Natural law and contraception

The following are draft notes made for the show Naturang Batas (episode on "Natural Law and Contraception) by Fr. Ces Magsino. However, the 'drafts' are so instructive that I asked the permission of Fr. Ces to share it to my readers. And here it is:

What is meant by contraception?

Contraception is a kind of behavior whose context is the conjugal life of a married couple. So we are not talking about sexual relations of two unmarried persons because then we would talking instead of fornication or adultery.
Contraception is any action by which the married couple intentionally renders their conjugal act unfruitful by any means whatsoever. It involves the decision to do the marital act but also the decision to intentionally deprive it of its capacity to transmit life. The method that is used does not make any difference: the couple might use the pill, a diaphragm, a condom, spermicide, IUD, or withdrawal and in all these cases the marital act will be contraceptive.
A special case of contraception can happen in the case of a couple who intentionally exclude having children from their married life without any serious reason for doing so and have marital relations only during the infertile periods of the wife. Apparently this kind of behavior is natural family planning; but it really is another form of contraception.
Contraception is a moral evil. We can understand contraception better if we contrast it to the true human good to which it is opposed. It is really opposed to two human goods: responsible parenthood and marital chastity. The two are related to each other. Responsible parenthood demands the practice of marital chastity and this latter facilitates very much the practice of the former.
In the case of the couple that excludes having children for no serious reason these persons are not practicing responsible parenthood. Even if they use natural family planning they will still be doing something evil because their actions go against a true human good.
In the case of the couple that uses artificial means of contraception, they are deciding to have marital relations instead of the possibility of abstaining since they have used certain means to make the act unfruitful and so they consider it “safe”. Here aside from not practicing responsible parenthood there is also typically the choice of not practicing self-discipline over the sexual urges and hence the lack of chastity.

What again is the natural law?

It has been the claim of the Catholic Church that its teaching that contraception is evil is part of the natural law. And so, it will make sense to ask what this natural law is when we talk about contraception.
Natural law is nothing else than our very same reason that tells us what acts or kinds of behavior are good or evil. Then, moreover, it tells us that good must be done and evil must be avoided. It is our reason that tells us that lying, killing persons, hurting others, disrespecting people are evil actions and that we should not do such actions. And it is also our reason that tells us that truthfulness, honesty, working well, respecting others, helping others are all good actions and we must do such actions. We come to have these ideas spontaneously, meaning that no formal syllogism is needed to arrive at such a conclusion as to kill an innocent person is evil. But even if we do not perform any syllogistic reasoning to know this idea, our practical reason can see the reasonableness of such proposition.

What again is human nature?

Natural law is said to be based upon human nature. The typical understanding is this: our human nature is what tells us the principles of the natural law. This will need a little explanation because this point is not as clear as it seems at first sight.
We can understand human nature in the physical sense: a man is made of flesh and bones, organs and tissues, nerves and brain, bodily systems and functions. This is what the medical doctors study. Of course, knowing how the body functions will make us know what is good for our health and what is harmful. And so we avoid certain foods or handling certain contaminated materials because they are not good for our health. This is a kind of law we follow but this is not yet the natural law we are talking about here.
The human nature we are talking about as the basis of the natural law is man’s nature as being a person, a rational individual. Being a person he has a specific dignity, a quality that demands that he be respected. Being a person, he is reasonable, that is he tends to act according to reason. And so the natural law we are referring to is what is reasonable for man, what accords with his reason. In the end, what is reasonable for a person is what contributes to his full development and his happiness.

Why is contraception said to violate natural law?

Contraception as we defined it goes against two human goods as we have said. By saying this we are also saying that it goes against reason and reasonableness. And whatever goes against reason and reasonableness will go against the true good for man and against the natural law.
By choosing contraception, a married couple purposely renders their marital act unfruitful. Presumably the couple wants the benefit of sexual pleasure without the supposed burden of having a child. By any reasonable standard this way of acting is irresponsible. Our actions have natural consequences. If we eat fatty foods we raise our cholesterol levels. If we give in to laziness and don’t do our jobs, then we can get laid off. Any person will agree that someone who does something or omits doing something should be responsible and face the consequences. To have a sense of responsibility is a basic quality of any normal and upright person. Irresponsibility harms persons and society. Contraception promotes irresponsibility in parenthood. In fact it is the denial of parenthood.
Very much related to irresponsibility involved in contraception is the lack of chastity. By choosing to do contraception the couple chooses not to abstain from having marital relations so as to avoid a conception. The choice of not abstaining has its roots in the decision not to control one’s sexual urges when there is a reason for doing so. This is the lack of chastity.
Chastity is a very important personal good. Its absence has tremendous repercussions not only for one’s personal life but also for the life of a family and the society in general. One just has to realize that at the root of crimes like rape and adultery, and social maladies like broken families, separation, divorce, juvenile delinquency is precisely the lack of chastity.

Are there any exceptions? Dangerous pregnancies? Too many children already? Gays using condoms?

Contraception is said to be intrinsically evil. This means that the principle “contraception is evil” does not admit of exceptions. In a similar way other principles of the natural law like “killing an innocent person is evil”, “lying is evil”, “fraud is evil” do not admit of exceptions. Imagine if these principles of the natural law admitted exceptions, there would be chaos in our society.
The problem of spacing the births of children, assuming the couple has good reasons for doing so will not constitute a reason for admitting the practice of contraception because there is a reasonable way of proceeding if the goal of the couple is to space the next birth. The reasonable way of acting is to practice periodic continence.
Many years ago, it was claimed that the methods available for the practice of periodic continence were so unreliable and unpredictable that these methods placed an onerous burden and strain on conjugal relations. Those days are over since the current scientific and medical knowledge about female fertility makes determination of the wife’s fertile days very accurate.
The question of homosexual relations is a different issue altogether. Their practices cannot be classified as contraceptive because they are naturally unnatural and unfruitful.

Why can’t it be sex for the sake of sex? Can’t married couples enjoy sex just for the sake of sex?

If we reflect is a little bit about the differences between the male and female person especially as regards their sexual organs, we come to the conclusion they are configured excellently for the transmission of life. Any person who learns about the intricacies of the union of the sexual gametes and the ensuing conception of life will be awed at the tremendous complementarity and complexity involved in the entire process. And so it is reasonable to conclude that the sexual union has for its purpose the transmission of life.
But since man is not just an animal but a person, the sexual union for him and her is not just a physical and biological event. It is also expressive of the married love of husband and wife. It is the sign of their love and self-giving. From the personal point of view, the conjugal act is an act of total self-giving, where each person gives the other the totality of his personhood. Now part of that personhood is the husband’s masculinity and the wife’s femininity and this includes one’s fertility. A silent sign and witness of this exchange is the husband’s seed being left in the womb of the wife. Naturally a concomitant of the exchange is the intense sexual pleasure that is given and received.
From this standpoint, we can see that contraception makes the conjugal act cease to be an expression of total self-giving because each one’s fertility is not given because of a deliberate choice of the will. The act in fact ceases to be a conjugal act. Both parties are aware that they have chosen to enjoy the marital act but deliberately depriving it of its relation to fruitfulness. This is what happens when they perform sex for the sake of sex.

What is difference of contraception with NFP?

I have asked married couples that same question: what difference would it make for you if you took pills or if you practiced NFP. They always answer the same way: oh, there’s a whole world of difference. With pills you don’t have to practice abstinence or self-control. With NFP you have to practice self-control. I think that answers the question. It comes from the couples themselves.
Although it might seem that there is no difference between contraception and NFP because the premises are the same (the marital act is performed) and the conclusions are the same (there is no conception), the difference does not lie in the mechanics of the entire process but in the choice of the will of the couple. The couples that practice NFP have decided to practice a virtue: marital chastity.
But we also have to remember that aside from chastity the other virtue demanded by natural law for married persons is responsible parenthood. If a couple decide to use NFP but with the purpose of not practicing responsible parenthood (meaning they do not want to have children without serious reasons) then their choice will also go against the natural law. It will also be evil.

But isn’t it true that NFP is merely last resort? Please explain.

NFP is the only naturally viable option for married couples who want to space the birth of their children. It is the only option that is morally sound.
Some critiques of this idea claim that NFP is evil because it inhibits the “spontaneity” of the couples and introduces a “wedge” in their relations which is the calendar.
This criticism equates evil with the lack of spontaneity and so we can say it equates goodness with spontaneity. Furthermore, the assumption here is that what is spontaneous is what is natural. It is easy to realize that not all spontaneous acts in a person are reasonable and good for the person. Any spontaneous action in a person will still have to be subject to the governance of reason for the action to be truly good. One’s emotions or feelings, for example, are spontaneous events. People say: I could not help fall in love with her. We know of many cases where people have regretted being carried away by their emotions or feelings.
As to NFP putting a wedge between couples, this claim is denied by many couples who bear witness to living very satisfied married lives while practicing periodic continence.

What would be possible sanctions for violating natural law with contraception?

The sanctions for the practice of contraception are what we can call the “natural sanctions” for contraception and these are patent to all.
Because contraception goes against life at its beginnings, its natural offspring is the certain attitude or mentality that does not respect life and so we have the so-called culture of death. This is the culture that has gripped the old world: Europe and North America. When people do not see anymore that abortion is clearly murder then you have the culture of death in full force.
We already said that contraception also promotes the lack of responsibility and chastity among persons. The social consequences of these vices are also obvious to any reasonable person.