What Catholics Need to Understand about NFP
The Catholic Church teaches that the use of artificial birth control is intrinsically immoral. However, the Church also teaches that there may be legitimate reasons to avoid and space children within marriage. Some people find this to be odd, confusing, and contradictory. As a response, many have tried to give a justification of the teaching explaining the differences between NFP and contraception. Among the various approaches, some are better than others. However, one that I find particularly problematic is popular but is in reality a misconception of the nature of NFP. Some Catholics try to promote NFP over contraception as an alternative form of birth control or as an alternative style of sexuality. In doing so, they treat NFP as a special blessing of some sort, a “God-given birth control” that is “just as effective” as artificial contraception while also “helping man and woman communicate and learn about the female’s cycle bringing them closer together” etc. etc. Sometimes, these descriptions can be complete gibberish, other times, the language may be clear, but it may be far removed from how most real people think, act or talk.
The bottom line is that it is obvious that NFP is not some special supernatural form of birth control with some inherent power to bring couple’s into some special relationship. Although many people who are using NFP to regulate births might be in very good Catholic marriages, this is likely a cause rather than the effect of the NFP usage. In fact, NFP is really a name that in our culture, isn’t useful. NFP stands for Natural Family Planning. This should mean that it is natural as opposed to unnatural because it respects the natural end (purpose) of sex. However, the culture has no clue what a “natural end” even is or why it has moral implications. In our culture the word “natural” in this setting is confused with “artifical”, and is taken to mean not using mechanical devices or pharmaceuticals. This leads to the common objection to the Church’s teaching, that we should think cardiac pacemakers are immoral because they are “not natural”, or eye glasses are not “natural”. Of course the response to this obviously that pacemakers, eye glasses and other medical interventions ordinarily are aimed at restoring the function of an organ so that it actually moves things toward their proper that is to say “natural” end. Eye glasses restore the natural end of the eye to see and so forth. In any case this terminology while frequently discussed on this blog is unfortunately not yet once again common vocab among Catholics. We are working on fixing this, but in the meantime I suggest we drop the word natural until better catechesis is given on the natural law. Second, “family planning” while accurate, is misleading because the same term is used to describe artificial birth control and even abortion. The older tradition of the Church calls NFP “periodic abstinence” or “periodic continence.” This name is a lot clearer because it captures what NFP really is.
In marriage, periods of abstinence are necessary for a number of reasons. I don’t need to be married to know this, it’s just common sense. These periods may be relatively short or relatively long. The Church has always viewed abstinence within marriage as perfectly legitimate. There is no debate about this point. No one really could argue against it because periodic abstinence, broadly considered, is absolutely necessary for anyone who is married. This should be self evident, after all one’s spouse may be ill, tired, or traveling, and these are among the many reasons periodic continence is mandatory in marriage. The stricter sense of the term means periodic continence for the sake of avoiding children. This is accomplished by specifically abstaining from sex on days when it is more likely to become pregnant. In the past, this could be accomplished only through calculating when ovulation occurred based on the woman’s cycle (rhythm method) but now, more sophisticated forms of the rhythm method as well as more sophisticated forms of determining ovulation exist.
Depending on how important it is to the couple to avoid a child, they can chose to be “safer” or a little more “liberal” in their practice of periodic continence. Complete abstinence is the only 100% effective way of avoiding a child. From there, the more days you avoid, the more effective you are going to be in avoiding children. It is that simple. The point however is that the Church does not support any kind limitation of ones’ fertility other than abstinence. In a way all other kinds of “birth control” create some sort of “pathology” or dysfunction in the reproductive system to render normal intercourse sterile. People sometimes treat NFP as if it were an alternative type of birth control approved by the Church. This however is false because NFP, as I just explained, is just abstinence, albeit in many cases not complete abstinence.
If we try to “sell” periodic continence as this beautiful and amazing way of life that is more “organic” and just so much more “awesome” than birth control, we are fooling ourselves. Few in our culture are going to buy that, and for many couples it is not consistent with their experience. It is important to make morality attractive, but there is a way which can just seem like a turnoff. I recently saw something along the lines of “NFP is in style and the new, modern, and cool way to improve your sexuality.” That just is odd to be honest. Periodic continence as a form of avoiding and spacing children is in no way popular right now. It is not cool, and it is not modern as abstinence is the one and only way to avoid children which has been around forever, now it just is more calculated and accurate so that total abstinence is not necessary. NFP is not some “sex style” or anything, it is not some secret alternative to birth control that’s going to make everyone happy. It is just periodically abstaining from sex. Yes, this involves discipline, but that’s not bad from a Catholic point of view. Everyone who promotes NFP seems to think it involves some great deal of communication that couldn’t exist with regular birth control. I can’t say for sure, but I doubt that. I mean sure, the couple has to decide how many children they want to have, but doesn’t every married couple? And yes, they would have to be clear on what days are safe days, but that seems like nothing extraordinary or deep. Discussion of the detailed signs of fertility does not appear to be something that intuitively “brings couples together”. . At the end of the day, everyone knows that periodic continence involves discipline and I would assume at times it can be quite a nuisance and a struggle. There are only two moral solutions here: change the situation in such a way that you can have more children, or do what Catholics should always do when the going gets tough: prayer, penance, and offer it up.
What makes periodic continence superior to artificial birth control is that periodic continence is really just abstinence and therefore does not distort sex away from its natural end. Sex removed from its natural end will ultimately end up harming us, perhaps not immediately but over time. The most obvious harm is that it turns the children into an unwanted side effect of sex, rather than one of the chief goods that comes from sex. Sex is then seen as purely a source of physical pleasure. Well sure sex is a that, but it is obviously designed to be more than just that. Children are meant to be seen as an unadulterated good, they are people who can receive and give love, and as such are infinitely important. Being allowed to participate in the creative act of making people is a great gift. So contraception undermines this idea. We have discussed the other evils involved with contraception previously in our last post seen http://catholicxray.com/789/. The real difference is not between NFP as “catholic” birth control and contraception but between abstinence and contraception. Contraception in its various forms attempts to disrupt and interfere with the inherent purpose of sex. It therefore, by definition, is a misuse of sexuality. Abstinence cannot be a misuse, as it is no use at all of sex. Of course periodic continence as a method to avoid children fully embraces the idea that sex and children have to be connected. It clearly says, “We can’t have another child at this time, therefore, we will not do what it takes to make another child at this time, we will not have sex.” Contraception says “We can’t have another child, therefore, we will interfere with the process that is built to make another child, and we will continue to have this new sterile form of sex.”
That is of course not the whole story. There is much more to re-convincing the world that artificial birth control is wrong and periodic abstinence is not. There is more than a simple blog post. But I think that it is a start to get the idea across that periodic continence is not some super, God-given, special form of “Catholic birth control.” Periodic continence is just the logical conclusion of the fact that sex is inherently built in such a way that it brings about new life. Yes it involves discipline and yes it I’m sure doesn’t let you be as free at the time. But in the end, it is better, not because of some special communication value or anything, but because it respects human nature. In doing so, it is more conducive to our ultimate happiness in God than is contraception.