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Beyond the Liberal/Conservative Divide on Contraception: The Wisdom of Practitioners of Natural Family Planning and Artificial Birth Control

  • Julie Hanlon Rubio (a1)

The article argues that contemporary dialogue on sexuality and contraception represents a new way of approaching Christian sexual ethics. Through an analysis of the experiential reflections of practitioners of natural family planning and artificial birth control, it shows that both sides seek the following goods: self-giving, relational intimacy, mutuality, sexual pleasure, and a strong connection between sexual and spiritual experience. It claims that while each side has distinctive insights, their shared concerns offer a way beyond the post-Humanae Vitae tension on sexual ethics. In this new dialogue, proving HV right or wrong will be much less important than helping Christian couples develop their sexual relationships in the context of their commitment to Christian discipleship.

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1 Paul, Pope VI, Humanae Vitae (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1968).

2 See, for instance, Whitehead, Kenneth D., ed., Marriage and the Common Good (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 2001), proceedings from the Twenty-Second Annual Convention of Catholic Scholars.

3 See articles by Pilch, Pamela and Tentler, Leslie in Commonweal, 23 April 2004, and multiple responses in Correspondence sections in subsequent issues.

4 See, for instance, Gaillardetz, Richard, A Daring Promise: A Spirituality of Christian Marriage (New York: Crossroad, 2001), 101–11 and McCarthy, David, “Procreation, the Development of Peoples, and the Final Destination of Humanity,” Communio 26 (Winter 1999): 698721.

5 Experience is a significant source for contemporary Christian Ethics for both liberals and conservatives, though its precise value is disputed. See Farley, Margaret, “The Role of Experience in Moral Discernment,” in Cahill, Lisa Sowle and Childress, James F., eds., Christian Ethics: Problems and Prospects (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1996), 134–51, and Wojtyla, Karol, “The Problem of Experience in Ethics,” in his Person and Community: Selected Essays, trans. Sandok, Theresa (New York: Peter Lang, 1993): 107–28.

6 Shannon, William, ed. The Lively Debate: Responses to Humanae Vitae (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1970).

7 McClory, Robert, Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission (New York: Crossroad, 1995), 72. See also Kaiser, Robert Blair, The Politics of Sex and Religion (Kansas City, KS: Leaven Press, 1985)

8 Ibid., 73. McClory notes that the studies of psychiatrist John Cavanaugh were also used to support the idea that rhythm was psychologically harmful, especially for women.

9 Ibid. This is a popular version of the principle of totality, proposed as an alternative to act-centered moral analysis.

10 Ibid., 78–79.

11 Ibid., 91.

12 Ibid., 92. For an alternative view of the Commission, see Kelly, George A., The Battle for the American Church (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979), 153–98 and Hitchcock, James, “The Significance of the Papal Birth Control Commission,” in Riley, Patrick G.D., ed., Keeping the Faith: Msgr. George A. Kelly's Battle for the Church (Front Royal, VA: Christendom, 2000). Both question the relevance and accuracy of the CFM surveys.

13 After listening to the lay women of the Commission, one bishop commented, “This, is why we wanted to have couples on our Commission” (McClory, 106).

14 Ibid., 90. The final vote of the entire commission was fifty-eight to four.

15 Ibid., 103–04

16 Ibid., 107.

17 Of course, a worldwide survey of Catholics has not yet been done. It is possible that such a survey would reveal a greater diversity than the current data suggests.

18 Ibid., 110–11.

19 Ibid., 145.

20 Ibid., 141.

21 Ibid., 140.

22 Eighty seven percent of Catholics agreed with this statement in a 1993 Gallup poll (Los Angeles Times, 7 January 1993, p. E6). Vincent Genovesi reports that only about 4% of couples use NFP, In Pursuit of Love: Catholic Morality and Human Sexuality, 2d ed., (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 206. The pro-NFP Couple to Couple League believes the figure may be even lower, perhaps three percent. See John Kipley, “How Many?” available at See also, Fehring, Richard and Schlidt, Andrea Matovina, “Trends in Contraceptive Use Among Catholics in the U.S.: 1985–1995,” Linacre Quarterly 68/2 (May 2001): 170–85. Seventy percent of Catholic couples did not use contraception in 1955; see Kelly, 188, relying on demographic research from 1973.

23 See, for instance, Häring, Bernard, “The Inseparability of the Unitive-Procreative Functions of the Marital Act,” in Curran, Charles E., ed., Contraception, Authority and Dissent (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 176–92.

24 See Curran, Charles E. and Hunt, Robert E., Dissent In and For the Church: Theologians and Humanae Vitae (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969).

25 Kosnik, Anthony et al. , Human Sexuality (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979), 131–37.

26 Greeley, Andrew, The American Catholic: A Social Portrait (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 141.

27 See Familiaris Consortio (Washington, DC: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1981), #28–36, and Reflections on Humanae Vitae: Conjugal Morality and Spirituality (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1984).

28 See Grisez, Germain, Boyle, Joseph, Finnis, John, and May, William E., “Every Marital Act Ought to Be Open to New Life,” in The Teaching of Humanae Vitae: A Defense (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 33116.

29 See “Morality in Sexual Matters: Observations of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Book Human Sexuality,” The Pope Speaks, 13 July 1979, pp. 97–102.

30 Smith, Janet E., “Paul VI as Prophet,” in Smith, Janet E., ed., Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 519–31.

31 See Grabowski, John, Sex and Virtue: An Introduction to Sexual Ethics (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 1014, 142–54.

32 Wilson, Mercedes Arzu, Love & Family: Raising a Traditional Family in a Secular World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 250–55. How much lower is a matter of much dispute. NFP advocates like Wilson and the Couple to Couple League cite use rates of seventy to ninety percent, while others present evidence that failure is much more common. See Traina, Christina, “Papal Ideals, Marital Realities: One View from the Ground,” in Jung, Patricia Beattie with Coray, Joseph Andrew, eds., Sexual Diversity and Catholicism: Toward the Development of Moral Theology (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 277.

33 Grabowski, 130.

34 Ibid., 130–31. See John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio §32.

35 Grabowski, 152–54. Thomasina Borkman points out the limits of existing studies that focus, for the most part, on satisfied users. Comparison with artificial methods of contraception is also difficult because NFP is more of a way of life with training methods similar to those of self-help movements than a birth control method. See Borkman, , “A Social Science Perspective of Research Issues for Natural Family Planning,” IRNFP 3/4 (1979): 331–55.

36 Ruether's article appears in Curran, Charles E. and McCormick, Richard P., eds., Moral Theology No. 8: Dialogue about Catholic Sexual Teaching (New York: Paulist, 1993), 138–52. See also Traina.

37 Ruether, 141.

38 Christopher West, Good News about Sex and Marriage: Answers to Your Honest Questions about Catholic Teaching (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Press, 2000), 108.

39 Sam, and Torode, Bethany, Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 8.

40 Ibid., 30. The Torodes represent a small but growing minority of conservative Protestants who agree with the traditional Catholic position.

41 Ibid., 127.

42 Ibid., 25.

43 See Stanford, Joseph M.D., “My Personal and Professional Journey with Regard to Moral Issues in Human Procreation,” in Hartman, Cleta, Physicians Healed (Dayton, OH: One More Soul, 1998), who says he learned from patients that abstinence strengthened couples' ability to sacrifice for each other, 115; Hahn, Kimberly Kirk, Life-Giving Love: Embracing God's Beautiful Design for Marriage (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Press, 2001); Shivanadan, Mary, Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1999), 262–70.

44 Beabout, Gregory R. and Colton, Randall, “If You Want Justice, Work for Chastity,” unpublished paper, 2003. See also, McCarthy, , who highlights the connection between openness to procreation and solidarity, “Sexual Utterances and the Common Life,” Modern Theology 16/4 (October 2000) 443–59.

45 Ruether, 141. Traina (275) also notes that other goods must be weighed when considering whether or not to be open to the good of procreation.

46 Ruether, 141.

47 On this theme, see also, McCarthy, David, Sex and Love in the Home: A Theology of the Household, 2d ed., (London: SCM Press, 2004), 4648.

48 Traina, 274.

49 Ibid., 279.

51 Selling, Joseph A., “The ‘Meanings’ of Human Sexuality,” Louvain Studies 23 (1998): 35.

52 Gudorf, Christine, Body, Sex, & Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1994), 98.

53 Ibid., 109

54 Torodes, 50.

56 Winstein, Merryl, Your Fertility Signals: Using Them to Achieve or Avoid Pregnancy, Naturally (St. Louis: Smooth Stone Press, 1989).

57 See McMillan, Beverly, “Confessions of an Ob-Gyn,” New Oxford Review 68/8 (September 2001): 17; Tompkins, K.J. and Dwyer, Barbara, “Experience with a Hospital-Based Natural Family Planning Service,” IRNFP 10/4 (Winter 1986): 347; Borkman, Thomasina and Shivanadan, Mary, “The Impact of Natural Family Planning on Selected Aspects of the Couple Relationship,” IRNFP 8/1 (1984): 63; McCusker, M. Peter, “NFP and the Marital Relationship: The Catholic University of America Study,” IRNFP 1/4 (1977): 333.

58 There is some evidence that NFP couples have lower divorce rates. See Aguilar, Nona, The New No-Pill, No-Risk Birth Control (New York: Rawson Associates, 1986) and Brand, Jeff, Marital Duration and Natural Family Planning (Cincinnati: Couple to Couple League, 1995), though systematic comparative studies have yet to be attempted.

59 Ruether, 143. See also Novak, Michael, The Experience of Marriage (New York: Macmillan, 1964), quoting married couples, “We know that it [sex] is of fundamental importance to developing our personal relationship, to increasing that mutuality that we find is a very real analogy of Divine Love” (42).

60 Traina, 273.

61 Ruether, 150.

62 Traina, 280.

63 A letter from the Crowley, surveys, quoted in Kotre, John, Simple Gifts: The Lives of Pat and Patty Crowley (New York: Andrews and McMeel, 1979), 97. Testimony that abstinence distorts intimacy can also be found in Novak, The Experience of Marriage, and Finley, Mitch, “The Dark Side of Natural Family Planning,” America, 23 February 1991, pp. 206–07.

64 Gaillardetz, 110.

65 Ibid., 111. Note that Gaillardetz sees much wisdom in HV and believes that many couples can successfully adopt NFP.

66 Trobisch, Ingrid and Roetzer, Elisabeth, An Experience of Love: Understanding NFP (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1981), 83. See also Torodes, 52.

67 Murray, Paul, “The Power of ‘Humanae Vitae’: Take Another Look,” Commonweal, 15 July 1994, p. 15.

68 Oddens, Bjorn J., “Women's Satisfaction with Birth Control,” Contraception 59 (1999): 281–82. According to a large German study, compared to NFP users, women who used contraception reported higher satisfaction generally, higher sexual frequency, more spontaneity. Still, NFP users, though generally somewhat less satisfied (72% versus 83% of pill users, 90% of IUD users, and 92% of those who relied on sterilization), reported more pleasure and increased sex drive, along with decreased frequency and spontaneity.

69 Pellaur, Mary, “The Moral Significance of Female Orgasm: Toward Sexual Ethics that Celebrate Women's Sexuality,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 9/1–2 (Spring/Fall 1993): 174.

70 Tortorici, Joseph, “Conception Regulation, Self-Esteem, and Marital Satisfaction among Catholic Couples: Michigan State University Study,” IRNFP 3/3 (1979): 197–98.

71 Fehring, Richard J. and Lawrence, Donna M., “Spiritual Well-Being, Self-Esteem and Intimacy among Couples Using Natural Family Planning,” Linacre Quarterly 61:3 (August 1994): 25.

73 On competing goods, see Traina, 275 and Cahill, Lisa Sowle, Sex, Gender, and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 204–05.

74 Ternier, Jim and Ternier-Gommers, Marie-Louise, “Speaking up for Natural Family Planning,” National Catholic Reporter (13 February 2004), p. 19.

75 HV's insistence that contraception will decrease men's respect for women denies the possibility that a woman could desire sexual gratification for herself and/or degrade a man, with or without contraception. Moreover, Barbara Andolsen makes the point that women “are asserting ever more strongly that an ability to direct their own reproductive power is essential for their well-being and that of their families” (“Woman and Roman Catholic Sexual Ethics,” in Curran, Charles E., Farley, Margaret A., and McCormick, Richard A., eds., Feminist Ethics and the Catholic Moral Tradition [New York: Paulist, 1996], 226).

76 See Ruether, , “Homophobia, Heterosexism, and Pastoral Practice,” in Nelson, James B. and Longfellow, Sandra P., eds., Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 389.

77 Chavez-Garcia, Sylvia and Helminiak, Daniel A., “Sexuality and Spirituality: Friends, not Foes,” Journal of Pastoral Care 34/6 (June 1985): 160.

78 Traina, 280–82.

79 Shivanadan, , “Natural Family Planning and the Theology of the Body,” National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 3/1 (Spring 2003): 25.

80 Miller, Paula Jean, “The Theology of the Body: A New Look at Humanae Vitae,” Theology Today 57/4 (January 2001): 507.

81 See Borkman and Shivanadan, “The Impact of NFP.” Sixty percent of the couples studied found that NFP enhanced the religious or spiritual dimension of their relationship, (64). Sam and Bethany Torode claim that the abstinence required by NFP reminds them of the goodness of sex, making sex as prayer more of a possibility (54). A comparative study of twenty couples using NFP and twenty using contraception found higher spiritual and religious well-being in the NFP couples. See Fehring and Lawrence, 27.

82 Shivandan, , “Natural Family Planning and the Theology of the Body,” 24.

83 Hahn, Kimberly Kirk, Life-Giving Love: Embracing God's Beautiful Design for Marriage (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Press, 2001) 89, 26, 73. Hahn includes a moving meditation on the sacrifice of her own body scarred by numerous difficult pregnancies. She maintains, “through the marital act, we choose to be a living sacrifice,” 122.

84 Ruether, 149.

85 Ibid., 150.

86 Traina, Christina, “Roman Catholic Resources for an Ethic of Sexuality,” unpublished paper, 2004.

87 See Chavez-Garcia and Helminiak, 161. The writers claim that orgasm breaks through human preoccupation with ideas and puts people back in touch with their bodies, opening them to the spiritual dimensions of reality. Many writers speak critically of the Christian tradition's negative view of the body as something to be overcome. See, e.g., Dorr, Donal, “Rethinking Sexual Morality,” The Furrow 53/12 (December 2002): 655. No NFP proponents I read had similar concerns.

88 Whiteheads, 12.

89 Ibid., 17.

90 On this theme, see also, Nelson, James, Between Two Gardens: Reflections on Sexuality and Religious Experience (New York: Pilgrim, 1983) and Ferder, Fran & Heagle, John, Your Sexual Self: Pathway to Authentic Intimacy (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria, 1992).

91 McCarthy, , Sex and Love in the Home, 3444.

92 Oddens, 220. The discrepancy between this finding and pre-1968 surveys is likely due both to the greater reliability of modern NFP as well as strong formation for NFP users.

93 See Rubio, Julie Hanlon, “The Dual Vocation of Christian Parents,” Theological Studies 63 (December 2002): 786812.

94 Sr.Prokes, Mary Timothy, “The Catholic Tradition and Sexual Teaching,” unpublished paper, 2004.

95 Nelson, 32.

96 David McCarthy's critique of sexual theologies that place too much importance on individual sexual acts is important to keep in mind here. Sex may be sacramental in the context of a lifelong marriage, even if particular acts mean relatively little (see Sex and Love in the Home, 46–48).

97 See Portier, William, “Here Come the Evangelical Catholics,” Communio 31/1 (Spring 2004): 3566.

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