Even articulate Catholics often fail to discern why abstinence from intercourse during a woman’s fertile period is not the ethical equivalent of contraception. It is a common assumption that choosing to come together conjugally during a time of infertility while abstaining from marital privileges during a time of fertility is morally the same as using any other means to prevent conception. The two things may at first blush appear to be equivalent but the difference is substantial. For one thing, though people can and do use the timing of fertile/infertile periods with a contraceptive intent, the practice is not **in itself **contraceptive: that is, it does not interrupt, subvert, block or distort a natural act of intercourse. Recognizing the pastoral need, Humanae Vitae urged medical science to find acceptable methods that may be employed during times when couples must, for good reason, avoid pregnancy. Without such knowledge, the only option would be total abstinence.
Leaving aside St. Paul’s permission for couples to abstain temporarily from marital relations in order to pray (I Cor. 7:5), our bodies state a ‘theology of the flesh,’ so to speak. The theology of contraception is that we are in charge rather than God. NFP, working in harmony with, not against, natural law, uses God’s own design to help us when we believe that we must avoid a pregnancy for well grounded reasons: i.e., for compelling physical or psychological considerations or because of some external circumstance (as stated in HV 16). We play by God’s rules.1
Refraining from the pleasure of our sexuality because we choose to forego the consequences of our fertility, reveals to us in a deep and poignant way that the pleasure and the life are intrinsically united.
It would be beggarly to confuse permission to use NFP with endorsement of it for purely self-centered motives. The sometimes terrifying ideal of complete openness to life (to which few of us aspire, and even fewer achieve) is to yield our lives wholly to God, to trust him with our fertility, and to trust that he will provide for the children he brings into the world through our obedience. Yet even obedience must accord with stewardship and prudence, hence Humanae Vitae’s pastoral offering of a godly way to achieve this end.
NFP allows total mutual self giving between the couple. Contraception rejects the totality of the mutual gift of trust and of self. NFP requires a mutual decision and mutual discipline and cannot be practiced solo – another feature that is more consonant with the union of the couple than many contraceptive methods.
Janet E. Smith, Professor and Chair of Life Issues at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, says that, if you ask a couple who think NFP is nothing more than a “Catholic contraceptive” why they don’t use it, since it is safe and effective, the answer is likely to be: “Oh, but that would be completely different!”
You would think that the statistics regarding marital satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, sense of personal well-being, and the almost non-existent divorce rate among practitioners of NFP would capture the attention of a world of broken homes and rampant single-parenthood.