Natural family planning and marital abstinence: the dilemmas

I know that the Church allows natural family planning (NFP) in extreme circumstances, but I have a hard time thinking of a case where it wouldn’t be morally problematic.  It seems to me that if you’ve got a good reason why you can’t have kids, then you’ve got a good reason for outright abstinence.  This is certainly the case with the situations that usually come to mind for why one can’t have more children:

  1. Extreme economic hardship/famine–there’s only enough food for the current family members; another baby means everyone has to be malnourished.
  2. Serious medical reasons–pregnancy will kill the wife
Now, NFP doesn’t work 100% of the time, so if you’re in one of these situations, it would be extremely–even sinfully–reckless to have sex at all, no matter what the thermometer and cervical mucus tests say.
At the other end of the scale, there are issues of child spacing and career advancement that would presumably be considered frivolous compared to the bar needed to justify NFP.  Cases like mine are more on this side.  My wife and I have a seven month old baby, and my tenure clock is ticking, and I feel like I’m at my limit already.  On the other hand, if my wife were to become pregnant again soon, it’s not like somebody would die or something.  It would be very stressful for us, and I’d probably lose my job, but people have been dealing with multiple babies for a long time, and cozy faculty jobs are not a human right.  It seems that abstinence is my only licit choice for the time being if I want to avoid these burdens.  This being my seventh “dry” month, I can tell you that it’s not fun, but it is bearable.
There’s a common feeling out there that married couples have a “right” to frequent sex; this is the cause of the epidemic of contraceptive use in the population.  It’s something that Catholics especially are going to have to get over.  Our sex drives evolved at a time of high infant mortality, and we can’t afford to indulge them the way we used to.  Overpopulation fears often exaggerate matters (and ignore the opposing dangers of an imbalanced population), but it’s true that if every woman on Earth started having a dozen kids, that would be a disaster.  We Catholics have to have an answer to the charge that this disaster is only averted by the fact that so few listen to us.  I think the answer is that if everyone in the world became orthodox Catholic, they would save their souls but lose the ability to have sex very often.
Questions for discussion with my Catholic readers:
  1. What would  be a case where NFP is actually licit?
  2. What would be a case, if any, when marital abstinence is actually sinful?
  3. Are there any valid reasons for child limiting other than the deprivation/medical ones I gave?

24 Responses

  1. What would be a case where NFP is actually licit?

    It seems to me the Church has not spoken authoritatively, or as authoritatively as you imply, on what precisely are serious enough reasons for practicing NFP. IIRC, Casti Connubii sets the bar at “grave reasons”. Later formulations (Humana Vitae, stuff by JPII ??) seem to set the bar lower. Further muddying the teaching here is the notion (indeed from our Holy Fathers) that a married couple may use periodic abstinence to “space” the births of children. Is “spacing” the births of children so very “grave”? So, in the absence of an authoritative definition, I do not think there is reason to be more Catholic than the Church herself.

    Where the Church is (and has always been) clear is that the natural ends of the conjugal act not be intentionally frustrated by device or technique. Abstinence during the fertile period does not, per se’, rise to the level of frustrating these natural ends. Insofar as the Church has no authority, in divine or natural law, to dictate when a married couple, erm…, couples or refrains from doing so, NFP is per se’ licit. What remains questionable are only the subjective reasons for doing so. These may be pure or less pure.

    In short, once the subjective reasons are for a couple found licit and in keeping with good conscience, then there is nothing in Church teaching forbidding them, for example, from coupling twice a day during the infertile epoch, and abstaining completely during the fertile. Indeed, this yet remains a sacrifice on their part, a form of asceticism, the conforms to their married state.

    What would be a case, if any, when marital abstinence is actually sinful?

    When abstinence is used as a cudgel, i.e., when it is not mutually agreed upon. Assuming mutually agreed upon abstinence, I can see no sin in abstaining. But the married state calls for the marital act, at least some times.

    Are there any valid reasons for child limiting other than the deprivation/medical ones I gave?

    Spacing births.

  2. Bonald,
    These are hard questions; questions perhaps best put to a trustworthy priest. What I know about NFP largely derives from what I was told when I came into the Church through RCIA, and that didn’t make much sense, so I’ll yield to others in explaining Church doctrine. Here are a couple of remarks from a confused sinner. First, looking round my large parish, I have yet to see a family that is obviously practicing natural fertility. I know small families can occur naturally, but they are at the low end of a bell curve with a norm somewhere around seven children. Just last week I flipped through the new parish directory, and, dirty-minded social scientist that I am, counted children. There’s one family with six children and a few fertile years ahead of them; but every other family is either naturally or unnaturally infertile. I’m not saying that sin ceases to be sin when it is universal, only that in the modern world our fertility patterns are a reminder of our sinfulness and dependence on Christ for redemption. And I’m not trying to tempt anyone to the sin of presumption here, only saying that the sin of unnatural fertility/infertility is, like any other sin, one with which we prayerfully struggle.

    My second remark is really an admission of some bewilderment. Since no contraceptive technique or device is infallible, all affect only the probability of conception. Some keep the probability very low, others not so low. If my wife and I decide to reduce our frequency of intercourse by half, all else being equal we will reduce the likelihood of conception by half. Is this a licit technique? If not, what makes the next most deliberate procedure an illicit technique? If so, then is it ever licit to repress a sexual urge or refuse a sexual advance? I’m genuinely confused about all of this.

    Here’s one suggestion. I once read somewhere, maybe the Catholic Encyclopedia, that chastity was not the same as abstinence and that sex within marriage could violate chastity. Lewd and lascivious sexual behavior within a marriage was not chaste, but a chaste marriage was not a sexless marriage. I hope I’m not distorting the meaning, but I understood it this way. In chaste sex we honor God the Father, not Eros, whose other name is Baal. If the aim of reduced frequency is chastity, reduced fertility is an unintended (even if welcome) consequence. By the way, chaste sex in marriage makes sense as a means to preserve the marriage, since a couple who has sex in honor of Eros will soon find the attractions of their partner declining. Eros, ironically, is by no means a loving god.

  3. Bless your heart. If I asked my husband to go seven months…. well. I’d be back at my mothers wondering what happened.

  4. I see NFP as an act of charity. If my spouse would be overly burdened by another baby or by complete abstinence then NFP provides a licit means of delaying another pregnancy. I do include psychological burden in with grave reasons, even if that burden is only experienced with one spouse.

    So the goal of each spouse is to keep the other from sin. It could be that having another baby right away would cause some psychological turmoil that it would make avoiding sin more difficult for the spouse. Abstinence might cause psychological turmoil for the other spouse that makes it more difficult for them to avoid sin. The use of NFP works a compromise between the needs of both…one spouse can avoid pregnancy while the other can avoid the pain of total abstinence.

  5. I rather fancy fears of over-population are exaggerated.

    Back in the 1950s, when China fell to the Communists, Hong Kong was flooded with hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees. Lacking natural resources and utterly dependent on the mainland for water and food, the colony’s situation had deteriorated so badly that a local UN official declared that it could only survive through massive Western aid and the resettlement of refugees elsewhere. An American newspaper proclaimed Hong Kong a dying city, and the British grimly entitled the lead chapter in their annual Hong Kong yearbook, “A Problem of People.”

    In fact, the apocalypse everyone saw just over the horizon never did come to pass. On the contrary, Hong Kong experienced the greatest economic boom in its history. Today it supports a population of about seven million people — more than five times the number the government declared to be Hong Kong’s optimum “carrying capacity” back in 1954.

    There is a Chinese proverb that people come into the world with two hands, but only one mouth.

  6. Could you clarify your understanding as you’ve expressed it above? It seems like you are saying that the reason for your and your wife’s practice of NFP as you described in the post is not a legitimate one prescribed by the Church. That your definition of grave reason and the Church’s definition of grave reason are not in agreement, but you have chosen to abide by your own definition.

  7. Perhaps my understanding of NFP is what is clouding things. I understand NFP as any intentional refraining from the marital act for the purpose of avoiding pregnancy, whether or not a couple chooses to abstain even during the infertile periods. It seems like your understanding of NFP is that it necessarily involves sex during the infertile periods.

  8. I’m in agreement with Nocoloso on this. As I understand things:

    (1) NFP is licit when it is consistent with the virtues of Christian prudence and chastity. For, since the act of NFP is itself morally neutral, and its object is the good end of the rational direction of one’s family in accord with one’s means, the circumstances determine the morality of the use of NFP – and thus the burden falls on a Chrisitan’s prudence to determine the right course of action given the particulars of the action. I think Janet Smith has some material about the proper translation of “grave reasons” along these lines.

    (2) Marital abstinence would be sinful if one’s partner asked for sex, in accord with the virtue of chastity, and one refused to render the “marital debt” (say, out of frigidity). Again, since chastity is simply the virtue of sexual desire, it involves prudence, and thus attention to circumstances (such as finances, health, etc.) that would render the demand imprudent.

    (3) Prudent and chast family planning.

    There’s a good article by G.E.M. Anscombe on the subject called “Contraception and Chastity” you might want to check out. It’s available on the web for free, and was recently reprinted in “Faith in a Hard Ground.”

  9. Hello buckyinky,

    Yes, the definitions I am using distinguish abstinence from NFP, with the latter presuming intercourse during infertile times. It is an important distinction to make, because the latter seems more morally problematic to me, more given to the “contraceptive mentality”, and thus requires a higher threshold for justification.

  10. I follow you, and at least for purposes of the duration of the discussion, I’ll adopt your definitions. I think I understand what you are saying regarding the gravity of the use of NFP. It is possibly an abusive use of the marital act by coupling it with the intent of avoiding children, regardless of whether pregnancy might “accidentally” occur. To set oneself up to consider pregnancy unintended, when having just performed the act which has as its natural end the procreation of offspring, seems to be at least a dilemma, though maybe easily answered by one more qualified than I.

    Not knowing any more about your personal life than you have disclosed above, I do wonder at your decision to abstain from marital relations for the present. You seem to have adopted the mind of one who is not married, i.e., an unmarried person could be more concerned about his occupation or career than the begetting of children precisely because he is not married. But you are married, and your purposes should be proper to one who is married, chief among these purposes being the begetting and raising of children. It is true that the raising of children could be hindered by your inability to obtain the means to raise them, such as the loss of your job because of additional children. But I think what you are saying is that while having another child would seriously jeopardize the job you have right now, it would not hinder your general ability to provide for your family (e.g., you could find another job). Therefore I don’t understand your decision to purposely avoid having children, even temporarily.

  11. Do you have a reason for not using any form of birth control other than that the church says not to use it? Virtually all moral laws I’ve encountered and believe in need to be universal – as in, if everybody acted by them, the world would be a better place. Yet as you say, if everyone followed the Catholic teachings, the world would devolve to a wretched, Malthusian existence. That hardly seems to me to be a moral law worth following. However, it is certainly in the interests of the church to promote the rule – more children means more members of the church, which means more influence for the church. It seems like this is the case where the church as an institution is being sinful, and putting its own institutional self interests above that of humanity (although as often the case with institutional sins, the individual members do not consciously view their actions as selfish. The institution acts according to Pournelle’s law).

  12. I had a similar reaction to buckyinky’s. Here is a question: Is it licit to abstain (with the consent of your spouse) from the marital act entirely if the purpose of that abstinence is to avoid procreation where no grave reason exists?

    I genuinely do not know the answer to that question. Clearly, complete abstinence can be licit—say if you and your spouse are mortifying your flesh as part of an effort at deepening your spirituality.

  13. Not everyone can have a dozen kids. Fertility differs per women. Some only ever have 2 or 3 despite doing nothing to prevent pregnancy.

    If everyone was a devout Catholic about 10% of the population would join a religious order and another 10-20% would probably be life-long singles. That leaves about 30% to reproduce like rabbits and a good portion of that will either be infertile, too old to have many children at the time of their marriage or will simply have decreased fertility.

    Secondly – if all people were educated at a Catholic classical education standard then technology would improve to accommodate the masses…possibly including colonizing space.

  14. Some other reactions:

    I think NFP would be licit if, first, there was a grave reason, and, second, your spouse nevertheless demanded that you pay the marital debt. In this case, perhaps it would be licit to pay the debt in a way which minimized the risk (ie via NFP).

    On a somewhat related note, everything, including sex. carries a risk. Presumably, there is some level of risk, p_l, at which it becomes permissible to abstain and some level of risk, p_h, at which it becomes mandatory. Your discussion seems to assume that p_l=p_h instead of assuming p_l<p_h. This reminds me of a more general point, which is that non-consequentialist moral philosophies never seem (to me) to deal very satisfactorily with actions which change risks by small amounts (as opposed to actions which change risks from 0 to 1 or 1 to 0).

    A sticky wicket for traditionalists is that strange speech Pope Pius XII gave to midwives. In that speech he appears to have said that pretty much any old thing qualifies as a grave reason (Paige's position above looks pretty reasonable if we give that speech significant Magisterial weight, I think). Even us traditionalists usually like Pius XII, so his words can't just be ignored as incomprehensible gibberish the way some people's can.

    Finally, I agree with Michael Patterson-Seymour above vis "overpopulation." Overpopulationistas are long on assertion and short on proof. Why shouldn't the Earth support 10X or 100X the current population? Why shouldn't the solar system eventually support a million times the current population? The world's current population would fit comfortably in Texas (7 billion / 268K sq mi = 26K/sq mi, a suburban population density). People are poor and starving because of crappy governance, not too many people.

    I really love this blog, by the way.

  15. err..that should have said 70%

  16. JMSmith:
    What I know about NFP largely derives from what I was told when I came into the Church through RCIA, and that didn’t make much sense

    Ah, well unless you were very lucky, it is unlikely that RCIA would have explained NFP at all. In my own RCIA experience NFP was synonymous with the “Rhythm Method”–which it is not. NFP is a set of techniques which attempt to quite accurately (for most women) measure the occurence of ovulation. In fact, most of these were explored mostly by fertility specialists in order to actually help women conceive, not avoid it. Signs leading up to ovulation include cervical mucous (viscosity, stretchiness, clarity) and cervical attitude (high-low, soft-hard, open-closed). After ovulation, “peak day” in NFP parlance, the major sign of the end of the fertile epoch is rise in basal temperature plus a number of days.

    Obviously, knowing this information can be used to intentionally increase or reduce the odds of conception, depending upon what you do with the information.

    Again, I say, the techniques are per se licit, as is the decision of a married couple to engage or not engage in the sex act at any time of the fertility cycle (charted or othewise), and I think we are all agreed upon that point. What remains, and I admit it is a knotty problem, is the subjective intent behind it.

  17. Hello Davin,

    I do, of course, hate to think for myself, and I would really like to be able to mindlessly parrot the consequentialist zeitgeist like my presumed superiors, but it’s so manifestly degrading. Some of my thinking on these matters can be seen here (, here (, and here (

  18. Hi Paige,

    Thanks for bringing up the “burden” issue. I would rather that the rule were formulated more clearly as “NFP is okay for this, this, and that reason”; the word “grave” doesn’t give any guidance at all. Is the loss of one’s marital rights for years of one’s life “grave”, for example? It doesn’t sound grave. Calling unfulfilled sexual desires a “psychological burden” seems to exaggerate their gravity, since it’s sort of the same psychological burden that someone on a long-term diet has, not being able to eat all that food they want. On the other hand, it seems like it shouldn’t be entirely dismissed and given no weight whatsoever. Following Joshua Schulz’s point about the duty to render the marriage debt, it would seem that we are more bound to weigh the sexual frustration of our spouse than our own. I am not aware of any unfulfilled desires on my wife’s part, so I guess there’s no problem.

  19. Thanks, Bill. I really enjoy talking with you.

  20. We abstain every cycle, but seven months seems like an awfully long time, Bonald. Your wife is obviously different, but such an extended abstinence would seem punitive to me.

    Maybe I’m just projecting. Your wife is very blessed to have so many children!

  21. When St Paul said that those who burn with passion should get married I interpreted it to mean that the psychological burden of abstinence would be too great for some to carry on a permanent basis.

    And sexual abstinence is a little different than a diet because even dieters eat *some* food.

    You say that your wife does not seem to have unfulfilled desires and if she is nursing I would guess you are right as most women go through a very dry period during that time. The only thing I would suggest is that you make sure she knows that the abstinence isn’t because you have lost attraction for her. She *might* be feeling offended and be unwilling to admit it. (Obviously I can’t read her mind I am just know some women who would feel that way).

  22. Hi Alte,

    Thanks. We are indeed blessed with our baby Julie, now 7.5 months. (Actually it’s commenter Steve Nicoloso with the big family.) My wife doesn’t complain, so–regardless of how it may deflate my ego–I assume she’s fine. We’re hoping to have another baby in a year.

  23. If you’re the Steve Nicoloso I hope you are, my giddy feeling of deja vu is justified. If you’re the fella that ought to recognize my name, drop me a line. I miss hearing from you. 🙂

    Perhaps it’s time I resurrect (and complete) by series of NFP posts…

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