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A Profoundly Different Understanding

by Dr. William E. May

Descriptive Title

Contraception and Rhythm of the Cycle


An examination of the fundamental moral difference between contraception and natural family planning, by a lay member of the Pontifical Theological Commission.

Larger Work

The Catholic Faith



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, March/April 1997

In an earlier essay,1 I sought to show the truth of John Paul's II perceptive observation in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio (no. 32), where he emphasized that the concepts of the human person and of human sexuality underlying the defense and practice of contraception and the concepts of these realities at the heart of the practice of periodic continence as a way to regulate conception are "irreconcilable." In this essay I will seek to show the truth of John Paul II's claim in the same Apostolic Exhortation that there are profoundly different understandings of the moral life underlying these two vastly different ways of regulating conception. Consequently, here I will set forth in some detail (1) the ethics of contraception, and (2) the ethics of periodic continence.

1 The Ethics of Contraception

Contraception is undergirded by ethical methodologies rightly called "consequentialistic" or "proportionalistic." The former, as Pope John Paul II correctly says, "claims to draw the criteria of the rightness of a given way of acting solely from a calculus of foreseeable consequences deriving from a given choice. The latter," he continues, "by weighing the various values and goods being sought, focuses rather on the proportion acknowledged between the good and bad effects of that choice, with a view to the 'greater good' or 'lesser evil' actually possible in a particular situation."2 Despite some differences between these ways of making moral judgments, they concur in holding as a thesis that it is impossible to identify as morally evil identifiable kinds of human acts—e.g., contraception, deliberate abortion, mercy killing, extra-marital sex etc.—apart from a consideration of the end for whose sake the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned.3

That these are the moral methodologies undergirding the defense of contraception is clearly seen by examining major arguments advanced by champions of contraception, for instance, the arguments set forth in the so-called Majority Reports noted previously in this paper. These arguments were hailed as definitive rebuttals of the alleged "physicalism" entailed by the repudiation of contraception as intrinsically immoral.

The reasoning employed by the authors of these Reports to justify contraception is evidently proportionalistic and consequentialistic. Two passages found in the Reports are absolutely crucial. I shall first cite these passages and then briefly comment on them.

The first reads as follows: "To take his or another's life is a sin not because life is under the exclusive dominion of God, but because it is contrary to right reason unless there is a good of a higher order. It is licit to sacrifice a life for the good of the community."4

According to the alleged moral principle set forth in this passage it is morally permissible to destroy human life (or other basic human goods) if doing so is deemed necessary for the sake of some greater good. I call this the "Caiaphas" principle, but champions of contraception refer to it as the "preference principle" or the "principle of proportionate reason." According to this principle, as one of its leading proponents, Richard McCormick, S.J., puts it, "Where a higher good is at stake, and the only means to protect it is to choose to do a nonmoral evil [such as killing an innocent person], then the will remains properly disposed to the values constitutive of human good .... This is to say that intentionality is good even when the person, reluctantly and regretfully to be sure, intends the nonmoral evil if a truly proportionate reason [i.e., good] for such a choice is present."5

What this means is that no specific moral norm, for instance the norm proscribing the intentional killing of innocent human persons or the one proscribing contraception, is absolute or exceptionless. A proportionalist "exception clause" must be placed after any specific moral norm: e.g., one ought not intentionally to kill an innocent human person unless doing so is necessary to protect some "greater" good or avoid some "greater evil." When this is applied to contraception, one can conclude that the practice of contraception, although entailing the willingness to deprive a freely chosen genital act of its openness to the gift of human life, is morally good and indeed obligatory whenever this is judged necessary to protect some "greater good," e.g., the communication of love and affection between spouses, or prevent some "greater evil," e.g., the conception of a child who may be genetically impaired or conception at a time when this would risk the mother's health.

The fatal flaw in such reasoning—or rather rationalizing—of course, is that it assumes that the goods at stake are commensurable, measurable, and that one can determine, prior to choice, which alternative has all the good that other alternatives have plus more or which alternative has less evil than all other alternatives. Were one able to make determinations of this kind prior to choice, no choice would be necessary or even possible, because choice of the other alternatives would be irrational.

The second passage presents a more straightforward consequentialist argument to justify contraception. It goes as follows:

When man interferes with the procreative purpose of individual [marital/genital] acts, he does so with the intention of regulating and not excluding fertility. Then he unites the material finality toward fecundity which exists in intercourse with the formal finality of the person and renders the entire process human.... Conjugal acts which by intention are infertile or which are rendered infertile are ordered to the expression of the union of love; that love, however, reaches its culmination in fertility responsibly accepted. For that reason other acts of union are in a certain sense incomplete and receive their full moral quality with ordination toward the fertile act .... Infertile conjugal acts constitute a totality with fertile acts and have a single moral specification [namely, the fostering of love responsibly toward a generous fecundity].6

This is indeed an illuminating passage. Note, first of all, that it morally equates the regulation of conception by abstaining from the marital act when the wife is fertile when it speaks of "conjugal acts which by intention are infertile" —and contraception—"conjugal acts ... rendered infertile." I will return to the common claim of defenders of contraception that there are two forms of contraception, one artificial and the other "natural" —periodic continence —later on. But it is instructive to see that this argument morally equates these means of avoiding a conception and obviously does so because they have the same consequence—no pregnancy.

But what is even more remarkable about this argument is its claim that the morality of contraceptive acts [and, if the principle articulated is sound, other human acts as well] can be judged only by evaluating many individual acts of contraception within the totality of the married life, i.e., in light of the end sought and the consequences hoped for by means of those individual acts. And if the end sought and hoped-for consequence is the "fostering of love responsibly toward a generous fecundity," then one can say that this is indeed the object of moral choice or, to put it another way, that this is what the contracepting couple is choosing to do. But this is obviously something good, not evil, and therefore contraception is morally good insofar as it is now morally specified, according to this line of reasoning, by a very noble object. Were a couple to contracept for "selfish" or "hedonistic" reasons, they would obviously be acting wrongly, as the proponents of this argument, and indeed anyone, would readily admit,7 because by definition "selfishly" motivated actions are immoral.

But note the speciousness of this argument. It cleverly conceals the reality of contraception by redescribing what is done in terms of the end sought and the hoped-for consequences, a common human way of rationalizing actions. One refuses to consider the act freely willed as such, shoving it under the rug, as it were, and focuses attention on something else—the good one hopes to achieve by being willing to do this. This is precisely the kind of reasoning used to justify dropping the atomic bomb on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, wiping out hundreds of thousands of innocent human persons, by claiming that the object of choice was not to kill these innocent persons but rather "to end the war and save hundreds of thousands of lives." This argument merely begs the question, yet it is a major argument used to justify the practice of contraception.

The Ethics of Natural Family Planning (NFP)

The ethical methodology underlying NFP can be described as follows. We are free to choose what we are to do and, by making free choices, to determine ourselves and give to ourselves our identity as moral persons.8 But we are not free to make what we choose to do to be good or bad. We can choose badly or wen. We choose well when we choose in accordance with the truth. This truth, ultimately, is God's divine and eternal law, His wise and loving plan for human existence. He has so made us that we are capable, because we are intelligent beings, of inwardly participating in this law of His through the natural law.9

The first moral principle or truth meant to guide 'our choices is expressed, religiously, by the twofold commandment to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves.10 We can, however, love our neighbors and ourselves only by being willing to respect and reverence the real goods perfective of human persons and aspects of their full-being, goods such as life itself, the handing on and care of new human life, knowledge of the truth, the communion of persons in marriage, friendship and peace and justice, etc.11 We violate this primordial truth whenever we adopt by choice proposals to damage, destroy, or impede anything that is really good, any real good of human persons. We are not, moreover, as Paul teaches us in Romans 3:8, to do evil so that good may come about.

This, briefly, is the understanding of human morality (ethics) underlying NFP. NFP is made possible by fertility awareness, the awareness that it is the married couple, together, who are fertile and that although the husband is continuously fertile (unless there is some pathology) the wife is not. The couple can then choose to regulate conception by freely choosing either to engage in the conjugal act when both husband and wife are fertile or to abstain from it when both are fertile and to engage in it when the wife is not fertile. If they have serious reasons not to cause a pregnancy (e.g., the wife's health, the serious economic problems a new pregnancy might cause), they realize that it would not be prudent to engage in the conjugal act at a time when both husband and wife are fertile and consequently they choose to abstain from expressing their love for one another through the marital act at this time. Choosing to abstain is surely not immoral; in no way by doing so do they choose to damage, destroy, or impede anything good. And obviously they are not choosing to do anything evil when they do choose to engage in the conjugal act during the wife's infertile period, because the conjugal act is good, not evil. If they acted in this way for selfish reasons if they did so because they refused to accept the gift of life, then they would be acting immorally because of the ends motivating their behavior. But if they act in this way because they have serious reasons for avoiding a pregnancy here and now, they are surely not acting immorally.

Nor are they in any way contracepting, despite the claims of champions of contraception that they are indeed engaging in "natural" as distinct from "artificial" contraception. Champions of contraception, in their mindless opposition to NFP, which they demean as an ineffective kind of "natural contraception," even claim that spouses who periodically abstain from the conjugal act in order to avoid causing a pregnancy are placing a "temporal," opposed to a "spatial" barrier between sperm and ovum. Believe me, this is the truly absurd claim made by the champions of contraception in their zeal to equate morally the use of artificial contraceptives and the practice of periodic continence.12

They are not contracepting because they are choosing to do something quite different from what persons choose to do when they contracept. To grasp this truth, we simply have to be clear about what someone does when one contracepts.

A good definition of contraception, one in accord with the truth, is provided by Pope Paul VI in his Encyclical Humanae vitae, where he described it as "every action, which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes either as end or as means to impede procreation."13 In other words, what one does the "object" specifying one's choice and making it to be the kind of choice it is14 when one contracepts is to impede deliberately the beginning of a new human life. Consequently, a married couple contracepts because, freely choosing to engage in a genital act reasonably thought to be the kind of act through which a new human life can come to be, they do not want that new human life to come to be. They therefore choose to do something precisely to impede procreation, i.e., to keep that possible new life from coming into existence. Should it come to be, despite their efforts to prevent its coming into being, it would come to be as an unwanted child.

What this shows us is that contraception is an "anti-life" kind of an act. It is a freely chosen kind of act through which one sets oneself against the good of human life in its transmission. Contracepting couples thus set their "hearts," their persons, against the good of human life: they do not want to let it be.

An accurate description of contraception thus shows us that contraception is wrong because it is anti-life and also that it is not itself a sexual act or part of a sexual act. Contraception by married couples (or by fornicating or adulterous couples) involves a double-barreled choice, i.e., two distinct choices, each with its distinct moral object: (1) the choice to engage in intercourse (either with one's spouse or with someone other than one's spouse or with another unmarried individual); and (2) the choice to do something prior to, during, or after that freely chosen act of intercourse precisely to impede the conception of new human life. Choice (1) is of a sexual act; choice (2) is the anti-life choice of a contraceptive act.

Hence contraception can in no way be justified as "part" of the marital act or series of such acts. This helps us to see how spurious is the claim, seen above, that what married couples who have good reasons to avoid a pregnancy are doing when they contracept is simply to foster love responsibly toward a generous fecundity. But this is surely not what they are choosing to do when they contracept. They may contracept in the hope that, as a result, they will bring these good consequences about. But to claim that this is the object of their moral choice when they contracept is specious and, as was seen above, simply redescribes the act of contraception in terms of its hoped-for benefits.

Contraception, in addition to being an anti-life kind of act, is also an anti-love kind of act, one incompatible with the sincere self-giving that is meant to characterize marriage and the marital act. When a married couple contracepts, they in effect refuse to give themselves unreservedly to one another in the act proper to marriage—the marital act. In fact, through contraception they change their freely chosen genital act from being one of true conjugal love a giving and receiving—to a different kind of human act. As John Paul II has perceptively pointed out again and again, "the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads ... to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality."15

Precisely because married couples who practice NFP do not want to contracept, i.e., adopt by choice the proposal to impede the beginning of new human life, and precisely because they do not want to make freely chosen acts of intercourse anti-loving, antispousal, they choose to practice NFP so that they can embrace in the marital act when it is a time to embrace and abstain from it when it is not the time so to embrace. Their ethic is an ethic of love, an ethic that respects fully every true good of human persons and refuses to do anything intentionally to damage, destroy or impede what is really good.


We have now, I hope, seen clearly the truly profound differences in the understanding of the moral life operative in the defense and practice of contraception—an act that is both anti-life and anti-love, and in the defense and practice of periodic continence, a practice rooted in a love and respect for life and for the integral meaning of the conjugal act. The moral ideology behind contraception generates the "culture of death"; the philosophy and theology behind the practice of periodic continence is an integral component of the "civilization of love."

Dr. May is the Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. He is author of Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family is Built, published by Ignatius Press.


1 "Irreconcilable Concepts of the Human Person and of Human Sexuality.

2 Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis splendor, no. 75.

3 See ibid., n. 79.

4 "The Question Is Not Closed," p. 72.

5 Richard A. McCormick, S.J., "Ambiguity in Moral Choice," as reprinted in Doing Evil to Achieve Good, eds. Richard A. McCormick and Paul Ramsey (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1978), p. 39.

6 "The Question Is Not Closed," p. 72.

7 In "On Responsible Parenthood," pp. 90-91, the same authors declare: "The true opposition is not to be sought between some material conformity to the physiological processes of nature and some artificial intervention. For it is natural to man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given in physical nature. The opposition is to be sought really between one way of acting which is contraceptive [in a bad sense] and opposed to a prudent and generous fruitfulness, and another way which is in an ordered relationship to responsible fruit fulness and which has a concern for all the essential human and Christian values," i.e., contraception of individual acts specified morally now by their being ordered to the fostering of love responsibly toward generous fecundity.

8 As Pope John Paul II beautifully puts matters in Veritatis splendor, no. 71, our freely chosen deeds "do not produce a change merely in the state of affairs outside of man but, to the extent that they are deliberate choices, they give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual traits."

9 On this see Vatican Council II, Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis humanae), n. 3.

10 On this see St. Thomas, Summa theologiae, 1-2,100,3, ad 1.

11 On this see, for example, John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis splendor, no. 12.

12 This is precisely the claim made by Louis Janssens in his previously cited essay, "Considerations on Humanae Vitae," and by Rosemary Ruether in her contribution to Contraception and Holiness (New York: Herder & Herder, 1964).

13 Pope Paul VI, Encyclical Humanae vitae, no. 14.

14 On this see John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis splendor, no. 78: "The morality of a human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the 'object' rationally chosen by the deliberate will ... The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behavior .. the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person."

15 Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation on the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World (Familiaris consortio), no. 32.

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