NFP: The Catholic Contraceptive?

GiftNatural Family Planning (AKA NFP)- it’s one of the Catholic Church’s largest internal controversies.  There are very few other doctrines of the Church that are surrounded by so much mystery and shrouded with so much misunderstanding.  Depending on who you ask, NFP can be defined in countless, occasionally contradictory, ways.  God’s gift to married couples.  Catholic contraception.  The eighth sacrament.  It seems that people either love it or hate it.  They either don’t use it or they abuse it.  I’ve only known a handful of people who use it properly and don’t abuse it.

Some people seem to think that NFP is the best thing that God has given to us since He sent His Son to save us.  They will talk for hours about the benefits of using NFP over oral contraceptives, about how they can help couples to avoid mortal sin and still space out their children.  They boast about NFP’s success rate- it’s just as effective, and possibly even more effective, than the pill, and significantly more effective than using a condom.  They talk about its other benefits, such as increased communication and decreased chance of divorce.  I have honestly had someone tell me that “NFP is the best thing that you can do for your marriage.”  Seriously…the best.

These people are sometimes mockingly said to consider NFP the Church’s “eighth sacrament,” and in their view, NFP has been transformed into what has been called Catholic contraception.  According to hard-core NFP advocates, because it’s all-natural, it’s okay, but I think they’ve oversimplified things.  I think there is an underlying problem to this NFP mentality that is only going to make things worse.  Anyone who has this view of NFP is just as guilty of having a contraceptive mentality, and share more in common with advocates of the pill and condoms than other Catholic couples who are either using it properly or not using it at all.  They just might not realize it.

Whether they want to admit it or not, advocates of the pill and these NFP advocates operate from the same premise: we need to be in control of our fertility.  You don’t want to have kids yet, but you still want to have sex?  If you’re not Catholic, use a condom or start taking the pill.  If you’re Catholic or a health-nut, use NFP.  You want to space your kids out evenly, just like you’ve always envisioned?  Same thing.  You just want one kid, in addition to your two dogs?  You get the picture.

For many people, NFP really has become Catholic contraception.  Yes, it’s all natural and works with your body rather than against it.  Yes, it has none of the negative side effects that are associated with the pill.  Yes, it is much more effective than a condom.  Yes, it has been accepted by the Catholic Church as a natural way to prevent pregnancy.  But no, it was never meant to become a type of contraceptive.

ContraceptionWhat do I mean when I say that NFP is a type of contraceptive?  Let’s begin by breaking down the word.  Conta-ception.  Against conception.  A contraceptive is therefore any thing, whether it be a pill or a practice, that prevents conception from occurring.  As such, NFP can undoubtedly be used as a means of contraception (it’s also important to note that unlike the pill or a condom, NFP can also be used to increase the chances of pregnancy).  Just because NFP can be used as a way to prevent pregnancy does not mean that it is sinful.  If it were, it certainly would not be acknowledged by the Catholic Church as an acceptable practice, nor would it be taught in every Pre-Cana program.

Those practices that we typically associate with contraception, i.e. the pill and condoms, are not sinful simply because their purpose is to prevent pregnancy.  NFP can also be legitimately used for this purpose, and it has not been condemned as sinful.  Instead, these forms of contraception are sinful because of the way that they prevent pregnancy.  They prevent the marital act from being truly unitive.  They work against the human body, preventing it from doing what it would naturally do.  They are foreign substances that are assumed into the body to prevent pregnancy.  In addition to this, the pill also functions as an abortifatient, killing any embryo that might have been accidentally formed during intercourse despite attempts to prevent this from happening.  Let me repeat that last little-known fact: the pill can potentially kill the life that might have been “accidentally” formed within you.  In the case of contraceptives like the pill and condoms, you are introducing a foreign element into the most private relationship that can be experienced by men and women.  This is why contraception is sinful.

But contraception is also sinful for another reason.  It is also associated with a dangerous way of viewing marriage, the human person, and children.  Marriage, and particularly the marital act, becomes overly physical, and husband and wife are reduced to mere objects.  They vocally claim that they want to give the entirety of their being to their spouse, and yet they withhold a significant part of themselves: their capacity to procreate.  Even when this decision is mutually agreed upon, many men and women, when asked to reflect on their decision to contracept, will admit that they feel slighted somehow.  Though both man and wife are operating according to predetermined circumstances, someone inevitably feels used.  It’s no wonder that married couples who use contraception are more likely to divorce.

Finally, there is the issue of the child, the fruit of the love between husband and wife.  The child is conceived in love, and is received as a gift.  Contraception is condemned in part because it objectifies the child, turning her into a commodity that is chosen.  She is no longer a gift, but becomes a choice.  The contracepting couple might choose to give up using the pill or condoms because they want a child.  They feel “ready” to be parents.  They’ve had enough time “to get to know each other,” and now it’s time to start a family.  So the wife stops popping her pill every morning, or the husband stops using condoms.  Then a year or so later, a child is born.  Their decision takes on flesh.  Their choice is given a name and begins to keep them up at night with her incessant cries.  Suddenly the couple that was once so excited to have a child is wondering why they ever made that decision in the first place.  They begin to wonder if they made a mistake.

That last part is the worst case scenario, admittedly, but it’s not as uncommon as we would hope.  Most couples who decide to stop using contraception never regret their decision to have children.  But I’m not concerned about the consequences right now.  I’m concerned about the choice.  A child should never be reduced to a choice.  A child should never be the result of their parents’ decision that they didn’t want to contraceptive for a while.  When we assume responsibility for deciding when or if we will have children, we turn our children into commodities.  They are no longer gifts, but the products of our will.  Our children are ours because we chose them, not because they have been given to us.

The Catholic couple using NFP will most likely agree with my general arguments against contraception.  They might even be apt to rant about modern society’s destructive mentality towards marriage and family, or its penchant for turning children into objects.  But what most couple’s will refuse to admit is that they are just as guilty of this contraceptive mentality as their neighbor using the pill or condoms to prevent pregnancy.

I Use NFPWhen NFP is abused, it becomes just another type of contraceptive.  It’s just a safer one.  A healthier one.  But it’s still a contraceptive, and as such, it is vulnerable to the same weaknesses as other types of contraceptives.  It can encourage the same contraceptive mentality, where children are reduced to choices and the default state of married life becomes one that is against procreation, that is contraceptive.  This is the fundamental flaw to every form of contraception.  The default state of marriage should always be an openness to life, a willingness to accept the gift of children from God.  It should not be one of contraception.  A default state that is inherently anti-life can only ever contribute to the over-all culture of death in which we live.

To wrap up, I should mention that even if NFP is not the eighth sacrament, neither is it demonic.  There is nothing inherently wrong with using NFP within marriage.  In fact, in many cases, the benefits of NFP are undeniable.  Couples using NFP are encouraged, even required, to communicate on a regular basis as they consider their physical, mental, and spiritual states from month to month.  Couples who choose to use NFP over oral contraceptives are less likely to get divorced.  NFP can be used to actually increase a couple’s chances of getting pregnant.  And in dire situations, NFP is a natural, acceptable way for married couples to prevent pregnancy that does not destroy the inner unity fostered by marriage.  But to all couples who choose to use NFP, there is this warning: consider your intentions.  What is your reasoning?  Why have you chosen to close yourself off to the possibility of life, even temporarily?  Are your reasons selfish or prudent?  Will the children born to you in your marriage be fundamentally a gift to you, or will they be a choice?  Will they be the fruit of your love, or the product of your will?  Fundamentally, is your decision to use NFP pro-life, or is it pro-choice?

Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!

6 thoughts on “NFP: The Catholic Contraceptive?

  1. I think we would agree on many things, but on your views on NFP as Catholic contraception we disagree. Short of writing my own blog in response, it will be difficult to address here briefly, but I would like to make a few points. The bottom line point I would like to make, is that NFP cannot be used as a contraceptive. A contraceptive mentality is that I wish to engage in sex whenever I and my partner agree to, without possibility of pregnancy. To do that, l will alter the act itself (or myself) to render it infertile, so I can pursue the pleasurable aspects of this new act I have altered, without pregnancy.
    With NFP, one does not alter the act, or ourselves, but enters into it fully, as God designed. It is God who designed us to be fertile only a portion of the time, and God who designed us in a way that this is observable by the couple, making it apparent to them which days are fertile or infertile. NFP respects that design, does nothing to alter it, or ourselves, and each act of intercourse is engaged in with the full gift of ourselves, unaltered.
    Furthermore, we are called to responsible parenthood, to exercise our responsibilities to God, our spouse, our family, and society, in actively cooperating with God’s design, Children are a blessing and a gift to always be received in faith. With this as the foundation, we utilize the gifts God has given us, these observable signs He provided us, to exercise our responsibilities and cooperate with His plan. When we prayerfully discern that for serious (not dire—-but serious, as opposed to frivolous) reasons it would be best not to actively request this gift of a child, we refrain from the act designed to bring this gift, intercourse during the time God has designed as fertile. We offer to God this sacrifice, so that we may be worthy and responsible stewards of this precious gift of life.
    God did not have to design us so that we were only fertile part of the time, or to create us in a way that it is quite easy to determine which days these are. Saying one must close one’s eyes to this design, seems to me a misunderstanding of what are faith tells us about being called into deeper relationship and union with God. Certainly the easier thing is to not limit intercourse during these fertile days, and to refrain from them requires discipline and sacrifice. By design, then, it is not done lightly, but from discernment on how best to cooperate with God’s call to responsible parenthood.
    One can certainly make a case that our culture and the world we live in can influence our perception on what responsible parenthood looks like, and we can all benefit from prayerfully revisiting our priorities, and our serious reasons that are requiring this sacrifice. And NFP, by its nature, has us do just that.
    And yes, NFP is more effective at avoiding a pregnancy than contraception. Of course it is! Wouldn’t God’s design be superior to anything man can come up with to alter it? And NFP is simply that, educating ourselves on God’s design for love and life, and prayerfully doing our best to fulfill it in our lives.

    • Just to clarify: I don’t think that NFP is always used as a means of contraception. I know of plenty of couples who are using it right now- either to help bring about conception or to avoid pregnancy for the time being. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what these couples are doing. NFP has many positive side-effects, some of which you mentioned in your comment. I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with NFP, but I do think that it can be misused by well-meaning Catholic couples who have unfortunately (and possibly unknowingly) adopted a contraceptive mentality. I know of couples who use it to space out their children, to prevent their one daughter from having siblings because they prefer their little family of three, and to further their career for a few years before beginning a family. I think these reasons can be very dangerous, and are evidence of a larger contraceptive mentality that has been adopted by our culture and has even seeped into the Catholic Church. Using NFP does not protect us from that mentality. Just because it’s natural and works with our body rather than against it doesn’t mean it’s automatically right. Any time that we come to view our children as a choice rather than a gift, we are in trouble. And that goes for the couple using the pill or condoms, as well as the couple using NFP. It’s possible to get some things right (i.e. NFP rather than the pill) without understanding the entire picture (i.e. God’s plan for each couple, which can contradict our own plans for ourselves). My intention here was not to condemn NFP-users (I’ll probably be one at some point in the future), but only to condemn the contraceptive mentality that is so prevalent in our culture.

      • I think we agree on most things—and even on this in many regards, it may just be semantics, but words matter. And my point is that NFP cannot be used with a contraceptive mentality. I think that phrase is used, loosely, to describe one’s attitude toward children, and I think that is inaccurate. I said what I think a contraceptive mentality is—-that the nature of the sexual act, and our own selves, can be altered to remove the possibility of pregnancy.
        I believe the contraceptive mentality is a mentality about the meaning of sexual relations, and inconsistent with the use of NFP, which is based on a fundamentally different perspective of the nature of man and woman, and sexual relations.
        So what we are really discussing, is not a contraceptive mentality, but judging if one has serious reasons to avoid pregnancy, and what constitutes serious reason. Selfish vs generous. We need to be careful about judging that for another. Having had the privilege of walking this journey in individual relationship with over 700 couples, I can tell you I have seen more heroes than slackers. For some, having one child is trying all their emotional, financial, and relational resources. While it is tempting from the outside to think it is selfish, we do not know the limitations or trials they face. Perhaps they are being as generous as they feel capable, or holding together a marriage stretched to the limits, or honoring the conviction of their spouse, tho they may not agree. I too would be inclined to think the grace would come, and being open to more children would bless them, but we must leave those judgments up to their conscience.
        And if they truly have a contraceptive mentality, they would become sterilized, to achieve that goal, not practice a lifetime of self control and discipline. That is my point, to make that distinction, and be careful how we use our words.
        Love to see these important things of life being thought through and discussed! Thanks for making me think!

  2. Pingback: An Honest Conversation about NFP: Seeing Through the Myths to the Truth | Love in the Little Things

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