Thursday, July 26, 2012

Is NFP Really "God's Plan"?

During the current NFP Awareness Week, I stumbled upon an interesting blog post about NFP. I’d like to dissect it a bit, but I want to preface my remarks by saying that:

I do not deny at all that use of NFP is licit (for “serious” reasons);

nor to I mean to question the author’s reasons for spacing births;

nor do I deny the legitimacy of the author’s experience.

However, I think it’s important to realize that when we focus on individuals’ personal experiences, we can lose sight of the importance of underlying principles, and the logic and reason behind Church teaching in certain areas.

The article begins on an encouraging note (all emphases mine):

Years ago, right before I got married, my grandmother and great aunt were having a conversation about their children, all born in the forties and fifties, and their long marriages. They each had five children and part of their discussions included, “Right before I had my third,” or “Then came number five.” I naively asked, “So, how did you plan your pregnancies and how did you space your kids like tha…?” I was interrupted by chuckles. “PLAN? What do you mean by plan? We just had them when they came! 

I thought to myself, “Wow! They just had them? What about spacing? What about being able to afford them? What about…?” I had been so programmed to believe that we should have control over our childbearing. It was our right to plan, because there are so many things to consider when having children. But these women, whom I respected and loved, were perfectly happy. I saw no regret or angst during the discussion, because having children was a natural thing to them.

Shortly after the conversation, I went to the doctor and she asked “What are you planning in regards to birth control?” Oh! I have to have a plan? I thought about this and walked away from the doctor’s appointment with a prescription in hand and the worrisome idea that I had better start planning. This was such a heavy burden. I was getting married soon and I thought we could just love each other without worry, but apparently not.

Frankly, I wish she could have recalled her grandmother’s and great aunt’s words at that point. Yes, couples can “just love each other without worry”. They’ve been doing that since time immemorial, and it works pretty well. Do bad things happen? Yes. This is life; this is fallen humanity. But it’s not a good thing to start out prepared to take all manner of precautions simply out of fear that something might go wrong. The author continues:

Society dictates that we plan these things, but getting pregnant should be in God’s time–that was certainly the natural progression of things.

This is a wonderfully succinct commentary on what is truly “God’s plan” for marriage and family! It actually sounded like she was going to take a “providentialist” direction! “Natural progression” is exactly right: people get married, they engage in the marital act, and out of that act there comes (if God wills) a baby!

But then she does a 180:

I was so confused. Desperately wanting a sign, I looked across the lobby of the doctor’s office and there was a sign—an actual sign that read: CREIGHTON OVULATION METHOD CLASSES STARTING SOON. There it was: my plan! I crumbled up the prescription and tossed it in the trash.

Wait…didn’t she just say…? Now I’m confused! Is it going to be society’s plan, her plan, or God’s plan? She comments on the experience she and her husband had with the classes:

…[L]ittle did we expect we would learn so much! We learned about biology, about intimacy, about communication…we learned about God’s PLAN for us

What a liberating feeling to know that we could trust God’s PLAN with this aspect of marriage…Certainly, respect within marriage is part of God’s plan for families, and we have to become humble and trust in God’s plan.

The author then implies that we “become humble and trust in God’s plan” by taking control, adding that

We control only what is natural and do not have to resort to that which is artificial or destructive, which would permeate into the emotional aspects of our marriage. In keeping with God’s plan, we have longevity in our marriage and three lovely children who came along in God’s time.

If we take control of spacing births, how is it that we can be so sure this is “God’s plan”, and that the children came “in God’s time”? Again, I’m not quibbling with her personal experience of marital satisfaction; but logically, does the statement make sense? If her children came in “God’s time” – with a little help from her and her husband – what does that say about the timing of her grandmother’s and great-aunt’s children, who were not “planned”? Were they not following God’s plan? And, by the way, why is it that NFP promoters always have to make the point that NFP is not the rhythm method?!)

This next statement from our author really plays havoc with logic:

Above all else, NFP has released us from the burden of “playing God” with our fertility.

“Playing God” with our fertility?! I think that there is ever and always a temptation to do just that with NFP – if not in actual practice, then in intent. If the couple makes the choice to avoid pregnancy, and takes steps to avoid it, haven’t they decided to “play God” with their fertility? She concludes that

God never meant for us to take that upon ourselves…

She means that God never meant for us to “play God” with our fertility, but to the extent that NFP means taking control and deciding not to engage in the marital brace in order to avoid pregnancy, she and her husband have indeed “taken that upon” themselves! It matters not a bit whether that control is through “natural” or “artificial” means – at least as far as the end result of controlling and limiting births is concerned. It is still birth control. It is still human beings implementing their plan. How can they be so sure that it is God’s plan as well?

Most of the comments I’ve seen from NFP promoters are heavily laden with indications that the couple prays and that they discern God’s will for their marriage and their birth control. That’s all well and good, but too often that means relying on the “feelings” we get when we pray. For instance, supposed a young woman tells you that she has prayed and feels that God is telling her to get an abortion. Wouldn’t you tell her that she was definitely not hearing God’s voice?! “More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). We can’t trust our hearts; we have to rely on Church teaching as well, so that our conscience is well-formed and will not let our emotions rule it.

It’s no secret to anyone who’s read any of my NFP posts that I do not agree that NFP must be taught to all Catholic couples, and that I am concerned about the misuse and abuse of NFP which is treated by some as “Catholic contraception”. I don’t believe that it is right for the USCCB to promote NFP through an “awareness” campaign.

But if they insist on doing so, can we also have a “Large Family Awareness” week? Why not promote having many children as an act of sacrifice and love of God? Why not return to some traditional teaching – some truth – about the primary end of marriage (procreation!)? 

Now that would be countercultural.

For more NFP posts on this blog, click on the "NFP Posts" tab at the top of the page.


  1. This does highlight one of the points that bothers me about my own knowledge of NFP... I know when I'm fertile, whether I want to or not now, without charting or temping or anything... Which can make every month feel like a choice of "are we trying or not".

    I do sometimes wish I didn't have that knowledge, and the monthly pressure to make a decision to try or not (when I'm not pregnant! LOL! Since the answer always seems to be "Yes! I guess we are "trying!"), and could just let it happen one way or the other.

  2. I now see that you had even more posts on NFP than I realized when I posted my prior comment, and that you had referred at least once to Pope Pius XII's "Address to Large Families," and that I even failed in my attempt to put my comment on the most recent NFP post since there was a later one today!

    I admire how your study of the NFP issue has led to a great growth and development of your understanding of many issues that are crucial for a Catholic spiritual life such as "Reliance on Divine Providence." I believe this is a common occurrence that when you are faithful in one small thing, then God entrusts more to you. Digging deeper in one area of moral theology which challenges our self-indulgent presumptions leads to a deeper understanding of many other areas.

    In a prior discussion you stated "Pope Piux XII didn't say infertile couples WEREN'T blessed! But he did say that large families were "most blessed" and "precious treasures."

    In fact, Pope Pius XII did confirm the word of Scripture that sterility is often a punishment for sin and the posterity of the wicked will be cut off:

    "With what delicacy and charm does the Sacred Scripture show the gracious crown of children united around the father's table! Children are the recompense of the just, as sterility is very often the punishment for the sinner. Hearken to the divine word expressed with the insuperable poetry of the Psalm: "Your wife, as a fruitful vine within your house, your children as olive shoots round about your table. Behold, thus is that man blessed, who fears the Lord!", while of the wicked it is written: "May his posterity be given over to destruction; may their name be blotted out in the next generation."

    I think we are seeing this happening around us today as all the developed nations of the world are experiencing a "demographic winter" that is leading to a population death spiral.

    -John Galvin

  3. Cam - I hear you! I am past child-bearing age, but as I think about this topic, I have wondered about exactly that point: for years I was very much aware of my own fertile times, knew when I was ovulating, etc. By then I had had my tubes tied, and regretted it, and actually prayed for a miracle during those fertile times for years! Anyway, in retrospect, I wonder how I would have handled the knowledge that I had about my own fertility; if you know, you can't NOT know! How does that affect our decisions, etc. It's an interesting question.

  4. John Galvin - thanks for that clarification; I think I do remember that quote from Pope Pius XII. Usually, I think, we are quick to say "But that was Old Testament stuff"...which of course is not really a valid argument. And again...would you please email me at I have tried to find an address for you, without success! Thanks!

  5. "But if they insist on doing so, can we also have a “Large Family Awareness” week? Why not promote having many children as an act of sacrifice and love of God? Why not return to some traditional teaching – some truth – about the primary end of marriage (procreation!)?"
    And people might just find out that it is a wonderful thing to have a houseful of children! God knows what he'd doing. (I mean who would have thought?)


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