Real Sex vs. the Contraceptive Mentality (Part 4 & Conclusion)

[Continued from Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3]

NFP and the Contraceptive Mentality

In concluding this series, I’d like to address the question which originally set me on on this overly extended journey: Is it possible for users of Natural Family Planning to have a “contraceptive mentality” and if so what does that mean in the context of NFP?

I’ve described the contraceptive mentality as: The idea that having sex and reproducing are two activities with no necessary connection, that having sex in no way suggests a desire or willingness to have children with the person you are having sex with.

At root, I think that NFP is formulated in such a way as to be in direct opposition to the contraceptive mentality. According to an understanding of sexuality rooted in human instinct and biological reality, the way to avoid conceiving children is to not have sex. This is also the means of avoiding conception which is considered acceptable by the Church in the context of its understanding of the moral nature of sexuality. NFP is considered morally acceptable by the Church for the reason that it consists of avoiding pregnancy by not having sex, with the modern refinement of allowing the married couple to understand with a certain degree of confidence when it is that they need to avoid having sex in order to avoid conception. Rather than abstaining all the time in order to avoid pregnancy, the couple can abstain for between a quarter and half out of the woman’s cycle, and achieve the same result with relative certainty.

For us as human persons, this requires a degree of self mastery over our natural instincts. The modern NFP-using married couple finds itself in a situation (well housed and fed by historical standards, healthy, and lying in bed with a member of the opposite sex with whom one would certainly not object to having conjugal relations) which would seem to scream: Have sex! Reproduce! But for various prudent reasons arrived at by human reason, they may well consider it important at a given time to overcome that instinct and abstain for a portion out of each month in order to avoid having children for a time.

However, while this use of periodic abstinence to avoid pregnancy does not necessarily involve the contraceptive mentality, indeed emphasizes quite the opposite, I think that as NFP-using couples we do find ourselves subject to the temptations of the wider culture in this regard.

The assumption which has, over the last 80+ years since the use of artificial birth control became widespread, become so basic to our culture as to be completely unspoken and unconscious, even among those of us who see ourselves as standing in opposition to it, is that a happily married husband and wife will have a “good sex life” consisting of regular marital relations, sometimes passionate or creative, sometimes comfortable and familiar, which expresses the couples love and affection for one another. Even for those of us who see fertility as a part of our marriage equal to and related to conjugal bliss, it’s nearly impossible to shake the feeling of, “We’re married; we should be able to do this.”

Some NFP guides try to soften and direct this frustration: During the fertile part of the cycle, if you are delaying pregnancy, is a great time for date nights and cuddling and other non-sexual expressions of affection.

The message seems to be that one should somehow be able to channel all of one’s desire for sex into the non-fertile periods of the cycle. You, as an NFP user can have sex whenever you want, if only you can first have the first have the self control to only want it when you can have it! And you should be able to do this, because marriage isn’t just about sex. Just be organized enough to schedule the non-sexual parts of your marital relationship for the fertile parts of the wife’s cycle.

I think this overly optimistic view of NFP misses a basic understanding of human nature which we ignore to our own confusion and frustration: We are as creatures designed to “want” to reproduce a good deal more than we as thinking human beings desire to, and going against our instincts in this realm requires a degree of self denial which is often experienced as frustration or unhappiness. We are unlikely to feel entirely satisfied while practicing NFP because practicing it means denying our instincts.

This is particularly hard for us in the modern world because the understanding of sex which existed before the 20th century is remote and nearly irrecoverable for us — the understanding which saw it as something of a double-edged sword, intensely pleasurable but at the same time as potentially high in cost. If the relationships of prior centuries often seem to our modern eyes a bit distant or dour, it is in part because it is impossible for us to recover the real sense of potential cost which applied to sexual intercourse — both because pregnancy is less risky now and because even for those who have never in their lives used contraception the idea that “we should be able to have sex” is inescapable.

I don’t think that this is in any way a strike against NFP. Certainly, it makes the spacing of children easier upon a couple than not having the ability to read the signs of fertility, and I think that the reduced sense of risk or fear surrounding sex is indeed a good thing for marital relationships. However, we must at the same time understanding that in seeking to apply prudence to our reproduction, and do so without use of artificial means which separate sex and reproduction, we necessarily will have to exert a degree of self control which will result in some degree of difficulty and frustration. If we deceive ourselves that such things can be achieved without difficulty, we set ourselves up for nothing but frustration and disappointment.

For those of us who reject artificial contraception, not getting pregnant requires not having sex, and not having sex means denying one’s natural desires, which, as any dieter can tell you, requires self denial which is not always pleasant.

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  1. Isn’t it true that the self denial is linked to income and increases with lower and lower income? Indeed the very rich Catholic of the level of a Mel Gibson (cited here only for the income and number of children aspect) do not even have to resort to NFP nor do they have to self deny in this area. Far on the other extreme is the poor Catholic in mainland China in those areas wherein the one child policy is brutally enforced so that after one child, the couple can be coerced physically into an abortion if NFP fails in their case for several decades straight. This area is so serious for particularly the Chinese that I will never comprehend how no Pope has worked on this in terms of an ex cathedra encyclical
    to resolve all doubts that arise thus far in the ordinary magisterium. Indeed few Popes have actually written about this (about 8 out of the 265 total) and the ones long ago wrote only fragments. It was more theologians (principally Augustine ( as Fr. Hardin noted) and canon law after several early councils.
    For the high stakes that the Chinese must face, Popes should have made this a priority
    as to facing this area with a view toward an ex cathedra encyclical or admit that they are not sure enough for that level. The rich need not sacrifice in this area but the Chinese couple face enormous fines and forced abortion in some provinces.

  2. Bill, even for rich Catholics, there are valid other reasons to delay additional children. In Mel Gibson’s case, even if he were still living with his actual wife, his alcoholism could constitute serious reason. I know more than one couple where there is grave mental illness that looks (at least from the outside) as appropriate reason for employing NFP to avoid pregnancy.

    Also, while the general standard of NFP is that you use it to avoid pregnancy “for a time”, that standard is subject to common sense. If the condition that causes the problem that presents serious reason for delaying another child is something that, at least with respect to natural causes, is expected to be permanent, the couple’s use of NFP would be under the same understanding: to avoid pregnancy permanently, unless a miracle solves the problem.

  3. Tony
    You are talking of exceptional cases in regard to mental illness. And drinkers like Mel who are rich do not ask what is prudent in this area because they underestimate their problem…since they are bringing in millions.
    Mia Farrow, Madonna, Angelina Jolie…most of the wealthy can have children and adopt also with no practice of birth control or nfp and no self denial…which is the case too with those Catholic who are sterile by nature. There is no encyclical telling the naturally sterile to abstain. Work stress by nature limits over doing this area unless there is the rare mental disorder around this issue.
    And on top of that, Angelina Jolie gave to Haiti 4 times the donation amount of money that the Vatican gave to Haiti. That is real wealth.

    All couples in parts of China have the exact opposite situation on a non exceptional basis. After one child they must use something to prevent a second child which will be killed in some provinces. Yet Scripture told some of the more passionate ones… “it is better to marry than to burn” …(with desire).

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