Here’s the alternative title that I almost went with: Are you practicing Natural Family Planning (NFP) for the right reasons?
If you got married in the Catholic Church in the last couple decades, then you almost certainly were required to attend NFP courses.
From how I understand it, the Catholic Church in America has progressed from teaching about NFP to actively promoting it. The Church has gone from a foregone conclusion that engaged couples need to learn about NFP to something far more dramatic.
These days, faithful Catholics are just expected to practice NFP, by their pastors and by their bishops.
This was not always the case, and as I will explain, this expectation carries potentially problematic outcomes. Namely, all too often, well-meaning Catholics practice NFP as a lifestyle, instead of how it was meant to be utilized: as a last resort and a temporary one at that.
WHAT IS NATURAL FAMILY PLANNING AND WHY IS IT SO HEAVILY PROMOTED?
For those unfamiliar, Natural Family Planning, or NFP for short, is a birth control method, devoid of artificial means. Women naturally have a rhythmic menstrual cycle that can be tracked by different methods to determine when a women is ovulating. This, in turn, can determine which three to five days in a given cycle the woman is fertile, and so can become pregnant.
There are two different, and distinct purposes for a married couple to obtain this information. It is possible to use such tracking of the wife’s cycle in order to know when to have marital relations, so as to maximize the likelihood of becoming pregnant. However, this is by far the least common end for using NFP.
The more popular purpose for practicing NFP is to avoid a pregnancy. So long as the conjugal act is avoided during the fertile phase of the cycle, the wife cannot get pregnant.
It seems to me this has been promoted, especially in the last couple decades as a boon to Catholics everywhere.
While the Western world became obsessed with the myth of overpopulation and yielded to the hedonism, the supposed need for contraception grew in virtually every corner of society—including within the Catholic Church.
I have covered in the past why artificial contraception use will always be a grave sin for Catholics to practice.
So what to do? What is the Catholic Church’s response to this fabricated crisis? The Church proposes NFP as the solution.
THE FORGOTTEN ASPECT IN THE RAMPANT PROMOTION OF NFP
The Catholic Church allows Catholic couples to practice periodic continence, but only for a serious reason. Somewhere along the way, this condition has been ignored or virtually forgotten.
According to the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, couples must have just reasons to use NFP—not just any reason:
“For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality:” (#2368, emphasis added).
The Catechism then goes on to quote Guadium et Spes 51, which says “objective criteria” must be utilized to determine if a grave reason exists to observe periodic continence. It also points out true love and NFP use do not necessarily go hand in hand.
Although numerous other quotes abound to prove the Church permits NFP use only in grave circumstances, let me point out one other example:
“If there are serious reasons to space out births, reasons which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is morally permissible to take into account the natural rhythms of human fertility and to have coitus only during the infertile times in order to regulate conception” (Humanae Vitae, 16, emphasis added).
THREE RED FLAGS IN HOW NFP IS TAUGHT, PROMOTED, AND PRACTICED IN THE CHURCH TODAY
As I see it, there remain three big red flags in the NFP-happy, Catholic subculture today.
1) Most everyone seems to have forgotten the serious condition on which NFP is permitted.
There are Catholics today practicing NFP who are unaware there even was a condition on which their periodic continence can be observed. If you are one of those people, now you know.
And so I invite everyone to ask themselves if their promotion of NFP might be too high. Are we really convinced we have a grave reason to delay child birth?
It is something worth discussing with a good priest. And take this as a warning from the Vicar of Christ, Pope Pius XII. After stating couples must have “sufficient and reliable moral grounds” to make use of NFP, he states this:
“The sole fact that the couple do not offend against the nature of the act and that they are willing to accept and bring up the child that is born notwithstanding the precautions they have taken, would not of itself alone be sufficient guarantee of a right intention and of the unquestionable morality of the motives themselves.” (Allocution to Midwives, October 29, 1951, emphasis added).
2) NFP is being promoted, even by our bishops, especially this week, as a permissible lifestyle.
Now, don’t get me wrong, for some people, they really do have grave reasons to delay childbirth, and the wife’s health being among them. If a couple has a sincerely grave reason to practice NFP, then they have the right, and the responsibility to do so.
But that does not permit the clergy to encourage people to practice NFP from the beginning of their marriage until the end, as is happening now.
There should be a sadness over learning a married couple must make use of periodic continence. Yes, I know what I just typed.
We must remember the twofold purposes of marriage are for the procreation of children and the betterment of the spouses. These two cannot be separated—as NFP abuse can lead to—without causing spiritual harm to the couple and to the family (CCC 2363).
Unable to fulfill the primary purpose of their conjugal union, NFP-practicing couples have a cross to bear. It is a cross, not a banner to wave, as sometimes is the impression given by many in the Church today.
3) Finally, by promoting NFP as a healthy, alternative lifestyle to having a large family, the Catholic Church has conceded that family sizes do need to be limited.
This part is confusing to me. Thanks to advances in technology and medicine, people are living longer today than they have in hundreds of years. Instead of walking or riding a horse to get to work, we drive automobiles. Rather than having to skin animals and pick our own fruit to feed our families, we buy all our food at the store.
Yet, as I am led to believe by many in leadership of the Catholic Church and the lay faithful, we are a poor nation. We, naturally, should limit the number of children we have, I am told. After all, if I have too many kids, I might not be able to afford all their college educations, might force them to wear hand-me-downs, or might make them wait two years to get the latest iPod.
I am just not buying it.
Now, I am not ready to throw it all out. NFP has its purpose—a very limited and necessary one. But how NFP is being encouraged, especially as it will be this week by our clergy, no less, seems over the top.
Let us take this wisdom to heart, remembering we must have a grave reason to practice Natural Family Planning:
“…Parents will remind themselves that it is certainly less serious to deny their children certain comforts or material advantages than to deprive them of the presence of brothers or sisters who could help them to grow in humanity and to realize the beauty of life at all ages and in all its variety.” (Saint Pope John Paul the Great, Homily at Mass on the Washington Mall, October 7, 1979).
Okay, I would like to hear from you on this one.
What are your thoughts on how NFP is promoted?
What do you make of NFP lifestyle many Catholic engage in?
Do you see my point that the Catholic Church has seemingly conceded, wrongfully that family sizes ought to be limited?