Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Saving Grace of NFP

A thought occurred to me as I was thinking over my recent blog posts on NFP and the problems I see with it. The thought is this: there are not very many Catholic couples using NFP.

Remember the big brouhaha over Nancy Pelosi’s (and others’) statement that “98% of Catholic women use contraception”? There have been all sorts of articles and comments about why that figure is wrong. Frankly, I don’t think it matters whether or not the figure is 98%. Whatever the true percentage, it’s still high, and it’s about the same for women whether they are Catholic or Protestant. The point is, there are a whole lot of Catholic women using artificial contraception.

Because of the media interest in the issues raised by the HHS contraception mandate, there have appeared a few news articles on NFP, both in the secular press and in the Catholic blogosphere. We’ve heard about how NFP is “not Catholic contraception”, how NFP is licit, how NFP is just as effective as the Pill, and so on. On this blog, I’ve been examining the fact that NFP is licit only for “serious reasons”, and questioning the wisdom of promoting NFP without fully investigating how we should define those “serious reasons”.

Now, the same study that was used to promote the notion that 98% of Catholic women have used contraception also notes that only 2% use NFP (see an article about this here). No one has contradicted that figure, and I have not been able to find any other study of the frequency of use of NFP in the US, whether for Catholics, non-Catholics, or the general population. I’m inclined to believe the 2-3% figure is reality.

This has made me realize that the problem isn't really NFP, per se.

That is, the 2% of Catholic couples using NFP – many of whom seem to have at least “medium-sized” families – are not the cause of the decline in the size of Catholic families over the last half-century or so. There aren’t enough of them to have that kind of effect.

But...why not?
Oh, I still believe there are problems with the over-use and justification of NFP, as well as problems with the way NFP is presented and promoted; I intend to delve into those problems further in subsequent posts. But those problems are reflective of an underlying philosophy that is having a sad effect on our Church: the contraceptive mentality of society today. It’s that contraceptive mentality that leads many Catholics to use artificial contraception.

Let’s face it: even if NFP can be as effect as the Pill, the fact is, it's not...due to God's design and human concupiscence, which combine to make NFP "difficult" to practice. And you have to admit that most people are not into "difficult" these days, which will probably prevent NFP from ever spreading like wildfire.

(Oh yeah…and there’s the fact that NFP is only supposed to be used for “serious reasons” – it’s a pesky little detail that cannot be relegated to the realm of the couple’s “discernment”.)

There is a contraceptive mentality behind NFP, and that is a problem. That contraceptive mentality is there despite all the protestations to the contrary.

The secular world seems to
get the connection...
I'm quite aware that throwing the words “contraceptive” and NFP into the same sentence is like throwing gasoline on a fire; but let’s face it: promoting NFP without the proper emphasis on “serious reasons” simply helps people to soothe their consciences when they think about purposefully limiting the number of offspring they produce. It allows good Catholics – who, thank God, do not want to use artificial contraception – to find a way to prevent the conception of “too many” children.

(Of course, the funny thing about children is that once you have them, it’s hard to imagine life without them. A friend of mine was trying to keep tabs on her five children after Mass one Sunday, and someone snidely suggested that maybe she shouldn’t have had so many. The harried mother’s response was, “And which one do you think I shouldn’t have had?”)

I am not arguing that NFP is equivalent to artificial contraception such as the Pill or IUDs; I don’t think that’s the case. I am saying that the motivation for the use of either is the same: the desire for personal control over the number of children and the timing of their appearance (I'm not addressing here the use of NFP to achieve pregnancy). I don’t deny that NFP couples are more open to life than those who have opted for artificial contraception, but I’ve been surprised by the extreme defensiveness I’ve seen on recent blog posts, especially in the accompanying comments. You’d think that the mere suggestion that couples should trust God’s timing was a sin!

I think H. Crocker III had a near-perfect grasp of the issues when he wrote an irreverent, flippant, and very humorous article about NFP a few years ago. He was reminding his readers that the primary end of marriage is procreation; among the more serious comments he included are these (emphases mine):

The case for NFP should, by rights, be the case for more babies. To have them is good. Not to have them is to be deprived…

…another reason for NFP's allegedly high success rate is that couples who use it are prepared to welcome children and so don't blame NFP for unexpected pregnancies. Four of my own five children came the NFP way – that is, totally unexpectedly – and that's a good thing, because without them bouncing in as surprises, excuses to delay (the sort of excuses one might hear from a recruit in parachute training) might have gone on for a very long time

Rather than bite one's nails to the quick at the prospect of baby number ten – which, if one marries in one's early 20s and practices NFP, is a definite possibility – we should encourage the attitude of the more the merrier, which is a far more attractive case to make than all the goo-goo language about how NFP helps couples "communicate" and about the joy of charting temperatures and discharges and plotting one's conjugal acts as a captain might chart a course for his ship.

Yep. We need more babies. If you’re hung up on the myth of overpopulation, go to this website and watch their short, informative videos on the subject. And consider the lesson of the Japanese, who seem to be on the road to extinction.

Among Crocker's more humorous comments was this solution to the problem of priestly vocations:

So rather than focusing on NFP, premarital preparation should go like this:

Father O'Counselor: "Now I want you two to understand that the primary and fundamental purpose of marriage is not companionship, not romantic love, not moonlit strolls on the beach, or any other balderdash but the begetting and raising of children – lots of 'em, and starting soon. The optimum number is enough so that you can lose a few at the grocery store and not notice. That's giving without counting the cost, and at that point, you won't care anyway. As a priest, my sacrifice for the good of the Church is celibacy. As a married couple, yours is to propagate children – who will incidentally annually propagate fierce storms of influenza in your house. If you haven't already studied up on communicable diseases and basic first aid for children jumping off sofas, I'd do it now. But you will find children and their challenges to be the great tutor of not only the medical but the moral virtues."

Potential Husband: "You mean, I'm screwed?"

Father O'Counselor: "In a manner of speaking, yes."

Potential Husband: "Is it too late to enroll in the seminary?"

We can thus improve Catholic marriages and alleviate the priest shortage at the same time.

So… go and read H. Crocker III’s whole article here. If it makes you laugh…you’re on solid ground, I think.

If it makes you angry…well…I think that reflects a contraceptive mentality in search of a defense. 


Marital Chastity, Fruitful Multiplication...and NFP?

And see this wonderful post by Cam at A Woman's Place...


  1. It disturbs me how often I run across the idea that people who don't use NFP are somehow "irresponsible" online and that it should for some reason be the status quo for Catholic families (although not necessarily to avoid or try I guess). I don't know how many times I've pointed out that it's not required, but it seems like it's on a fairly regular basis.

    My husband is in law school at the moment and since I'm the only source of income with my little online stores, I'm sure financially we're in a position that meets the "serious" reason criteria... but we make it work, and for us, not using NFP has worked wonderfully (we're averaging a baby every two years, spaced simply by nursing). I get tired of people acting like NFP is something we must do.

    It's refreshing to see a blog that does stress that NFP isn't supposed to be the norm. I've been reading along and meaning to comment for a week or two. Thank you for your posts!

  2. I was listening to Dr. Angela Franks on Catholic Radio today She talked about eugenics and Margaret Sanger. One of the key ideas of eugenics is the idea of limiting family for economic reasons. So when people say (especially in this country) that they can't afford to have another baby they are mouthing a eugenic idea straight from Planned Parenthood. I also think using the Phrase "Family Planning" is a very unfortunate choice of words.

  3. Sue - interesting point about eugenics...And Sanger and company did have it in for the poor! By the way, I love you blog! Do you think you'll get back to it one of these days? You have some wonderful posts there!

  4. "There is a contraceptive mentality behind NFP". Besides bloggers, where is your souces? I have done quite a bit of reading on this topic, Dr. Janet Smith, John F Kippley, Dr. Joseph M Boyle, William E. May. They would all say that when one uses NFP, you do not have a contraceptive mentality.

  5. I’m not talking about individuals consciously taking a “contraceptive” outlook. What I’m getting at is the fact that when people talk about the use of NFP for preventing pregnancy, they generally fail to note that a) NFP should only be used for serious reasons; b) that encouraging each couple to rely on “discernment” of the severity of their need to use NFP is a recipe for rationalization and excuses to “space” births; and c) that up until Vatican II, the Church firmly held that the PRIMARY end of marriage is procreation. NFP thus becomes “contraceptive” in the sense that it is against contraception. I will be exploring this in more detail in subsequent posts, using documents like Casti Connubii and other papal statements to make my case. Stay tuned!

    Also, please don’t remain “anonymous” - leave some sort of pseudonym or initials or whatever in your comments.

  6. I am the anonymous one, I should have looked at all the comment options. I have never read your blog before, the article was linked, so i am not sure how much you have gone into all this before. What changed at Vatican II regarding the ends of marriage? Gadium et Spes #50 says as much. It goes on to further clarify some things. John Paul II also gave us many new ideas to reflect on. I just don't understand the beef you have with NFP. How can you know all these supposed people using NFP are selfish. I know this is a generalization, but I think the arguement you make is also a generalization. If a couple is using NFP, the odds are very great that they take their faith very seriously, and are disciples of our Lord.

  7. Chris V: Of course I can't know anyone's reasons for using NFP! I'm trying to take the emphasis off the individual case and put it on the concept behind NFP and the way it is "marketed" - even by the USCCB, who says on its website that "God wants married couples to have the best sex possible". I think that claim is telling. Anyway, I think I may use your comment "I don't understand the beef you have with NFP" as another post, perhaps next week. Thanks! I want to figure out a way to frame this issue so that people can take a look at it objectively.

  8. If NFP is sinful, then where is the sin?

    Using NFP to avoid involves three distinct behaviors:

    1) Observing and charting symptoms of fertility.
    2) Abstaining during the fertile days.
    3) Using the infertile days for lovemaking.

    #1 is merely gathering information about the woman's body. This, in itself, cannot be sinful. As for #3, generally, a married couple can make love whenever they please. There is no requirement that conception be likely or even possible, only that the couple can do nothing to prevent it. As a result, making love on an infertile day cannot, in itself, be a sin. And I have no reason to disagree with the USCCB that "God wants married couples to have the best sex possible". I certainly do not believe that God wants married couples to have mediocre sex.

    As for #2, the licitness of abstaining requires further analysis. Abstinence involves NOT doing something, instead of an affirmative action. Not having sex is generally not a sin. Still, if abstinence were to be sinful, it would be a sin of omission. A sin of omission requires an obligation to act and a failure to fulfill that obligation. In the case of abstinence, we must ask what is the obligation that married couples have to make love on any given night.

    The Bible gives two commands related to lovemaking in marriage: Be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28) and for married couples not to deprive each other (1 Cor. 7:5). But the Bible offers no specific obligations on how often a couple is to make love and for what purpose. Nor does the Church. She only states that couples should avoid pregnancy for "serious reasons" and various papal encyclicals have implied that these reasons may be rather broad.

    So, for NFP to be a sin, the abstinence must be either (1) wrongfully depriving one partner of the benefits of marriage or (2) failing to fulfill the obligation to procreate. In case (1), frequently claims of "wrongful deprivation" are often really selfish demands for unlimited sex by the supposedly "wronged" partner, especially given how short the fertile window generally is.

    The obligation for married couples to procreate (or at least attempt to--things don't always work as expected) is something that needs to be discussed further and needs to be better explained and promoted by the Church. (I am of the opinion that combining the Catholic teaching on marriage with the health information of accurate fertility awareness dilutes both messages.) But to say that "NFP is licit only for 'serious reasons'" is not a very accurate statement of Church teaching.


  9. Hey Jay, I was wondering if you could cite the source for your iuseNFP image. I made all of these for the site and would appreciate their use being connected back to the website (or at the very least my blog).

    If you don't want to (as iuseNFP promotes a very different message than the one you do here) that's totally understandable but I would appreciate if you would remove the image. Thanks!

  10. Okay, Katie - no problem. I am unsure about using images I find on the web, so I appreciate your feedback.

    1. I know the feeling. The internet makes it hard to always give the appropriate people the correct credit. (I blame Google Images! ;-)) Thanks for adding the link to us!


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