personal ambitions and private goods, however legitimate in themselves."

He then cites another author, a Donald Asci, who says "NFP can be bad only due to intention, i.e., a circumstance of the act." "The moral species of the act can never be evil, but the motivation behind it can be evil." He says there will be a moral imperfection, a sin, only if there is an anti-life will.

To me, the whole raison d'etre of NFP seems to be to find ways for married couples to have sex without procreating. Without admitting such, NFP proponents are selling sex as an end of marriage at least equivalent to the procreative end. As long as you are willing to have children some day, you attitude is "pro-life." If you should decide that 2 children is enough, or 3 or 5 or 7 or whatever, that you are "done having children," you can use NFP to continue to enjoy sex without consequences.

I don't know why the problematic nature of this isn't obvious. Is there any point (in ordinary practice) to NFP other than to control conception? Isn't anything done to control conception "birth control"? Is it really just a matter of method, that we have accepted, as a Church, that "birth control" is okay so long as you use an acceptable method?

Can you even IMAGINE Mary teaching young Jewish maidens to chart? Can you even IMAGINE the parents of the Little Flower considering this whole topic to be anything but immodest?

It may not be possible for NFP to be "contraceptive," but it sure is possible for it to be used as "birth control." When so used, the intention severely affects the morality of an otherwise morally neutral act.

Anonymous said...

@ Fr. Ryan...My wife and I have a five month old son, and would love to have up to four if God so allows...maybe more...we also try to enjoy a healthy sexual relationship (whenever we have a private moment, lol..), we have been using ovulation tests in order to conform to NFP standards, but sometimes, as a result of the birthing process, my wife can be too sore for intercourse, so we will engage in non-intercourse sexual activity. Is that ok? And, are we allowed to 'space out' our having children? We don't want to wait a whole two years between kids (the popular time span these days), but, we also don't want to have 'irish twins' (within a year of each other), because my wife is breast feeding, and that could be problematic with trying to feed one child, yourself, and nourish another in the womb. Any thoughts? Thank you! ~Nick

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Father. Great post.

Kudos. I am sure you put to rest many many fears

Dan said...

Dear Father Ryan:

With the greatest respect I must point out to you a few thoughts, and I hope you will accept them in the spirit in which they are intended.

Your insisitence on stressing the point that the NFP "mentality" is not a "contraceptive" mentality is, if you will allow me to say so, a red herring. What you are doing, innocently I am sure, is splitting hairs over a side issue. No one who has grave suspicions about NFP are saying that it is contraceptive; what they are saying is simply this: that Catholics are using it in the same manner as those who use contraception, namely to avoid having children for non-important reasons. It is the INTENTION of the couple that is worrisome, Father, not necessarily the method. If the wrong intention is there then the sin has been already committed. Those who compound this bad intention by using abortifacient contraceptives only add a second level of evil to their act.

You also are now saying that NFP was only to be used for "just" reasons (whatever that means....I'm sure I don't know) rather than "grave reasons". As one who has gone through the NFP mill, Father, I can assure you that never, ever was the word "just" used in this connection by the promoters of NFP; the word used was always "grave". And even so, many if not most Catholics ignored that anyway, or were coerced by poorly-trained priests into thinking that just anything would qualify for a "grave" reason, even things like that nice extra car or that yearly expensive vacation.

I am very sorry, Father, but your arguments are not convincing and it is absolutely the case today, if honest conversation is allowed to ensue, that NFP has become Catholic "contraception" in precisely the same way that the annullment mills have now become Catholic "divorce". You can try to avoid this reality by splitting hairs or going off on tangents but you cannot deny the realities. NFP has been a plague on the Church and I pray that one day it will be condemned by a courageous and saintly Pope.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I am not trying to avoid anything ... and I am not simply "splitting hairs" by stressing that NFP is not contraceptive in any sense.

To compare NFP to contraception (even if only in its "mentality" or "intention") is to do a great disservice to the truth ... NFP may be used sinfully, but it cannot (by definition) be used contraceptively.

You desire that NFP be condemned by a future Pope ... I just don't see how that can possibly happen, since philosophically we know that there are ways in which NFP can be used well ... are you suggesting that Paul VI (and Pius XII) were in error when they said that there are ways in which NFP can be used without sin?
Or do you desire that even the valid uses of NFP should be condemned as immoral (i.e. do you want a Pope to lie, just so you can win an argument)?

If the Catholic critics said that NFP could be used "sinfully", I wouldn't complain ... but they lie, again I say THEY LIE, when they say it is "contraceptive".

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

NFP is not "birth control" because the couple does not do anything (nor do they intend to do anything) to control the fertility of any sex act.

Do some people speak of NFP in an immodest way? Certainly.
Can NFP be used in a sinful way? Yes.

But IT WILL DO NO GOOD for the "critics" to call NFP "Catholic birth control" or "contraceptive" in its mentality.
If you want to make a difference and save souls, speak the truth in your words ... stop comparing NFP to contraception!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I'm sorry that I did not answer sooner.

You bring up a sensitive issue, and I would recommend speaking with a good and holy priest in person.

I will say this: Any sexual activity must lead to intercourse ... either at that time or at another. Hence, it is not necessary that all sexual activity (e.g. hugging or kissing) lead immediately to sex at the moment ... but it would lead to sex later (even days/weeks/months later).

What, it seems to me, we must maintain is that there can be no climax (you understand what I mean?) that occurs outside of the sex-act itself.
That is, the man must "finish" within the act with his wife.

[already I have spoken far more directly than I prefer, I hope you understand what I mean ... some things are not appropriate for public discussion ... for further questioning/clarification please email me at reginaldus.ntm@gmail.com]

Also, there are many reasons why a couple might space out children for a time ... certainly, it would seem to me, that many couples would have serious reasons to wait more than a year but less than two years (as you describe) between children ... so, if you have discerned this in prayer, I would think that you are probably doing well ... again, discussion with a priest more personally would be good.

Peace to you, and prayers for your family! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Rev. Respondeo,
I believe that I know about this priest! He is a very good and holy man, a priest of the FSSP ... on top of it, he is from my same state, Montana!

He is a good man and a good priest ... he is also a fiery preacher!

I just don't have time to listen to the whole homily, but I would think he would give good advise (I don't know if I would agree with everything he says, but I would certainly trust him as a generally good guide).

My point is that NFP never has a contraceptive mentality ... it may be used sinfully, but never contraceptively.

If you want to discuss this issue more freely, please email me.

Peace to you! +

Anonymous said...

As a user of NFP, I can speak from experience. By using NFP, a couple is leaving themselves open to conception whether or not they are trying to postpone or achieve conception.

A couple trying to postpone pregnancy by abstaining during their fertile time may conceive due to human error, a "bending of rules" or God's divine providence (in the end I personally think that no matter what the reason, it's always God's divine providence).

A couple trying to conceive may engage in the marital act during fertile times, but maybe unable to conceive during any given cycle.

Using this education/information is still leaving you open to God's will & trusting Him completely.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You are quite right to point out that NFP is essential open to God and is therefore good in its nature.

However, I would add that we cannot just use NFP without any discretion ... it is always a serious matter when considering whether to have a child ... hence, NFP should only be used to postpone pregnancy when there is a just and serious reason for not having another child at the moment.

In other words: NFP doesn't get a "blank check" - but I do agree with you that a couple using NFP will have a very very good chance of making a proper discernment and living in a holy marriage, especially if they are praying together.

Anonymous said...

The term 'contraceptive mentality' was first developed by proponents of NFP. That some have noted that abuse of NFP for selfish reasons seems to have some commonality, at least on a surface level, and not the deep philosphical depths good Fr. Erlenbush plumbs, has been noted by many.

Irrespective of the correct use of the term 'contraceptive' with regard to NFP, I will relay my own personal experience of Catholic couples who used NFP and gave it up as too much hassle, and went back to the pill. I know of several others who underwent sterilization after having determined that God intended them to have no additional number of children. So, some may say they still retained a 'contraceptive mentality,' whereas others may say that the abused a good thing in NFP. The net effect is likely the same.

I do not know how couples 'discern' how many children God is calling them to have, a priori, as stated by some commenters above. I can see people periodically abstaining for 'serious reasons' or 'just causes,' but that is not how most people, in my experience, use NFP. They use NFP to arrive at a certain pre-determined number of children, spaced out to what they consider to be a desirable extent.

If the above is widespread as my experience indicates, is that a 'right use' of NFP?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Certainly, NFP can be used in a sinful fashion. We do need to be careful about this.

As far as your experience of NFP couples, I can only say that this has not been my experience.
In all honesty, I cannot think of a single NFP couple that I know who is clearly abusing NFP ... but I have only been a priest for 2 years, so perhaps I just don't know enough people.

Still, I have to say that I have read only a couple of the "testimonials" of NFP couples which I thought to be clearly questionable.
I just haven't seen NFP being used in a sinful way with any real regularity ... the way some speak it would seem that the abuse was an epidemic ... that has not been my experience.

In any case, what matters more to me is this simple point that NFP is never contraceptive ... and we will not help couples who abuse NFP by comparing it to contraception, this won't help because it is not the truth.

Thank you for sharing your experience, we certainly do all need to pray for renewal in family life within the Church. +

Anonymous said...

"Behold the inheritance of the Lord are children: the reward, the fruit of the womb. As arrows in the hand of the mighty, so the children of them that have been shaken. Blessed is the man that hath filled the desire with them; he shall not be confounded when he shall speak to his enemies in the gate." (Psalm 126:3-4, Douay-Rheims)

Father, it actually saddened me a bit to read this piece. I don't know why you considered it necessary to write it. The way that NFP is promoted by its ideologues makes it often sound as the "Catholic contraception" (just as annulment is styled as the "Catholic divorce"), even to the point of diocesan brochures on marriage approving of newly-wed couples using NFP just to "get to know each other". This is plain bizarro-world. If a couple uses NFP to exclude children from their lives, or to limit their number of children for selfish reasons to say two children, is this not the same mentality as those using contraception? The intentionality of the act itself is not the question in my mind. The intention of the subject performing the act is. The act NFP can't have a "mentality" as you accurately point out, but the subject performing the act can and does have a "mentality". If this mentality is "contraceptive" (against conception, against children), as for instance those secular couples who use it as a side-effect free alternative to the pill, why would it not correctly be termed a "contraceptive mentality".

NFP can be used for just reasons, but in the normal case we should let God decide. That's why me and my wife have adapted the term of some of our friends: Divine Family Planning, let God decide...

Pax Christi in Regno Christi,

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

First, I'm sorry that this piece saddened you ... that was not my intention ... I was hoping rather to inform.

Second, two points:
1) Using NFP in order to not have children is still not a contraceptive mentality, not even in the intention of the couple.
If you define "contraceptive mentality" as engaging in the marriage act without desiring/wanting children, then even those couples who use NFP for the most serious reasons (which any reasonable person would admit) would have a "contraceptive mentality". To be consistent, you have to hold that even the couple using NFP to avoid having children in a life-or-death scenario is guilty of a "contraceptive mentality" because their intention is "against conception".

2) This leads to my second point: You seem to think that "trusting in God" means "not using human reason or planning".
Simply put, it is not responsible parenting to engage in the marital act without consideration of whether it would be good to have another child. To simply "leave it all up to God" (as though this means not thinking responsibly and reasonably about it as a couple) is not what the Church is asking for.
Yes, in normal cases when there is no just reason for not having another child, we should not use NFP. But to act as though NATURAL Family Planning is opposed to DIVINE Family Planning is to seriously misunderstand the way that God guides us through this life.
The Lord reveals his plan for us in a rational way, so that we can think and pray about it and (as a couple) come to an understanding of His will.
In other words, to "let God decide" does not mean that we cannot or should not think and be responsible.

On the other hand, I will very quickly admit my own special love for large families (say, 10 or more) ... the Church herself speaks of a certain joy over large families as well (in Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II).
I would think that nearly every couple would use NFP at some point in their marriage ... I also think that many NFP couples should be open to and even desire large families ... I guess that I am pretty confident that the practice of NFP, united to prayer, will lead the couple to a great spirit of generosity.

But we will do no good, and we will not be able to help couples grow in generosity, if we compare NFP to contraception at any level.

Anonymous said...

Dear Father,

I certainly don't think you wrote this post in order to sadden me or anyone else. You seem to be quite set in your understanding of these terms. However I disagree and the reason it saddens me is because it seems like this post obscures the points of contention more than it clarifies the Church's doctrine on the matter of holy matrimony and its legitimate ends.

To use NFP with the same reason why people use contraception is to pursue a mentality which in many respects coincides with that of contracepting couples. Therefore it doesn't seem very far-fetched to call that sort of reasoning (not immediately linked to the act itself) as "contraceptive" or "anti-life". Of course NFP can't have a "mentality", but the people who use NFP can and do have a "mentality". And here is the crux of the matter. If a couple using NFP are using NFP because they have inverted the ends of marriage and no longer sees children as a good and the begetting of and raising of which is the primary end of marriage, then how does this mentality differ from a couple who engages in coetus interruptus or other illicit methods of preventing conception? The fact that NFP in my country is promoted by some "naturalists" as an alternative to the pill but to be used for the same reasons goes to show that the mentality and the reasoning behind using NFP can be the same as that of a contracepting couple. They might find other methods of diminishing the "risk", as they see it, of having another child unpleasant or to have unwanted side-effects. In what way is this mentality not contraceptive? And do you deny that this is a possible mentality as regards NFP?

Second, I don't oppose human reason with divine Providence. But without a just cause we are not allowed to use NFP, which would mean by implication that the normal state of affairs is a generous acceptance of the children that God gives us, in His good time. So no, I don't put an intrinsic opposition between NFP and Divine Family Planning, but the fact of the matter remains that the latter is the normal state of affairs and NFP is to be used in certain specific cases. As Venerable Pius XII, in felicitous memory, said:

"Nonetheless, the moral lawfulness of such conduct of husband and wife should be affirmed or denied according as their intention to observe constantly those periods is or is not based on sufficiently morally sure motives. The mere fact that husband and wife do not offend the nature of the act and are even ready to accept and bring up the child, who, notwithstanding their precautions, might be born, would not be itself sufficient to guarantee the rectitude of their intention and the unobjectionable morality of their motives."

Pax Christi in Regno Christi,

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You asked: "If a couple using NFP are using NFP because they have inverted the ends of marriage and no longer sees children as a good and the begetting of and raising of which is the primary end of marriage, then how does this mentality differ from a couple who engages in coetus interruptus or other illicit methods of preventing conception?"

My answer: Insofar as the mentality is selfish, they are similar. Insofar as the mentality of the couple using illicit means is contraceptive, they are different.

So, we should say NFP can be used "selfishly" and "with a selfish mentality", but we expose ourselves to the secularist critics (and we lie) when we say that NFP can be "contraceptive" or have a "contraceptive mentality".

My purpose in writing the article is to help people understand that the Church does not contradict herself when she condemns contraception but is open to the licit use of NFP ... the Catholic "critics" hurt the cause when they begin to obscure the very important difference between contraception and NFP.

Again, in my own experience, I have not seen NFP abused with any regularity.
However, I do see lots of Catholic couples who think NFP is no different from contraception and therefore attempt to justify the use of contraception by saying that NFP couples have the same mentality and intention.

Thank you for the excellent quote from Ven. Pius XII! +

Anonymous said...

Fr. Erlenbush -

You seem to imply that my experience may be distorted or something uncommon. The three Catholics I know who used NFP to space out children and then underwent sterlizations were neighbors who attended the same parish as my family. I have known several (5 or 6, maybe 7) couples who used NFP for a while and went back to contraception. Puruse blogs operated by Catholic moms, which generally attract more female readers, on the topic of NFP. You will see that, invariably, a number of women will state they tried to use NFP but could not maintain it as it was too difficult, they had irregular cycles, etc. You will also see a number of women lamenting that they would like to use NFP, but their husbands are totally opposed, or even vice versa.

But even more substantially, I am concerned that a broad swath of Catholics have come to believe that NFP can be used to arrive at a certain pre-determined number of children. I don't know how a person can faithfully determine that God wants them to have X number, whatever it is (but typically, 2 or 3, which fits current cultural norms in this country). And what if a couple determines they "are called by God" to have no children? I think the concern is that people may put their own preference in place of "God's Will." There could be significant temptations to do so in using NFP. In cases where couples have a very disordered mentality of using NFP, I believe such can constitute a mentality that approximates those that use contraception, in that the end is the same, the deliberate avoiding of pregnancy for selfish reasons.
Perhaps a different term would be more accurate, but I don't know what that term would mean. 'Contraceptive mentality' has a very effective emotional punch - "selfish" or "disordered" NFP use just doesn't have the same rhetorical effect.

Nick said...


While I have read HV in the past, I've not read it recently, and I was not aware of the *important* distinctions this article brings up. I thank you for writing it, because it makes a distinction that I and other "traditionalist" types have not been careful to make.

I am now convinced the phrase "contraceptive mentality" is wrong, and will avoid using it and inform others not to use it either. Otherwise, as you rightly point out, even those couples who end up using NFP in the most extraordinary situations would still be engaging in a "contraceptive mindset".

The classic text the 'traditionalist' crowd appeals to is Casti Connubi #59,

"Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved."

Some take this in a very strict sense of sterility due to old age or natural permament sterility. I've been open to the idea that "natural reasons either of time or of certain defects" could include or even be speaking of the natural periods of infertility, particularly since the second half of the paragraph seems to apply to couples still able to have children.

One argument I make is that it is licit to engage in relations if one of the spouses is (naturally) permanently sterile, and thus it is not a contraceptive action even though both are aware that the act cannot result in conception. Thus, engaging in relations knowing conception cannot come about, as long as you didn't cause this, is not intrinsically disordered.

Where things get tricky is in the clear teaching that children are the primary end of relations, which can be taken to mean you are not to have relations if you don't intend to have children.

So, earlier in Casti Connubi we read (#53-54):

"First consideration is due to the offspring, which many have the boldness to call the disagreeable burden of matrimony and which they say is to be carefully avoided by married people not through virtuous continence (which Christian law permits in matrimony when both parties consent) but by frustrating the marriage act.

Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious."

This could be read as saying only continence is acceptable, and since the primary focus is children, NFP is not allowed. Only in light of Pius XII Address to Midwives and Paul VI, can one get a more specific look at the permissibility of NFP.

Tripudians said...

May I recommend to your attention an article on this very topic in the most recent issue of Faith magazine (can be read online here: http://www.faith.org.uk/Publications/Magazines/Sep11/Sep11ContraceptionAndTheImperfectionOfNaturalFamilyPlanning.html )

I've found it very illuminating.

Billy said...

Dear Father Erlenbush,

Sacred scripture supplies us with a episode that can, perhaps, be of some use to this discussion. I refer to Luke 1, the announcement of the birth of John. We find Zechariah, who is married to Elizabeth and childless; Elizabeth sterile and both advanced in their age, and he had petitioned the lord for a child. Now the angel appears with the good news of a child and Zachariah is doubtful, not because he doesn't think God can accomplish this, he knows, very well, that God has done this same thing, a number of times, in His interaction with His chosen people. But, as I see this, the problem stems from the the fact that he is not open to God's plan, because God is not following Zachariah's time line. No doubt Zachariah and his wife Elizabeth enjoyed and continued to enjoy licit relations, but Zachariah was no longer open to both of God's purposes in the marital embrace, the procreative and unitive. He might not of even recognized this himself, until he formed his response to Gabriel's message, which revealed his being closed to the procreative aspect. So now Zachariah is made mute, until these things come to pass.

The lesson for us is, let God be God, and be ready for surprises along the way.

May God Bless,

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Billy, I thank you for your comment but I must say that I think you are "proof-texting" ... i.e. you are taking the Scriptures out of context in order to win an argument.

Do you know of a single Church Father or Scholastic Doctor (or even a modern saint) who interprets Zachariah's "doubt" as a "contraceptive mentality"? I certainly am not aware of any tradition which would support your claim.
Additionally, I see nothing in the text itself which would support such a claim.

Indeed, it seems that he considered himself and his wife too old to have children and did not believe that God would really intervene -- not that he doubted whether God had the power theoretically, he just doubted whether God would in fact do so.

In any case ... your idea of "let God be God" borders on irresponsible parenting ... even married couples ought not to procreate on a whim ... sex can't just be had at random ... it is a serious choice to have a child, and it deserves serious consideration -- always trusting in the providence of God.
For this reason, I see NFP as a good help that virtually every couple might make use of at some point in their married life (especially in the period right after a woman has given birth), and even as a corrective to certain excesses of "blind faith".

Peace. +

Anonymous said...

Dear father,

I am actually quite disturbed by this trail of thought. It seems to evoke the sense that people who don't use NFP are somehow irresponsible since they don't go into a careful consideration of whether or not they should "choose" to have their next child. It is a choice, a choice made at the moment a couple is married, then and there the couple promises God solemnly that they will accept the children He sends them. Of course to have a child is a serious choice, and it deserves serious consideration, a consideration that ought to have taken place before one enters into a state of holy matrimony, which puts an obligation of begetting and raising children on the spouses (unless they are to live in continence of course). Just as the religious vocation is a serious choice and deserves serious consideration, one cannot after-the-fact come and say that every single order from a superior is a matter of choice for the person who has vowed obedience (it is worthy of consideration in some cases whether obedience is lawful or not, of course). Which is analogous to vowed (at least potential) fecundity. In the normal state of things, children should be accepted when God sends them. In extraordinary circumstances, we may use NFP. As you seem to put it NFP is the normal state of things, which is not the case. If you are to argue that, then give us what you ask Billy to produce: a single Church Father, Scholastic Doctor, or a Saint who says that we ought to use NFP after every child-birth? (When the woman is most likely infertile anyway due to nursing.)

Plus, you seem to forget the marriage debt, which obliges the spouses to meet their spouse's demand to remedy concupiscence when such a demand is reasonable (which does exclude some scenarios of course). But NFP can only be practiced if both spouses agree, and it could indeed be a near occasion of sin for some people to be using NFP, and therefore to be avoided at pain of sin. It is a judgement call, as always. But in order for NFP to be licit it seems to me that quite a few criteria need to be met: just reason, no near occasion of sin, both spouses agree. And your estimation of just reasons does seem to differ quite a lot from mine...

As far as this goes I see nothing in your text that convinces me that "virtually every couple" are to use NFP as "a good help" and "corrective" of "blind faith". When has NFP (or the rhythm method, which is of greater antiquity) been spoken of like this in the Magisterial texts or in the writings of Saints or moralists? I always thought of it as a neutral means to be used when the ends can justify it (ie. avoiding serious health risks [all pregnancies are health risks, by the way], great financial difficulty [more like not being able to put food on the table and clothes on your children, rather than not being able to go on vacation three times a year or not being able to buy the latest electronics or the fanciest car], etc.)

Saint Alphonsus, pray for us!

In the Sacred Heart of Jesus,

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You are correct, it is most certainly in no way sinful or presumptuous for a couple to choose not to use NFP ... I did not intend to imply otherwise. If my comments seem to imply that not using NFP is wrong or irresponsible, then I apologize ... that was not my intent and I certainly want to make it clear that NFP is not something that every couple must use.

Still, I would say that nearly every couple would (at some point) have just reason to use NFP -- either in the time right after child-birth or (most especially) in the final years of a woman's fertility when there are grave dangers of developmental defects in the child.

You ask where the Fathers speak of NFP ... of course, they do not speak of NFP -- NFP was not yet developed at the time of the Fathers.
However, there are Popes (ex. Pius XII) who mention NFP and say that it can be used when there is danger of serious harm to the woman's heath (example: right after child-birth) or when there is serious danger of developmental disorders in the child (example: when a woman is semi-menopausal).
I am not a doctor and I don't pretend to know all the specifics ... I am just saying it as I understand -- and, as I have been told, there are almost always health risks for the woman (if she should get pregnant right after giving birth) and there are often some dangers for children conceived in the final years of a woman's fertility (especially, as I have been told, there is danger of down syndrome).

This is why I said that I believe that nearly every couple would use NFP at some point in their marriage ... especially since the science of NFP has improved so much in recent years and has become so much more easily accessible.

However, you are certainly correct -- NFP is not the normal course of things ... it is only used in certain circumstances ... and I believe that nearly every couple would have such circumstances at some point in their married life.

And I really do believe that NFP can help couples to learn responsible parenting, self-sacrifice, and respect for life.

Anonymous said...

Dear father,

I think we are on the same page now. I apologize if I read too much into your comments. Here where I live there is quite a lot of confusion over NFP (I think I mentioned the diocesan brochures which were so off base that it's hard to describe it) and the couples I know who have been generous in accepting children are looked upon as "odd-balls".

In the bond of charity,

Anonymous said...

Dear father,

About my comment about the Fathers or Saints I would accept their writings on the "rhythm method", which I would assume is of quite a great antiquity, as equivalent to NFP in a moral regard (albeit not in a medical regard).

In Jesus, Mary and Joseph,

Anonymous said...

Father - just came across your blog, thank you for discussing and clarifying this issue.

I agree that there cannot be a “contraceptive mentality” with NFP, because NFP does not involve contraception.

Nor, I think, does NFP involve sex – it has to do with not having sex.

The question, therefore, is when is it a sin against chastity not to have sex? To be honest, I can think of few, if any, occasions when it is a sin for a married couple not to have sex if both agree to forgo it. It might be a sin against generosity, but that is not a sexual sin.

A related question I have is – when is it a sin for one spouse to deny sex to the other? That is, can one spouse decide to use NFP on his/her own, without the agreement of the other? Is there any legitimate reason, beyond serious health problems or severe financial difficulties?


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The issue of denying sex to one's spouse is very difficult and most sensitive, but I will just lay out a couple general points.
In the case of particulars, we should consult a holy and wise priest.

It could easily be grave matter for one spouse to unlawfully deny sex to the other - especially when there is danger of unchastity. So we need to be very very careful about fulfilling the marriage duty (and this goes especially for women).

On the other hand, there are certainly times when it may be denied -- you mentioned the major ones (danger of death, especially).
Still, I should think that there could be good reasons for delaying sex (I say "delaying" rather than "denying", since it is only a periodic abstinence) for short periods ... for example, if the wife is sick, this would often be a good reason for delaying sex until she feels better.

The longer and more regular the periods of abstinence are, the more serious the reason needs to be.
Still, it is not as though husbands have an absolute right to their wives' bodies [n.b. husbands who treat their wives as objects for sexual gratification sin mortally, for they consider their wife simply as a woman rather than as their wife] ... rather, there should be mutual love and respect; both being willing and ready to sacrifice for the good of the other.

I hope this helps a little at least! +

Fr. W. M. Gardner said...

Dear Fr Ryan,

Thank you for your very pertinent discussion regarding periodic continence (NFP). However, I disagree with your conclusion that NFP cannot be called “contraceptive”, nor that the “contraceptive mentality” can be honestly attributed to the users of NFP.

While the individual acts of marital intercourse during the infertile times are not contraceptive of themselves, the overall use of periodic continence is indeed contraceptive, since the intention is to avoid conception (children). Periodic continence is exclusively sterile loving for the purpose of avoiding children. In all honesty, prescinding from recent magisterial terminology (which understandably attempts to avoid confusion with artificial contraception), periodic continence is accurately called contraceptive.

On the contrary, total continence (as practiced by celibates, or by married couples like the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, or other couples on a temporary basis) is not contraceptive since it involves no sexual expression; even though it also results in fewer children being conceived.

By the same reasoning, the use of pornography and homosexual acts are contraceptive since they involve sterile sexual expression; although in these cases also no act of marital intercourse is frustrated with regard to its procreative end.

This is not to equivocate between the use of NFP and pornography or homosexual acts, but only to point out that they all direct sexual expression away from fruitfulness; and therefore share this contraceptive similarity.

My approach to this sensitive topic is that periodic continence is licit by virtue of the Church’s permission, but not virtuous of itself. Nevertheless, married couples may be acting virtuously when they have recourse to this permission; namely, when there are serious reasons.

Therefore, NFP should not be promoted on a widespread basis. Rather, artificial contraception, sterilization and abortion should be firmly condemned (and disallowed), while the blessing of children must be strongly emphasized! The Catholic alternative to contraceptive drugs, barriers, etc, is not charts, mucus and temperatures… It is rather babies! May God bless our families with more children… and soon!

P.S. You’re right on target with regard to the parable of the talents. And what a great teaching tool (along with the First Reading “the Virtuous Wife” & the Psalm “your children like olive plants…”) to inspire generous parenthood!!!

Oremus pro invicem,

Fr. W. M. Gardner

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Fr. Gardner,
I'm sorry, but the Church has never used the phrase "contraceptive mentality" in the way you are using it.

There is nothing "contraceptive" about NFP ... this is what the Church has said, they are nothing alike.

NFP is not "against conception" in the sense of doing something or intending in any way to render an act infertile ... therefore, it cannot be called "contraceptive" in any sense.

If it were "contraceptive", it would always be wrong, and would always be serious matter.

Now, on the pastoral level, I do agree that we priests need to encourage people to be open to large families ... however, we must also be truthful and recognize that NFP is nothing at all like contraceptive, and in no way shares in the "contraceptive mentality" of modern society.

I hope that this is clear ... pastorally, we are on the same page ... but it is also important to understand the ethical foundations.

ps. I was thinking the same thing about today's psalm!

Peace and blessings, good father. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

oh, one last point ... it is very very dangerous to separate the notion of virtue from the notion of the Church's "permission" ... it starts to get very close to nominalism ... and it risks denying certain principles about the natural order.

No, if a couple uses NFP well ... then it must be an act of virtue ... the virtue of responsible parenting (as per the Catechism, and Humanae Vitae, et al.).
The Church can't give "permission" to do something which is contrary to nature ... therefore, it is clear that NFP is not contraceptive in any sense, else it would be contrary to nature (and could then not ever be virtuous or receive "permission" from the Church).

Peace! +

Fr. W. M. Gardner said...

Dear Fr. Ryan,

Is it not you rather that risks falling into nominalism? In your effort to distinguish natural birth control (periodic continence) from artificial birth control you seem to refuse to recognize the contraceptive nature of periodic continence by force of your refusal to call it “contraceptive.”

I believe a more honest approach is to recognize that periodic continence is indeed against the nature of human sexual loving, which is meant to be fruitful; but not to the degree that prevents the Church from granting permission for its lawful use when there are serious reasons.

I wish to clarify too that serious reasons only qualify the use of periodic continence as licit (not unlawful), not as virtuous of itself.

I have written on this subject in Latin Mass Magazine, Spring 2011. The article, entitled “Purity Honors Creativeness,” can also be found at stvalsperu.org.

God bless,

Fr. W. M. Gardner

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Fr. Gardner,
I'm not sure you understand what nominalism is ... nothing I have said would come close to it ... I could be wrong, but I am certainly not a nominalist.

You, on the other hand, continue to separate virtue from morality ... such that the Church can "permit" something which you claim to be "against the nature of human sexual loving".
This is very close to nominalism.

Any rational human act either proceeds from virtue or from vice ... there is no way in which the use of NFP could be merely "licit" (as in a neutral act proceeding only from the "permission" of the Church and not from either virtue or vice).

Now, you are correct about the serious reasons ... but even without these reasons, i.e. even when NFP is used sinfully, it is not used "contraceptively" ... look at the Papal writings, it is very clear that NFP in not at all like contraception.

Contraception is not simply sex without procreation, it is any act which renders sex infertile ... and no sexual act has been rendered infertile by NFP ... so it is not "contraceptive" (neither in act, circumstance, or intention).

Have you ever seen the Church use "contraceptive mentality" to refer to NFP? Or, for that matter, to refer to the mentality of any one couple at all? (it is used always to refer to the mentality of a society that promotes contraception)

We must be honest in our speech.
Peace. +

Nick said...

Fr Gardner,

Here is the key to which Fr Erlenbush has been careful to lay out:

If contraception is intrinsically evil (which it is),
and NFP is contraceptive,
then NFP would be sinful at all times, even during "serious reasons".

Since that's impossible, then NFP cannot be a contraceptive act. If that key detail isn't maintained, then equivocation will unfortunately result.

That said, your article was very good.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thank you for laying it out so clearly!
(I tend to use far too many words and it just complicates things more!)

Peace to you! +

Fr. W. M. Gardner said...


Thank you for your contribution:
If contraception is intrinsically evil (which it is)
and NFP is contraceptive
then NFP would be sinful at all times, even during “serious reasons”.

I do not entirely accept your first premise. However, I do accept your second premise (with a clarification) and partially agree with your conclusion.

Regarding the first premise: If by “contraception” you mean artificial contraception, then I agree since artificial contraception is always and everywhere not morally permissible, illicit. However, if by “contraception” you mean to indicate a contraceptive technique (a.k.a., periodic continence) which does not frustrate the marital act nor suppress the fertility of either spouse, then I disagree since periodic continence is clearly licit by virtue of recent Church teaching.

The second premise seems obvious to me. To be precise, though, we should specify “periodic continence.” NFP can be used to obtain fruitfulness, but periodic continence is always used to prevent children, while still enjoying the use of sexual relations. Periodic continence, therefore, is correctly described as contraceptive. Yet, I concede that periodic continence is the lynch-pin of Natural Family Planning.

The conclusion is partially correct. I am proposing that the use of periodic continence always involves at least venial sin. But a well known axiom of Catholic morality is that with regard to sexual sin there is no paucity of matter. Nevertheless, saintly pastors of our Catholic religion such as St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas (cit.?), Pope Innocent XI (for pleasure alone), and others… did not hesitate to affirm that any use of sexual relations by married couples beyond the need for generation is at least tainted by venial sin. Clearly, periodic continence implies a use of sexual relations beyond the need for generation, according to the viewpoint of the spouses. Thus periodic continence can be licit, but not virtuous of itself. In other words, the use of periodic continence indicates a moral deficiency, a lack of purity if you will, but it does not necessarily indicate unchastity.

(And the widespread promotion of NFP indicates a lack of modesty, as Terry Carroll astutely pointed out in his Comment above on Sept. 28th, and a woeful lack of prudence in this current contraceptive culture, if I respectfully might add! Note that one could accurately describe the current culture as contraceptive, because of the pervasive promotion of sterile sex. But a monastic community, which produces no children, is not accurately described as contraceptive since there is no licit sexual expression among vowed celibates.)

God bless,

Fr. W. M. Gardner

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Fr. Gardner,
I'm sorry, but I'm going to speak very directly here ... for the sake of clarity, and charity.

You simply have to stop saying that NFP is a "contraceptive technique", in this, you are far far worse than the others who are saying "contraceptive mentality".
It has become very clear that you do not understand the Church's teaching as to what constitutes a contraceptive act -- you think that NFP is a contraceptive act ... you justify it by saying it is not artificial.

This is utter absurdity and in no way founded on the Church's teaching.
Our Mother the Church does not say, "Contraception is only intrinsically evil when it involves something artificial" ... she says "Contraception is intrinsically evil" ... indeed, it is a grave sin always:
"The Catholic Church … raises her voice as a sign of her divine mission, and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use of marriage exercised in such a way that through human effort the act is deprived of its natural power to procreate human life violates the law of God and of nature, and those who commit such an action are stained with the guilt of grave sin." (Casti Connubii, 56; Pius XI)

If NFP is a contraceptive act or technique, then it is always wrong -- and always a grave sin.

You have to go back and re-read your moral theology books (hopefully you have some decent ones) ... study what we mean by the "act" or the "object of the act".
There is no contraceptive act in NFP because there is no action which renders sex infertile ... the couple has done nothing to make sex infertile ... hence, it is not contraceptive.

I pray that you haven't been giving much council regarding NFP ... certainly, I hope that you do not write further on the subject until you understand the Church's teachings more fully.

Again, if NFP is a "use of marriage exercised in such a way that through human effort the act is deprived of its natural power to procreate human life" then it is always a grave sin (Pius XI) ... but NFP is not always a grave sin (at the very least, I hope you are docile enough to accept the Church's teaching - even if you do not yet understand) ... therefore, NFP cannot be a use of marriage which through human effort is deprived of the natural power to procreate ... i.e. NFP is not a contraceptive act nor is it a contraceptive technique.

Please! Stop saying such things! You are exposing the Church to ridicule -- especially from the protestants who would like to say that her teachings are contradictory.

Further, if you do manage to convince a couple that NFP is a contraceptive act, and then they end up realizing that all contraceptive acts/techniques are gravely sinful, and conclude that they have committed mortal sin (when they have either committed no sin at all or only venial sin), the YOU, my brother, YOU are guilty of grave fault for having mislead the sheep --- St. Alphonsus does not excuse the confessor from mortal sin in such circumstances.

Stop such foolishness ... stop describing the act itself (of NFP) as "contraceptive" -- again, in this you are far worse than most (who at least are only foolish enough to say that NFP has a 'contraceptive mentality').

When it comes to NFP and contraception, they are "completely different" (Humanae Vitae, 16).

Also, you misrepresent at least St. Thomas -- he did not say that the only use for sex is children (he did say that the couple must always be open to the procreative aspect), in fact he clearly says that a use for sex "beyond" procreation is to mitigate lust.
[you must be more careful in the future]

Finally, I will not post any further comment from you unless you cite magisterial texts and show clearly how your comment follows from the teaching of the Church -- you are confusing the faithful.

Nick said...

Fr Gardner,

This is my final post, but I want to point out the main problem with your response is that you've (dangerously) equivocated with the term "contraception" such as there is now a:

(1) intrinsically evil contraception
(2) licit contraception

This makes (consistent) moral theology impossible, almost like saying there is a intrinsically evil murder and a licit murder (e.g. abortion).

And as Fr Erlenbush said, the use of the term "artificial" is a lost leader because Onanism and such is perfectly "natural".

We understand your overall frustration with a culture (even among Catholics) not open to Children, and we agree this is heartbreaking, but the Church cannot stand firm nor be taken seriously if moral teachings such as NFP are not based on clear and solid footing.

This is akin to those who think the Church says stealing is OK as long as one is starving - no, what the Church teaches is that at such a point the action loses the character of "theft" and isn't actually stealing at all. In the case of contraception, the Church isn't saying "contraception is OK during certain times" (the very scandal we're trying to avoid), but rather during certain times like NFP the act doesn't have the character of contraception at all.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I would add (to your last line), that - even when NFP is use sinfully and selfishly - it is still never used "contraceptively" ... NFP simply cannot have a contraceptive character to it ... even when it is sinful, it is not contraceptive.

Again, thank you for your great clarity and directness! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The following is from Fr. Gardner (but I have had to post it, due to certain limitations in blogger)


Dear Fr. Erlenbush,

If you wish to prevent this comment from appearing on your blog… I do not object.

For your clarification, I am not disputing your point that periodic continence involves non-contraceptive acts of sexual intercourse, nor that this is the teaching of Holy Mother Church.

Magisterial Statement:
Pope Innocent XI: “Proposito damnata est: Opus coniugali ob solam voluptatem exercitum omni penitus caret culpa ac defectu veniali.” The following is condemned: that the conjugal act performed for pleasure alone wholly lacks fault and venial defect.”
This seems to imply that the performance of the conjugal act for pleasure alone always involves at least venial sin.

Hence, your assertion that any and all sins in the use of conjugal relations are necessarily grave sins seems to be in error…

Magisterial Statement:
United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (p. 409): “Each and every sexual act in a marriage needs to be open to the possibility of conceiving a child. Thus, artificial contraception is contrary to God’s will for marriage…”

The use of the expression “artificial contraception” seems to leave open the possibility that natural contraception also exists and that it may be permissible.


Fr. W. M. Gardner

P.S. If you could do me one favor, please write out your definition of periodic continence… including its purpose.

P.S.S. Thanks for the correction on St. Thomas. I was thinking of another passage where he quotes St. Augustine approvingly on the presence of shame in even honest conjugal relations. Summa II-II, q. 151 (4).


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Fr. Gardner,
First, thank you for continuing this conversation ... pretty soon here, it may be more profitable for us to correspond via email rather than through the comment box ... in any case, thank you for your charity.

Second, you are correct, not every sexual sin is grave matter -- but all those which are contrary to nature are.
Hence, if man lusts after his wife during sex - he commits a venial sin.
However, if he lusts in such a way that he does not think of his wife as his wife but simply as a woman (such that any woman would do) - he commits a mortal sin.

Likewise with a couple who abuses NFP -- it would often be a venial sin.

However, contraception is always a grave sin -- because it frustrates the very nature of the sexual act.

[and, for the record, I have never said, nor would I say, that "any and all sins in the use conjugal relations are necessarily grave sins" -- I have said just that every use of contraception is a grave sin; many many times I have said that the abuse of NFP would often be only a venial sin]

Further, regarding the quote from the US Catholic Catechism ... the use of "artificial" here is very unfortunate ... especially since they just said "each and every sexual act" - making no distinction about artificial vs natural.
In any case, you exegesis of that text is really only eisegesis ... there is nothing there which would indicate that "natural contraception" would be acceptable -- in fact, the Church has taught quite the opposite (see my quote from Pius XI above, or Humanae Vitae, which says that any and all contraceptive acts are gravely sinful).

Peace to you! +

Anonymous said...

Thank you Fr. for your article. It definitely gave me something to think about. I've always been troubled by the term "contraceptive mentality" used in concert with NFP, but now I know why.

I would like to point out something, although I am way late to the party here, I hear a lot of Catholic critics of NFP complaining about "swathes" of people using it for selfish reasons. First of all, I find that hard to believe as NFP isn't exactly a picnic and the self-sacrifice it requires certainly tests your reasons for postponing. Not hat it couldnt' be used sinfully or selfishly, but I have heard many couples say that when it got difficult they really re-evaluated whether they were ready for another child or not.
Secondly, people ought to be very cautious about judging the sinfulness about such private matters. People aren't going to share with you all their reasons for avoiding (and they have no obligation to either). For instance, a woman struggling with incontinence post childbirth trying to rebuild those muscles isn't going to tell you that! She will probably say "someday" or something to the like. A couple going through really difficult financial tiems may not want to share that with just anybody, even their friends. A couple where one memeber is struggling from mental health issues may not be so quick to share that detail either. Suffice it to say, some of the reasons people postpone pregnancy are VERY personal and you may not be privy to all of them.

Encouraging people to accept children and be generous...thumbs up! Accusing people of being sinful or selfish...I would be really cautious unless you are in some sort of counseling position.

-Mama using NFP

PS I encourage women needing support in the use of NFP, having children, parenting, or preparing for marriage, etc. to visit www.livingthesacrament.com It's a forum for Catholic women using NFP (or not using anything!) to share and find support.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Mama using NFP,
Thank you for the comment ... I think that you are very much right on!

Also, thanks for the link to www.livingthesacrament.com -- it looks very good! +

Vince K said...


My friends and I were discussing this with my pastor who said that it is okay to call it a contraceptive mentality because Jesus called lusting after a woman in your heart adultery even though there was no actual adulterous act. What are your thoughts on that?



Fr. W. M. Gardner said...

Dear Fr. Erlenbush,

Periodic continence is conditionally licit birth regulation (HV,16).

Birth regulation necessarily implies some form of prevention. In the case of periodic continence this prevention involves reading mucus, measuring temperatures, charting cycles, having sexual relations exclusively during the “safe period,” etc. (Note: Abstinence, of itself, is not birth regulation, since there is no birth to regulate.)

Therefore, mindful of the Lord’s admonition (“Let the children come to me; do not prevent them…” Mt. 19:14), periodic continence should not be promoted on a widespread basis, but only conditionally.

Fr. W. M. Gardner

P. S. Mamas are great!!!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Vince K,
That reasoning is unsound ... lust is similar to adultery and leads to it; but NFP is not contraceptive nor does it lead to contraception ... a selfish use of NFP is nothing like contraception and therefore is not a contraceptive mentality.

The Church has stated very clearly that NFP and contraception are "completely different".

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Fr. Gardner,
I wonder which of the acts you mention prevents conception?
Reading mucus? No.
Measuring temps? No.
Charting? No.
Having sex? No.

The one thing which prevents the act from bearing fruit is that the woman is infertile ... but the couple didn't do anything to make that happen ... and NFP didn't make the woman to be infertile.

Thus, there is nothing which prevents conception (excepting the natural cycle of the woman's body) ... and NFP is in no way contraceptive.

Father ... NFP is a means of regulating birth ... so is perpetual continence ... and neither of these "prevent" conception.
Please give a magisterial authority which states that NFP "prevents" conception.

I have already cited the Church's teaching -- NFP and contraception are "completely different".

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Fr. Gardner,
Also, your last comment about how widely NFP should be promoted is a red herring ... I'm not talking about how and when NFP should be used ... I am saying that NFP is not contraceptive (as you have explicitly stated it is [and you really should retract that statement]) nor does it carry a "contraceptive mentality".

Anonymous said...

Fr: So that you understand my background, I was born and raised in a Novus Ordo parish and continue to happily attend the “new” Mass. I am temporarily using NFP and many of my friends have used it and/or are using it for various reasons. I agree with your later points in the article about just causes. For the most part, it seems, we are agreed on the subject of NFP.

I cannot, however, agree with your point about the contraceptive mentality. I absolutely agree with you that there is nothing about NFP that is contraceptive...and I think that needs to be explained more frequently so that it is understood. In the article, though, you declare that since NFP is not contraceptive it cannot have a contraceptive mentality. Your argument seems to miss the distinction between “contraceptive” and “contraceptive mentality”.

First of all, I don't believe it is possible for NFP to have a contraceptive mentality. The mentality refers to the attitude a person or couple has – not NFP itself. I don’t think it is possible for a method of acting to possess a mentality since it is not capable of thought or attitude. The argument is generally that NFP can be USED with a contraceptive mentality.
Secondly, one can easily have the mentality or attitude of a popular movement or action WITHOUT committing the action or being a part of the movement itself. Some examples, one can have a servile or slave mentality without actually being a slave; one can have the abortion mentality without ever having actually had an abortion; one can have a liberal mentality without voting or community organizing and such; one can have a fatherly mentality without ever having been a father. There is a difference between the attitude that belongs with a specific action or state of being and the act itself or state of being itself.
The mentality has NOTHING TO DO with NFP!!! It is rather something that can coincide with the use of NFP. I disagree with those who argue that it is somehow inherently a part of the practice.

So what exactly is this “contraceptive mentality” then? There are various answers, of course, as the term has been around for decades. Generally, the "contraceptive mentality" includes taking for granted the separation of intercourse from procreation and easily applies to those who think there is a moral obligation or responsibility to not have children or to limit the number of children for whatever reason – especially those who think one has a duty to limit one’s family to zero- three children no matter what.
So just as one can have the attitude of a slave without actually being one, one can also have the attitude of the contracepting culture and contracepting couples without actually being a contracepting couple – the attitude that there is a duty to have as few kids as possible. Let’s get our token one, or our boy and girl and then stop. This is the attitude I have heard associated with the phrase “contraceptive mentality”. I will agree that it is less common than some make it sound...but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

The mentality applies not just to married couples, but to single, celibate and/or aged people as well. When Grandpa expects that son and daughter-in-law are going to stop after having their second child, that is an example of the “contraceptive mentality”. And so on. Even though it is perhaps impossible and definitely unnecessary for Grandpa to use contraception, he still subscribes to the contraceptive mentality prevalent in our culture.

Blogger cut me off so more to follow!
~ Busy Mom of Three

Anonymous said...

As a side note, reading through the comments, I realize that many people have a much more rigorous view of NFP and a misunderstanding of what the “contraceptive mentality” means...which is, I think, the reason for your post. However, rather than deny the connection it might be better to explain what exactly is meant and what is not meant by the term.

Also, just a minor point...but I disagree with you also when you say: ”The “end”, “goal”, or “intention” of contraception (speaking in terms of moral theory) is to render a particular sexual act infertile.” With barrier methods this is true. However, with hormonal contraception (which still is classified as contraception) it is not. The “end” of hormonal contraception is not related to a particular sexual act...since it must be taken periodically (daily, monthly, quarterly, etc.) without reference to the sexual act at all. The “end” of hormonal contraception seems to be a temporary overall sterility rather than the infertility of a particular act.

I will say again that I generally agree with you about NFP and I think it’s wonderful that you are teaching about it. Specifically, it is so very important for Catholics to understand WHY NFP is most definitely not contraceptive! Thank you for your ministry and vocation!
~ Busy Mom of Three

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this debate. My husband and I decided to practise NFP for what we believe to be just cause after our third child was born But have resently decided that we just don't feel comfortable with the moral implications.

We firmly believe that the marital act was intended (as the Church say) to be primarily for procreation and although we accept that in using NFP we are not actually frustrating this during the actual act. But the fact is that we are choosing to enjoy the act only when we know (or at least believe) I am infertile. In other words we are trying to do so for pleasure with no intend to procreate which seems to us wrong.

We have become used to long periods of abstinence since my husband travels a lot and because we also decided to abstain during pregnancy (which I know is unusual). So now we have decided to abstain.

I know that the Church used to say that sex was only for procreation - I can't agree with that, as not least it would condem infertile couples to abstinence (a terrible irony when they desperately want to conceive) but we both believe that unless our wish to procreate is at least as great as our desire for pleasure - then that pleasure is sinful.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Before you make a firm decision on this matter, may I recommend that the two of you consult a faithful and orthodox priest? I think it would be good to talk with him a bit about the whole situation.

Further, just fyi, St. Alphonsus Liguori (the Doctor of Moral Theology) says that we must be very careful when it comes to prolonged periods of abstinence, lest there we put ourselves into occasions of sin -- and that would mean more than simply temptation against chastity, but also any other number of frustrations that abstinence can cause in family life.
If abstinence is so difficult that it is causing us to sin (and especially in the case of the man), then we really need to rethink whether abstinence is the right choice -- and this can be difficult for men to admit, since men do not like to discuss such matters.

All that being said, if a couple feels called and has discussed the matter with a good and holy priest, there may be circumstances in which prolonged abstinence would bring spiritual benefits.
But, as I say, it is very important to talk with a wise and well informed priest (and, I might add, it would be good to consult several faithful priests -- especially if the two of you are less than 50 years of age).

Blessings to you! +

Anonymous said...

Thank you, our conviction is that the Church appears to me to be bending it's teaching to pander to secular ideas of sexual morality. 

How can it condone couples using ever more complex methods to determine when it Is "safe' to have sex ? Of course a couple so doing have a contraceptive mentality - why else do they do it ?

The fact is that a man who follows the Church, and limits his sexual release to intercourse when 'safe' will probably not be able to restrain himself during extended so called foreplay or during prolonged intercourse  So as a sop to feminist notions of sexual equality the Church has now decided that what amounts to mutual  masturbation after the act is compleat is now acceptable so that the wife is not left 'unsatisfied'    

Of course love and affection between spouses is a vital part of a successful marriage but that is not supposed to be an excuse for sin and both enjoying the marital embrace while deliberately frustrating its purpose and sexual gratification for its own sack were both once sinful. 

Thank you for your concern, I am acutely aware of how challenging abstinence is for my husband, and although  he says he finds total abstinence easier than the on off nature of prolonged NFP I realise he will need a lot of support. But fertility is a blessing from God and if we choose not to grow our family that is the sacrifice we will have to make. 

And for the record despite my comment earlier about feminism and equality of sexual pleasure although I do not believe that there is any justification for sexual stimulation which is not directed  at completing the act ias God intended let me say that abstinence is very challenging for the wife !

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I'm not sure where you are getting your ideas of what the Church does and does not teach ... but it is the height of arrogance, and truly insane pride to state that the Church is "pandering to secular ideas of sexual morality" ... how can you say such a thing?!

The Church is against mutual masturbation. The Church has never said that genital stimulation outside of intercourse is acceptable.
I have no idea why you would think that the Church says such things!

Perhaps your real problem is with Christopher West and his school ... but you must not speak so disrespectfully about our Mother the Church!

Finally, your claim - that a man practicing NFP would suffer from premature ejaculation - is ludicrous ... you should blush to write such a thing (if you are a Christian woman).

All that being said, I applaud you and your husband for desiring to live your married life in accord with the tradition of the Church and the law of God ... but don't let pride get in there (I see a lot of pride in that last comment) ... married life can be a great blessing, hence to be prideful about moral and spiritual progress in married life will lead to our downfall.

Nevertheless, blessings to you both ... persevere in doing what is good ... rejoice always in the Lord. (and do be sure to discuss the matter with at least a couple of wise and holy priests) +

David said...

Dear Father,

I stumbled across this passage in the Catholic Encyclopedia a couple of weeks ago and I think it's pertinent to the question of NFP and how it is used in some cases:

"There might be a sinful agreement between those contracting marriage which likewise nullifies their marriage — e.g., not to have more than one or two children, or not to have any children at all, until, in the judgment of the contracting parties, circumstances shall enable them to be provided for; or to divorce and marry someone else whenever they grow tired of each other. Such an agreement or condition denies the perpetual duties of matrimony, limits matrimonial rights, suspends the duty consequent on the use and exercise of those rights; if really made a sine qua non of marriage, it necessarily annuls it; the parties would wish to enjoy connubial intercourse, but evade its consequences."

It would seem that to go at a pre-determined number of children is so serious as to possibly rendering a marriage null and void. Is this correct? And here we are not talking about whether the method to be used is licit or illicit. How would this work itself into the equation?

In caritatem,

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You ask a very good question!
I think that the pertinent line is "if really made a sine qua non of marriage, it necessarily annuls it" ... i.e. if the couple resolved rather to end the marriage than to risk having more than 2 or 3 or 20 children, that would be an invalid marriage.

Most certainly, a couple does not need to actively desire to have children for whom they are not able to provide (though, a first read of the quote might seem to affirm that; this simply cannot be the case).

The marriage commitment, in other words, must not be conditional upon the number of children or the time of pregnancy.

I hope that helps a bit ... I do admit that the quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia is more than a little odd and somewhat confusing! +

Anonymous said...

Forgive me if I come across in any way proud - its certainly not the intention. Nor do we believe that the Church has redefined morality how could it? but we believe that many who call themselves Catholic have chosen to interpret Church teaching to make it more palatable to a culture which see sex largely in terms of physical gratification. 

NFP is sold as being "as effective as contraception" and immoral acts are justified in the name of the "unitive" aspect of sex. 

To illustrate the point II have read in several forum that because women have an equal "right" to sexual gratification.  it is permissible, for a couple to continue stimulation in  the "context of intercourse" that is afterwards so that the wife too may climax. 

How can this be right, it is not facilitating the act of procreation which has already taken place and as you say the Church has always taught that masturbation and stimulation outside intercourse is a sin ? 

The answer is not that it is morally acceptable or that the Church has changed its teaching. It is that people are trying to fit Church teaching into feminist notions of  female sexuality not its true God given purpose 

As you are kind enough to say all we seek is to try to stay true to hundreds of years of Church teaching.  Are we wrong to believe  that the we should restrict our intimacy to that which is truly open to procreation and no more than that ?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

ok, before you had said that "the Church appears to me to be bending it's teaching to pander to secular ideas of sexual morality".

Now, you have made it clear that you do not really mean that ... rather, certain individuals have hijacked the Church's teaching (and also the "theology of the body" of Bl. John Paul II) and have misused it for their own self-gratification.

We must never accuse the Church (or the great John Paul II) of promoting immoral behaviors ... at first you did just that, but now it is clear that you did not intend it.
Thanks be to God! :)

I applaud you and your husband for seeking to be true to the hundreds of years (we may as well say "thousands of years") of Church teaching on sexual morality within marriage.
Indeed, each and every marital act must be open to life -- and this is maintained by the use of NFP as well, which is permitted for a serious reason.

As far as your particular case -- you have asked whether you or not you are right to restrict your intimacy to only those times when you desire to have a child -- I would again recommend that you speak of the matter directly with a priest (and you can certainly feel free to contact me via email - reginaldus.ntm [at] gmail [dot] com), indeed I would recommend you speak with at least a couple of solid and orthodox priests.

My prayers are with you and your family. Please pray for me and for all priests, that we may speak the truth on such important matters! +

Anonymous said...


First let me preface all comments by saying that NFP people are my favourite in the world and I’ve never met one without the best intentions.

But.. but..I am surprised to see an Ange grad make such distinctions without a real difference. That sounds more like a Greg grad talking.

The latin word serius means grave. To suggest there is a difference is to fall into the proportionalist trap (or at least appear to be).

There needs to be a lot more talk on this because with so much cynicism among young people, it’s doubtful we’ll see a 3rd generation of NFP Catholics.

We would probably agree on why people aren’t drawn to religious life (and there have been some improvements there). But we all know good holy Catholic youths who are not contracepting who have absolutely no interest in marriage. This stuff is destroying marriages such as those at the highest levels of the CCL in Cincinnati (wait till the story breaks next month).

It’s time to consign TOB and the more gnostic elements of NFP to the dustbin.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Please use a pseudonym ... I will not post any further anonymous comments (see my comment policy on the left and also in the comment pop-up box where you make your comment).

As far as serious vs. grave ... I feel no need to enter into that debate here ... the simple fact is that Latin has two words "serius" and "gravus" ... and the word used is "serius" and "justus", not "gravus" ... after all, even the new translation of the Mass translates "dignum et iustum est" as "it is right and just" NOT "it is right and grave"! :-) [I mean this partly in jest]

Well, I'm not sure what you meant when you said "this stuff is destroying marriages" ... since you began your comment by saying that you never met an NFP couple who did not have "the best intentions" and that they are your "favorite people".

As far as the Ange and the Greg ... I did graduate from the Greg for the STB, then I was lucky enough to transfer to the Ange for the STL!
Still, trust me, the moral theologians at the Ange would not accuse NFP of having a "contraceptive mentality".

Regarding the CCL ... let us pray that the will of the Lord be accomplished, he desires the salvation of all ... a scandal would do so much damage to the faithful.
Prayer is needed here ... not prideful gloating or foreboding prophecy. +

Grace said...

Fr. Ryan,

Thank you for this article. Where can I get a reprint?

Suzanne Temple said...

Father Ryan Erlenbush,

I know this is an old article but I have only recently come across it. Thank you so much for this. It is a very helpful and enlightening article and the points you make in the comments are just as important as the article itself.

Your first commenter, a priest I believe, sent a link to a homily that has made the rounds in Catholic circles of which I have been a part. I have listened to the homily several times as I am a teacher of natural family planning and take my responsibilities seriously with regard to teaching not only the method correctly, but with a true moral perspective. After reading also Pius XII address to midwives that this priest bases his homily upon, I would like to humbly submit that the priest that gives this homily is somewhat mistaken.

There are three points I would like mention and do so while saying I am open to correction.

First, the priest quotes from a section of Pope Pius' letter that is talking about the validity of a marriage in which the couple has decided beforehand to limit intercourse to the infertile periods, the language here is very strong as you might expect concerning how serious the reason must be for such a situation to be moral. The problem is that this homily presents this language as though it applies to couples who may already have children and are discerning the use of nfp at that time.

2. The priest draws a parallel to explain what serious reasons are required to use nfp in marriage saying we are familiar with the concept serious reasons are required to miss mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. This seems a worthy parallel to say married person have a positive duty to have children, but not when considering the spacing of children. The result of our duty to attend mass is that we hardly ever miss mass and this is true for most people. So, should we hardly ever use nfp and would this be true for most people? I don't think so, as I can think of one reason that comes up frequently when raising a large family that justifies the use of nfp and that is that the couple just had a baby.

3.And this brings me to my third point, namely, that this priest quotes a section of Pius XII letter and for reasons I can not understand, skips over some very critical words. The pope says "Serious reasons, which NOT RARELY arise from medical, eugenic etc...may exempt husband and wife from the positive duty for a long period or even the duration of married life [emphasis mine]" When the priest quotes this section, he leaves out the "not rarely." I think those words are important.

Thank you, again, for an excellent article.

Burnt Marshwiggle said...

Father Ryan, if a couple uses NFP without a just cause, do we have any strong reason (e.g. documents with Magisterial credentials) to believe they have committed an objectively serious sin?

Katelyn said...

We are blessed to have so many Christian leaders preaching the word of God. Thank you for this article, and thank you for all your clarifications of those posting comments.
I have spent much time reading and praying on the topic of using NFP and sterilizations. I try to 'pick and choose' what rules to follow and what rules I can break. I wholeheartedly believe the Church upholds the word of God,
But in the end only God will be the judge of my actions and in actions.

I believe God gave us the 'gift to procreate' and I believe we are to use that gift respectfully. I do not believe in using contraceptives so that married (and sinning unmarried) couples can be sloppy in sexual gratification, therefore NFP is a wonderful alternative where couples need to be aware of their actions. The respect of boundaries is a lesson that needs to be learned in early marriage and while growing a family.

I condone the men and women that freely use contraceptives to avoid the 'consequences' of sin through sexual acts, but I believe God will have mercy on me for the choices I will soon have to make to prevent further pregnancies.

God has given me the gift of creating children. I will soon have four; they are beautiful and gracious. There are children being born everyday- not because they are gifs from God, but because people are abusing God's gift to create.

I have been advised not to use my body for more of God's creation. My body has been stressed to its limits, and ought not to have more children using God's gift to me. I am trying to be responsible with the gifts God has given me.

My husband and I want to add more to our family, but it cannot be through my body. If God wants our family to grow- as both my husband I hope that God does, God will send us children through other means. We will accept those gifts with open hearts.

Anonymous said...

Father Ryan,

Thank you so much for this post! My husband and I are newly weds and using NFP because I am in Medical school and so finances are tight. I always so tired of people expressing to me that my reasons weren't "serious" enough but I always responded by telling them that was for my husband and me to decide. I stumbled upon this while trying to look more into NFP and what a blessing it is for the church to have given us this method and letting us decide for ourselves when we need to use it. It is not for anyone else to point what is just and serious for any other couple but themselves. I've also never like the phrase "contraceptive mentality", if we were to have a contraceptive mentality we be actually using contraception. Thanks again for the post and your wisdom!


Lisa De Ruyter said...

This article is dead wrong and here is what the Church teaches on the USCCB site ...for using NFP and NFP must be used for serious and grave (just) reasons. http://old.usccb.org/prolife/issues/nfp/seriousq.shtml

Lisa De Ruyter said...

Married couples today are not using NFP for serious or just or grave reasons. They are using it for selfishness and materialism. They tell you straight up, that they want a house, cars, education, etc.. etc... etc.. and only want a couple children, when they decide they have all they want first.
“No, no, not more than one child, because otherwise we will not be able to go on holiday, we will not be able to go out, we will not be able to buy a house. It’s all very well to follow the Lord, but only up to a certain point. This is what economic wellbeing does to us: we all know what wellbeing is, but it deprives us of courage, of the courage we need to get close to Jesus. This is the first richness of the culture of today, the culture of economic wellbeing”.

There is also, he added, “another richness in our culture”, another richness that prevents us from getting close to Jesus: it’s our fascination for the temporary”. We, he observed, are “in love with the provisional”. We don’t like Jesus’s “definitive proposals”. Instead we like what is temporary because “we are afraid of God’s time” which is definitive.

“He is the Lord of time; we are the masters of the moment. Why? Because we are in command of the moment: I will follow the Lord up to this point, and then I will see… I heard of a man who wanted to become a priest - but only for ten years, not any longer…” Attraction for the provisional: this is a richness. We want to become masters of time, we live for the moment. These two riches are the ones that, in this moment, prevent us from going forward. I think of so many men and women who have left their land to work throughout their lives as missionaries: that is definitive!”.

And, he said, I also think of so many men and women who “have left their homes to commit to a lifelong marriage”, that is “to follow Jesus closely! It’s the definitive”. The temporary, Pope Francis stressed, “is not following Jesus”, it’s “our territory”.

Text from pagehttp://en.radiovaticana.va/.../en1-695924

Lisa De Ruyter said...

Michael Vortex here is saying NFP is taught in the church today to be used like birth control........"a contraception light".....people say..."Hey look we Catholics can have sex and avoid pregnancey just like the contraceptive culture, but we don't use articifical methods so we are sqaure with God".....http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxbj73PmbY8&feature=c4-overview&list=UUX17igkZ9JhU64JoTBVSWeQ

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You have an amazing ability to read souls, I guess? Is that how you are able to judge and condemn thousands of Catholics whom you have never met? How do you know that they all are using NFP for selfish reasons?

Extremists like you give the conservative and traditional Catholic a bad name ... I too believe that we need to teach about the just reasons (iustae causae) for NFP - that it is not a free-for-all ... but that blanket condemnation you spew will only make people dismiss traditional Catholicism as judgmental and narrow.

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