Monday, June 10, 2013


I've never liked contraception. Even as a kid, I thought it was kind of weird. I think this probably came from my general unhappiness and discomfort with sexuality. A lot of my reasons for thinking that contraception was immoral were flawed (like that sex can only be "selfless" if it creates life), but the general dislike of contraception was there. As such, learning that natural law condemns contraception was not strange or shocking to me. I remember honestly thinking condoms, the first time I found out what they were, were the goofiest and least advanced thing I could ever imagine. "You just wrap it up so you don't ejaculate in the girl? Really? That's where technology has gotten us?" 

For many people, though, the idea that contraception is immoral is absolutely crazy. This comes, I guess, from the general idea that people should having sex whenever they want to, and further, that saying contraception is immoral will lead, necessarily, to more illegitimate children, poverty, etc. etc. (People cannot even conceive of a world where chastity is practiced.) Further, and more to the point, when people hear that natural law (or at least Catholicism) says that "Natural Family Planning" or some sort of "rhythm method" is okay, they lose it. "WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE!" they'll yell. In fact, even bringing up NFP at all in casual, non-Catholic conversation is basically social suicide. You will get ridiculed out of the room. And because it's so hard to explain without a decent philosophical background, most people think it's best to avoid bringing it up altogether.

But NFP is not as controversial as it seems. I think a lot of the controversy revolves around the idea that NFP is some sort of "alternative" type of contraception. That like, secular people get condoms, and Catholics get NFP. Properly speaking, though, NFP isn't contraception. What's important to understand going into this is that it is an application of the basic principle that goodness and badness (at least as it concerns life) are merely extensions of how fully a thing fulfills its natural end. What's also important to understand is that contraception involves mainly a misuse (or a perversion) of a faculty, or a doing of some wrong, while NFP involves a not doing.

I want to point out, before I get into this, that I think the use of NFP as a replacement for contraception is not a good thing. I don't like seeing NFP books or an NFP culture at all. In fact, I don't really like NFP for the most part. All I'm trying to identify here is why having sex with a woman when she is infertile and not having sex when she is fertile is not inherently immoral. In reality, though, people are supposed to have big families. And this means, despite the political incorrectness, that women aren't always supposed to get their jobs, and that men need to sacrifice a lot to raise families. The marriage is for children, and any culture where couples say, "Two children sounds just right!" is not healthy or good. In fact, it's quite bad

And the Church has consistently said this. NFP should be used for only serious reasons. Serious reasons that come to my mind are the health of the mother or severe poverty, not "Dad's gonna be stressed out and won't be able to get a new car, and Mom's gonna have to give up her career as a real estate agent." In other words, all the Catholic blogs that tout NFP as "just as good as contraception!" really upset me. I think they deserve the ridicule they receive, even if they aren't technically incorrect on the morality of NFP. Their mindset is hypocritical, and they deserve to be called out on it. I know there might be a little "Who are you to tell us how many kids we should have; you, as a celibate homo, have no idea how hard it is to raise five kids!" but there it is. (Ironically(?) as I'm writing this, a baby is crying downstairs, keeping everyone awake.)

Anyway, before really taking this on, I ask you to read my posts on sexual morality, particularly the perverted faculty post. You can find that here. Natural law says that it is morally wrong to use a faculty contrary to its end, as any thing's goodness is defined by its end. In the case of the sexual faculty, the end is the generation of offspring. That's what the sexual faculty is, something that necessarily generates offspring. To intentionally act contrary to that end then would count as immoral. This is why condoms, pulling out, or what have you are inherently immoral acts. They are actions that intend to flout the natural procreative end of sex.

Anyway, the whole of NFP can be summed like this: don't have sex with your wife if you don't want her to get pregnant. This seems so obviously true, it's not worth mentioning. But that's all that's really going on. It's just a not doing something. Natural law merely says that when you use a faculty, you use it properly; that is, not contrary to its end. Without going too much into the moral significance of doing and not doing, and even if one objects to the distinction, the most vital action (or inaction) as related to NFP is keeping it in your pants. That's all. And that's why the whole process is related to chastity. The ability to not do something when you really want to is a virtue. It requires unbelievable strength of the will. And in that way, it is good.

But marriage is different. You're supposed to have sex in marriage. That's what makes it marriage. Even the most non-essentialists out there would have trouble calling a couple who never has any sexual contact a marriage. So what does a good couple do to really be married when they absolutely cannot handle a child (for, again, serious reasons)? They just have sex when the woman is not ovulating. And that's all it is. There's NFP. Done. BUT WAIT you're thinking. If the end of the sexual faculty is the creation of life, how is having sex with an infertile woman not (1) using your sexual faculty in (2) such a way that is contrary to the good end of the sexual faculty, the creation of life? In other words, what's the difference between that and every other type of contraception? It's not like intent saves the act. It's not like choosing to have sex when a woman is infertile is intending to create life. I mean, if you really wanted to create life, you'd just have sex when she were fertile!

As is always the case with natural law, it is imperative to start with essence. That is, it's imperative to start with what a thing is and then move from there. The "what's the difference" objection works if you assumed that a condom and an infertile vagina are metaphysically the same thing because the consequence of ejaculation into either is identical. That is, because ejaculating into a condom creates no babies and ejaculating into an infertile vagina creates no babies, it's, ultimately, the same act, and likewise, the two are morally equivalent. But, of course, essentialism is necessarily not consequentialist. It doesn't ignore consequences, but it says that acts (and consequently their morality) are defined by the essences of the things doing the acting, not by the possible consequences. Thomas writes about this:
Hence it is clear that every emission of the semen is contrary to the good of man, which takes place in a way whereby generation is impossible; and if this is done on purpose, it must be a sin. I mean a way in which generation is impossible in itself as is the case in every emission of the semen without the natural union of male and female: wherefore such sins are called ‘sins against nature.’ But if it is by accident that generation cannot follow from the emission of the semen, the act is not against nature on that account, nor is it sinful; the case of the woman being barren would be a case in point.
Now, you're thinking, how does this make the point? Ejaculating into an infertile vagina is emitting semen in such a way where generation is impossible, right? That's why, after all, the NFP practitioner is doing it. But then Thomas goes on with this other stuff. This, "impossible in itself" language. And what does he mean when he talks about "accident?" It's not like it's an accident that generation doesn't follow from the ejaculation into an infertile vagina. It's not like, "Whoops, how'd that happen!" So what does he mean?

The point Thomas is making here is that intentionally ejaculating into a vagina is by its very nature a good use of the penis, as generation is what, by their nature, penises and vaginas do. That either the male or female are infertile is an accidental characteristic of their sexual parts. That is, a penis is not a penis because it can't produce fertile sperm. It is a penis because it can produce sperm (and sperm is sperm not because it can't make life, but because it can). Likewise, a vagina is not a vagina because it can't take in semen and use it to create life. It is a vagina precisely because it can. Just because it isn't in a particular moment does not mean that it isn't a vagina.

A condom or a mouth or an anus or anything other than a vagina does not have as its defining characteristic the power to create life. It's not accidental that a condom doesn't create life; that's exactly what it is. As such, intentionally ejaculating into something that is necessarily aimed not at the creation of life (like a condom) would be a misuse of the sexual faculty. This is all that is meant by saying that one can't use his sexual faculties "contrary" to the creation of life. That is, he can't morally ejaculate in (or on or under or...) something that is by its nature (not by its current condition) not aimed at the creation of life. As ejaculation into a vagina is exactly in line with the use of the body parts (based on what they are), it cannot count as a sin in that regard. (It could be a sin in various other ways, like, say, rape or fornication.) This follows the basic premise that a thing is good insofar it is nearer its essence, and a person is good insofar as he chooses to be nearer his essence.

The misunderstanding begins with consequentialist assumptions. And mixing the standard that sex is good "in that it is aimed at life" with consequentialist assumptions results is thinking that any sexual action that does not create life, full stop, is immoral. But the natural law formula is not "sexual act + intention to not create life + life not created = immoral." The formula instead is "sexual act necessarily not aimed at the creation of life + intention to not create life + life not created = immoral." (In reality, you don't even need the intention not to create life; a homosexual couple may really, really want to create life when they have anal sex, but that wouldn't transform the act into anything but an unnatural use of the faculty.) NFP is not the latter, as NFP involves a sexual act by its nature aimed at the creation of life. And this is also why it has nothing to do with "technology" getting in the way of the sexual act. Technology is fine. A man who takes a pill that gives him an erection so that he can have sex with his wife is not acting contrary to his good end, whether or not his wife is fertile or not. Similarly, pulling out is just as contraceptive and likewise just as immoral as a condom. Because pulling out involves using your sexual capacities in a way that are necessarily, and not just accidentally, contrary to the creation of life.

The difference between lying and not speaking is often cited as comparable to contraception and NFP. That is, natural law condemns lying as always wrong, because it is necessarily acting contrary to the good end of communication (conveying truth) to lie, but it is neutral to say nothing (at least at a very basic level). A person who tells a lie has acted contrary to his good end. A person who communicates without lying is acting exactly in line with his good end, whether or not someone appreciates or understands the truth he is conveying. Similarly, a person who says nothing has told no lie and has likewise not acted contrary to the good end of communication. As it goes with sex, the person who tells a lie is like a person who uses contraception, while a person who communicates without lying is like a person who has sex with his wife without any form of contraception, regardless of the consequences, and a person who says nothing is like a person who chooses not to have sex with his wife because she has been sick lately and probably can't handle a pregnancy at the moment.

The difference, at least in some logical form, could probably be comparable to killing and letting die. That is, a person who runs a blade through another man kills him, whereas a person who does nothing, even though he knows people are dying every minute around him, kills no one. The former is a murderer, the latter is, at the most basic level, nothing. Another way to say it is that by using contraception or sterilization, one is causing the person to be infertile, so the consequence of life not being generated (good end not being fulfilled) is their fault, while a person who merely has sex with an infertile person has not caused any infertility, so the consequence of life not being generated is not their fault, as the act is, by its nature, a procreative act. This would be true even if the latter person were fully aware that their act wouldn't create life; to foresee something is not to cause it. To claim otherwise would be like saying that a person who eats food but has a stomach condition that inhibits absorption of certain nutrients has caused the malnutrition by eating.

So, if a couple has done nothing to pervert the act (and there is surely nothing perverted when a man ejaculates into his own wife's vagina), and there is no wrong is choosing to just not have sex, then having sex every day, except on the days when your wife is fertile, would not be inherently immoral. (Again, looking at what marriage really is, it would be immoral in other ways to transform marriage into a fun place to have sex and have a couple kids.) That's all, really, that's going on, and there's no need to appeal to the "unitive requirements of the marital bond" to really make the argument. Whenever you see Catholics talking about NFP, because they can't articulate a difference, they get into a lot of quasi-theological language. And while there's absolutely nothing wrong with theology, when someone asks you a pure philosophical question, you shouldn't answer with somewhat-vague and rarely justified theology.


  1. Nice post. It helps address a lot of the concerns and confusion people have over NFP - even Catholics who uphold the Church teaching often seem to be in the dark on some of this.

  2. Originally, even sex during pregnancy was considered taboo within Christianity, since it couldn't produce babies. In fact, all sex was banned that did not have A) the intention to create babies and B) the possibility of creating babies. (Infertility and menopause were excluded because of Biblical stories of pregnancy during these times.) I'm still trying to figure out what I think about the whole issue. What's your take?


    The former is a murderer, the latter is, at the most basic level, nothing.

    Failing to act can count as an action. If someone is dying and I can do something about it, but I fail to act, then I've sinned. That goes back as far as the parable of the Good Samaritan.

    1. I was thinking the same thing. Sometimes failing to act is a sin of omission.

      God always wills life. He created us to bring forth souls. He understands when we say "not now" to the blessing of another child (an immortal soul) for good/just reasons (mental/physical health, finances).
      Sex has a nuptial meeting and each encounter renews the marriage vows (TOB). Therefore complete celibacy in marriage (other than due to illness) is failing to renew those vows.
      So when discerning legitimate abstinence we need to make sure we're not saying no to God's will for selfish reasons. I would not want to stand before Him and be shown all the souls He desired to gift me that I turned away because I was afraid or selfish. When I say "not now" to creating another soul I better have good reason for not acting according to my nature (naturally husband and wife desire to unite more during the fertile phase hence the struggle with NFP). I could stand accused of omission for not doing God's will for no justifiable reason. Hence omission.

  3. Originally, even sex during pregnancy was considered taboo within Christianity, since it couldn't produce babies.

    What's the source for this? I mean, you say 'all sex was banned' - but by who? It certainly wasn't church dogma.

  4. Crude,

    In the early church, dogma didn't really have the centrality that it does now. There wasn't even a Catholic church, as we currently understand that concept. That something was not declared dogma does not entail that it was not officially taught and sanctioned. If you want sources regarding the solely procreative purpose of sex, though, then see most Church Fathers: Justin Martyr, Gregory the Great, Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, Athenagoras, Lactantius and others. Even Aquinas taught that having sex without the direct intention of having children was a sin (see his Supplement q49 a6). The view on sex during pregnancy was nicely summarized in the Apostolic Constitutions:

    When the natural purgations do appear in the wives, let not their husbands approach them, out of regard to the children to be begotten; for the law has forbidden it, for it says: “You shall not come near your wife when she is in her separation.” Nor, indeed, let them frequent their wives' company when they are with child. For they do this not for the begetting of children, but for the sake of pleasure. (Book V)

    I've been wanting to ask a defender of NFP what their opinion is on this reversal, and, even though Joe clearly is not too thrilled by NFP, he at least explains why it's okay. So I'll be curious to see what he says.

  5. That something was not declared dogma does not entail that it was not officially taught and sanctioned.

    I understand and appreciate that the early church was a bit looser in some aspects, so to speak. But once we're out of the realm of dogma and into another realm, I just think it carries less controversial weight - so when I read something like 'it was taught by some that any sex that was not certainly procreative was forbidden', it becomes more grey area. It's no great shame for Aquinas to be wrong about something, so long as the area of wrong can be reasonably argued for or demonstrated.

    That's why I don't think it's necessarily accurate to talk about a 'reversal' on the topic of sex here. Reasoning to NFP while differing with Aquinas doesn't require, say... getting to Aquinas' conclusion, and then suddenly backtracking. That doesn't mean they're right of course.

    I do think Aquinas' view that a lover of God should not be a lover of pleasure has wisdom and truth to it.

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  7. Would anyone be kind enough to point me in the direction of some material (beside Feser’s it’s in the mail) that expands on natural law and its underlying metaphysics?

  8. Crude,

    The real difference between the NFP supporters and Aquinas et al. is that they operate under different definitions of sex. The core of NFP is the "unitive" angle to which Joe alluded in his post. As far as I can tell, that concept was invented by Paul VI and developed by JPII. There is no idea analogous to it in the writings of the Church Fathers or Aquinas, from my reading. As a result, they saw all non-procreative sex--and even sex that was "open to life" but lacked procreative intent--as sinful. This included sex during pregnancy, sex on "safe" days and so on. Once you start claiming that sex has a dual purpose, though, NFP can get a foothold.

  9. @ rank sophist

    Regarding sins of omission, they're a prudential thing since you're not inherently violating any fundamental principles. Remaining silent can be wrong, but is sometimes the right thing to do. NFP can be wrong, but it is sometimes the right thing to do.

    I went to Aquinas in the part you mentioned, but I'm not sure where you're getting the "non-procreative sex is always wrong" thing from. Aquinas says in Article 5 of Question 49 of the Supplement, "Consequently there are only two ways in which married persons can come together without any sin at all, namely in order to have offspring, and in order to pay the debt."

    So this would fall under paying the marital debt.

  10. Off-topic but, since you have a legal background - any chance at analyzing the SCOTUS decision from your point of view?

    1. I just logged on to do exactly this! You're reading my mind, Crude.

  11. I too am not particularly fond of NFP. Recently I got into a fleshed out debate with a woman on another Catholic website who practiced NFP. The debate devolved into a game of name-calling where she stated that I was "not a faithful catholic" for not supporting NFP wholeheartedly. In the end, our posts ended up being removed.

    My issue with NFP is two-fold. Call me a harsh, but I think sex should be had for procreation, period. Joe articulated the arguments for NFP perfectly and eloquently in his post; nonetheless, I'm still of the opinion that a married couple taking advantage of a woman's natural infertility is still kind of pushing it in regards to the open to life doctrine.

    Also, I have some issues with the mechanisms of NFP itself. There are quite a few different methods, but it's my understanding that most methods track a woman's fertility cycle to determine what times she is not fertile. Despite some authorities claiming that it is 99% effective "if used properly," I think that it is a bit like playing Russian Roulette, even IF used properly. A woman can "chart" all she wants, but charts are not absolute. Your charts might say there is no egg present, when, in fact there might be.

    I can't help but grimace at some people referring to the failure of NFP as "God having a sense of humor." (Facepalm) Newsflash: That is called failure. I'm so happy about the new life you created, but it is still a failure of your method.

    In the end, I prefer the 100% success rate that pure abstinence without the attempted cheating that NFP provides. Of course, being a person with SSA it's pretty easy for me to say that. I guess you can chock it up to me being a bitter homo! :-)

    Perhaps my views on NFP might change as I continue on my journey to become more devout. But right now I just find it to be a load of hooey with a huge heaping side of sap.

    Seriously look at this:

    "These 'revelations' can indeed by awe-inspiring!" Give me a break!

  12. Joe,

    Please forgive the shameless self promotion, but would you mind reading the latest entry on my blog about NFP and let me know what you think? I really would like to get some feedback about my current views.

    Here’s the link:

    Thanks and have a Blessed day!