Reading Simcha Fisher’s recent post on natural family planning (NFP) reminds me of the fact that there are lots of different types of cafeteria Catholics, that is Catholics who pick and choose which Church teachings they will accept. In this case, Simcha’s targeting that vocal minority that seems to question the licitness of NFP. Yes, even PODs (pious and overly devout Catholics, of which I’ve been said to be one) can be cafeteria Catholics.
Honestly, part of me doesn’t understand how we can keep having the same conversation over and over and over and over. And a lot of the discussion doesn’t seem to be constructive, probably not the sort of thing that would convince someone to not use contraception.
NFP is pretty straightforward. The Church approves of it and couples are encouraged/allowed to use it in grave circumstances. “Grave,” however, does not mean one foot in the grave. It means for serious reasons. Unfortunately, the Latin word “gravis” gets transliterated rather than translated. A better translation would be “serious.” In fact, this is the official English translation that the Vatican uses. (Humanae Vitae, n. 10) The Pauline English edition uses “grave.” (For more on this, seen Angela Bonilla’s excellent article here.) Married couples are also supposed to be both generous and prudent in their decision to avoid a pregnancy or to have a large family. (HV, n. 10) That’s right, the decision to have a large family should be undertaken “prudently and generously.” So folks who abandon everything to chance or “providence” still need to ascertain that doing so is a good thing.
People might use NFP for selfish reasons. They may be very wrong in their decision to use it. But that doesn’t make it contraceptive. The term “contraceptive mentality” is somewhat useless in this discussion. Contraception refers to an impediment to the completion of the marital act. Contraception is about a specific action: sex. It’s not about a thought or an intention, and it’s certainly not about not having sex.
Yes, you can’t separate the unitive aspects of marriage and sex from the procreative. But the sacrament of marriage is between the husband and wife, not the spouses and the children. That’s why childless marriages are nonetheless still valid marriages. That’s also why couples are obligated to spend time working on their marriages/relationships. And this work (generally difficult) will make life better both for them and, subsequently, for their children.
This brings me back to my initial question – why do we keep having this argument and discussion about NFP? Popes have addressed it. Others have discussed it repeatedly, most notably Professor Janet Smith. But that doesn’t seem to put the question to rest.
It’s as if people simply want to refuse the Church’s teaching on NFP. Maybe it’s because some of them want other people to have the same challenges they do with a large family, I don’t know. I do know that people in this crowd also tend to be the same people who say that NFP doesn’t work. (Now, if it doesn’t work, why do they even care if someone uses it? It doesn’t work, right? Let those absurd people enjoy their folly, they’ll have numerous children regardless.)
From conversations and comments related to these articles, it sounds like there’s a lot more going on, starting with an enormous amount of judgment: judging why someone has so many children, or not enough children, or no children at all. In other words, there’s a lot of discussion about that something that only involves the two spouses, God and, where appropriate, a good spiritual director.
But there’s also a second element: those who insist the method isn’t effective. Archbishop Karol Wojtyla (the man who became Pope John Paul II) explained that people who say NFP doesn’t work are people who don’t know how to use it. The overwhelming majority of cases where people insist that NFP “didn’t work” are cases in which the couple failed to use the method to avoid a pregnancy. In other words, they used it at a time when the wife was fertile and the method, which is more properly called fertility awareness, worked; they simply chose not to abstain or not to observe accurately. NFP is only a method of observation. A couple has a choice as to whether or not to utilize the wife’s fertile period. While a method may be difficult to learn at first, particularly if learned within marriage, it generally becomes pretty easy after a few months. But this can bring about a false sense of confidence for users. They may not be as precise in their observations, they might skip a final observation, or perhaps they decide to fly in the face of the observations; in either case it’s suggesting that maybe they don’t need to be avoiding a pregnancy just now. This is part of the way that NFP can be pedagogical and, for lack of a better word, self correcting. It forces the couple to constantly reevaluate their circumstances/situations. It forces them to communicate. Contraception, on the other hand can be a easy and routine; the couple is never forced to stop and think about whether they should engage in this particular act of intimacy. They’re “covered.” But people who have serious reasons for avoiding a pregnancy are [should be] even more careful about completely following all the instructions of the method and fulfilling all the observations required. Getting lazy about the method suggests that avoiding a pregnancy is no longer all that important, not that the method doesn’t work.
Let me go out on a limb and suggest that there’s a third element, that sometimes the problem is something more than user error. Marriage can be tough, really tough. Many people facing challenges within marriage or outside of marriage, have very little support. Sadly, sometimes spouses do not experience support from each other. If there are serious reasons to postpone a pregnancy, a couple can be under a lot of stress. Additionally, if they haven’t learned the skills to navigate difficult circumstances (And, really, who comes to marriage knowing all this?), deciding to use NFP to avoid a pregnancy can be incredibly difficult. This can all be further impacted by the way in which the couple first learned NFP.
I’ve frequently said that I think NFP is an excellent pedagogical tool for engaged couples. Yet, I’ve had people protest that it’s “too sensitive” to talk about such “private” matters. If an engaged couple cannot bring themselves to talk about their fertility, the way that they will use it, sex, and their plans for children, then they have no business getting married, no matter their age or their ostensible piety. And chances are, they won’t be able to talk about other sensitive topics like finances, in-laws, work-life balance, and countless others. When we can’t have this openness and vulnerability with our spouses, when we feel more comfortable talking about these topics with our friends or family or not at all, then the intimate friendship we desire with our spouses probably doesn’t exist. If that’s the case, then this friendship urgently needs our attention.
On a practical level, presuming that an engaged couple is not sexually active, it’s easier to learn NFP during engagement since it requires a period of abstinence before the woman’s fertility can be accurately charted and identified. Once a couple is married, it can be significantly more challenging to abstain for a prolonged period because they’re now used to being sexually active. If the couple is sexually active while engaged, learning NFP is a good corrective tool for focusing on preparation for marriage, including putting sex on hold.
NFP, when a couple learns it together, provides a much needed basis for learning how to communicate about vulnerable and deeply private/sensitive topics. What happens in some cases, unfortunately, is that the wife learns and implements it by herself and then her husband sees her as the gatekeeper. She’s keeping him from having sex. If it weren’t for that d****d NFP, they’d be having sex, right? (I remain convinced that many couples who use fertility monitoring devices are in fact looking for a referee in the bedroom. It’s no longer the wife who’s saying that she’s fertile and that it’s not a good time to conceive a child – she’s worn out with that pressure and responsibility which properly belongs to both of them together; it’s now this device that becomes the arbitrator in the bedroom. I’m not opposed to such devices, but I do think it’s important to look at how and why they are used.) This suggests that the couple has deeper issues than NFP. They need to learn how to communicate with each other, how to listen to and hear each other. That can be difficult work and, unfortunately, the Catholic community doesn’t offer a whole lot of resources for this. But the issue isn’t NFP and it isn’t even whether or not the couple should have another child. At issue is the state of the marriage.
When an engaged couple learns NFP, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be postponing pregnancy, but it does mean that they’ll be aware of their fertility and probably even more conscious of their collaboration in the work of generation. That knowledge can bring an added excitement to marital intimacy: the knowledge that in this specific time and act, they might be creating a new life.
In fact, I know of married couples that use NFP so as to be able to achieve large families and so as to be as conscious as possible of their vocation as parents. I find that admirable.
NFP, therefore, becomes a tool that unites couples as spouses and as parents of a new human life.
The Catholic Church, contrary to one-liners of countless comedians, has never said that married couples are supposed to have as many children as biologically possible. The Church, an “expert in humanity,” realizes that there are certain circumstances in which it might be good (yes, good) for a couple to postpone the conception of a child. She also recognizes that it’s good for married couples to have sexual intimacy. In fact, that’s the sacrament of marriage itself: sex between husband and wife. And the Church endorses the use of NFP.
So, yes, you are a cafeteria Catholic if you refuse to accept this teaching of the Church. You don’t have to use it. You certainly don’t have to limit the size of your family. But you can’t argue that it’s not a valid teaching of the Church. And, heck, if you and your spouse discern that it would be both prudent and generous to have a lot of children, NFP is a great way to have the knowledge to achieve that most effectively. You may even find that NFP is a great way to introduce those who use contraception to a more profound understanding of marriage and sex.
Yes, there are those who’ve become Catholic after learning about NFP and the Church’s position on contraception, most notably through the work of Professor Smith.
Maybe next time I write about cafeteria Catholics, I’ll go into an explanation of why Jesus is not a Republican…