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Popes versus Popes on NFP

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Dear Tradition in Action,

One of your readers wrote to you a letter which you posted on November 24, 2009 in which he states that he went to the link you had provided for my article on Humanae vitae, and it had raised a question in his mind whether the 'Billings method' is mortally sinful just like artificial contraception. Having raised the question, he then answers it himself by concluding, "It necessarily follows that the Billings method is just another method of contraception, and is also sinful and fatal for eternal salvation."

I thank the reader for having taken the time to read and consider my article. I also congratulate him for recognizing the deviation from Catholic Tradition represented by Humanae vitae's claim that the morally problematic nature of birth control was based on "methods that are artificial." In contrast to the false premises of Humanae vitae, Pope Pius XI stated the true Catholic teaching in his landmark encyclical Casti connubii:
"Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious."
Pope Pius XI's definitive re-statement of a Catholic teaching which had enjoyed unanimous assent for centuries, being based substantially on the teaching of St. Augustine who died over 1500 years before Casti connubii was promulgated, nowhere made reference to 'artificial methods' or even to 'contraception' per se.

A literal reading of the quote above would indeed support your reader's conclusion regarding the sinfulness of 'natural' methods of birth control. Other lines such as the following from the same document might also lead to the same conclusion:
"Small wonder, therefore, if Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death. As St. Augustine notes, "Intercourse even with one's legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it."

"Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin."
To consider the issue in more depth, however, one must place these statements in the context of others in the same document such as where Pope Pius XI stated, "First consideration is due to the offspring, which many have the boldness to call the disagreeable burden of matrimony and which they say is to be carefully avoided by married people not through virtuous continence (which Christian law permits in matrimony when both parties consent) but by frustrating the marriage act."

So, we see then that "virtuous continence" is allowed. Now what precisely constitutes "virtuous continence" and does "Natural Family Planning" qualify? These are difficult moral questions that Pope Pius XII attempted to answer in his Address to the Italian Midwives. This is how he presented the problem:
"If the application of that theory implies that husband and wife may use their matrimonial right even during the days of natural sterility no objection can be made. In this case they do not hinder or jeopardize in any way the consummation of the natural act and its ulterior natural consequences. It is exactly in this that the application of the theory, of which We are speaking, differs essentially from the abuse already mentioned, which consists in the perversion of the act itself. If, instead, husband and wife go further, that is, limiting the conjugal act exclusively to those periods, then their conduct must be examined more closely."
Pope Pius XII then stated the principle that must be applied:
"On married couples, who make use of the specific act of their state, nature and the Creator impose the function of providing for the preservation of mankind. This is the characteristic service which gives rise to the peculiar value of their state, the bonum prolis. The individual and society, the people and the State, the Church itself, depend for their existence, in the order established by God, on fruitful marriages. Therefore, to embrace the matrimonial state, to use continually the faculty proper to such a state and lawful only therein, and, at the same time, to avoid its primary duty without a grave reason, would be a sin against the very nature of married life."
He then reached the conclusion:
"Serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise from medical, eugenic, economic and social so-called 'indications,' may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life. From this it follows that the observance of the natural sterile periods may be lawful, from the moral viewpoint: and it is lawful in the conditions mentioned. If, however, according to a reasonable and equitable judgment, there are no such grave reasons either personal or deriving from exterior circumstances, the will to avoid the fecundity of their union, while continuing to satisfy to the full their sensuality, can only be the result of a false appreciation of life and of motives foreign to sound ethical principles."
So, we see that Pope Pius XII allowed for "periodic continence," but only as an exception to the general rule of married life and only when it was necessitated by "grave reasons." One of the faults of Humanae vitae is that it lowered the bar on "grave reasons" to a point where virtually any reason could qualify. During the pontificate of Pope John Paul II the bar has been lowered even further to the point where the necessity of grave reasons has been entirely abandoned. In fact, the disciples of the new "theology of the body" go even further and proclaim that "responsible parenthood" through "natural family planning" is a moral necessity and that traditional Catholics to whom they apply the pejorative label "providentialists" are "animal-like" in their acceptance of children from God.

In conclusion, one would be on the safest moral ground by adhering as closely as possible to Pope Pius XI's injunction to avoid anything at all which would "frustrate the natural power and purpose of the marriage act." There is never any moral bar to practicing the "virtuous continence" recommended in Casti connubii, provided that both spouses give their full consent (a very important proviso which today is often overlooked or denied outright, forgetting that traditional marriage manuals listed denial of the marital rights as the most frequent and serious sin against marriage).

It would not be incompatible with traditional Catholic teaching to believe that "periodic continence" could potentially fall within the ambit of "virtuous continence" provided the couple had sufficient "grave reasons" for doing so. Would such a "virtuous continence" include charts, graphs, thermometers, and the entire panoply of the NFP industry promoted by such questionable public figures as Christopher ("Naked without Shame") West and Gregory (brothers charting their sisters) Popchak? I would think not, but others may come to a different conclusion.

Lastly I recommend that the best way to get beyond the casuistry involved in staying just behind the fine line that distinguishes mortal sin from venial sin is to read and imbibe the spirit of Pope Pius XII's wonderful Address to Large Families where he describes the large family as "those most blessed by God and specially loved and prized by the Church as its most precious treasures," who "accept joyfully and gratefully these priceless gifts of God - their children - in whatever number it may please Him to send them," and who testify to "the physical and moral health of a Christian people; a living faith in God and trust in His Providence; and the fruitful and joyful holiness of Catholic marriage."

     Yours in Christ,

     John Galvin

Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted December 8, 2009

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