Despoiling God’s Plan for Sexuality

Welcome back! It’s Day 3 in our weeklong series on natural family planning (NFP). This post is linked up with NFP Link Week hosted at the blog NFP and Me.

DISCLAIMER: This series is meant to inform and spark conversation about the Church’s teaching on respect for human life. While these answers are in-line with Catholic Tradition, they are by no means exhaustive or comprehensive. We are not bioethicists nor moral theologians and do not claim to speak on behalf of the Church in answering them. For more information, dive into resources provided by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. **Special thanks to Fr. Albert Bruecken, Conception Seminary College, and Adam Storey, Director of Marriage and Family Life for Diocese of Des Moines, for sharing inspiration, ideas, and words for this series.

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Today’s Mass Readings deal with following God’s will for us and the obstacles inherent in that. One of the great lies of popular culture is that we will have more happiness and freedom if we can have more sex with fewer consequences. Who would define happiness and freedom that way? Consider the following passage from today’s Responsorial Psalm, taken from Exodus:

The enemy boasted, “I will pursue and overtake them. I will divide the spoils and have my fill of them. I will draw my sword; my hand shall despoil them!”

Since the sexual revolution drew its sword and despoiled sexual intimacy of its life-giving purpose, are we really happier and freer, or have we become slaves to our own pleasures? Have our relationships become better or worse? Do men and women respect each other more or less? The fruit of the sexual revolution is decidedly rotten, straight from the devil.

True happiness and freedom consist of being in right relationship with Jesus, who is Truth itself. How do we forge that relationship? Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel Reading. “For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Simply put, artificial contraception has no place in God’s plan for human sexuality. In that spirit, let’s take up a couple common questions related to artificial contraception.

Question: Isn’t it a double standard to allow couples to use natural family planning in order to avoid pregnancy but yet not allow artificial contraception?

This is a common question that goes straight to the heart of what makes an action moral. There are three considerations:

  1. The intention,
  2. The act itself, and
  3. The circumstances.

The question posed here considers the intention and the act itself. Through prayerful discernment and the use of God-given intellect and reason, a couple may discern that it is advisable to avoid or postpone pregnancy. However, the way they go about it (the act) matters.

Consider the analogy of trying to lose weight. If someone is ten pounds overweight and wants to lose it, that’s advisable; the intention is positive. There are a number of ways to go about losing the weight. One can employ a moderate regimen of diet and exercise, which is a good method. Another approach would be bulimia, which might be just as effective but decidedly unhealthy. The intention of losing extra weight is a good one, but the method chosen is a bad one.

The same thing is true of artificial contraception, which the Church always considers to be immoral when used explicitly for contraceptive purposes. The Church teaches that God’s design for sexual relations has two purposes:

  1. To bring about new life, and
  2. To draw husband and wife together in intimacy.

The aim of artificial contraception in every case is to frustrate God’s plan by separating these two purposes. This is precisely what “despoil” means – to strip of belongings, possessions, or value.

Question: I have a medical condition that requires me to be on the birth control pill. Am I in a state of sin by taking it?

Taking hormonal birth control, as prescribed by a physician, for explicitly non-contraceptive purposes is not a sin. However, one should abstain from sexual relations during such a course of treatment. Aside from the clear moral conflict of interest, there is also the drug’s abortifacient potential. This means that fertilization (fusion of sperm and ovum) could occur to produce an embryo, but this new life could not implant in the uterus and would thus be aborted due to the effects of the drug.

Also, it would be advisable to seek additional medical opinions, which might uncover more effective treatments. In many cases, the use of hormonal birth control masks symptoms while the underlying cause remains. As an analogy, what if someone sought treatment for a broken bone, and the attending physician prescribed Vicodin for the pain but failed to set the bone? That would likely be considered irresponsible, if not even malpractice. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is often done with hormonal birth control. Many conditions can be treated more effectively and/or without compromising fertility with alternate medications. Visit One More Soul to find your nearest NFP-only physician. If none is available in your area, ask an NFP teacher to recommend an NFP-friendly physician.

See you tomorrow when we’ll discuss control and trust related to natural family planning.

Links to other posts in this NFP series:

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Comments

  1. Diane says

    I started to respond to the post yesterday, because it bothered me, and then didn’t. I’m not arguing either way on whether or not artifical contraception or NFP is good or bad. The post yesterday and today are very thought provoking, and I heartily agree about marriage. However, I could not see any difference in the intent for using the methods, the message it sends to your spouse as described in the post, etc. Both “manipulate” to prevent pregnancy. I also perceived the argument today to be the same. The “act” of NFP is explicitly for contraceptive purposes, and the perceived take-home message for me was that NFP is better because the “church said so.” This concerns me as a parent of teenagers – no matter how much we may pride ourselves in “teaching” our children over the years – in the teen years teenagers quickly dismiss arguments that appear to end in “because the church said so.”

    • says

      Hi Diane; thanks for commenting. Let’s see if we can illuminate some things.

      NFP is not “explicitly for contraceptive purposes,” as you wrote, although it may be legitimately used to avoid/postpone pregnancy for serious reasons. Rather, NFP is really just the practice of monitoring signs of fertility. NFP works with a woman’s natural (God-given) cycle rather than subverting it. Many couples use NFP explicitly to maximize the chances of achieving pregnancy. Others use NFP to help diagnose health issues that may affect a woman’s fertility. This is why NFP is morally neutral. How a couple uses it is completely dependent upon their intent.

      Artificial contraception is morally negative because its sole purpose is to avoid pregnancy, which is the natural consequence of sexual intercourse. It inserts a barrier, either chemically or physically, between husband and wife, which prevents intercourse from being fully self-giving.

      Regarding intent, both NFP and contraception may be used avoid/postpone pregnancy. The fundamental difference is that the practice of NFP for this purpose requires communication, coordination, and sacrifice, which draws husband and wife together. The couple must observe regular periods of abstinence, which prompts them to continuously discern their intent. NFP cannot be used callously for this purpose and still be effective. The same is not true of artificial contraception.

      Finally, “because the Church says so” is a poor context for presenting anything the Church teaches, especially to a teenager. We do better when we seek to understand the rationale behind what the Church teaches and present that instead.

  2. Diane says

    Hi Lisa,

    Although this series has been focused on use of NFP to avoid/postpone pregnancy, the reminder about use of NFP to plan pregancy does speak more to a “moral neutral.” As a discussion point, the artificial oral contraceptive doesn’t have the “sole” purpose of avoiding pregnancy. As you noted, it is often taken for medicinal reasons such as easing menopausal symptoms. So it is slightly more “moral neutral”? I agree about seeking to understand the rationale, which is why I read the article in the first place, as am past childbearing, and I interested for future discussions with my kids. It will be interesting to see how this discussion continues to unfold in the Church.

    • says

      Diane, when the birth control pill is a taken for a valid medical condition, it would more properly be considered a medication that has a secondary, presumably unintended contraceptive effect. If conception is not possible (i.e., the patient is not sexually active or is not fertile), the contraceptive effect is not realized and need not be considered.

      It is worth noting, however, that such medications come with certain health risks. The following are categorized by the World Health Organization as Group 1 carcinogens:

      • • estrogen-only menopausal therapy;
      • • estrogen-progestogen menopausal therapy;
      • • estrogen-progestogen contraceptives.
  3. says

    Birth Control Pills for medical reasons:

    While you are correct that the Church does allow married women to use birth control pills for medical reasons, saying that they must abstain from relations is stricter than what is required by the Church.

    Pope Pius XII answered this question while the Pill was still in development in 1958:

    Is [birth control pill as medicine] allowed to the married woman who, despite this temporary sterility, wishes to have relations with her husband?

    The intention of the person determines the answer.

    If the woman takes the medicament, not with the idea of preventing conception, but solely on the advice of her doctor as a necessary remedy for a disorder of the uterus or organism, she is causing an indirect sterilization, which is allowed according to the principle governing acts with a double effect.

    http://www.pamphlets.org.au/australia/acts1454.html (Unfortunately, the full original is not available in English)

    As for the possible post-conception effects of the Pill, this would be a miscarriage (because it is not intended), not an abortion. Under the principle of double-effect, the possibility of a miscarriage must be weighed against alternative treatment or no treatment. In the case of a woman with an ovulatory disorder so severe to require the Pill as hormonal therapy, she is far LESS likely to miscarry on the Pill than off of it for the simply reason that she is less likely to ovulate, leading to fewer opportunities for conception.

    Still, birth control pills are strong medicine and many women will find that NFP leads them to better treatment and better health. A woman who truly needs the Pill as medicine needs prayers, not judgment.

    • says

      Thanks for the helpful resource and commentary. A few thoughts:

      First, regarding the permissibility of sexual relations while experiencing the secondary effect of sterility, it is worth noting that the pope’s response is far from an unequivocal affirmative. Rather, he cited the following conditions for taking such a medication:

      • • “as a necessary remedy”
      • • “solely on the advice of her doctor”
      • • “not with the idea of preventing conception”

      Let’s unpack that. Basically, a qualified medical opinion (preferably a consensus) must assert that it is necessary to treat the condition and only a medication inducing temporary sterility will suffice. That’s a high threshold before intention is even considered. However, if those two conditions can be met, the patient’s intentions still must be pure. Meeting all three of these conditions consists of no small amount homework and prayerful discernment.

      Second, the potential for loss of life in utero due to the medication’s abortifacient properties, however small, must be considered. Call it whatever you like, but the process is what it is. The only certain mode of prevention is abstinence. Taking all these factors into account, I would not be comfortable advising someone to engage in sexual relations in such a case.

      Third, I wholeheartedly agree that “A woman who truly needs the Pill as medicine needs prayers, not judgment.” Well said.

      • says

        As to your first point:

        I would say the question is whether a non-sexually active woman in the same situation (like a nun) would undergo the same treatment: If so, then it is proper. If not, then the woman should seek the best treatment.

        Once again, I would agree that this consists of no small amount of homework and prayerful discernment. This is NOT a loophole.

        As to your second:

        Would you also advise complete abstinence for a woman who has a problem with repeated miscarriage?

        Would you also advise complete abstinence for a treatment other than birth control pills that can increase the risk of miscarriage?

        The reason I ask is because MANY seemingly innocuous medications (such as ibuprofen) and even “pro-life” alternative treatments for these disorders can also increase the risk of miscarriage—often even more than the Pill. It seems like you are holding such hormone therapy to a higher standard because it happens to also be marketed as birth control.

        • says

          In any such case, I would recommend an initial period of spiritual counsel, prayer, study, and abstinence, during which the couple could discern together whether or not to eventually resume sexual relations.

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