Natural 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 have met numerous people who use it properly and don’t abuse it, but there still seem to be many misconceptions about NFP's purpose.
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 to be 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.
What do I mean when I say that NFP is a type of contraceptive? Let’s begin by breaking down the word. Contra-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 these forms of contraception are 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 contracept 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 couples 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. When NFP is abused, it becomes just another type of contraceptive. It’s just a safer one. A healthier one. But it’s still a form of contraception, and as such, it is vulnerable to the same weaknesses as other types of contraception. 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 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!
This article originally appeared on the website Love In the Little Things in November 2014, and has been editted and republished on Catholic365 with the permission of the author.