Thursday, July 5, 2012

NFP or Condoms: What's the difference?

I wrote my senior thesis for the Catholic University honors program nearly 10 years ago. In my youthful zeal and eager for my own upcoming marriage, I tackled the prompt of "Nature and Technology" with a 35 page analysis of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI's vision of human nature, nature and morality, and contraception as "technology." 

It probably needed either 700 pages, von Balthasar style, or two paragraphs, Catechism style. But it sure was fun.

At the reception following our senior defense, however, a young freshman (upstart!) cornered me. "That was really interesting, but I still just don't see the difference between using NFP to prevent pregnancy and using condoms." 

He was right: At that point I had no good reason. 

He was also not alone: How many of us have heard that, in order to be holy and love fully, we must completely submit our fertility to God and that NFP is merely another way of contracepting Him out of our beds? Isn't timing our acts of intercourse simply setting up another barrier between each other? 

However we live, we throw up barriers. Every human person holds fast to some aspect of his life and refuses to let God reign there. We all lock Him out of some room or corridor in our hearts. He offers us the abyss of love, and we want the shallows. Before we discuss whether or not NFP is inherently a barrier to God, we have to recognize that every created thing can become a barrier. These are the shadowlands.

Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote: ‎"There is all the difference in the world between using one's awareness of the periods of infertility and arrogating to oneself the right to impose radical restrictions on fertility by the use of artificial contraception." That is, he claims there is a radical difference between using NFP and using a condom. Acknowledging that NFP can become a sort of "condom" in our hearts, we can nevertheless say with confidence that it is not "Catholic birth control." 

Why? Hans again:

"For in using the infertile days they are not setting bounds to their love. Otherwise, one would have to say that intercourse in the full Christian sense is impossible after a woman's menopause. Married persons who think as Christians set no barriers between the two objects of marriage: procreation and the expression of mutual love. They let the two stand together, the physical side, with its own proper laws, and the personal side. One's awareness of the opportunities provided by nature does not mean one is imposing calculation on the inner spirit of love."

That is, sex with a condom disregards the natural cycles of a woman's fertility (and, I would add, the power of a man's perpetual fertility). The condom sets a barrier (literally and spiritually) on procreation and the physical laws of our animal nature: the couple grasps at mutual love, mutual pleasure without acknowledging that in fact there can be no mutual love when we seek to escape our mutual responsibility to our fertility. 

Using a woman's infertile days as a time to express that mutual love, however, does not inherently involve the rejection of nature, physicality, and the integrity of the person (although, again, as human beings we are prone to misuse even NFP!).

The Church has not said that NFP is just fine in any circumstance or for every couple. We have a list of broad guidelines to bring to prayer as a couple, prayer with the Church, and the counsel of those we trust: 

"If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile..." ~Humanae Vitae, no. 16

Von Balthasar's words only echo the words of Paul VI:

"[It is] lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period [and is] always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love." ~HV, no. 16 (emphasis added)

Particularly striking in Humanae Vitae is the pope's concern for the "reverence due to women" in particular and human love in general. 

"Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection."

Finally, though, all the explanation and clarity in the world are useless if the Church cannot honor and uphold the living example of men and women willing both to control birth by abstinence only and welcome with generosity the possibility of children when their circumstances allow. That is our mission: to be the men and women described by the pope and dear Hans. 

Without our witness, the words remain dead and without power. With our witness, the power of Christ is made manifest.


bill bannon said...

    I'm going to present two cases and then you are going to have the last word and I am not going to rebut you.
     Case one in the West: a rural Catholic young couple each with only a high school degree have one child who has extreme autism with therapy bills not covered by insurance that make them debtors til death.  Ergo, they have a serious reason to have one child only.  They can use NFP for the next two decades and worry or they can both be dual sterilized and not worry.  About ten Popes out of 265 have expounded on this area at all throughout history.  The other Popes have obeyed the decretals on it rooted in several Councils and in the Fathers who at times were influenced by stoicism ( Lactantius, Clement, Jerome) which decretals also stated that a child born to a slave mother was also a slave.  Much in Catholicism is perfunctory if you aspire to being Pope.  Popes actually interested in a topic can be few.  Popes opposed contraception and supported slavery in the decretals for the same centuries and perfunctorily.
     29 Popes from Sixtus V to Leo XIII ( noninclusive) cooperated proximately with the castrati system introduced by Sixtus V into the papal choirs which exercised alteration of the generative member which Pius XI, one Pope, forbade and called mutilation...others then repeated him.  The 29 Popes did not call it mutilation when it filled the churches due to ethereal singing...if you like that type of singing.

      Case 2
    China....1/6th of the world's people.  In most provinces, a second or subsequent pregnancy to a young couple will be forcibly aborted, the young couple fined three times their poverty income or jailed...leaving their one child with relatives ( few exist).  We are saying again that they must choose not worry free dual sterilization but NFP used perfectly if that's possible in their case.  With dual sterilization, they can obey I Corinthians 7:5 in which God, not simply Paul, urges many (not all) not overdo abstaining except for prayer but come together again lest satan enter their marriage.

      Is this going to be another usury redux?  Saints denounced whole towns for taking interest for 1400 years much like Fr. Euteneuer denounced Hannity
for being a heretic on birth control....and then in 1830 word went out from Rome that Catholics could finally take moderate interest....a position Calvinists held in 1545.  Instead of praising Calvin, our apologetics people said that the nature of money changed and the Church wisely recognized it in 1830.  Permit me to roflol.
Money didn't change it's nature from early 1830 when you sinned til late 1830 when you were sinless for the same exact action.  Nor did money change from 1766 til late 1830.  Whole towns were denounced for usury by saints and now the issue is invisible in the Catholic world except each Council and catechism will mention it once for future apologetics people should they need it in 3012 AD as uom.

Robert Callino said...

Of all the methods, only NFP requires a great deal of cooperation between the married couple. This strengthens the marriage bond. The other methods, including sterilization, lead to promiscuity.