MY STORY WITH NFP
I read Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae three weeks before I got married. I was moved to tears by this solemn hymn to Holy Matrimony, and it solidified my growing conviction of the moral need to reject the use of artificial contraception. The logic was crystal clear and dazzling in its beauty and simplicity: Sex was made for Unity and Procreation. These two ends should not be separated. The end.
With a semester left in seminary, and with no income or savings, it did not seem wise to seek to have a child immediately after getting married, and so my wife and I relied on periodic abstinence during the fertile window of her fertility cycle (aka NFP). Contrary to the many jokes around this practice, we have only had kids when we wanted to have kids, and now eight years later, we have had three.
The practice of abstaining from the marital act for a 12-day window in the middle of every menstrual month has been profound. It has of course been difficult, for my flesh, but this difficulty has been the root of much goodness: Ensuring that the Christian call to self-denial echoes into the bedroom; prompting the development of a repertoire of affection apart from what is sexual; rendering moot the acedic need to “keep things interesting” in the glut of appetite-satisfaction, etc.
In seeking to understand this life-altering practice, both when it felt edifying and when it felt like a too-heavy yoke, I have sought to deepen my own grip on the matter at the level of theory and theology, and alas, was only able to find Roman Catholic authors. Excellent authors to be sure (John Paul II, Christopher West, etc.), and edifying, but nevertheless, they weren’t Anglican. Not that I lamented this out of a mere tribalism. Rather, in seeking to be truly submissive to the Church that I actually serve, there is a sweeter harmony in reading pastoral directives that either are themselves authoritative for me (if they were written by an Anglican bishop), or from within the same framework of authority that I myself am under. Practically, when a cited source is papal pronouncement, there is a conundrum as to how much authority I should or shouldn’t give it.
I have been saddened by how few Anglicans practice NFP, but also wonder how it could be otherwise in light of the near total absence of contemporary, published Anglican writing on the topic that is thoughtful, theological, and Anglican. Like most Anglicans who practice NFP for theological reasons, I basically just punted to the Roman Church when it came to intellectually sourcing the conviction, or presenting it to others. Indeed, for many years I also have thought that our own Communion once upon a time got it wrong—at Lambeth 1930.
THE RECEPTION OF LAMBETH
Lambeth 1930 is commonly received as permitting the use of artificial contraception, and therefore establishing Anglican practice as contrary to Roman Catholic. Thus, when an Anglican teacher is teaching the truth of the principle behind NFP, it initially seems like there is no real authority to be leaned on.
But is this really the case? Upon re-examining and reflecting on the text of the resolutions from Lambeth 1930, I have become convinced that this is not so. That while the Anglican Church does not teach identically to the Roman Catholic Church, we do teach in a similar direction. This may come as news to many Anglicans, but it is news that we need to hear.
The gathering of all the Anglican Bishops from around the world in synod is a weighty thing. Surely, it is not error-free (Article XIX), nor can they alter doctrine or enjoin as necessary for salvation anything contrary to God’s Word (Article XX). But they do — as both bishops and a synod of bishops — have substantial and God-given authority at the level of discipline, which is the top-level category under which the use or prohibition of artificial contraception falls.
Unless it can be shown to be plainly contrary to Scripture, a disciplinary injunction from a Lambeth conference is a thing of weight to all Anglicans. Hear, then, what they inveighed in 1930:
LAMBETH 1930 RE-EXAMINED
Resolution 13: … the primary purpose for which marriage exists is the procreation of children, it believes that this purpose as well as the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control should be the governing considerations in that intercourse.
And on its heels Resolution 14:
The Conference affirms: the duty of parenthood as the glory of married life; the benefit of a family as a joy in itself, as a vital contribution to the nation’s welfare, and as a means of character-building for both parents and children; the privilege of discipline and sacrifice to this end.
This is of course in perfect harmony with the teaching contained in the officiant’s “Dearly Beloved…” prologue in the liturgy of Holy Matrimony, but the strength of it — “self-control…discipline and sacrifice…” — still cuts against a 21st-century intuition, and challenges any self-sanctioned lusts.
The real meat and potatoes vis-a-vis NFP comes in Resolution 15:
Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.
A few phrases are worth unpacking:
Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary). This sentence accomplishes three things. First, in the negative it shows that having kids is the ordinary course of marriage. There must be something that amounts to an obligation that causes a couple to steer away from the ordinary procreative course. Second, it establishes a category of reason to limit or avoid parenthood: “clearly felt moral obligation.” Simply “not wanting kids right now” is not a clearly felt moral obligation. Arguably not having any money to provide for kids as a seminarian is. Where exactly the line is, is not clear, and this is intentional: It is to be determined by each Christian, in prayer, in conversation with their spouse, and including (as needed) the counsel of their priest or deacon. Third, it established NFP as the primary method of avoiding kids. It is to be received in the first place, before all other options are even considered. The parenthetical statement “as far as may be necessary” simply indicates that there are days in the menstrual month when intercourse does not need to be avoided, while it can still be reasonably expected that a child will not be conceived.
This is a strong pastoral directive! Let every Anglican couple, married or approaching marriage, take it to heart. And it is certainly a labor of Christian discipleship. As the resolution recognizes — this can only be accomplished by a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. We cannot control or curb our (good) sexual desires or our (bad) lusts; we need God’s help, daily sought in prayer. As with every arena of discipleship: It is God’s work in us, not our own efforts, that are capable of fulfilling his gracious and sanctifying Will.
Having this as the central gravity of the pastoral direction, we are then given one caveat: Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles.
This twice-provisional limited permission of artificial contraception is worth additional attention: “where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood AND where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence.” How many Anglican married couples presently utilizing artificial contraception can in good faith say they meet these conditions? I am sure some can (I know of at least two) but I am sure a far greater number cannot. As well as repeating the condition for avoiding parenthood generally—as was named early alongside the decision to avoid intercourse when conception is possible—the new condition of a “morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence” is introduced as a condition of using “other methods.”
This is the only place in which our (Anglican) teaching differs from Roman Catholic. They teach definitively that this category is an empty set. That morally sound reasons for utilizing artificial contraception do not exist, and therefore, periodic abstinence is the only licit Christian method of avoiding conceiving a child.
There is one historical factor that reveals the difference to be not quite so great as it first appears, deriving from what is meant by “other methods.” Resolution 18 clearly names contraceptives as what is in view, but in 1930 the only real-world referent to “contraceptives” were condoms. Rubber condom production boomed in the first decades of the 20th century, and the automated production of latex condoms in the mid-1920s led to an enormous surge in their production, sale, and use. The “Pill” and IUDs (Intrauterine devices) were still thirty years away from being invented. By the time of Humanae Vitae, all of these contraceptives were on the market.
CONTRACEPTION THEN AND NOW
This means, as a point of clarity, that the Lambeth fathers only explicitly sanctioned condoms for Christian use, when the serious conditions were met. It did not — it does not — extend to all species of artificial contraception that have been developed since. Two further considerations render this distinction meaningful.
One, all versions of the Pill as well as both kinds of IUDs have the death of the newly-conceived child as a secondary mechanism to prevent pregnancy. That is, they can and do function as abortifacients, even if they do not do so in every instance (or even the majority of instances). That is, the other two most-popular means of artificial contraception (other than the condom) have as a secondary effect the creation of a uterine lining that is inhospitable to a fertilized ovum (aka a one-cell baby). So, should the first mechanism (the prevention of ovum release, in the case of the pill; the extermination of sperm, in the case of IUDs) fail its purpose, there is yet a “back-up” mechanism at play that further prevents pregnancy: the uterus rejecting the tiny child in a not-physically-noticeable discharge. In some medical literature, it has been rejected that this be called an “abortion,” but this is because “abortion” is a technical term in medicine for the termination of a baby that has already implanted in a thickened uterine wall. The Pill and IUDs prevent this implantation, thus causing the very tiny (blastocyst) child to die. The moral outcome, when participated in knowingly, is equivalent to an abortion.
Beyond the troubling biology of contraceptives that are not a physical barrier, there is also a troubling phenomenology worth thinking through. In the case of a condom (or other barrier method), the choice and the mechanism remain readily apparent. The couple knows—and knows why—an act of intercourse was rendered sterile: The semen is caught by the barrier. While there is a painful separation of what God has joined together in the marital act: Unity and Procreation, the rift is nevertheless seen and felt. There is an integral honesty to the violation of Nature. It is a grave choice done for grave reasons, and it is manifestly “less” than the ideal. With the pill and IUDs this is not the case. There are no visible or sensible phenomena accompanying intercourse that reveal the case: that the act has been chemically sterilized. In this way, there is a fundamental dishonesty: the real nature of things is hidden from husband and wife.
Resolution 15 urges the use of contraception to be scrutinized in the light of the same Christian principles, and Resolution 16 succinctly adds, the Conference further records its abhorrence of the sinful practice of abortion. In light of these injunctions, it is safe to say that our Fathers in the Lord who convened in 1930 would not have believed there to be a licit use of the pill or IUDs, since they have the potential of being abortifacient (when the primary mechanism fails), and because they do not stand up to Christian moral scrutiny in that they bear false witness, phenomenologically.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LAMBETH 1930 AND ROMAN CATHOLICISM
Despite the historical-contextual data concerning what means of contraception were available at the time, there yet remains a real difference in the pastoral teaching of our two communions. Indeed, responding to Lambeth 1930 Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical Casti connubii to clarify the contrary Roman Catholic position of total opposition to all contraception.
But this difference has gains as well as losses. As to losses, it has—as Bishop Gore predicted the moment Lambeth 1930 concluded—opened the door to a laxist morality on behalf of many Anglican teachers and those who sit under their teaching. This has — it must be reckoned with — been an enormous moral loss, and has certainly weakened our witness to the world about God’s design and ordering of sexuality.
Nevertheless, there are some pastoral situations in which the use of a condom on occasion may be sufficiently warranted on morally serious grounds, and not for mere selfish luxury. The husband who has a bona fide sex addiction and who travels a lot; or the wife who is on a medication that would fatally malform a child in utero are two situations that might satisfy the criteria of Resolution 15. The Roman Catholic Church makes no exceptions in such cases, and in this way may be doing moral harm.
But there is a higher level at which there is some gain in the Anglican position: It rightly locates the rejection (or use) of contraception as a matter of Christian discipleship. As a response to God and the Gospel, rather than out of slavish obedience to the precepts of men, however Godly. The facts on the ground, of course, are that souls are not won by man-made law. Only 3% of Roman Catholics practice NFP, which means 97% are, by their own rules, living in mortal sin. There is something broken in this picture.
True, as Anglican priests, we cannot “throw the book” at every married couple: We have neither the book (a no-exceptions doctrine), nor the authority to throw it. But we do have what we need to encourage all married Anglicans to shine the light of Christ into their bedrooms: To urge them to consider if their practice of using contraception is rooted in “selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience” (Res. 15) and to repent of such, and seek to honor God more earnestly in their marriage, by ordering their intercourse more definitely toward procreation.
In conclusion, then, a summary of the pastoral directive of Lambeth 1930, which all priests can, on their [the conference’s] authority present to the people of God to be followed in good faith is:
- The procreation of children is the ordinary course of marriage. It should only be deviated from for serious reasons.
- If there are serious reasons for limiting (or delaying) having children, the only method that is ordinarily Godly and lawful is periodic abstaining from intercourse during the fertility window of the wife’s monthly menstrual cycle.
- In very rare exceptions, condoms may be utilized, but this should be chosen as an option of last resort, with prayer, mutual agreement, and perhaps in pastoral conversation with one’s parish priest or spiritual director.
This is a good rule to govern Anglican practice. It is our rule, whether we receive it or not. We do not have to only rely on the teachings of a Communion not our own; our own fathers have given us good direction.
- This is the “Standard Days” method of discerning the window of fertility. It is the least fussy and most fool-proof. We have found the CycleBeads bracelet, kept on my wife’s night-stand, to be incredibly helpful in this regard. www.cyclebeads.com ↑
- It is worth noting that the presently popular idea that refusing to have children is somehow more responsible in the face of global climate change is specifically rejected by Lambeth 1930. Resolution 17: While the Conference admits that economic conditions are a serious factor in the situation, it condemns the propaganda which treats conception control as a way of meeting those unsatisfactory social and economic conditions which ought to be changed by the influence of Christian public opinion. ↑