ATTN: Bishops, USCCB, and Catholic NFP Teaching Organizations
I want to be clear I’m a fan of NFP, and I believe in marital chastity. I LOVE the modern ways of charting my menstrual cycle. I love understanding my fertility, my moods, and having a clearer idea about my menstrual and hormonal health.
NFP refers to two different things. It’s a birth control method and it’s not. It’s the rhythm method and it’s not.
So, let’s take a test. Let’s test just how much you actually think of NFP as birth control and the “natural Rhythm method of contraception.” Don’t worry. This will only involve two questions.
Question 1. If I tell you that I started using NFP seven years prior to getting married, do you think I’m telling you anything about my sex life?
If you do, congratulations. You think of NFP exclusively as a birth control. It’s no wonder, considering that NFP is an acronym for “Natural Family Planning.” The very phrase means birth control, but somehow that goes over our head.
Psst . . . You’re still controlling birth when you’re increasing the odds of conception.
A fertility chart really is just a menstrual chart. Certainly, you can chart it on a calendar, but charting your symptoms of fertility does a better job of letting you know what phase of your menstrual cycle you’re in. This can give you insights into your moods, your health, and even be a more accurate predictor of your next period.
Question 2. If I tell you I’ve used NFP throughout the majority of my marriage, and have only one seven-year-old child, have I told you anything about my birth control decisions? And let’s be clear, a birth control decision is a decision to increase or decrease the odds of conception. If you think the answer is yes, then congratulations. Your definition of NFP is the Rhythm Method of contraception, even if the means of contraception is exclusively abstinence.
“But No!” you, the faithful Catholic, say. “The Rhythm Method is an old charting system that wasn’t reliable. And I’m not contracepting when I abstain during my fertile period. Contraception means ‘against conception.’ I’m not doing anything against conception when I am having sex. Abstinence isn’t a contraception. If it were, NFP would be immoral.”
Welcome to the world of cognitive dissonance, and Catholic propaganda designed to convince you to follow the Church’s teaching without understanding it. And so, in the meantime, we get to sit around and listen to the Church act like a used car salesman.
All the while we argue about when it’s appropriate to use NFP. Is it always immoral? Is it immoral most of the time? Almost most of the time? If I use it too consistently am I embracing the contraceptive mentality? Does rejecting artificial contraception and the consistent use of periodic abstinence make me more pro-life? Is opposing contraception about reducing the abortion rate and my chances of being tempted to abort?
All these questions presume that the sin of contraception is in the intention or the end rather than in the means. Additionally, this reasoning embraces two heresies. The first is a denial that artificial contraception is an intrinsic evil. This is because we don’t understand what the words ‘intrinsic evil’ even means. The second heresy is known as the heresy of consequentialism. It is commonly known as “the lesser of two evils.”
If preventing pregnancy is gravely immoral, the heresy of consequentialism would claim it needs an equally grave motive to justify it. But since we are Catholic, we are going to recognize that abstinence is a means of pregnancy prevention. It is our contraceptive method within an NFP framework. Thus when we want to say “NFP isn’t contraception” what we’re pointing to is the fact that abstinence usually is seen as something quite distinct.
Now, some may protest this and insist that Humanae Vitae says you need a grave or serious motive to prevent pregnancy. But let’s read it again.
With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.
As Angela Bonilla pointed out in Humanae Vitae: A Grave Motive for a Good Translation:
This sentence cannot be reduced, like [the Pauline edition], to a moral statement about when periodic abstinence is permitted, because the words “prudently” and “certain…time” rightly appear in the second translation. Prudently having a larger family, after all, will likely require that couples use periodic abstinence from time to time while serious reasons may require it for certain or indefinite periods. This sentence also implies that imprudently raising a numerous family is outside the definition of responsible parenthood.
Why Humanae Vitae Approves of NFP but Not the Rest
There are two basic moral principles. The FIRST is the intrinsic evil of the means of contraception.
According to St. Augustine of Hippo, evil is not a thing. It is an absence of the good. In Catholicism, we do not just speak of moral evils. We speak of natural evils. A moral evil is when we abuse our free will do evil either through an act of omission or commission. So we have duties to choose the good, avoid the evil, but, most importantly, never do evil so that good may come of it. That is the temptation.
“For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.'” ( The City of God, XI, chapter 9)
Understanding that contraception is an intrinsic evil (meaning it’s a direct evil) is rooted in an appreciation of the goodness of fertility. But deep down, we know reproducing recklessly causes evil. As such, our drive to avoid evil and pursue the good leads us to view our fertility with hostility. Afterall, we recognize the good of sexual pleasure and sexual intimacy. We do not want to give these goods up.
Because we want the good of sexual pleasure and intimacy and the good of a healthy manageable family size that allows us to meet each other’s needs, contraception appeals to us. Unplanned pregnancies become scary, and while we fail to see it, the secular world recognizes that abstinence education often leads people to demonize their sexualities. If you’ve ever hated your libido because it made chastity difficult, you have just demonized your sexuality.
Sex is the means of procreation, so our hatred of our fertility crosses over into a hatred of our sexuality. For this reason, we resent NFP.
And especially because it’s sold to us with the tactics of a used car salesman, we have a tendency to view NFP as a Junker.
It’s Not A Car; It’s a horse!
If we are to appreciate NFP, we need to appreciate it for what it is. We need to have realistic expectations over how long it takes us to master, and what to expect on our journey.
We need to be to be aware when jealousy is leading us to increase the burden on others. For it’s very much like we live in a world where everyone is driving cars, and the Catholic Church is offering us horse riding lessons as an alternative. In the meanwhile, the pace of society keeps speeding up. Embracing NFP is embracing a whole different lifestyle, and it comes with its challenges.
Don’t let your jealousy turn on the woman with the sick horse. Do not increase her burden. When you see her moving her limp animal into a horse trailer attached to a truck, do not sneer at her statistics of automobile accidents. She is not morally required to attempt to ride her dying horse. She is not morally required to drag her sick horse everywhere or walk to her destinations.
Certainly, being concerned about the side effects is important, but too often this concern is not authentic. It’s not authentic because deep down you’re jealous. Deep down, you wish you were her, and you are shaming her because you think it’s not fair.
Moreover, if you notice a couple on an exceptionally long journey putting their horse temporarily in a trailer, be careful with what you say. Do not warn them of car accidents. Do not point out, “You know, this brand of vehicle has a really bad reputation. It’s known to break down quite frequently.” Your attempts to convince them out of their short journey may actually end up convincing them to get a “better” vehicle.
More importantly, don’t encourage them to fall off their horses. Don’t encourage them to believe that the risk of being trampled doesn’t exist. Don’t criticize them for being weak. We are all sinners, and the Church does teach the principle of graduality. Please do not encourage people to choose greater evils because you think the word ‘intrinsic’ means grave.
We still must weigh out the gravity of our choices, striving to avoid all sin while recognizing we will sin anyway. The Church’s rejection of consequentialism is not a dictate to choose the greater evil to avoid the lesser evil. It is an acknowledgment that the lesser evil remains evil. Its value is objective and constant, and it is something we still want to avoid.