This will take a couple posts. We’ll start by talking about NFP use under normal conditions where a couple wants to space their children, or avoid pregnancy for serious but not grave reasons.
First, the “serious” vs. “grave” distinction. When the Church talks about avoiding pregnancy, She doesn’t say that sometimes this can be permitted as a concession to weakness, She talks about how this can be an exercise of parental responsibility. We can see pretty clearly that there’s a difference between a family who is trying to avoid pregnancy because they can’t afford the fees to send another child to a private Catholic school, versus a family who is trying to avoid pregnancy because the father can’t find work and the mother is in and out of hospital with serious health problems.
I’ve practiced NFP under both kinds of conditions: those where it is completely reasonable to try to avoid, but where having a baby would not be a disaster, and those where it is absolutely imperative that I do not get pregnant. I’ve also practiced it under what I would call “twilight conditions,” that is conditions where there are very serious reasons not to get pregnant, and where having another child would place a lot of stress on the family, but where, with sacrifice, those challenges could be met.
These situation are completely different. They need different analyses. I’ll start with the first.
Many, probably the majority of couples using NFP, fall into category one. Maybe they’ve just married, and they’d like to wait a while before having a baby. Maybe they’ve had three or four, and they’re finding it a little exhausting to have a baby every couple of years – they still want more, but they’d like some breathing room. Perhaps they’ve just come back to the Church after years of contracepting, they “finished” having kids a long time ago and the idea of going back to sleepless nights and diapers is still a little daunting.
So they start using NFP. It’s challenging. It calls for sacrifice. They have to avoid sex when they most want to have it, and they have to be intimate when they really don’t feel that much desire. Soon, they find that they’re fighting with their spouse: fighting about the abstinence, fighting about whether they should have a baby, fighting about their differing experiences and their sexual needs. In the process of resolving these conflicts, couples are forced to communicate clearly, to be vulnerable and honest, and to lay down their desires for the good of the other.
That’s what people mean when they say that “NFP is marriage building…but it takes time.” When people are called upon to regulate their appetites – whether for sex, or food, or sleep, or money – underlying problems tend to come rising to the surface. This is part of why ascetic practices are mandated in pretty much every world religion, and why they are often used in psychotherapy as well. When an appetite is constantly satisfied, it’s easy to fall into a kind of complacency where deep-seated problems are allowed to slowly gnaw at the soul without ever being brought out into the light. NFP is basically an ascetic practice, and one of its effects is to force couples to confront and communicate honestly about their fears, anxieties and desires surrounding pregnancy and sex. In most of the accounts that I’ve read from people coming off of the Pill who just love!!! NFP, one of the main things they seem to love is that finally they are communicating about issues that have lain dormant for years.
The other reason why NFP is marriage-building in situations like this, is that it often serves as a stepping stone to family growth. The fact is, Paul VI was basically right: human weakness is such that if you give people the option of contracepting easily and at will, most people will choose to avoid pregnancy for reasons that are kind of trivial. We’re naturally inclined to think that having more wealth, more free time, better careers, more vacations, more freedom, and so forth will make us happier – and that having children will only make us happy in so far as it doesn’t get in the way of those other things. One of the fundamental truths that Christianity has always taught is that happiness comes from relationships with people (including the three Persons of the Trinity), not with stuff.
One of the effects of using NFP when you kind of don’t really need it to work, is that you’re constantly questioning whether you have sufficient reasons to go on making the sacrifices that it demands. You question your values. You evaluate your motives. You seriously consider whether having a baby would really be a bad idea, and you’re much more likely to open yourself up to another child. And that’s a good thing. I’ve had six, going on seven of them, and yes, each one involves extra stress and extra work, but they also bring the inestimable beauty of a new personality into my home. I’m currently Mommy to several people who probably wouldn’t have existed if not for the Church’s teaching, and I’m extremely grateful for each of them – even if sometimes I wish they could have come just a little bit further apart.
Basically, I think that in cases where a couple would like to avoid pregnancy, but could also kind of afford to have a child, the things they say in NFP manuals are true. It is marriage-building. It helps us to be open to life. It helps us to see fertility as a good thing, as a gift. It helps to transform the heart, to make us less selfish in our sex lives and more open to life.
The problems come when we have to rely on NFP during times of crisis. Let’s talk about that soon.
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