This article is an unexpected follow up to an article I wrote recently called “The Myth of the Contraceptive Mentality.” Based on the feedback from that article I thought it would be good to dive into what exactly a contraceptive mentality is and why couples who use Natural Family Planning (NFP) can never be guilty of such a thing.
To figure out what a contraceptive mentality is we have to start with what contraception is. Pope Paul VI, in Humanae Vitae, defines contraception as “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after marital intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation, whether as an end or as a means” (HV 14). Therefore, a contraceptive mentality is only possible when a couple is actually using contraception, that is, when a couple intends to have a disordered sex act (an act that removes the procreate end of sex) in order to avoid conception. It becomes clear then that a couple using NFP could never have a contraceptive mentality because choosing not to have sex during fertile periods is the polar opposite of choosing to have a disordered act of sex.
However, many people don’t agree with this definition. They argue that a contraceptive mentality is the desire to avoid pregnancy, temporarily or indefinitely, for trivial or unjust reasons. They would say that a contraceptive mentality is present whenever a couple sets their will against (contra-) conceiving a child. Thus a couple who uses NFP could easily be guilty of such a thing.
I think this definition is inaccurate and muddies the actual reasons why the Church opposes contraception. Contraception is wrong, not because of the user’s desire to avoid pregnancy, but rather because it disorders the act of sex. Let me illustrate with an example. Say there are two couples. Both have had four kids in pretty quick succession, and while they both want to have more kids in the future, they both have legitimate reasons for waiting a few years before they have another child. Couple A gets a temporary contraceptive implant. Couple B suffers through weeks/months of abstinence practicing NFP.
What is different about the mentalities of these couples? Both want to have as much sex as they can for the next few years while at the same time both are taking extraordinary measures not to get pregnant. Their opposition to conception is identical, so is their desire for sex. So what’s different? Couple A intends to distort the sexual act well Couple B is willing to suffer in order to maintain the integrity of the act. In other words, the desire to avoid pregnancy is neither good nor evil.
Pope Paul VI affirms this in Humanae Vitae. He readily acknowledges that couples who “take advantage of the infertile period” (i.e. use NFP) are doing so with the “intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result.” And not only does he not condemn the NFP couples for having such a mentality, but he he praises them saying, “In doing this [practicing NFP] they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love” (HV 16).
A contraceptive mentality has literally nothing to do with wanting or not wanting to avoid pregnancy. Some Catholic couples, dare I say probably most Catholic couples, who use contraception are still open to life in that they already have, or want to have, children. So if a contraceptive mentality is rooted in not wanting to have kids then even a couple who is using contraception wouldn’t necessarily have a contraceptive mentality.
Now, interestingly enough, Saint John Paul II defines “contraceptive mentality” in a slightly different way than I do. In Evangelium Vitae, he uses this term in the context of how contraception relates to abortion. He says:
“It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation of abortion. But the negative values inherent in the “contraceptive mentality”-which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act-are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived…[Both contraception and abortion] are rooted in a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfilment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs…” (EV 13).
However, this definition would still make it impossible for a couple using NFP to actually have a contraceptive mentality because NFP requires people to deny themselves sex when they want it most. It requires a couple to “respect for the full truth of the conjugal act.” In other words, if you use NFP, and don’t want a kid, you are forced to accept the responsibility that comes with sexual activity and abstain from sex for sometimes prolonged periods of time.
All of this isn’t to say that couples can’t misuse NFP, they certainly can. Like any tool, NFP can be abused. An example would be a couple who uses NFP with the firm intent of never having children because they both “just don’t like kids.” They have no dialogue with God and no concern for his will in their marriage. But this couple doesn’t have a contraceptive mentality, they are simply rejecting their wedding vow to be open to life and accept children lovingly from God.
However, we do not, and cannot, know if a couple is misusing NFP. First of all, that would require an intimate knowledge not only of their marriage and family life, but also their conscience. Furthermore, concerning responsible parenthood and the decision to have children, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et Spes, state that “The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God” (GS 50). In other words, the criteria that the Church gives us regarding the sufficient reasons to avoid pregnancy (see Humanae Vitae section 10) are for us to use when examining our own families. They are a tool to help us form our own consciences, not a weapon to cut down other people with.
If we feel that we have the authority to judge the size of other people’s families, then we should heed the words of Christ when he says, “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). Instead of questioning if other people are or are not living out their marriage vows, perhaps we should ask ourselves how well we are living out ours?