Avoiding jargon, please can you explain "being open to life" to a non-Catholic?

I have searched for this topic and found some useful answers. However, nothing that answers my exact questions, so please bear with me.

I understand what Catholic teaching is on every sexual act being open to life and not separating the unitive and procreative functions of sex. However, what I am struggling with is why this the church’s teaching.

As we all know, to maintain a replacement level of reproduction, every woman has to give birth to 2.1 live young. Given that the planet is now dangerously overpopulated, let us assume that every woman should be aiming to give birth to at most 2 live young. I am a woman, and I understand that a woman doesn’t get pregnant every time she has sex, but let’s work on the basis that for most women, getting pregnant twice in a lifetime isn’t that difficult.

What I am therefore wondering is why every sexual act has to have the potential of bringing about new life. As long as a sperm cell can successfully make contact with an egg a few times over one’s lifetime, I don’t see why it matters what happens to your partner’s sperm cells on all the other occasions. A healthy male human produces millions of sperm cells every single day. Given that he only has to ejaculate a few hundred million of them into his wife’s vagina to get her pregnant, I don’t understand why it matters where/how the other hundreds of billions of sperm cells get ejaculated.

My second question is, why is “natural family planning” considered moral, given that it is essentially a method of contraception? I do understand that NFP does not involve using artificial means to reduce the likelihood of pregnancy, and I also understand that it is said that it is not immoral merely to abstain from sex for a few days per month.

However, this doesn’t really sound quite right to me. It sounds a clever argument to justify something that doesn’t quite make sense. Proponents of NFP are keen to argue that it is a fairly reliable method of birth control, albeit one that is moral and natural. But if a couple are making sure that they only have sex on the days of the month when they can be reasonably certain that pregnancy will not ensue, is this not basically a method of contraception? The way I see it is that the couple still has what you might call a “contraceptive attitude”. They are not really “open to life”. If they were really open to life, surely they would just be having sex all the time and not giving any consideration to the woman’s fertility at different stages of her monthly cycle. The fact that they are carefully taking her temperature and checking her cervical mucus in order to avoid her getting pregnant really makes it sound like they are trying to avoid pregnancy and are therefore not really open to life.

Please remember that I am not a Catholic, although I am actively enquiring into Catholicism, as well as other denominations of Christianity, and I simply want to understand each one as best as possible before committing myself to any kind of religious conversion.

Thank you.

For the first question, it is because the justification of marriage, and the purpose of sex itself, the whole reason why it is seen as such a great good, is procreation and the raising of children. This is the primary reason for marriage, as seen in Genesis. Because this is why it was established, this is how it should be used. That is how I would simply explain it. It is also why all unnatural sex acts are gravely evil and degenerate.

For the second, because the act itself doesn’t inherently contradict the first response I gave. If people do it without justification, it is wrong though. If a couple intended to avoid having children by using NFP all their marriage, it would be wrong and I believe an invalid marriage. Check with someone else on that last bit though. So no, a true contraceptive mentality is not allowed. NFP is to be used for a just cause, like poverty, health, inability to raise more children well, etc. Not just “I don’t ever want kids.”

The Church teaches that each marital act must be ordered toward procreation…

“Open to life” is, as you know, inexact, subjective and confusing. It is super popular, but, stick with the Church’s precise terms


Hi, this is a common question and I will do my best to avoid jargon.
There may be people who come behind me and offer a slightly different perspective.

God gave the sexual union to man and woman as a big part of the man and woman, having become married, to complete the process of two becoming one. In it’s proper and intended form the sexual act, takes on a spiritual quality. It is a big component of being married. It unites the couple in a way that nothing else can, at least in the beginning of their journey. It is a thing of beauty.

Out of this beauty and love, an even more precious gift can arrive in the form of life! After two becoming one you have a child, a living soul given as another precious gift and then you have a reflection of the Holy Family, a thing that you would gladly give your life to protect.

Birth control and recreational sex especially outside of marriage takes this Holy gift and diminishes it from what God intended it to be. It is a temptation for all of us, but it is one of the things that separates us from the beasts God put on Earth for our service and his Glory. That is the gift of free will.

I hope you find this helpful. I am very glad you dropped in to ask. Please stick around and learn more.
Pax Christie


If you have sex (presumably within marriage), have it in the manner that might lead to procreation, and be ready to welcome any children that might be conceived.

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It has to do with purposefulness, integrity and the Divine plan.

We are creatures, created by God, and given immense integrity - able to receive divine grace and become transformed into God Himself. So, we have these gifts from heaven. Human life is so sacred, so precious - Jesus preferred the greatest suffering rather than to have us abandoned, lost or confused about our destiny.
Our destiny is heaven. That is the pearl-of-great price. We would sacrifice anything to have it.
Life is a gift from God. It does not really belong to us. Our very self was created by Him - for His reasons and His plan.
We have a body that carries out certain functions. Each for a reason as established by God.
Sexuality is for procreation. It has a function of joining spouses together, but that is secondary. It’s not even absolutely necessary (as with Joseph and Mary, among many couples through history who were celibate).
So, we approach sexuality with respect for what it is, and what God intends.
The analogy seems fitting - we love the flavor and pleasure of food, but food has meaning as nutrition first, not as pleasure. We do not eat and force a vomit to gain more pleasure of sensation. That’s like contraception - taking just the pleasure and excluding the meaning and purpose of the act.
Regarding NFP, a couple could use that technique in an anti-life manner as you suggest – and as such, that is sinful.
The purpose of marriage is self-giving.
In my experience, in today’s world - many believe:
Sex is about “my pleasure”.
Sex is of “extreme and highest importance” among all matters of life.
Sex is a mandate. Refraining from it is thought to be utterly impossible and absurd.
Sex determines the meaning of the relationship, the value of it and the reason for it.
Sex must result in ever increasing quantity and pleasure, using every means possible.
A lack of sex satisfaction is grounds for divorce.
Children are a problem because they interfere with pleasures.

There’s more like that - all a result of paganized worldviews. Fed by the mass-media.

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Anti abortion

@Mythicalbio Thank you. That does go some way towards explaining things for me, especially with regard to the circumstances under which NFP is permissible.

@Mythicalbio, @esieffe I have to admit, I am still not clear why every single sexual act has to be oriented towards procreation.

Suppose a man and woman marry when they are both 25 years old and want to have two children. It would probably suit them to try to plan the children for when they are, say, 30 and 32 years old. That’s a stage in their lives when they are mature enough and financially secure enough to support a family and be good parents, yet not so old that the woman has to worry about reduced fertility or that they have to worry about still having dependent children when they are in their late 50s or early 60s.

That being the case, I’m not sure why it matters what kind of sexual activities they enjoy outside of the two periods of a few months each time during which the woman is hoping to get pregnant. If a couple enjoy activities such as fellatio and masturbation, or sex using a condom, I am not sure why that is a problem as long as the woman is able to get pregnant as many times as she wants to. Also, during pregnancy, the chance of the woman becoming pregnant again (superfetation) is virtually non-existent. Therefore, I cannot see that it makes any difference at all what kinds of sexual activities people enjoy during pregnancy, since becoming pregnant again is basically not possible anyway.

Sorry, but that doesn’t really explain anything to me at all. I wasn’t asking about abortion. The Catholic Church’s position on abortion is very clear. The use of non-abortifacient methods of contraception and the enjoyment of sexual practices that involve ejaculation outside the vagina have nothing to do with abortion, unless you regard a sperm cell as a human being.

As others have said in this thread, there are two aspects to the marital act: procreative and unitive. As you rightly pointed out, these two cannot be deliberately separated. The marital act is supposed to be a giving of oneself, including one’s fertility, to the other. When one contracepts, that giving of self is no longer part of the act. In fact, there is a deliberate withholding of one’s fertility during a contraceptive act. This withholding of one’s fertility changes the dynamic of the act from one of giving to one of taking. A contraceptive act says in effect, “I do not want to give myself to you, I want to take whatever pleasure I can from you.” In essence, the individual treats the the other as merely a plaything for their own enjoyment. This denies the dignity of the person, which the Church objects to. You merely become a thing during a contraceptive act, and are not treated as a person with inherent dignity.



Say it’s a sin. What’s the sin technically? That you refused to have sex? That you know that you’re fertile?

Okay, but in all seriousness, it’s because you’re not using your bodies in a way that actively prevents life. You’re having sex normally, you’re just not fertile that day.

The sin isn’t preventing pregnancy when we’re talking about contraception. It’s working against it. With artificial contraception and certain sex acts, you’re using hormones, barriers or methods to avoid conception in that act. With NFP, you’re having sex, and you’re not preventing conception, it’s just that there’s no conception going on.

The issue would be their mindset, not the nfp in itself. Nfp is morally neutral.

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I’ll be honest. It doesn’t make sense if one doesn’t really care about natural law, or whether things are being used in a disordered way.

It’s considered wrong because that’s simply not the purpose of sex. When you separate the two purposes of sex, it becomes lust.

The Church doesn’t mandate that married couples " have sex all the time", or have sex X times a month, or have sex on fertile days, or have sex at all (assuming they’re both in agreement that they don’t want to have sex).

“Contraceptive attitude” is something between the person and their confessor. (NOT the business of other Catholics.) It refers to the motivation for not having sex rather than the fact that you’re not having it. If for example you are practicing NFP because of concerns about one spouse’s health or the ability to provide for another child while you finish school, that’s reasonable. If you’re practicing NFP because you hate the idea of kids and got married never wanting any, your attitude is a problem.

If I try to say it in my own words, I’d say that it’s because sex is the way we humans get the extraordinary gift of sharing - and cooperating with - God’s life-creating joy. Take away the life-creating joy part, and, even without any moral consideration, the perspective is deeply changed (I’d say “thwarted” from my point of view).

Eta: it doesn’t really matter if the couple is in a fertile period or not, whether they’re fertile at all or not. What matters is, I think, the intention and the desire that intercourse is oriented towards and part of something much bigger, higher and holier than itself.

Eta2 : although I’m turning away from my Protestant tradition, I still find helpful the way Luther defined sin as what is “incurvatus in se” (“closed on itself” as opposed to open to, and relying and dependent on, God). Contracepted sex, to me, is a perfect example of an act which is “incurvatus in se”.

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There are two good analogies…

First, digestion (ordered towards sustaining the individual human, which has pleasure as a motivating factor). To eat, then to induce vomiting, then to continue this for the sake of having the pleasure of eating without having its natural effect (the completion of the digestive process - even if the body does not take all the nutrients available due to some inhibiting condition or even disease), would be wrong, no? It’s quite intuitive.

The second would be lying. The faculty of communication is ordered by its nature towards conveying truth to the mind of another. When we use it to do the opposite, we do something immoral. We could, however, choose not to speak except when most advantageous.

There is a serious issue with the way NFP is treated in the broader framework of morals… I will grant you that… but these considerations above at least moves in the right direction. The sexual faculty is ordered towards human generation (rather than self-sustenance or conveying truth). When one uses the faculty in a way specifically designed, according to the essential character of the act itself, one completely destroys the natural order. Why is that bad? Well, God put that faculty in us so that human generation would occur. When we make sure that it cannot, again, according to the very nature of the act itself rather than due to a defect of the system outside of one’s control, there is a direct offense against God’s wisdom and goodness in designing and bestowing that faculty on us.

Also - regarding overpopulation - well, let’s say that this is much less of a concern than many would have you think.

I think the Church would say that this attitude is problematic in and of itself. “We want to have precisely two children” as opposed to “we’ll accept and welcome the children God sends us.” That doesn’t mean that the couple is obligated to try to have as many children as possible, but it does mean they need to accept that it’s not always about them and their desires.

Too often, modern would-be parents treat kids like consumer products. “We want to have exactly two, one boy and one girl.” or “Oh, the ultrasound showed this one is defective in some way. Let’s send it back and try again.” Kids aren’t a new pair of jeans you’ve ordered. They’re not products for you to tailor to your whim.

Again, I’m not saying that a couple has to intentionally have a huge family. If it’s not a good time for them to have a kid for some reason, they can practice NFP.

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Nope. Let’s look at it with an analogous example. You’re comparing “contraception” with “abstinence”, right? Ok, then… let’s compare “eating disorders” with “dieting”. Would you say “isn’t ‘going on a diet’ essentially the same thing as ‘an eating disorder’?” Of course not! In the former, one is actively attempting to thwart the operation of the body and deny its proper function; in the latter, one is merely practicing physical discipline, without any desire to interfere with the healthy workings of the body.

No… what you’re describing isn’t “openness to life” so much as it is “attempting to get pregnant.” Catholics aren’t required to “attempt to get pregnant” on any sort of schedule.

On the other hand, did you know that NFP methods are used to help couples who want to conceive? And it’s very good at achieving that goal, too!

I appreciate that that is what the Catholic Church presumably teaches (I am taking your word for it that this is Catholic teaching). However this simply does not reflect the experience of the billions of couples who do use contraception (and also the experience of the millions of same-sex couples for whom fertility is not an issue). In my own marriage, I certainly do not think that there is any lack of self-giving. I would reject entirely the notion that my husband and I just want to take whatever pleasure we can or that we use each other as playthings for our own enjoyment. I do not think there is anything undignified about our sex life. Obviously the Catholic Church would disagree, but, in that case, what the Catholic Church says simply does not reflect reality as I experience it.

Yes, that may well be the crux of the argument. As a non-Catholic, I do not view the world in terms of natural law. If my husband and I can enjoy sex without my getting pregnant every year, and if we enjoy sexual activities that cannot lead to pregnancy, I simply regard that as something we do because we love each other and because we enjoy it. For me, sex is mostly about love and enjoyment, not about reproduction. On the rare occasions over the course of my fertile lifespan when I may wish to get pregnant, sex can also lead to pregnancy. I presumably see things this way because I do not subscribe to a natural law view of the world.

Yes, a Catholic priest did once say to me that people who don’t want to have children can’t get married. I didn’t agree with him. I know plenty of couples who got married not wanting to have children (or not able to, on account of being a same-sex couple and hence unable to conceive naturally with each other). As a non-Catholic, I don’t regard having children as an essential part of marriage. I would regard it as an optional extra for those who want them. I think of marriage as mostly being about love, friendship, companionship, having somebody to share your life with.

It means realizing that by having sex, you could have child. It means being in a financially responsible place before having a child. It means arranging your life to be prepared for a child.

It means treating sex with respect. It means treating your partner with respect. It means choosing a partner you are excited to raise a child with.

It means not treating sex like a game. It means not treating it like Russian Roulette, where a pregnancy will be a devastating burden. It means not using chemicals and barriers to prevent a burdensome pregnancy.

It means not placing yourself in a situation where killing an innocent child seems like the best option.

Being open to life means respecting oneself, one’s partner, and one’s future family, putting their needs and best interests before your own.

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Yes, I can see that if you believe in God, and you believe that that is all part of God’s plan for his creation, that would make sense. I have to admit, “life-creating joy” does not really feature in my perspective. At most, I am happy to experience some “life-creating joy” once or twice and the rest of the time just enjoy having sex for its own sake.

I see your point, but it seems a very strange analogy to me. I guess the problem is that I just don’t see the world the same way a Catholic does. I don’t regard having sex with contraception (or other kinds of sex that cannot lead to pregnancy, e.g. fellatio or masturbation) as being in any way similar to vomiting. I regard it as being something people do because they are in love, because they are attracted to each other, because it’s pleasurable, because it’s fun. And then, on the one or two occasions that one may wish to get pregnant, one can ditch the contraception, hold off on the fellatio and so on, and get pregnant.

I would say that that is only one of the functions of the sexual faculty.

Well, environmentalists such as David Attenborough seem to think that overpopulation is a serious concern.

@RolandThompsonGunner I would agree that children should not be regarded as consumer products. For example, I think it is awful that people are able to abort a child because of a disability. Certainly if I were to become pregnant at a less than convenient time, or if I were to become pregnant and find out that my child was disabled, I would not consider an abortion. Visiting Catholic countries, I do think it is wonderful that one sees a lot more people who obviously were born with disabilities, as it does show that these societies are much more open to accepting human life in all its varieties. I also find it horrifying that some Asian countries have massive demographic problems due to selective abortion of females.

This is something I keep reading, as if couples who use contraception (or engage in activities that do not lead to pregnancy, such as oral sex) do not respect each other. Eventually, it begins to sound quite offensive. My husband and I respect each other hugely. So do most of the couples we know. In couples where there is a lack of respect, I would not say that contraception is the main issue. Sometimes one partner coerces the other into having sex without contraception against their wishes, but this is always part of a larger problem in the relationship. I also observe a lot of respect in same-sex couples, where contraception is obviously not an issue.

I would agree with that. My husband and I have always agreed that in the event of an accidental pregnancy we would not consider abortion an option.

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