Contraception vs. NFP: What’s the Difference?

Humanae Vitae Giving Day

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by Sr. Helena Burns

If both contraception and NFP are a means to avoid pregnancy, what’s the difference? To understand the answer, we need to ask a few questions first. 

What comes first in sex: love or life? Both! Love and life are both equally important purposes of sex and marriage. This is the message of Humanae Vitae! It’s like a pair of scissors. You need both sides for them to be scissors. If you take one side away, are they even being scissors anymore? No. Are they even “doing what scissors do” anymore? No. We can’t separate love and life in the marital embrace.   

Since life and love together make up the very essence of sex, contraception is only moral if it respects sex by keeping those main components unified. So let’s see if either contraception or NFP measure up to the necessary moral standards:  

Unitive Essence 

Contraception fundamentally splits the essence of sex by separating life from love; it only ever seeks to avoid pregnancy. NFP fundamentally seeks to keep life and love together; it seeks to both achieve pregnancy and avoid pregnancy, depending on the timing of sex within a woman’s natural cycle. 

Respect for Natural Law 

Contraception is embracing the act of sex while frustrating it and subverting it at the same time. NFP fundamentally respects the essence of sex by choosing not to engage in intercourse when conditions are naturally unfavorable (or choosing to engage in it when conditions are very favorable), still respecting the natural cycles and effects of sex. 

Moral Principles 

The end doesn’t justify the means. The end (the desired result, the goal) doesn’t justify the means (the method used). This is a moral principle for all human action. The end (buying something I want) doesn’t justify the means (robbing a bank). The end (avoiding pregnancy) doesn’t justify the means (subverting the essence of sex). It’s not just the end that matters and that can be good or bad. The way we get there also matters and can be good or bad. 

Some actions are wrong in themselves (“inherently“ or “intrinsically” wrong), regardless of our good intentions or the desired result. This is a moral principle for all human action. Clearly, there are many differences between contraception and NFP. But the most obvious differences aren’t philosophical, but in the mentality that accompanies each method.  

Contraceptive Mentality vs. NFP Mentality 

Before we ever use contraception, it begins in the mind with a “contraceptive mentality.” Before we ever use natural family planning, it begins in the mind with a “natural family planning mentality.”

A “contraceptive mentality” tends to be closed to life. It says: “Sex is not open to babies until I decide so.” A married couple decides: “We’re going to have two children.” With a contraceptive mentality, this tends to be absolute and ironclad: no more babies. A couple may even give away all the baby furniture after two children, and close the rest of their lives to the possibility of another child. But this is highly unrealistic, depending on the age of the woman! Women are usually fertile through their 40’s, and men are fertile for much longer. They will continue having sex, so the chances are that there may be more pregnancies (no matter what they are doing to avoid pregnancy).  In a Catholic marriage when the couple agreed to “accept the children God sends” — that didn’t mean that they would only be open to life just once or twice in their marriage (to conceive the two children), and the entire rest of the time the marital embrace would be closed to life. And then, what happens if the woman gets pregnant after the two children? If the contraceptive mentality is strong that there be no more babies, abortion becomes a tempting option. Couples often blame each other for the unexpected pregnancy: “You wouldn’t wear a condom!” “You forgot to take your birth control!” But actually, something didn’t go very wrong with their act of love, something went very right!   

A “natural family planning mentality” tends to be open to life. It says: “Sex is open to babies with planning involved.” A married couple might still think, “We’re going to have two children.” But with an NFP mentality, this is not absolute and ironclad but rather acknowledges the fact that sex=babies. The couple’s attitude is: “We really want two children, but if God sends more, we’ll welcome them.” Abortion is not an option.  

The difference between contraception and natural family planning is so huge that Saint Pope John Paul II called it “two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality” (Familiaris consortio, 32). When we treat the whole essence of sex with the respect it deserves — not just the parts we want to respect — we have to learn to let go a little more, turn to God for help, trust God, communicate with God, trust our spouse, communicate with our spouse,  rearrange our priorities and realize we’re not totally in control, especially with regards to something as wild and crazy as sex and new life.  

— Sr. Helena Burns belongs to the Daughters of St. Paul,  fondly known as “the media nuns.” Through her blog Hell Burns, she writes, produces and reviews a great variety of media content, emphasizing media literacy and Theology of the Body.

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