Given that the Catholic Church’s teaching on the inherent immorality of contraception is what currently constitutes the brightest “flash point” between the Church and the United States government, it seems like a good time for the Church to begin making its members more aware of this teaching and to teach it more persuasively. But chances are you heard far more about the Fortnight for Freedom, which concluded on 4 July, than about National NFP Awareness Week. Nonetheless, I really like the theme for this year: Natural Family Planning: It’s Worth It. Join the Revolution!
“Natural Family Planning,” or “NFP,” is an umbrella term for the various methods of NFP that couples may use, such as the Billings Ovulation Method, the Creighton Model, the Sympto-thermal method, to name just some of the methods. According to the USCCB website, “Natural Family Planning (NFP) is the general title for the scientific, natural and moral methods of family planning that can help married couples either achieve or postpone pregnancies” (emboldening in original).
There are so many misconceptions about NFP that it would be impossible to address them all in a single blog post. Therefore, I will refrain from attempting the impossible. What I intend to do is make one crucial distinction, followed by a clarification, and finally to write to any of my married brothers who might read this.
Having written about and taught on NFP consistently over the past 10 years, the distinction is one I make quite often: When used by spouses who, “for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” (Humanae Vitae par 10), NFP is a form of birth control.
As to the “serious” reasons a couple might decide not to have more children either temporarily or indefinitely, the criteria is given in the encyclical. Of course, NFP can also be used as an aid to conceiving a child. The takeaway here is that the Catholic Church is not opposed to birth control per se, but is opposed to contraception in all cases, even to what might be called "natural forms of contraception" (i.e., forms that do not artificially prevent conception, but prevent pregnancy by abstaining from sexual relations during the fertile period of a woman’s menstrual cycle) when a couple’s reason(s) for so doing arise from what amount to selfish, consumeristic, or any worldly motives.
When broaching the subject of contraception in light of NFP, it is important to clarify what this might mean, lest NFP be viewed as a “natural form of contraception.” According to fundamental Catholic morality the inherent “goodness” or “badness” of certain acts is objectively determined, which means that while intention and circumstance may either mitigate, or eliminate altogether, the culpability of a person who engages in a "bad" act, neither circumstance nor intention can change the nature of the act itself from "bad" to "good." So, while one’s intention cannot turn a “bad” act into a good one (the road to hell is paved with good intentions), one’s intention can render an otherwise "good" act “bad.”
So, the distinction is between birth control and contraception. NFP can be employed in what might be called a contraceptive manner, that is, with a contraceptive mindset, or, to use an overused phrase that understandably drives many people nuts- “with a contraceptive mentality.”
One way such a mindset/mentality/cultural/societal disposition, whatever you want to call it, is made manifest on the part of some who vigorously oppose NFP is when a person arguing against NFP says to someone like me, “Well, you practice NFP and you have six children.” Their point, it seems, is that NFP doesn’t work because I have six children. According to this logic, NFP can only be proven successful when it is used in a contraceptive way. In reality, one of the best ways to demonstrate that NFP is not “a natural form of contraception” is by living your marriage in a manner that is open to life. A marriage open to life is a marriage open to children, which means accepting children as blessings, not as financial burdens who get in the way of self-realization.
Finally, far too many men believe that practicing NFP requires heroic virtue. In other words, many believe that using NFP when not trying to conceive a child requires long periods of sexual abstinence. I want to be honest, for some couples it does mean that. But if your wife’s menstrual cycle is more or less regular (most women’s are) then NFP does not require long periods of abstaining from sex, but relatively short ones.
UPDATE: My lovely wife, who actually possesses true expertise on NFP, upon reading this made an observation worth passing along, which she typed in her own words:
In your twenties it can require longer periods of abstinence if you are not trying to conceive. Nature seems to work towards conception during these yearsBut even with that, let’s not lose sight of the fact that chastity is a virtue even within marriage. Chastity should not be conflated with celibacy or sexual continence. Acquiring any natural virtue requires self-denial. A natural virtue is one that we acquire by practicing it. Of course, God’s grace, especially as given us in and through the sacraments, comes to our aid even in the acquisition of the natural virtues, something Paul VI points out beautifully in Humanae Vitae.
In the words of the Venerable Pope Paul VI:
The right and lawful ordering of birth demands, first of all, that spouses fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life and that they acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions. For if with the aid of reason and of free will they are to control their natural drives, there can be no doubt at all of the need for self-denial. Only then will the expression of love, essential to married life, conform to right order (Humanae Vitae par 21)Men this requires us, as caring husbands, to be active participants in NFP, which primarily takes the form of charting, or at least being aware of where things stand so as not to put your wife in the position of having to frequently tell you “Not tonight,” which can put a lot of strain on your marriage. It also gives us many opportunities to find non-sexual ways of drawing nearer our wives.