Turns out a couple can practice Natural Family Planning immorally.
In just making that statement, I know I have angered quite a few people. Those who volunteer or earn a living promoting Natural Family Planning, or NFP for short, seem to be especially defensive about this fact.
And I also realize this is a deeply personal and sensitive topic. So I am not taking this lightly. I have had too many conversations to count on this topic
I am not sitting in judgment of anyone. I am just pointing out what a couple fairly-recent popes have stated on the matter. I hope those who ever have to use NFP will keep these thoughts in mind.
REAL QUICK, WHAT’S NFP?
For those who are unaware, NFP is a method of birth control which does not use contraceptives. As the name Natural Family Planning implies, it is a means to regulate a woman’s fertility naturally. A woman can keep track of her body’s signals to determine when she is likely ovulating, or releasing an egg.
NFP can be used by couples in an effort to become pregnant. Pregnancy can be achieved by engaging in the conjugal act during the fertile period of the woman’s cycle. This is usually a three-to-five day window once a month.
However, much more often NFP is used to avoid, or postpone pregnancy. This is the method of using NFP we are speaking about below. The Bible permits this period of abstinence “for a time,” if needed (1 Cor. 7:5).
A COUPLE MUST HAVE A “GRAVE” OR “SERIOUS” REASON TO PRACTICE NATURAL FAMILY PLANNING
Pope Paul VI spoke about the licitness of purposely avoiding the conjugal act during the fertile time in the cycle. In his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, he reaffirmed the Church teaching that a couple must have “grave” (sometimes translated “serious”, cf. sections 10, 16) reasons to avoid pregnancy.
What constitutes those grave reasons is a topic for a post for another day. But it is enough for now to point out that any couple discerning whether to circumvent the primary purpose of their marital union (i.e., procreation), cannot morally do so for any reason whatsoever.
Here are Pope Paul VI’s own words on this reality: “From this it follows that they (the couple using NFP) are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator” (section 10).
TO PRACTICE NATURAL FAMILY PLANNING LICITLY, A COUPLE MUST NOT DEVELOP AN “ANTICHILD” MENTALITY
Pope Saint John Paul II said the following in a 1990 address at a seminar held on NFP:
“In short, [NFP properly understood] allows people to see that it is not possible to practice natural methods as a ‘licit’ variation of the decision to be closed to life, which would be substantially the same as that which inspires the decision to use contraceptives: only if there if a basic openness to fatherhood and motherhood, understood as collaboration with the Creator, does the use of natural means become an integrating part of the responsibility for love and for life” (#1).
The point the late Holy Father makes here should serve as a warning to all those using or thinking of using NFP. There is an immoral way to practice Natural Family Planning.
Author Charles Rice summed up this immoral method of using NFP like this: “If NFP is used without serious reason, it becomes, in design rather than in technique, an alternate form of contraception. An antichild [sic] mentality is wrong, whether it is implemented by natural means or by pills and devices” (#2).
I KNOW WHAT THE NFP PROMOTERS ARE GOING TO SAY
I know what some NFP promoters are going to say, before they even fill up the comment box below.
“But, Kevin, Charles Rice is wrong. NFP does not teach couples to be ‘anti-child.’ To practice NFP means to maintain an openness to life, a willingness to accept God’s will.”
And this objection is valid. But only if NFP is taught properly. And only if those who practice Natural Family Planning do so morally.
To such objectors, I would kindly remind them that not everyone practices NFP with the proper attitude of remaining open to life. Some really do see it as a form of “Catholic contraception.”
I have seen comments in online message boards and on social media where couples lament that NFP “failed” them and they became pregnant. They swear they practiced the steps as their instructor told them to do for charting. And despite their best efforts, they still became pregnant.
This anti-child mentality remains pervasive even among practicing Catholics. We need to root it out, and become a people consistently open to new life. On this, I hope we can all agree.
Okay, I imagine I will get some feedback on this one.
Do you see the two examples above of how a couple can practice Natural Family Planning immorally?
Leave your thoughts below and be charitable.
(1) This speech is available on the Vatican’s website, only in Italian. However, I found an English translation of it from Charles Rice’s book, 50 Questions on the Natural Law: What It is and Why We Need It, which he got from elsewhere, pgs. 260-262, emphasis added.
(2) 50 Questions on the Natural Law: What It is and Why We Need It, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995, pg. 259.