Friday, April 20, 2012

What's Wrong with NFP

Like some other bloggers, I noted with interest an article in the Washington Post entitled “Young Catholic Women Try to Modernize the Message on Birth Control”…although, frankly, I didn’t have much hope that it would really reflect what I have come to think about Natural Family Planning myself.

You can read that article at the link, along with a couple of good commentaries on it: “NFP: Not Just Natural Birth Control”, by DarwinCatholic at American Catholic blog, and “Truth in Advertising: How We Talk About NFP”, by Emily Stimpson at CatholicVote. Both make excellent points about NFP providing the opportunity to grow in virtue.

But I can’t say that I fully agree with the conclusions of those two articles, either.

Here’s an excerpt from the Post article which seemed to grab all of us:

Yet the images the church uses to promote its own method of birth control freaked [McGuire] out. Pamphlets for what the church calls natural family planning feature photos of babies galore. A church-sponsored class on the method uses a book with a woman on the cover, smiling as she balances a grocery bag on one hip, a baby on the other.

She looks happy to me...
“My guess is 99 out of 100 21st-century women trying to navigate the decision about contraception would see that cover and run for the hills,” McGuire wrote in a post on her blog, Altcatholicah, which is aimed at Catholic women.

McGuire, 26, of Alexandria is part of a movement of younger, religiously conservative Catholic women who are trying to rebrand an often-ignored church teaching: its ban on birth control methods such as the Pill. Arguing that church theology has been poorly explained and encouraged, they want to shift the image of a traditional Catholic woman from one at home with children to one with a great, communicative sex life, a chemical-free body and babies only when the parents think the time is right.

Stop right there. Houston, we have a problem.

NFP is not supposed to be about parents deciding the time is right to have a baby. (And although NFP can also be used to achieve pregnancy, I’m focusing on the avoidance of pregnancy in this post.) The reason many people think of NFP as “Catholic birth control” is because that’s how it is used by many well-meaning couples. Claiming that a couple using NFP is “open to life” while they abstain from sex during the woman’s fertile period in order to intentionally avoid pregnancy – well…that’s a contradiction in terms.  

Besides that, using NFP to implement the parents’ will is also against Church teaching. In his post on this topic, Dr. Taylor Marshall does an excellent job of explaining why NFP is permitted only for serious reasons, and what those reasons are. He summarized an excellent homily in which the priest leaned heavily on the teaching of Pope Pius XII:

NFP or periodic continence can only lawfully be practiced without sin for serious reasons or "just causes," which [Pope Pius XII] lists as “medical, eugenic, economic, and social” reasons.

[See Dr. Marshall’s post for the development of those reasons; listen to the homily here; read a transcript of the homily here.]

The point is, NFP is not to be used as a means to have babies “when parents think the time is right.”

The other two blog posts mentioned above make some good points in response to the Washington Post article, but they are flawed as well.

Emily Stimpson says (my emphases):

… rejecting contraception in general requires trust—trust in God’s will and God’s provision. It requires generosity—a willingness to put others needs before our own. It requires a spirit of poverty—detachment from the extras our culture says are essentials…

I think it can easily be argued that using NFP to avoid pregnancy is an expression of a lack of trust in God’s will and provision. It’s an active effort on the part of the couple to second-guess God’s timing for the family’s new members. Ms. Stimpson also notes:

Few are able to use it to space births with the same precision the manuals promise. Not because the methods don’t work. But rather because wills are weak and temptation is tempting…

There’s an assumption here that many people make about NFP: that the Church condones its use for the spacing of births at the parents’ will – not God’s. This is not truly the case; again, there must be serious reasons for periodic continence. Ms. Stimpson continues:

…NFP…demands that we reject our cultural programming and embrace a different way of thinking. Not simply about sex, but about everything: children, family, marriage, finances, work, God, desire, love, life’s purpose, life’s meaning, human freedom, the Divine Will, suffering, sacrifice. Again, everything.

She makes a very good point here that eschewing the use of artificial contraception is a counter-cultural choice – heck, just look at the HSS contraception mandate! And it’s true that a Catholic world view does mean a different perspective on “everything”, as Ms. Stimpson says.

But then she concludes:

NFP is not Catholic birth control. It’s the Catholic world view…lived out in the bedroom.

And I have to say, flatly: No. NFP is not the Catholic world view lived out in the bedroom – not if it is used frequently and without serious reasons, for the express purpose of avoiding pregnancy.

It’s not that I don’t believe NFP can have a beneficial effect on a couple’s marriage. I understand the point being made by DarwinCatholic when he says:

Using NFP is rewarding. It trains spouses into greater consideration for each other, a more communicative and other-focused sexuality, and a greater appreciation of the way that their love for each other ties intimately together with their parenthood.
Our Lady of
Divine Providence

But is using NFP to prevent pregnancy really trusting God? And even if NFP can have beneficial results for the couple, it is never permitted to do evil that good may come of it. And NFP used for the primary purpose of preventing pregnancy – in the absence of serious reasons – would constitute a sin. Under those circumstances, NFP is not objectively different from any other form of contraception.

The whole idea of a married couple becoming aware of the wife’s fertile times, and using that knowledge to decide whether or not to engage in marital relations seems rather presumptuous if you really think about it. How can it be that human reasoning is greater than God’s providence and His plan to add one more soul to His Creation?

In a little book entitled The Case Concerning Catholic Contraception, author Michael Malone notes:

In the scheme of NFP, Almighty Man persists in placing human prudence over that of Almighty God, and to that extent telling God that he does not want to subject himself to His Providence, nor to fill up the Body of Jesus on any terms but his own. Men have either forgotten, or refuse to believe, that the Creator can handle His own creation with even greater providence and prudence than they might imagine under the most trying of circumstances. (p. 66).

God has a plan that’s bigger than ours – and His plan is always the best for us.

In a previous post, “Giving Life to Little Souls”, I wrote:

There are souls who exist in the mind of God, and whose conception awaits a couple who will say “yes” to God’s invitation to give that thought life. The contraceptive mentality of our society has prevented untold numbers of these souls from coming into existence, all because we put our own selfish desires and concupiscences ahead of God’s plan for life, all because we “aren’t ready” or “we can’t afford another child” or whatever other reason we come up with that we think trumps God’s perfect will.
Pius XII, in his Address to Newlyweds (March 1941) said:

It will depend on you whether those innocent souls, whom the embrace of Infinite Love desires to call from nothing, shall come to the threshold of life, in order to make of them one day His chosen companions in the eternal happiness of Heaven. But alas! If they remain merely magnificent images in the mind of God when they could have been rays of sun that illuminate every man who comes into this world (John 1:9), they will remain forever nothing but lights extinguished by the cowardice and selfishness of man!

Openness to life means more than being anti-abortion.

It also means more than being anti-contraception.

It even means more than being pro-NFP.

Contraception + Bishops = Fail: Vortex


  1. I enjoyed this post and breakdown of the article immensely! I would have to respectfully disagree with your statement: "Under those circumstances, NFP is not objectively different from any other form of contraception." Contraception is mortally sinful, and NFP can be mortally sinful in the absence of serious reasons; however, contraception is intrinsically evil because it frustrates the marriage act, while period continence at face value is morally neutral because it simply is making use of infertile periods (which, in itself, is not sinful.) So I would argue that OBJECTIVELY, misusing NFP is less sinful than contraception, just like fornication would be less sinful than adultery because along with violating chastity, adultery also violates the marriage contract. BUT, both are still grave sins. I believe this may have been addressed very briefly towards the end of the sermon you posted before on this subject?

    However, I am in complete agreement that NFP should not be marketed as an alternative to contraception! Many times it is taught as such because Catholics feel as though their anti-contraception message would be rejected otherwise. Supposedly most of the NFP method teaching materials address the fact that it is only licit for serious reasons, but that message seems to get watered down and lost in the process of teaching, much of the time.

    I think it's also helpful and less alarming to keep in mind that the Washington Post is a secular news source and does not care to present Church teaching accurately, as we have seen many times before! One of the women quoted in the article, Jennifer Fulwiler at the Conversion Diary blog, posted a bit of a rebuttal to the quote that the WaPo cherry-picked from her blog. She states that her quote was taken out of context, and that she doesn't agree with the tone of the article that makes NFP a form of Catholic contraception. It makes me a bit more hopeful that perhaps some of the other interviewees also stressed other aspects of the Church's teachings on NFP that were conveniently "left out" of this article, and that true understanding of NFP is a bit more widespread that we think! That doesn't excuse them for misreporting and misleading readers, though. :(

    Thank you for the work you do on your blog, it is a refreshing read!

  2. Thanks, Colleen. I think I agree that NFP is less sinful than, say, the pill, but I'm not fully convinced that periodic continence practiced with knowledge of the woman's fertile periods is really morally neutral. I know the arguments for both sides...but I'm still processing that issue myself! I appreciate your feedback, and your help in getting this info out to those who want to think about it.

  3. My apologies, I realized I completely mistyped what I meant - I didn't mean that intentional periodic continence itself is morally neutral; rather, that NOT making use of the marital act during the fertile times is not wrong. People are busy, get sick, one spouse might be out of town - it's not objectively a sin to simply forego the marital act during the fertile period. That was what I meant in comparing it to contraception - it is ALWAYS sinful to use contraception, but to simply avoid the marital act because the wife has the flu and it happens to be during her fertile period is not sinful. The act of abstaining is not sinful in itself.

    The question of morality comes when a couple *intentionally* makes use of the marital act EXCLUSIVELY during infertile times and abstains during fertile times for the sole purpose of avoiding pregnancy, i.e. periodic continence.

    I hope that clarifies what I intended to say! I agree with your comment - sorry for my poor choice of words. God Bless! :)

  4. Colleen - okay -yes! That makes perfect sense. Thanks for clarifying.

  5. I think calling it "NFP" in and of it self is one of the problems with the way it is presented. If one person is avoiding pregnancy because of one of the grave reasons mentioned by Pius XII, and another is avoiding pregnancy because they do not want a baby at that point in time--how can they both be using NFP? It isn't the same thing! The second situation is a sin, the couple is not co-operating with God's design for marriage. NFP is a terrible name because it implies that families can and should be planned, and planned without God.

    Even for people with grave reasons, it isn't a free pass it doesn't mean that the couple does not have to re-evaluate the situation often.

  6. Great article! Keep the good work!

  7. Mrs. Eagan - good points. Yes, the whole concept of "family planning" becomes one that tends to be according to the human will rather than God's, doesn't it?

    Anonymous: Thanks!

  8. Hi Jay:

    I wondered if you'd seen this article at Catholic News Agency:

    Sorry for the long link! I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on it. I found it typical of so much watered-down teachings of our Faith. I also detect unmistakable "theology of the body as interpreted by Christopher West and Fr. Loya" nonsense. See what you think.

    Thanks for your great blog.


  9. Thanks for the link, Elizabeth (and the kind words!). I hadn't seen that article, and will take a close look at it right now. Stay tuned! More to come on NFP. I am getting more and more uneasy with the way NFP is promoted as something that liberates us from our sexuality and the "duty of motherhood". Too often the reasoning just sounds like the contraceptive mindset without pills.

  10. I am very grateful for these insightful comments about NFP. In his book, Mr. Malone also pointed out the problem of whether the mere presence or absence of serious reasons can change the inherent nature of periodic continence...
    My humble suggestion is to promote the virtue of purity, which Archbishop Sheen beautifully defined as "love awaiting fecundation." Thus, purity demands the absolute connection between sexual activity and the marital state. But it also means for married couples that when they are having marital relations they also desire that their relations be fruitful. The use of periodic continence betrays a contrary desire; and therefore, seems to indicate a lack of purity.
    I attempt to explain this in greater detail in an article in Latin Mass Magazine, Spring 2011:
    The truly Catholic alternative to contraceptive drugs, devices, surgeries is babies! All those with a priestly heart should pray for greater generosity among married couples in welcoming souls to "come to the threshold of life."
    God bless you and your work!

  11. Thank you, Fr. Gardner! I will definitely take a look at your article. I'm very happy to have priestly support here in the comments, too. Say a little prayer for the next post, which is not exactly writing itself! There's so much to be said!

  12. Jay,
    Can I please add that we support our Bishop in the Diocese of Peoria! Bishop Jenky has been graciously supportive of our efforts regarding the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and is a courageous Protector of the Church and defender of the innocent, unborn children. May God bless Bishop Jenky... and may his tribe increase!
    Fr. W. M. Gardner

  13. Fr. Gardner, I take your support of Bishop Jenky as a very fine recommendation! He does seem to be standing his ground on the comments he made in that very inspiring homily a couple of weeks ago. I pray for bishops to have this kind of strength, and I appreciate that Bishop Jenky has not backed down. Did you see the follow-up post on him? Bishops who take a stand deserve our support, and I do try to give it!

  14. We do not net need a "reform of the reform". And the "hermeneutic of continuity” is simply a demonstration of the Hegelian dialectic at work to justify a revolution in the Church. The New Rite of Mass is just as Archbishop Lefebvre said it was a "bastardized protestantized rite of Mass. We need a return to sound Catholic liturgy not a false "new Rite" of Mass. The very concept of a "new rite of the liturgy was anathematized at Trent by "any pastor whatsoever" and right now the Church is in a state of a wholesale loss of faith because Trent has been put on the shelf due to worship of "man". Why is it that a "pastoral council which had no anathemas attached to it is the excuse for a protestantized so called Novus Ordo New Order Mass?? Something which Cardinal Ottaviani said was a striking departure from Trent. And if anyone simply dismisses my point by saying Oh she is SSPX- because she quotes Archbishop Lefebvre don't because I don't attend an SSPX chapel but I do recognize that Lefebvre hit the nail on the head when he called a spade a spade, I like many of the things you say on this blog but a "reform of the reform" sounds rather protestant to me. No what we need is a restoration and personal repentance from our sins NOT a hybrid reformation service like the "high Aglican's who have a "liturgy" which looks more Catholic than the N.O liturgy. We need a 2013 counter reformation. If all things are going to be restored in Christ as Pope St. Pius X said we need to return to real traditional liturgy not pseudo traditional. We need another St. Francis de Sales not a one step Hegelian backwards then two step forward with phony modernist hermeneutics employed by 50 years of non binding rot from the top on down. Kathy Willett Redle

  15. Can't say I disagree with you, Kathy. But did I say "reform of the reform"?!

  16. Kathy, your comment doesn't show immediately because it goes to "moderation" before it is published here. So all 4 of your comments showed up in the "awaiting moderation" section that I alone can see!

  17. Jay, Yes you did up in the far right from your quote on this blog” I live in Baker City, Oregon, with my husband and daughter. I care deeply about the liturgy, and pray ardently for the "reform of the reform". I think we've strayed far from our Catholic identity over the last 50 years, and we need to return to the traditional teachings of the Church in order to regain lost ground. So if you pray ardently you must want it. The reform is a disaster and it doesn't need "reformed" it needs "scraped". The problem is these liberals running the Church are prideful and they have staked their whole lives and careers on this reform and many on the so called “reform of the reform” and what it is really is a wholesale demolition and a repetition of the council of Pistoia which was condemned in Auctorem Fidei. If you read “Iota Unam” by Romano Amerio it is a real eye opener. The Catholic Churchman have led the laity into a state of apostasy. That is the problem in a nutshell- communication in sacris and false ecumenism to usher us into a one world Church to match their one world government. I think I will get your book on kindle.”

  18. Aha! Right you are! I DID say that! Interesting, the things we write and forget about 2 years later! I haven't thought in terms of a "reform of the reform" in quite some time, really. I have read parts of "Iota Unam" along with a few other things that have definitely opened my eyes! Maybe I will change that opening statement thingy to reflect more accurately my current thoughts. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  19. The above should read "communicatio in sacris"


  20. I am glad that you have read some of Iota Unam. I hope they publish the other one that was posthumously published called something like Zimbalta from the Italian. People can change views over time and that has certainly happened with me. I was raised in the Novus Ordo but as I see it we are living in a time like the Arian Heresy only as count Capponi of the Roman Rota said, “I believe is one of the worst crises of Church history, in a certain sense even worse than the Arian crisis. When asked why I believe the crisis we now face is worse than Arianism, I give these reasons: (a) The principle vehicle of the faith, the liturgy, was untouched by the Arian crisis; (b) whereas the Arian crisis was precipitated and sustained by the intervention of secular power, the post Vatican II crisis comes from within the Church and is therefore more difficult to fight; (c) in the fourth century, Pope Liberius finally signed the excommunication of St. Athanasius under duress—in the twentieth century Pope Paul VI was admittedly taken in and hoodwinked by his misguided optimism, but there was no duress; (d) the present crisis is not only one of faith but of morals as well. In addition, today not only one dogma, albeit a very mportant one, is denied as with Arianism, but all dogmas, be it even the existence of a personal God!”TIMES OF CRISIS, TIMES FOR FAITH Prof. Neri Capponi

    It is time for Catholics to recognize that the local Novus Ordo Diocese are behaving similarly to the Arian diocese of old. So its time to as St. Vincent of Lerins said on the sensus fidelium or the what has always been believed "semper et ubique et ab omnibus", always, everywhere, and by everyone MUST be brought back and lived in our Catholic lives. St. Vincent of Lerins in the 5th century gave as a standard for the orthodoxy of doctrine that which has been believed everywhere (ubique), always (semper), and by all (omnia). But, as Cardinal Ratzinger points out, the Council Fathers of Vatican II rejected this hallowed definition: . "Vatican II’s refusal of the proposal to adopt the text of Lerins, familiar to, and, as it were, sanctified by two Church Councils, shows once more how Trent and Vatican I were left behind, how their texts were continually reinterpreted....Vatican II had a new idea of how historical identity and continuity are to be brought about. The static semper of Vincent of Lerins no longer seems to Vatican II adequate to express the problem." (Lexikon fur Theologie und Kirche 'L.Th.K.', Vol. 13, p. 521)
    This is why his "hermeneutic of continuity" doesn't work because there is NO continuity to it but a mere rationalization of what has really occurred - the worst demolition job in history and it was an "inside job". This is what Pius X had to say in Pacendi after describing apostolic and ecclesiastical traditions of the Catholic Church , #42 "The Modernists pass the same judgment on the most holy Fathers of the Church as they pass on tradition; decreeing, with amazing effrontery that, while personally most worthy of all veneration, they were entirely ignorant of history and criticism, for which they are only excusable on account of the time in which they lived." After all what sort of pride is it to say that Lerin’s no longer seems to those documents of Vatican II to express “the problem”. Actually Lerins would condemn Vatican II because any kind of “progress” properly understood must be understood see . St. Vincent of Lerins: On the "Development" of the Christian Faith

  21. Please do not consider this disrespectful, but if Ms. Boyd truly believes what she states, (and unless there are issues with fertility, etc.), why does she herself have only two (2) children? Individuals practicing NFP (or really non-NFP, as this blog supports) will certainly, by default (barring any extenuating circumstances) have large families, especially if the couple marries at a young age. NFP alone is very difficult and there is so little support for those who do practice it, even within the NFP community. Reading blogs like this only make a difficult life that much harder when the understanding is that NFP is to be the exception, and not the norm, as using it without serious reasons is interpreted as illicit. If that is indeed church teaching, for the 2-5 % (or fewer) who actually try and follow this teaching, the vast majority of such families, especially those who marry early and experience no fertility issues, will, obviously, have large (or very large) families. My other concern is that as difficult as NFP is, if we are truly trying to bring more individuals into the faith, it's going to be that much harder to do so with the NFP mindset noted here. Why there may be no greater blessing than children, is that a woman's ONLY role in life? Women have so many opportunities today. It's difficult to take advantage of many of those with large families. Certainly, families of any size are a blessing, and are the greatest blessing, but they are not the ONLY role for a woman to play in life. Restrictions with NFP as noted on this blog make it very difficult for a woman to experience much else than raising a family, at least until her children are older and grown. Having children becomes your life. Is that all that marriage is for? Contrary to the myth that NFP (or lack thereof) is "equally" shared by the man and the woman, the reality is that men don't live like that, which is one reason why so many women resist the "non-control" discussed here. There may be different interpretations of NFP, but if NFP scares people off, living a married life with NFP as the exception (than the norm) with individuals realistically expecting ten or more children in their married life (not unusual if a woman marries in her early twenties and has twenty-five or thirty years of fertility in front of her), will really scare her away. Just sayin'.............

  22. I could write a book in response to the above comment! Oh wait! I did! Anonymous, if you truly want the answers to your questions - most of which sound very un-Catholic - then please read my book (linked in the sidebar), or read the rest of the articles on NFP on this blog. The Malone book (also linked on the sidebar) is excellent and was an inspiration for me, so of course I recommend you read that as well.

    People tell me all the time that I have no right to "judge" a couple's reasons for using NFP. I don't do that. I don't know their reasons, unless they tell me, and I don't assume. I talk about general principles and about the truth of Church teaching. So, as for my own personal life, it is really none of your business why I have only 2 children. I have explained it elsewhere, and I get tired of the implication that whatever I say about Church teaching on NFP is invalid because I don't have 10 or 15 children (which one woman actually said to me). I have done my best to base everything I say on this blog on Church teaching; and Church teaching is Church teaching whether I have 2 children or 10 or none.

    But, so you may know, I have only two children because I was a casualty of my generation. I am a late-comer to the Catholic faith, and had I been raised in a traditional Catholic family, I suspect I would be living a different sort of life right now. I never even heard of NFP till I was approaching menopause, and I was never taught that children were a blessing, that marriage had as a primary goal the begetting of children, or that artificial contraception was wrong. I would have had more children if I'd been able, but since I had a tubal ligation after my second child was born. If I could do it over again, I wouldn't have done that, but I was not Catholic, and no one told me it was a mistake. One motivation I have for writing what I have written about NFP is to help others NOT make the same mistakes I did.


Please be courteous and concise.