Contraception and the Imperfection of Natural Family Planning

Dylan James FAITH Magazine September – October 2011

In a piece originally given at the 2011 Faith Theological symposium Fr Dylan James offers a powerful summary and contemporary contextualisation of a theme of Edward Holloway's book Catholicism: A New Synthesis (Faith-Keyway Trust, 1970). Whilst we think this vision is complementary to Blessed John Paul's Theology of the Body it offers important correctives to some popular presentations of the latter vision. Fr James lectures in Moral Theology at Wonersh seminary, Guildford, and is Parish Priest in Shaftesbury, Dorset.

This article will summarise Fr Edward Holloway's arguments against contraception while also arguing that Natural Family Planning is a good but not "perfect" use of the marriage act. To make the latter claim is to run counter to the approach of much popular and well-intentioned Catholic thought, thought that has tended to so exalt the goodness of sex that it has often seemed to imply that marriage is for sex rather than sex being for family. Such an outlook is not only unrealistic in the face of real marriage experience, it is also, Holloway argues, misguided theologically. This article will situate his theology of sex not only in the plan of creation and the Incarnation but, significantly, on the distinction between how the sexual urge operates now and how it would have operated beforethe Fall.

Sex in the Plan of Creation

Holloway, in keeping with the Scotist vision of the Incarnation promoted by this magazine, argues not simply that the coming of Christ was part of the plan of creation but that the division of the sexes was planned as the means by which the Incarnation would be possible: "God did not fashion sex "for loving" but that the Incarnation might be the gift of creation from the potential of its own resources for the enfleshing of God". To explain Holloway's point, it can be noted that asexual reproduction, such as in an amoeba, does not require the cooperation of two individuals. Thus, if humans reproduced asexually rather than sexually then the "enfleshing" of God in a human nature would involve him being subject to a human's decision, rather than him being the initiator seeking thecooperation of the Virgin. The creation of humans as beings who reproduced sexually resulted in a "natural vehicle" for God to become human "without subjection of the Divine Person to the creative law which makes a human person".[1]

The Primary Purpose of Sex and Marriage: Procreation

Holloway's rooting of the purpose of sex in the Incarnation is a unique argument in favour of the conclusion articulated by the tradition and by many contemporary orthodox Catholic scholars, namely, that the "primary reason for the existence of sex in human nature in the intention of God is for children". Similarly, marriage "is not primarily... a state of romantic love [but is] for the making of men". Marriage is an "office" of love, and sex is "a function in [this] office of love", though "sex is not for loving, sex is for children in a state of loving". In Holloway's analysis, sex "expresses

and perfects" (Gaudium et spes n.49) marital love in the sense that it is ordered to procreation and it is through such an ordering that marital love is deepened: having a child together expresses [2] a pre-existing love in such a way that it also bonds the lovers more closely together.

Not "Making Love"

The above statement that "sex is not for loving" is so far removed from current popular thought that it needs some explanation. Before the mid-20th Century the term "making love" referred to courtship in general. Now, however, the term "making love" has come to be associated exclusively with sexual intercourse. The implication of identifying these two realities is that it suggests that sex in itself is the cause of love being "made" or deepened between a couple, and this is something that Holloway directly takes issue with. Of course, it does not take much reflection to realise that sex does not automatically "make" love between two people: in the extreme example of rape, the bodily action of sexual intercourse does not cause love between the two people involved. Holloway'sargumentation, however, is more technical: He argues that love is spiritual and is "made" "through the spiritual soul" "not through the body as [the] principle of eliciting",[3] and the body is not apt to be the cause of spiritual union per se. To further illustrate his point Holloway notes that angels (as spiritual but non-bodily beings) "know love and joy, but not sex" and similarly "God loves... but in God there is no sexuality". To repeat, sex is a function in an office of love, namely marriage, but in itself sex "is not a function of human love".

Love and the Body

But surely, it might be objected, aren't love and the body connected? "Is there then any specific concomitant of human love in the body, which is admitted to be characteristic of human love at any time and in all circumstances? There is. It is the tranquil warmth of possession in joy, an experience which is a reality in both the body and the soul... this is not specifically sexual". Holloway is thus arguing that sexual union can be an example of this but it is not the only example of it. There are many things that a husband and wife do together that can "make" love between them but in each case, as previously noted concerning sex, though the body is involved it is not "the principle of eliciting" love. For example, if a couple wash the dishes together in the kitchen this issomething that they do with their bodies, it is something that can "make" love between them, but it can only do so because the principle that is eliciting the love is spiritual not bodily. The "spiritual soul draws the body with it in a common consent of matter and spirit"[4] and thus love is "made". This said, lest Holloway might seem to be reacting excessively to the popular equation of sex and "making" love, Holloway's use of the term "concomitant" indicates that he does truly see sex and "making" love as belonging together. His point is that sex per se has a primary ordering to something other than love, namely, procreation (in a state of love).

Sex Before the Fall

If the primary purpose of sex is for children rather than for making love, how would this have been experienced before the Fall, before concupiscence? Holloway considers this point quite directly and says that before the Fall, a couple would have had sexual intercourse as "an act of religion [by its reference to God] as well as an act of love [by its desire to share in God's creative work]". There would be certain consequences that come with the act of procreation, namely, a deeper union between the couple: "spiritual and sacramental love, joy of possession, and the fulfilment of human, complementary vocation in one flesh, all taken up to God",[5] as well as a natural organic pleasure such as accompanies the proper functioning of other humanacts (like eating and drinking). Pleasure and deeper union are thus secondary ends that are part of the marriage act, though part of the act in such a way that they are intrinsically subordinated to the primary end that is their cause.

The Sexual Urge

Holloway develops his thought further by considering the sexual urge, an urge that is manifestly over-developed in Fallen humans. In considering the plan of creation he makes a comparison with animals: In animals the sexual impulse is attuned to times and seasons, in due proportion, attuned through the controlling interplay of body, animal brain, and its environment. "The animal appears to be less sexually conscious, certainly less sexually addicted, than the mass of mankind". Holloway argues that before the Fall the sexual urge in humans would have likewise looked with obedience "to its wise times and seasons". All bodily faculties, including the sexual urge, were "administered", judged, and directed, by the spiritual soul.[6] The spiritualsoul controlled and directed so as to give "unity" to what was "related", i.e. the various faculties. As a consequence, the sexual urge only existed for procreation in those "wise times and seasons" when procreation was appropriate. The human sexual urge as it is experienced post-Fall is very different: Sexual desire is overdeveloped. The secondary end of pleasure is sought even when the primary end of procreation is not.

Seeking Secondary Ends

Given that the sexual urge is overdeveloped and that the secondary ends of sexual intercourse are sought aside from the primary end, where does this leave the morality of the act? Holloway follows the traditional notion of the "remedy for concupiscence", saying that it is permitted to seek sex "for the tempering of disordered natural desire",[7] "in remedium concupiscentiae", as long as this is done in such a way as not to thwart the primary end of the act. i.e. one can seek the secondary ends of the act while not seeking the primary end as long as the primary end is not directly opposed.

Good but Imperfect

At this stage it is possible to articulate what was referred to at the beginning of this article, namely, the notion that natural family planning is not a "perfect" use of the marriage act. Natural family planning does exactly what was described at the end of the last paragraph, namely, seeks the ends of union and pleasure while not directly opposing the end of procreation. Holloway notes that such a use of the act does not use sex in its complete or "perfect" form and he thus calls it an "imperfection".[8] In an ideal world, before the Fall, the act would only be sought in its completeness, in its perfection. Even now, Holloway argues, growth in holiness and the "sedating" of sexual concupiscence can lead a couple to be able only to seek thesexual act when they are seeking it in its full meaning. This, however, is a matter of perfection. One can be good without being perfect. A comparison (that Holloway does not make) might be made with the traditional Evangelical Counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. The "state of perfection" consist of living these three Counsels absolutely in the consecrated life (as a monk or nun), an imperfect but Godly state involves the living of the Counsels in spirit in some limited fashion, while it is sinful to live in such a way as to fail to observe poverty, chastity, or obedience in any form. Analogously, it might be said that perfection in sexual intercourse involves seeking the full meaning of the act, i.e. seeking procreation, a godly but imperfect use of the actinvolves seeking a secondary end without the primary end (or in its conscious absence), while it is sinful directly to oppose the primary end of procreation.

The above outlined distinctions are not intended merely as a technical exercise but as an attempt better to understand and foster the proper use of the marriage act. If a couple think they are engaged in the fullness of marriage when they are in fact only imperfectly using the act then they are failing to fully understand what they should be aiming for. The understanding that has been outlined above should help indicate a rationale for why the Church teaches that a couple should only aim to space out the births of their children when there are "serious motives" (Humanae Vitae n.16) or "just reasons" {Catechism n.2368) for doing so. While there are many grounds for seeking to delay (or even indefinitely put off) having another child the "norm" is to use the marital act inits complete or "perfect" manner.

"Open" to Procreation?

To focus the matter more clearly, what should a couple be seeking when they are seeking sexual intercourse? Should they be "open" to having a child? Not necessarily - the answer depends on how the word "open" is being used. There is a lot of confusion surrounding this issue and much of it can be traced to a misleading translation of a key passage of the encyclical of Paul VI. Humanae Vitae n. 11 is frequently quoted as saying, "each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life". Janet Smith notes, however, that there is a difference between the official Latin text and the original Italian draft.[9] The original draft used the Italian word "aperto", which might seem to imply a subjectiveattitude. If the Church actually meant that a couple needed to have such a subjective attitude then a couple would need to be in some sense desiring a child each and every time they engaged in the marriage act. Mistaken unscholarly understandings of this have sometimes been articulated as the suggestion that natural family planning is only permissible because "it doesn't work" or it's not entirely reliable, i.e. using such unreliable means implies that you must be subjectively "open" to the possibility of a child being conceived. Holloway is one of many who point out that future scientific advances may make the use of natural family planning, i.e. recourse to the infertile period, entirely reliable, but the act would not then become immoral.[10] Of course, practitioners of the Billings method frequently cite statistics to indicate that their NFP methods are already as "reliable" as the Pill -but Holloway's point is that the morality of the method is determined by something other than its reliability (or not). The proper meaning of the Church's teaching on this point becomes clearer when one sees the official Latin text, which rather than "open" says, "perse destinatus", which refers to the objective status of the act per se. Translated into English the phrase would be, "in itself ordered", "retain its natural potential", or "without any impairment of its natural capacity", i.e. the couple do not need to be desiring a child or subjectively "open" to one. The "openness" is something inherent inthe act itself, in what it remains ordered to.

Per Se Destinatus

As has been noted, the sexual act is ordered towards procreation. This is something built into the nature of the act and built into the nature of the sexual organs. Janet Smith makes the comparison with an eye that has been blinded: such an eye is still ordered to sight even though it cannot fully function. Using an eye in a partially functioning manner is not the same as blinding yourself and causing the inability to see. Similarly, the sexual act remains perse destinatus even when the act is known to be infertile. When a couple have recourse to the infertile period in natural family planning they either engage in no sex, or, they engage in sex that has not been tampered with in such a way as to alter its perse destinatus. As Elizabeth Anscombe argues, not havingsex when you are fertile does not change the nature of the act you engage in when you are infertile.'[11] This said, Holloway's argument adds the further clarification that even though such use of NFP is good, it is nonetheless imperfect. The decision to use the marital act when you know it to be infertile is a decision to use the act in its incomplete i.e. imperfect state.

Evolution and the Purpose of the Organs

Holloway's argument not only refers to the plan of creation but also refers to what we can infer from evolution, namely, that the sexual organs have an inherent purpose.[12] The process of evolution means that animal's bodies and organs have purposes that accord with their particular environment, any body part that does not serve the animal's existence in that environment is counter to the animal's welfare and so evolution results in organs having purposes (whether by Darwinian selection or some other means). Thus nature, through the processes of evolution and the proper functioning of creatures in their respective environments, manifests the purposes inherent in creatures and their organs and "declares the intention of God embodied in theproperties of the organs and organisms".[13] This said, in animals lower than humans it is morally permissible to thwart the purposes of bodily organs, so that the Church fully permits the sterilisation of animals (if it doesn't cause unreasonable cruelty to them or damage to the material environment). In contrast, the body and its acts have a wholly new moral significance when we are considering human acts; it is not the opposing of bodily organs that is perse immoral but the opposing of the meaning of human acts that is immoral. This said, the crucial point at this stage of the argument is to recognise the connection between the purposes of the bodily organs and the meanings of the related human acts.

In humans, organs have purposes, as they do in animals, though in us the spiritual soul controls and directs so as to give "unity" to what is "related". The spiritual soul not only gives "unity" but brings a moral significance to the purposes of the acts that relate to the bodily organs. Recognising the purposes of the bodily organs enables us to discern something more, namely, the meaning of the human acts that relate to these organs. To directly oppose the inbuilt meaning of a human act is to oppose not merely the bodily organ but the whole person who possesses that organ. In the case of sex, the sexual organs have an inbuilt procreative purpose, and as Humanae Vitae n.12 teaches, the sexual act has the two inherent meanings of procreation and union. To use the sexualact in such a way that one of its two inbuilt meanings is directly opposed is a mis-use, a use that is wrong because opposing these purposes is wrong, both because it opposes the well-being of the human person and because it opposes the Creator's plan. Contraception interferes "with the natural functioning and natural relationships of meaning of that organ relative to the processes of the body as a whole, for reasons extrinsic to the meaning and function of the organ" whereas using natural family planning does "nothing to obstruct the primary potential of [the] sexual act".[14]

Holloway's Definition of Contraception

The manner in which Holloway defines the sin of contraception can usefully focus the preceding comments. First, he says that contraception is an act that "obstructs" the primary end of the act; "directly frustrating the procreative possibilities of the act is not ever lawful". In saying this he is articulating a version of the standard "perverted faculty" argument that argues that the body, its organs, and its related acts have certain inherent purposes that cannot be directly opposed. Secondly, and more originally, he returns to the question of the primary and secondary ends of the act. In this context he defines the sin of contraception as to "subordinate the primary purpose potential of the sexual function and organs to secondary purposes of the sexual act, this subordinationunderstood of a physical ordering of nature"; "the primary end intrinsic to the physical nature of the act [may not be] subordinated to other purposes".[15]


As has been noted, Holloway argues that a proper appreciation of how sex should be used needs to bear in mind the fact that our present experience of it is coloured by concupiscence. As a consequence of an over-developed sexual urge we seek sex apart from its primary purpose of procreation. To seek sex in direct opposition to procreation is to engage in the sin of contraception. To use natural family planning to seek the secondary ends of the act while not thwarting the primary end is a good but imperfect use of the act. Whereas, to seek procreation is to use the act in its perfection. Fully to understand the nature of love and married life we need to understand the perfect, i.e. full, use of the act. Marriage catechesis that over-emphasises the capacity of sexual intercourse to fosterlove and mutual self-giving is likely to disappoint as well as actually distracting from the more complete picture.

[1] Edward Holloway, Catholicism. A New Synthesis (Wallington, Surrey: Faith Keyway 1976), p.427; Ibid.
[2] C.f. "Confusion Over The Meanings of Marriage" [Editorial] Faith (March/April 2006), pp.2-5; Holloway, p.421; Ibid; p.396; p.400; p.422; p.430.
[3] Ibid, p.400.
[4] Ibid, p.400 c.f. p.422; p.400.
[5] p.424; p.425; c.f. p.428.
[6] p.397; p.398; c.f. p.426.
[7] p.431.
[8] pp.445-6.
[9] Janet Smith, Humanae Vitae. A Generation hater (Washington DC: CUA Press, 1991), p.78.
[10] Holloway, p.434.
[11] Smith p.80; Cited in Ibid, pp.122-3.
[12] Smith likewise notes that evolution implies that organs have functions and an inherent teleology (Ibid, p.75).
[13] Holloway, p.420.
[14] Ibid, pp.420; 436; p.398; p.435.
[15] Ibid, p.435; p.430; p.436; p.432.

Faith Magazine

September - October 2011