If you read Catholic or NFP blogs long enough — or have a wife who does — you’ll eventually run across the phrase “contraceptive mentality.” Most of the time it is in the form of a warning: “Using NFP with a contraceptive mentality is just as bad as contraception itself.”
There’s just one problem with this claim. It is complete rubbish.
Let’s look at the history of the term.
Familiaris Consortio – 1981
John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio was the first church document to use the phrase “contraceptive mentality.” Speaking of the situation of the family in the modern world, the pope says:
On the one hand, in fact, there is a more lively awareness of personal freedom and greater attention to the quality of interpersonal relationships in marriage, to promoting the dignity of women, to responsible procreation, to the education of children. There is also an awareness of the need for the development of interfamily relationships, for reciprocal spiritual and material assistance, the rediscovery of the ecclesial mission proper to the family and its responsibility for the building of a more just society. On the other hand, however, signs are not lacking of a disturbing degradation of some fundamental values: a mistaken theoretical and practical concept of the independence of the spouses in relation to each other; serious misconceptions regarding the relationship of authority between parents and children; the concrete difficulties that the family itself experiences in the transmission of values; the growing number of divorces; the scourge of abortion; the ever more frequent recourse to sterilization; the appearance of a truly contraceptive mentality.
Interestingly enough, it appears as the third item in a list of sins against life: abortion, frequent sterilization, and the contraceptive mentality. In this context it seems clear that the term means the tendency to use contraception.
Evangelium Vitae – 1995
The next major document to use the term was John Paul II’s Encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Here the pope condemns the use of contraception as a means of lowering abortion rates
It is frequently asserted that contraception, if made safe and available to all, is the most effective remedy against abortion. The Catholic Church is then accused of actually promoting abortion, because she obstinately continues to teach the moral unlawfulness of contraception. When looked at carefully, this objection is clearly unfounded. It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation of abortion. But the negative values inherent in the “contraceptive mentality”-which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act-are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived. Indeed, the pro- abortion culture is especially strong precisely where the Church’s teaching on contraception is rejected. Certainly, from the moral point of view contraception and abortion are specifically different evils: the former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment “You shall not kill”.
Again, the context indicates that the “contraceptive mentality” is the tendency to contracept. It does not refer to less than perfect intentions when using NFP.
The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality – 1995
This document, issued by the Pontifical Council on the Family uses the phrase not once, but twice.
92. Through a trusting and open dialogue, parents can guide their daughters in facing any emotional perplexity, and support the value of Christian chastity out of consideration for the other sex. Instruction for both girls and boys should aim at pointing out the beauty of motherhood and the wonderful reality of procreation, as well as the deep meaning of virginity. In this way they will be helped to go against the hedonistic mentality which is very widespread today and particularly, at such a decisive stage, in preventing the “contraceptive mentality”, which unfortunately is very common and which girls will have to face later in marriage.
This first usage is ambiguous on it’s own. But later we see…
136. In the first place, parents must reject secularized and anti-natalist sex education, which puts God at the margin of life and regards the birth of a child as a threat. This sex education is spread by large organizations and international associations that promote abortion, sterilization and contraception. These organizations want to impose a false lifestyle against the truth of human sexuality. Working at national or state levels, these organizations try to arouse the fear of the “threat of over-population” among children and young people to promote the contraceptive mentality, that is, the “anti-life” mentality. They spread false ideas about the “reproductive health” and “sexual and reproductive rights” of young people. Furthermore, some antinatalist organizations maintain those clinics which, violating the rights of parents, provide abortion and contraception for young people, thus promoting promiscuity and consequently an increase in teenage pregnancies. “As we look towards the year 2000, how can we fail to think of the young? What is being held up to them? A society of ‘things’ and not of ‘persons’. The right to do as they will from their earliest years, without any constraint, provided it is ‘safe’. The unreserved gift of self, mastery of one’s instincts, the sense of responsibility — these are notions considered as belonging to another age”.
The “contraceptive mentality” is being pushed by organizations which promote abortion and contraception. Again, no references to misuse of NFP.
What does it matter?
It matters because NFP is not just “Catholic contraception.” Saying things like, “Using NFP with a contraceptive mentality is just as bad as contraception itself,” blurs the sharp differences between the two approaches.
Yes, one can misuse NFP out of fear or selfishness. But the sin there is fear or selfishness, not a “contraceptive mentality.”
NFP is intrinsically opposed to the contraceptive mentality. As Humanae Vitae says, “Self-discipline of this kind is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character.”