Friends, I need to float an idea I’ve been chewing on for the last several days. Ever since I read the WaPo article about “re-branding” NFP, and then yesterday’s response, I’ve been turning them both over in my mind. Then I read Katie’s piece on both pieces, and that’s made me think even more.
I have a theory as to why we Catholics who don’t use contraception come across as crazy fools who can’t even talk to each other. Well, several actually. But only really one that has to do with NFP.
Well, it’s one theory with two parts. Or it might be two theories. I’m not sure yet.
I’ve been using NFP for about 3.5 years now. Just over a year of that time was using it to achieve a pregnancy, and the past 16 months has been using it to avoid. So I’ve lived it from both angles.
I’ve read a lot of articles and comments on NFP. Now, people who don’t like pain usually skip comments, but I can’t help but read them when it comes to posts on NFP. What I’ve learned from reading articles on NFP, other people’s blogs, and comments is that there are two distinct camps of “Catholics who don’t use contraception.”
1. People who sincerely believe all married couples are obligated to have as many children as they can, barring only the most serious of reasons, limited to high risk of maternal death, cancer, or homelessness. Any other possible reason is not “just” enough and is pure selfishness on the part of the couple practicing NFP, whom they may or may not know.
2. People who sincerely believe that NFP is information and nothing more. It is recordable, observable data which a couple can use to either achieve or avoid a pregnancy. The discernment process is between the couple and God, and there is no attempt to make a bullet point list of what counts as a just reason for avoiding pregnancy and what doesn’t. The people who roughly fall into this way of thinking on NFP do not believe that every married couple is called to have as many children as they can.
And see here’s where my theory gets a little dicey. But the more I think about it, the more it makes the disconnect between these groups make sense.
So here it is.
Birth control and contraception are not the same thing. NFP is an attempt to have some control over the spacing of children. People in group 1 do not think anyone should try to have any control over spacing of children.
That is, in a sense, NFP (when used to avoid) can be a kind of birth control, but is definitely not contraception.
Hang with me here. I want to explain.
Contraception, we know, is anything, internal (the Pill, diaphram, sponge, IUD, injections, sterilizations, etc.) or external (male or female condoms, etc.) which actively separates the unitive and procreative ends of sex.
Birth control is any attempt that a couple makes to have some control over the spacing of pregnancies.
Therefore, all contraception is birth control, but not all birth control is contraception, since Natural Family Planning does not separate the unitive and procreative ends of sex, because when a couple is avoiding, the sex act does not take place during the time of natural fertility, only during the time of natural infertility.
See, the thing with NFP is that it has a built in litmus test for how good of a reason you have for avoiding pregnancy. The whole method is based on the idea of avoiding sex during the fertile time. So if you have a serious reason for avoiding a pregnancy, you’ll avoid because you really can’t get pregnant at that time. If, on the other hand, you’re sort of unsure about your reasons, or they’re not as clear as they once were, you’re more likely to abandon avoiding because, let’s be clear, marital sex with nothing, I mean nothing between you, is the greatest thing on this earth other than God himself. We’re not going to willingly give that up unless we have a darn good reason to!
I think the rub comes in because some people do not think married couples should even try to have any control over spacing of pregnancies, even the prayerfully discerned control that NFP users try to have. They talk about “NFP with a contraceptive mentality”, but I think what they’re touching on is the fact that NFP does try to be a type of birth control. That people who use it gather information from the fertility cycle and use it in a way that is either trying to maximize or minimize the chance of a pregnancy in any given cycle. Yes, that is birth control. Is it “absolute”? Of course not. I mean, we all know that absolute control over anything, let alone fertility, is an illusion. But does that mean we should just throw up our hands and say, “Oh well”? Especially when there is a natural, safe, effective way or achieving or avoiding pregnancy which doesn’t separate the two ends of sex.
What I don’t get is why it’s bad to, using prayerful discernment, decide to use your God-given intellect, and ability to track your fertility signs, to either avoid or achieve a pregnancy. If you’re not putting an actual barrier (visible or not) between yourself and your spouse, then what is wrong with wanting to space children out? Why should I feel the need to justify to anyone other than God why we chose to avoid a pregnancy for as long as we did?
Anyone who knows me knows that I do not for one moment think I have (or should have) absolute control over my fertility. Hello. I got pregnant unintentionally three months after getting married, had a miscarriage, and then took over a year to get pregnant again. Does that sound like someone who has total control? I think not.
The point I’m trying to make is that, if we acknowledge that the control we do have is limited, and we include God in the decision making process, is it wrong to say that NFP can be “Catholic birth control” and that’s not such a horrible thing?
What do you think? Am I completely off the mark? I really would love to know because I have been chewing on this for days and I can’t seem to totally wrap my mind around it.