Most people are confused about natural family planning (NFP), because they assume that it is the Catholic equivalent of contraception.
Medical pamphlets and sexual education courses often list natural family planning at the bottom of a list of birth-control options, and generally describe its methodology, efficacy and cost in the same way that they describe the Pill or the IUD. Many Catholics think of it in a similar way. Even literature in favor of NFP tends to pander to the assumptions of modern sexual politics: it talks about how NFP is just as “effective” as the birth-control pill, and puts forward “success stories” of people who have used NFP to limit their family size to two or three kids. This approach completely misses the point, which is that NFP has almost nothing whatsoever in common with contraception.
A Gift from God
Contraceptive practice is based on the theory that people have an inherent right to control their lives and their bodies. Sex is conceived of as a basic human need, but having a child is thought of as a life decision. A child who is conceived without conscious deliberation is thought of as an “accident,” and the presumption is that couples, by default, intend not to get pregnant. In this view, science and technology have the ability, and also the obligation, to ensure that people are able to exercise their “reproductive rights” in order to attain complete control of their fertility.
Catholic sexual morality rejects all of these axioms. The Church teaches that a child is a gift from God. This is not merely a nice sentiment of the sort that one might find in a greeting card. It has serious moral implications. A gift is a thing which is given without the prior authorization or the deliberate will of the receiver. A person does not “choose” to have a gift, the gift is something that comes from outside, and which ought to be received with joy.
A child is the natural fruit of married love. “Sacred Scripture and the Church’s traditional practice see in large families a sign of God’s blessing and the parents’ generosity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2373). The children who are conceived and ushered into the world are a concrete manifestation of the love that exists between their parents.
Furthermore, the body itself is a “temple of the Holy Spirit . . . you are not your own . . . you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20). A person does not have an absolute right to self-determination.
The purpose of freedom is not to enable a person to undertake and accomplish whatever plans they happen to choose, but to create the conditions of exterior and interior liberty necessary for people to cooperate with God in doing His will on earth as in heaven.
This means that a couple should, by default, sincerely hope to get pregnant. Notice that this is exactly opposite of the presumption underlying contraception. In some cases, serious reasons may exist for a couple to choose to space the births of their children using NFP. In such situations, “it is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood” (Catechism, No. 2368). The conditions that make it imprudent for a couple to give birth result from the fact that human nature is fallen: the unjust distribution of goods, the psychological stresses of child-rearing, lack of community support and the physical strain of birth on a mother are not conditions that existed in the state of nature before the Fall. These conditions are a source of sorrow, because they prevent married couples from being able to fully and naturally express the generosity of their love for one another.
What this means is that whereas modern sexual thought construes birth control as a fundamental right, a normative practice and a cornerstone of family life, Catholic teaching construes natural family planning as an unfortunate emergency measure which some couples may need to practice due to circumstances beyond their control.
The distance between these two ideas is so vast that any comparison is practically meaningless. For example, it is reasonable to talk about the efficacy of birth control, because the purpose of birth control is to prevent pregnancy, period. It is silly to talk about the efficacy of natural family planning, because if a couple using NFP gets pregnant, it’s not an “accident” or a “failure.” It simply means that their discernment was wrong: they thought that it was not in accord with right reason for them to have a baby, and God thought otherwise.
Those who have not made a serious attempt to practice NFP may believe that the distinction is arbitrary or superficial. Please consider that if there really was no practical difference between NFP and artificial contraception any Catholic who had even a nodding respect for the authority of the Church would simply use NFP. The fact that there is widespread dissension on this point suggests that the differences are real and profound.
It is a typically Christian paradox that the very qualities which make NFP unattractive from a worldly vantage point are the qualities which make it spiritually beneficial. For example, one of the reasons that many couples reject natural family planning is that it is difficult and unpleasant. It reduces the spontaneity of sex and confines sexual opportunities to the period in a woman’s cycle when she is least likely to be sexually aroused. On the other side of the bed, many men find it difficult to abstain as often or for as long as NFP requires.
What this means is that the couple who practices NFP will be forced to grow in self-mastery. Although sexual desire is good in and of itself, it has a tendency to produce a kind of love which is based on mere sentiment or pleasure. Such a love can easily grow at the heart of a marriage, particularly one in which the pleasures associated with sex are not adequately balanced by the practice of concrete responsibilities. Sexual responsibility cannot be vouchsafed merely by lofty ideals or profound sentiments; it must manifest itself in genuine acts of self-renunciation.
The Demand of Faith
Another reason that many people reject NFP is that it is seen as “unreliable.” Under ideal conditions, when a woman with regular cycles charts and follows the rules perfectly, methods of NFP such as Billings or Sympto-Thermal could be as high as 99 percent successful in spacing or limiting births. However, in real life the effectiveness for the average couple is significantly lower.
There are a number of reasons for this disparity. There are certain times in a woman’s life, such as after giving birth before her period resumes, when it is either impossible or nearly impossible to use NFP effectively. Also, the methods that claim near perfect results generally involve a level of rigor that many couples simply find too onerous.
In some cases a couple lacks the necessary organizational skills to practice NFP perfectly, and in other cases one or both of the spouses lacks the self-control needed to pull it off. This means that, in practice, NFP demands faith. It requires the couple to abandon the desire for perfect control over their destiny, and instead it frames the regulation of births as a form of rational cooperation in a domain that is fundamentally under divine governance.
Finally, NFP teaches those who use it to view childbirth in an ordered way. It is possible that some, or perhaps even most, couples who first adopt the practice will do so for disordered reasons: a selfish fear of the sufferings associated with pregnancy, the avaricious desire to maintain an unnecessarily high standard of living, an unwillingness to open the heart to the demands of a large family. In the course of practicing NFP, however, the heart is necessarily purified.
Couples who undertake natural family planning for frivolous reasons will either end up abandoning the practice, or they will end up re-evaluating their decisions. The challenges involved in avoiding pregnancy present a significant incentive for couples to look forward to the time when they will be able to conceive another child.
NFP manifests that truth about the nature of human sexuality, whereas birth control obscures it. Birth control is, by nature, ordered toward the prevention of conception, the frustration of the natural process by which married love produces the fruit of new human life.
NFP is a completely different thing. It seeks to foster an authentic love, vouchsafed by interior freedom, through which couples are enabled to generously give life within the bounds of right reason.