Natural Family Planning: 5 Truths Everyone Should Know

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One of the difficulties of being Catholic in this world is that our beliefs are strange and incomprehensible to those who lack the grace (or desire) to understand them. Some of our lifestyle choices make us even more of an enigma to others. One such choice is the use of natural family planning (NFP). NFP-using Catholics are at risk of being mocked or judged not just by the secular culture, but also by other Christians (including Catholics). One reason for the ridicule is that there is a lot of misunderstanding surrounding NFP, even among some NFP-using Catholics. Below, I counter some common misconceptions about NFP that I have faced. I was not able to go into great depth on each point, but perhaps will explore some of them more in future posts.

1) Perhaps the most important point is that NFP is not “Catholic birth control.” Many people accuse Catholics of being hypocritical by preaching against artificial contraception and yet still practicing NFP. They believe that there is no difference between the two, since the intentions and outcomes for people using artificial contraception are generally the same as for people using NFP. However, since when do intentions and outcomes alone define the morality of an act? If I intend to procure money to buy a new car, and I do indeed buy that new car, does it not matter if the way that I procured the money was to steal it from somewhere, or to earn it through hard work? Of course it does! ­­­

In the same way, the method of avoiding pregnancy matters. The reason that contraception is immoral is that it interferes with the normal functioning of the female body and the natural connection between sexual activity and procreation. People who use contraception want to be able to engage in sexual activity while actively thwarting its procreative power. On the other hand, NFP works within the natural order. It makes use of the natural fertile/infertile times that God designed instead of trying to interfere with them. If you are fertile and are trying to avoid pregnancy, then you abstain until you are not likely to be fertile. You don’t try to make a fertile time into an infertile time. You don’t try to engage in sexual activity that should be procreative while artificially rendering it non-procreative. This may be a subtle distinction but it’s an important one. If it doesn’t make sense to you, then keep searching for more clarity on the issue instead of just accusing NFP-using Catholics of being hypocrites.

2) Related to the first point, NFP should not be used in the same way that our culture uses artificial birth control. NFP-use should not be the default position, until you decide that you feel like having [more] children. NFP should not be used long-term just because you feel like you are “done.” It is not required of married couples and using it is not necessarily the most “responsible” course of action. NFP is morally licit when it is used for a serious reason. The decision to use NFP should not be entered into lightly, and it should be re-evaluated frequently, perhaps with every cycle. It is very possible to use NFP with wrong motives and a selfish attitude, especially if a couple has become accustomed to the periodic abstinence and does not have much difficulty with it. However, we have no right to judge the motives/reasons for another person’s NFP-use. Likewise, we have no right to judge anyone’s decision to NOT use NFP and instead to leave their child-bearing entirely in God’s hands. Whether or not a couple uses NFP is between them, God, and ideally a spiritual director/confessor.

Although I am lacking a spiritual director or regular confessor, I recommend consulting one on the issue of NFP-use, if possible, because it can be a complicated issue. It is SO easy for our selfish desires to get in the way of submitting to God’s will, to convince ourselves that we are being ‘prudent’ and ‘responsible’ when what we really are being is self-centered and fearful. It occurred to me as I was praying at Mass this morning, though, that once we truly hand over our lives to the Lord – die to ourselves, as the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies – then these kinds of decisions become a lot easier. If we truly have a heart like our Blessed Mother’s—a heart that says, “behold I am the handmaiden of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word”—then we will have more clarity on issues such as when we truly have serious reasons to avoid pregnancy. When we stop trying to exercise control over every aspect of our lives, and instead hand that control over to God, we have no need any longer to make excuses to use NFP. Of course, the hard part is getting to that point; I know I’m not even close yet.

3)A very important point for our secular critics is that modern NFP is not the same thing as the “rhythm method.” I don’t know if the majority of people conflate the two because of intentional dishonesty and a desire to mislead, or because of ignorance (it’s probably a mix of both) – but I sure am tired of people speaking as if they are the same.

The rhythm method is really an outdated precursor to modern NFP and is not used by the majority of NFP-practicing women any longer. It takes its name from the “rhythm” of the female cycle, which averages 28 days, with the average day of ovulation being day 14. It relies on those averages basically to guess at fertility. This works very well for women who have very regular, and average, cycles. It does not work so well for the great many women who do not. And it does not work when there is an unexpected change in a woman’s cycle due to stress, illness, or some other factor.

While I think this method has a higher effectiveness rate than people think, it is not as effective as modern NFP, which is scientifically sophisticated and relies on the tracking of ongoing signs given by the female body as to current fertility/infertility, as well as past cycle information. It accounts for the fact that most women are not “average” or extremely regular, and for those times where there is a change in a woman’s own normal pattern because of stress or illness. It works for women with very regular cycles as well as for women with irregular cycles. It works for women with short cycles, average cycles, and long cycles. It is backed by scientific principles and research…. which leads me to my next point.

4) NFP works. Truly, it is highly effective. Of course, like any form of family planning, it falls short of a 100% effectiveness rate. The only entirely effective way to avoid conception is to avoid that which causes conception. But studies show that NFP has an effectiveness rate that rivals that of almost every other kind of family planning, because of its science-based methodology. Of course, you won’t get that impression from the media or from secular sources, such as the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute, which cite relatively low rates of effectiveness for NFP. That is, in part, because of the point I made above – they conflate modern NFP with less reliable natural methods of family planning. They play other games with the statistics, too, just as they did with the statistic regarding the percentage of Catholic women who have relied on birth control.

Anecdotal “evidence” from random strangers on the internet will also leave you with the impression that NFP does not work. These random strangers usually do not understand that you can’t complain of a “method failure” if you did not learn the method properly through a knowledgeable instructor and/or you did not practice the method properly without any “fudging.” They also do not seem to understand the point made above – that any method of family planning is going to involve some failures, even if done perfectly.

Unfortunately, it seems that even many medical professionals cannot be trusted to give accurate information about NFP. They either purposefully lie to their patients about the effectiveness of NFP (hormonal birth control is very lucrative for doctors and drug companies, you know), or inadvertently give false information about NFP because they are so unfortunately ignorant of what NFP is that they don’t know any better. Hopefully, it’s the latter, but either way, this is unacceptable and frankly depressing.

One more point about the effectiveness of NFP – even when NFP “fails,” it’s still working just as it should. That is, people who use NFP are supposed to be open to the possibility of children – to the providence and sovereignty of God in their lives. If you practice NFP perfectly and you still end up pregnant, then praise God, for he is showing his power to you, and saving you from interfering with his most perfect plan.

5) Lastly, to tie some of these points together, people who use NFP often have big families because—shockingly!—they want to, or they feel called to. There is a common joke that circulates around, that I’m sure most of us have heard: “What do you call people who practice NFP? Parents.” This is supposed to be a knock on the effectiveness of NFP but the truth of the “joke” actually speaks to the mentality of people who use NFP rather than to the effectiveness of NFP itself. Most of us NFP-users love children and many of us would love to have large families. But more than that, most of us want to do God’s will. If we have used NFP at some point but still have several children, that doesn’t mean that NFP failed us. It often means that we were discerning in our use of NFP and knew on many occasions that we did not have a good reason to use it. Or, even more shockingly, maybe it means that we purposefully and actively tried to conceive those many children, perhaps by using NFP to help us achieve pregnancy.

So the next time that you see a couple with a large family advocating for NFP-use, don’t laugh or scoff at the “irony,” while assuming that NFP has a high method-failure rate. Likewise, don’t assume that this couple had a high user-failure rate because they were too lazy or intemperate to practice NFP properly. Instead, assume that NFP was working just as it was meant to. And then, direct your thoughts away from the personal choices of others.

“Children too are a gift from the Lord, the fruit of the womb, a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children born in one’s youth. Blessed are they whose quivers are full. They will never be ashamed contending with foes at the gate.” – Psalms 127:3-5



*Photo of father and daughter courtesy of David Castillo Dominici.

14 Replies to “Natural Family Planning: 5 Truths Everyone Should Know”

  1. Love this. Thanks so much for your honesty and clarity on a subject that is so important, yet so misunderstood by so many! It’s a topic dear to my heart. 🙂

  2. I really, really appreciated point #2!

    I would also add NFP involves suffering, and this points to the fact that it should not have to be this way – we should not have to hold back our fertility because of serious circumstances arising from our fallen state. Its necessity is a result of sin. BUT, at the same time, it shows the marvelous power of God that He gives us a way to cope with our fallen nature, turning it into a blessing that strengthens our marriages.

  3. Mary, this post was phenomenal! I love how you worked both yesterday’s Gospel (grains of wheat) and today’s Solemnity (The Annunciation) into your post. You bring such clarity to this oft misunderstood topic. This will get shared to many of my sources! Congrats on a truly awesome post!

  4. Sarah – when I was at the “composing in my head” stage of working on this post, that was one of the points I was planning to make… that NFP is not all sunshine and rainbows, like some of its cheerleaders sometimes lead people to believe. Somehow that point slipped my mind while I was in the actual writing stage. Thank you for saying it!

    Birgit – thanks for your comment. To be quite honest, I am ashamed to say that today’s solemnity had actually slipped my mind while I was writing this post. I completely credit the Holy Spirit for slipping in that reference! It made me smile when I realized today that it sneaked into my post without me making the connection. 🙂

  5. Excellent! Well written and complete. NFP DOES WORK:) It does bring couples together more intimately and deepens the faith of a couple especially when the husband is involved with keeping track of fertility as well. My husband of 25 years was Amazed that I knew my body so well and with a basal thermometer, a calendar and examinations for physical signs of fertility and keeping record on that calendar, he really felt confident and even “smart” when explaining to friends (the non Catholic ones) what our beliefs were, when of course they thought we were crazy.

    He also asked me when we were in our early years, “Don’t all women know about this and how it works?”

    These friends and some relatives as well, have all used artificial birth control and permanent medical procedures and when they ask what I think (be careful what you ask, if someone asks me, they are going to hear it) I tell them, “When you use these methods of birth control you are telling God what is best for you….not trusting your life, love, marriage and future to Him.” Of course I always get the standard, “Well, yeah, but….etc.” and of course I also add that it is between you and God …..but He already gave us His plans and no matter how much rationalization is used by those who use these methods, it is still just that, CONTROL….. not TRUST….

    I recently had the chance to visit our young Christian friends who just had their second child and we were talking and of course I joked about in a few years another brother or sister and she cheerfully conveyed, “Oh, no, took care of that already with the C-section! Don’t have to worry about that anymore.” I told her not to be so confident about that, because God could have other plans”, and we laughed a bit….. and I let it go….feeling sad for this generation.

    All we can do in our Faith is continue to do what we know is right. Truth is Truth and it cannot be changed.

    When I was a little girl growing up in the early 1960s we heard all the derogatory jokes aimed at Catholics with large families….”guess that rhythm method isn’t working” or “you know what causes that, don’t you?” How crass. And they are still be used today oddly enough. Small minds with narrow vision rarely change. And bigotry seems to follow suit.

    This article was very well said and I enjoyed reading it and especially seeing the joy and care it was written in. It also took me back some, to younger days, as I am approaching 60 and it better be the new 40! And remembering my young husband asking me if all women know about this (NFP) and that it works….we were so young then…… and we trusted God for the plans He had for us ……. and are now approaching retirement and …….doing the same.

    Keep sharing these wonderful life lessons on your faith journey …. very faith filled sharing and invaluable.

    Peace & Hope

  6. I agree with most of your thoughts here, I have been practicing NFP in consensus with my wife so I know what you mean. However, there are some ideas worth pondering on.

    1. Most people are not really good at recognizing the signs of a woman’s ovulation, so they tend to do the Rhythm method.

    2. C’mon, let’s be realistic. Some families practicing NFP end up with large families NOT because they are called to. They have a problem with abstinence as well as contraceptive methods.

    Just my two cents.

  7. Derek,
    Thanks for your comment. We like hearing from men. 🙂
    I disagree with your point number 1 and am unsure why you feel comfortable saying that “most people” cannot recognize the signs of fertility. NFP could not be successful if “most people” could not recognize signs of fertility. It may be your experience that recognizing fertility signs is difficult, but that hardly means that it is difficult or impossible for “most people.” I contend that most people have are perfectly capable of recognizing their signs of fertility once they have taken a class with an instructor, though there are of course people who will struggle with it.
    As for your second point, I did use words such as “often” and “most” in my point about NFP-users wanting big families, leaving room for the fact that some people end up with large families without wanting them. However, I also tend to think that if you struggle mightily with abstinence then you probably ARE being called to a big family, whether you want one or not.

  8. Hi,

    Just wanted to say that this is a fantastic article, and that the author just happens to be my sister. 😉

    I sure hope we can get extra rewards in Heaven just for being related to saintly geniuses/genii.

  9. I am so glad that NFP has worked so well for you. But don’t assume that people that struggle with it are unable to fully understand or practice it. Believe me: my husband and I fully understand what is involved it in. The problem is that the only thing that is pushed regarding NFP methods are flower stories of how in generates intimacy and happy families of 12+ children. This is not the realistic picture for a lot of couples that attempt it. It can mean very long periods of abstinence that stress the marriage, it can mean many young children stair-stepped down that put a gross financial strain on the marriage, and the lecture to be “responsible” with your choices. Planning a family shouldn’t be based upon your emotions or physical urges from month to month. That is what is irresponsible. Catholic faith teaches us to seperate ourselves from our spur of the moment feelings and to be logical. This needs to be the picuture of NFP that is taught. At least this angle is the reality for most that attempt to use it. Thanks.

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