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Natural Family Planning and Self-Mastery


The difference between natural family planning (NFP) and contraception is the topic of this clarifying essay by Janet Smith.

smithjanet67 Recently I have read arguments in the press that the pope shows lack of concern for women, who, if they do not use artificial contraception may be burdened by too many children.  Yet, throughout his writings, the pope makes clear that it is women more often than not who are the greater victims in a disorderedness in the sexual realm.  In several places in his writings, he reaffirms Pope Paul VI's prediction that contraception is not a liberator of women, but is more likely to be used as a means to exploit women.  Many of my conversations with women have borne out the pope's teaching.  Many women I know have been exploited or have allowed themselves to be exploited by contraception.  But even further, many of them feel degraded by the use of contraceptives; they do sense that it is a blow to their human dignity and integrity to be taking chemicals or using artificial devices which work against their fertility.  Women using natural family planning (NFP) nearly always feel revered and treasured by their husbands, for they sense that their husbands respect them as persons.  An analysis of the difference between NFP and contraception should help explain why many women discern such a difference between the two. 

There are many ways to explain the difference between artificial contraception and NFP.  The most straightforward explanation goes like this: (a) there is nothing wrong with wanting, for good reasons, to limit one's family size and (b) there is nothing wrong with married couples either having sex or not having sex; thus, since it is not wrong to want to limit your family size and there is nothing wrong with not having sex, it follows quite smoothly that there is nothing wrong with not having sex because you want to limit your family size. 

I think that line of reasoning is unassailable but it does not usually serve to answer all the objections of those who, at least at first, have trouble understanding the difference between NFP and artificial contraception.  They think that both couples using contraception and those using NFP do not want children, so what is the big difference about how they achieve this end? They wonder how a couple who is using NFP can truly be open to procreation, to having children. 

The difficulty here arises from too narrow an understanding of the word open.  Open does not mean wanting a child now; it means having done nothing to close out the possibility of having children.  There is an odd phrase used currently to describe sex without contraception: such sex is called unprotected sex.  This phrase may help us here.  Those using NFP are having unprotected sex; though the couple may be quite certain that they cannot conceive at this point, they have done nothing to close out the possibility of a child.  A woman does not make herself periodically infertile, nature does; thus, in having sex during the infertile periods, she has not done anything to close out the possibility of having children; nature closes that possibility.  And, since she has no obligation to have sex, in not having sex during her fertile period, she also does no wrong in abstaining.  To use the phrase of the pope, the couple using NFP is not telling a lie with their bodies; they are still allowing sex its full, natural meaning.  In short, the naturalness of NFP is obvious: It recognizes fertility as a good and does nothing to deny this good; it operates fully in accord with the laws of nature, which are the laws of God. 

This, though, is not quite the pope's line of reasoning.  In line with his personalistic philosophy, he emphasizes the positive effects of NFP for the human person.  John Paul II puts great stress on the power of responsible use of periods of abstinence to aid man in regaining the mastery of himself which was his before original sin.  He argues that the use of artificial or technological means allows him to avoid this mastery, and thus diminish the dignity of man.  Man relies upon technology to do for him, what he cannot or will not do for himself.  Self-restraint or continence is not a means of birth control in the same way that artificial means are, for continence does not require artificial devices; it requires strengthening the powers and virtues of the human person.  John Paul II tells us that mastery of the self is indispensable for the human person.  He insists that NFP helps us learn to control our desires; it helps us acquire virtue and strength.  On the other hand, artificial means of birth control do not help us develop interior strength. 

The pope continues to develop the theme of language of the body along with this theme of self-mastery.  Those who do not have self-mastery are not able to use their bodies to express exactly what they wish to express.  They are unable to perceive or express the profounder values of love.  These are the pope's words:

Concupiscence of the flesh itself, insofar as it seeks above all carnal and sensual satisfaction, makes man in a certain sense blind and insensitive to the most profound values that spring from love and which at the same time constitute love in the interior truth that is proper to it. 

The pope argues that sexual union should be the product of the desire to express love for another, not the outcome of ungovernable passion.  If an individual is driven by his desires to have sex rather than by love, he risks treating the beloved as an object to satisfy those desires, not as a person with whom to share love.  Thus, the control of the passions gained through periodic abstinence is not a negation of passion.  It is a means of affirming respect for one's partner.  The control enables individuals to respect each other, for those who have control are able to use sexual union to express their love, not to use their beloved solely as a means of satisfying their physical desire. 

The pope does not underestimate the effort that will need to be made to learn to respect one's beloved fully and to gain self-mastery.  He counsels us to have regular recourse to the graces to be gained through prayer and especially the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist, for these are the means that Christ instituted to heal our weaknesses and make us whole. 

The value of the product of such an effort also ought not to be underestimated.  Self-mastery not only enhances man's dignity; it also confers benefits on human society.  The pope cites a passage from Humanae Vitae which speaks of the goods of self-control:

This self-discipline...brings to family life abundant fruits of tranquility and peace.  It helps in solving difficulties of other kinds.  It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for each other.  It helps them to repel the excessive self-love which is the opposite of charity.  It arouses in them a consciousness of their responsibilities.  And finally, it confers upon parents a deeper and more effective influence in the education of their children.  For these latter, both in childhood and in youth, as years go by, develop a right sense of values as regards the true blessings of life and achieve a serene and harmonious use of their mental and physical powers. 

The pope tells us that use of NFP will make us better spouses and parents; our self-control in matters of sex will permeate other areas of our lives where we need self-control in order to deal with our marriages and our children.  And also of great importance is the excellent example we will be for our children when we attempt to convince them of the proper place for sex in their lives. 

This connection between the proper use of sexuality, the strength of marriage, and the healthiness of children and consequently of society as well is, I think, the reason why the pope has made human sexuality a constant theme of his pontificate.  Mother Teresa constantly reminds us that love and peace must begin at home, and, if we establish loving and peaceful relationships there, they will spread to the rest of the world.  The pope is spreading a similar message when he implores us to be true to our human dignity in sexual matters; he maintains that integrity in sexual matters will permeate the rest of our lives. 



At the beginning of this talk, I spoke of the pope's book Love and Responsibility as a Great Book, because it addressed fundamental questions facing man and because I thought that, if we were to live by its message, our lives would change radically.  His message, a message which promises to liberate us from the sexual permissiveness of our times and from the heartbreak which follows from this permissiveness, is truly exciting.  Consider how much happier many will be if they can escape the emotional trauma which results from sexual license.  Think of the prospect of fewer unwanted pregnancies and the reduction of poverty and dislocated lives which follow unwanted pregnancy.  Think of the happiness which will result from wives and husbands who love and respect each other.  Ponder the joyful ramifications of fewer broken homes.  The Church has been accused of being obsessed with sex and sexual sins, but those who understand how close is the nexus between sex, love, family, and human happiness will realize the importance of the pope's message. 

With this essay, I hope I have made somewhat clearer the pope's impressively thorough teachings on sexuality.  When I told a friend that I was going to talk on the pope's phenomenological method and his personalistic approach, he responded that he understood those terms very simply: The pope is a phenomenal person.  Well, I agree.  His is a voice which our age desperately needs to hear; let us open our ears and be glad.




Smith, Janet. Natural Family Planning and Self-Mastery. In Why Humanae Vitae was right: A Reader, edited by Janet Smith, 244-248. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

The Author

smithasmith1aJanet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She is the author of Living the Truth in Love: Pastoral Approaches to Same-Sex Attraction, In the Beginning . . .: A Theology of the BodyLife Issues, Medical Choices: Questions and Answers for Catholics, The Right to Privacy (Bioethics & Culture), Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and the editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right. Prof. Smith has received the Haggar Teaching Award from the University of Dallas, the Prolife Person of the Year from the Diocese of Dallas, and the Cardinal Wright Award from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. She was named Catholic of the Year by Our Sunday Visitor in 2015. Over a million copies of her talk, "Contraception: Why Not" have been distributed. Visit Janet Smith's web page here. See Janet Smith's audio tapes and writing here. Janet Smith is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1993 Ignatius Press
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