What’s the real difference between NFP and contraception? Aren’t they both intending the same thing?
The answer is in one sense “yes” and in another sense “no.” In the sense that both a contracepting couple and a couple practicing NFP are intending to regulate birth, then “yes” they are intending the same thing. And this intention of itself is not evil, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, it is even an aspect of responsible fatherhood and motherhood (#2399).
But – the means of regulation are also intended, and so in this sense the two couples are not intending the same thing. This needs further explanation. The contracepting couple is regulating birth by means of the pill, an IUD, withdrawal, etc., and a marital act (sexual intercourse) which includes this necessarily includes an intention of the couple against life. The couple is acting against the procreative significance; it is an act against life. The couple is using the pill, etc. to make conception impossible. This intention is not present in the couple practicing NFP.
In the case of the NFP couple, the regulation of birth is carried out by one of two means: by not having intercourse to begin with (making it impossible to intend an act against life within sexual intercourse), or second, by having intercourse during the infertile period (in which case there is still no act against life).
At this point, a subtle but important aspect of Catholic ethics comes into play. A person does not have to pursue or affirm all of the goods all of the time in every action, but a person ought not act against a good in any one particular action. So yes, the couple practicing NFP is not positively seeking the good of procreation by having recourse to the infertile period, at the same time however, there is no act against life in this act of intercourse. Whereas, the contracepting couple is not only not affirming the good of procreation, the couple is positively acting against the good of procreation.
There is another way to look at the difference between a contraceptive act of intercourse and intercourse during the period of infertility. Catholic ethics evaluates any action in three ways: Intention, moral object and circumstances (not just on the basis of intention). There is an intention in both cases to regulate birth, but in the case of the contraceptive act of intercourse there is an additional intention of positively acting against life (chemicals, etc. which work against conception). Moreover, in terms of the moral object the two cases are different. The one is an act of intercourse, and the other is an act of intercourse plus an act preventing conception. On two accounts then, intention and moral object, the two cases are obviously, morally different.
In the Church’s condemnation of contraception, in simple terms, she is saying that the kind of action that is intercourse plus an act against conception is the kind of moral act that is always wrong (an intrinsic evil). This is the case because there is an inseparable connec‑tion willed by God between the procreative good and the unitive good in the marital act.
Furthermore, another way to look at the two cases is on an experiential or phenomenological level. If NFP and contraception are the “same thing,” then why does not the contracept‑ing couple practice NFP? It’s without chemicals, surgeries and/or side‑effects; it’s much less expensive. Challenge a contracepting couple to do so, and see their reaction. They do not practice NFP because beyond a façade of rationalization that the two are the same, the reality of their difference is known and experienced. How could something so experientially different, not also be morally different?