Thank you, Bear, for this guest post! Bear has been a semi-frequent semi-anonymous commenter of this blog from its beginning who is:
- a Philosopher with interests in logic and analytic philosophy
- interested in early music, opera, film, swimming and riding
- owned by a bossy cat
"Reading this other US based blogs, there seems to be a bit of contention among Catholics in the US about the use of NFP and whether it is equivalent to using artificial contraception, and whether it permissible to use. There is a lot of discussion about the Ends - the procreative and unitative aspects of marriage and the "marriage debt". While such a discussion is often helpful and illuminating, it obviously does not answer the entire question: a more rigourous person could argue that when engaged in sex, the couple should actively intend both ends.
I think that it could be useful to consider why the Church considers Artificial Contraception wrong.
What is the problem with Artificial Contraception?
The difference between NFP and other fertility control is that NFP does not disrupt the natural function of the body or the act. Other fertility control methods either engage in post facto acts of violence (abortion and IUDs) or inhibit the act (condoms and some forms of the pill).
In a Thomist context to remove or to disrupt a natural and good function or ability is disordered: it equivalent to mutilation, such as amputation: one does not cut off a finger for cosmetic reasons, but if it has gangrene then one cuts it off to save the person. This is also the reason why intoxication, whether from alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, crack, heroin &c., is also wrong - because it inhibits the faculty of reason, and often has other side effects.
While this does not mean disordered acts are automatically prohibited and can not be done, there are a couple of consequences. This act can not be the primary reason. That is, it can not be done on its own or be the actual end of an action. There needs to be a good reason for the act. If there is a greater good - for example, saving the life of someone with gangrene - then this mutilation is permissible for that greater good. This is the principle of "Double Effect".
What does this mean for artificial contraception? It means that things like the pill can not be used for contraception, but can be therapeutic reasons to assist a women. Consider, a women is under significant stress and she has menses every two weeks and is becoming anaemic. She is can take medicine to control her menses to ensure that she stays healthy.
My mother used to say about the pill "You don't give medicine to healthy people" - especially if it is to stop their natural functions.
Thus, given that NFP does not alter any natural function and is in the context of marriage, there is nothing disordered with the means. So any objections to NFP will be in the intent of NFP.
Intent is the purpose of the action (or inaction). Knowledge, while intrinsically good, it a double edged sword. We can use knowledge for good or evil. So while the action of something may not be intrinsically morally disordered, the context and the purposes maybe. For example, genetic sequencing of a virus.
Good if the intent is to find a treatment and a possible immunisation for the virus.
Evil if the intent to determine the best way to genetically engineer the virus so that no one will have immunity then to weaponise this pathogen. The action in each case is the same - sequencing a virus. But the intent is vastly different.
Similarly, NFP uses a body of knowledge about human physiology that allow a couple to know when they are fertile. How the couple use this knowledge is really up to them, and one will have to judge on their intent.
The most common object to the intent of NFP seems to be that its use is rejecting God's providence, and not showing trust in Him. This is a rather narrow view of God's providence. It also ignores that God has given us reason, and the desire for knowledge and the ability to understand our world. God's providence means that we use our abilities and talents cooperating with the Almighty's plans - the parable of the Talents certainly emphasises that. There are a number of stories and jokes about Gods providence, such as rescuing a man from flood or winning the lottery. There are two points made with these stories. We are expected to exercise our natural reason and talents. It is not a passive acceptance of the divine will and that angels will do our work for us.
God may work in ways we do not expect or understand. Consider a couple who decide that they will trust in God's providence and not work or actively seek a means of living to support their family. We would not consider that an appropriate view of God's providence. We would certainly not think this is an example worth emulating and promoting: and telling couples who are working that they wrong because they are not trusting in God's providence.
This is a rather old problem - the Apostle Paul had this difficulty in some of his own converts, who refused work to trust in God's providence. As the Apostle wrote in 2 Thessalonians 3:10-13. While we were with you, we gave this order: “If anyone doesn't want to work, he shouldn't eat.” We hear that some of you are living in idleness. You are not busy working you are busy interfering in other people's lives! We order and encourage such people by the Lord Jesus, the Messiah, to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers, do not get tired of doing what is right. So if one wants to say that NFP is not trusting in God's providence, one will have to argue that using the knowledge of human physiology and fertility is somehow disordered.
The usual approach is to argue that NFP intrinsically promotes a "contraceptive mentality". Unfortunately, this is a very vague accusation and since it usually comes as an assertion without arguments, it is difficult to know what it actually means. While, yes, it can be used for contraception, the couple could also abstain altogether, or have a "Josephite Marriage" for contraceptive reasons. I rarely find those opposed to NFP also opposed to "Josephite" marriages.
NFP is also used to assist couples to conceive - again this knowledge is good. If one is opposed NFP for birth spacing, is one also opposed to it for this reason? If so, why? The problem is that the knowledge is there and it is up to the couple how they use that knowledge. To attack NFP is to fundamentally question the motives and virtue of those involved without providing an argument stronger then "I don't like it". This is not really a good argument.
When Jesus, our Divine Master, was teaching, he criticised the Pharisees for placing heavy burdens upon people and not lifting a finger to help them. I think He was also speaking directly to us: warning us that we should not lay burdens upon people without considering how it will affect them or providing them with the means to carry the burden. We should also take the Apostle's instruction seriously in getting on with our own lives and work and not interfere with other people's lives.
So unless there is a solid argument that using NFP is disordered, we should not place another burden upon families. Yes, we should trust in the providence of God, but God gave us reason, knowledge and intelligence. These are the highest faculties given in creation, and these are to be used to cooperate with God's providence."