Natural Family Planning is NOT Catholic Contraception
NFP and the Telos of Sex
Father Tad Pacholczyk
May 2011. Married Catholics today often struggle to understand the moral difference between using contraceptives to avoid a pregnancy and using natural family planning (NFP). NFP relies on sexual abstinence during fertile periods in a woman’s cycle, as assessed by various indicators like cervical mucus or changes in body temperature. To many, the Church’s prohibition of contraception seems to be at odds with its acceptance of NFP because in both cases, the couple’s intention is to avoid children. That intention, however, is not the problem, as long as there are, in the words of Pope Paul VI, “serious motives to space out births.” Dietrich von Hildebrand puts it this way: “The intention of avoiding conception does not imply irreverence as long as one does not actively interfere in order to cut the link between the conjugal act and a possible conception.”
That link between the conjugal act and a possible conception is a key source of meaning for our human sexuality. Sex, by its very nature, involves the capacity and driving energy to produce offspring. Anyone in a high school biology class already understands this. We are able to recognize the purpose (or “telos”) of many different processes in the world: the telos of fire is to generate heat and to consume combustibles; the telos of an acorn is to become an oak tree; the telos of human sexuality is to draw man and woman together to procreate and raise children in the family unit. William May observes, “This is the meaning objectively rooted in the marital act itself and intelligibly discernible in it; it is not a meaning arbitrarily imposed upon or given to the act.” Seeing the telos of a process can reveal authentic goods to us which can then guide the moral choices we make.
Any time a married couple engages in sexual activity that has been intentionally rendered infertile by contraception, they are powerfully acting against the telos of the sexual act they share. Elizabeth Anscombe notes how their act is no longer “the kind of act by which life is transmitted, but is purposely rendered infertile, and so changed to another sort of act altogether.” Contraception strikes at the heart of the marital act. When a couple impedes the inherent procreative powers of that act through the use of a condom, a pill or other means, they are engaging in disruptive and contradictory behavior by seeking to perform the act on the one hand, while simultaneously blocking it on the other.
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