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.