There is No Such Thing as Natural Family Planning

The USCCB has proclaimed July 20-26 National NFP Awareness Week.  This is one of a series of posts I’ll be doing to increase awareness of the Catholic vision of love.

At the Theology of the Body Congress last week, I participated in a panel discussion on Natural Family Planning.  I began my comments by asserting, to the surprise of the audience, that the most important thing to remember in discussions about NFP is that there is really no such thing as “NFP.”

<insert sound of record scratch here>

Let me explain.

Don’t Thing-i-fy NFP

NFP isn’t a thing.  I can’t hold it in my hand, or put it in a drawer, or carry it around in a shopping bag.  It isn’t a drug that we take.  It isn’t even a tool (although it often involves “tools” like charts and thermometers or fertility monitors and the like).  NFP isn’t a tangible thing at all. Rather NFP is simply information that allows couples to communicate and pray about how marital intimacy can help them grow in holiness and receptivity to God’s will. 

I think this is a profoundly important thing to realize.  For instance…

~When dioceses, or pastors don’t require couples to complete training in NFP what they are really doing is failing to require a couple to learn how to gather the information they need to communicate and pray about how their marital intimacy can help them grow in holiness and receptivity to God’s will.   I can imagine a lot of clergy saying with a straight face, “We don’t insist on NFP training.”  I think it would be a little more difficult for a bishop or pastor to confidently and comfortably say, “We don’t require our couples to learn to communicate and pray together about how their marital intimacy can help them grow in holiness.”

~Similarly, when people say, “NFP is hard” they’re absolutely right–but not for the reasons they think.  They are not right because NFP is hard.  They are right because communication is hard.  Couple prayer is hard.  Getting marital intimacy right is hard, and growing in holiness and receptivity to God’s will is very hard.  NFP simply insists that couples cannot get by with ignoring these things.  Sadly, many couples really do think they can make it without doing these things–and the high divorce rate attests to their error in logic.  NFP makes couples do work that would otherwise just be easier to pretend we didn’t have to do.  I completely agree that doing this work isn’t always fun.  But every day in my counseling practice, I see the bad fruit that comes from not attending to this challenging, yet still rewarding work.

~When couples say, “We don’t have serious reasons for using NFP” they are communicating a deep and profound misunderstanding of what NFP is because, again, they are thinking of it as a thing.  It isn’t a thing.  It is only information that allows a couple to communicate and pray about how their marital intimacy can help them grow in holiness and receptivity to God’s will.  Couples who say that they don’t have reasons to use it are really saying–probably without meaning to–that they believe they are exempt from communicating and praying about how their marital intimacy can help them grow in holiness or receptivity to God’s will.  Who can really say that?

Incidentally,  I don’t mean to suggest that couples who don’t use NFP have no process in place for communicating and praying about how their marital intimacy can help them grow in holiness and receptivity to God’s will, but I think any couple who isn’t using NFP needs to ask themselves some hard questions about what that process actually is.  And, just to be clear, singing, Que sera, sera” is not an acceptable process.  It’s not an OK way to be a godly steward of your money.  It’s not an OK way to be a godly steward of your home.  And it is surely not an OK way to be a godly steward of your marriage and sexuality.

NFP: Facilitating the Universal Call to Holiness:

Again, none of this is to take away from the fact that living the Catholic vision of love is hard work.  I know from both professional and personal experience that it truly takes a lot of effort and struggle.  But that isn’t NFP’s fault.  That’s simply the struggle that every couple faces to learn to communicate, pray together, get marital intimacy right, and grow in holiness and openness to God’s will together.  All of that is hard work.  NFP actually makes that work more do-able.

Becoming A Prophetic Witness to Love

The sooner we, as a Church, can stop arguing about whether we should require couples to learn NFP, or whether couples should use NFP, the sooner we can dedicate our time, energy and resources to helping couples actually do the work of NFP; that is,  communicating and praying about how their marital intimacy can help them grow in holiness and receptivity to God’s will.  When we can do this, the Church will finally be able to show the world that we have what everyone is looking for; the plan for creating a free, total, faithful, and fruitful love that can stand the test of time, warm our hearts, and transform the world by its example.   And that, would be a very good thing.

If you’d like to learn more about how the Catholic vision of love can transform your marriage, check out Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.  

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