You know engagement and wedding season are heading to full force when you start seeing an uptick in posts talking about NFP. And along with those posts come the apparently requisite extremes that go along with them, and suddenly you start hearing all the questions necessitated by the whole being-Catholic-and-having-sex thing. See, NFP conversations, particularly in the Facebook groups and in corners of the internet at the more extreme ends of the spectrum, can, well, for us unmarried gals and gents, seem to suggest either that anyone practicing NFP is going to Hell for their subtle “contraceptive mentalities” or that everyone has 87 fertile days a month* and you will never have sex ever again and your marriage will fall apart and magic birth control is the only real answer.
Now, I’m a single gal, and I do my best to abide by the Church’s teachings on chastity regarding my current state in life.** However, as sex, particularly in the experiential heat of the moment, has little to do with the actual principles of thought or moral action that should already be guiding it, it’s legitimate for me to talk about sexuality and sexual topics. If for no other reason than because I am a human being, body and soul, who has access to the internet, and is able to come to know things through research, discussions, theological works, Netflix, philosophical works, medicine, psychology, literature, etc.
So let’s talk about talking about sex. Specifically—let’s talk about the extremist talk that can come up surrounding NFP and sort out some of the truth of the matter.
Note: skip down to “Talking about Talking about NFP” if you are already up to speed on the Church’s teachings regarding sex and fertility and what NFP is.
What the Church Teaches about Sex and Fertility:
Besides that sex belongs in marriage and some of the particulars regarding the spousal side of marriage (permanent, unitive, for the mutual building up in holiness of the spouse), the Church has a few statements about the sexual act as it relates to procreation. Namely, sex should be procreative, or at least open to the possibility of having children.
One of the more explicit places the Church speaks about the procreative side of marriage is in Pope Paul VI’s 196 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which states:
We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.
Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means…
Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.
Having specified the “no abortion/sterilization/contraception” point, Pope Paul VI continued on to clarify that:
If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.
In other words, we can apply our intellect to nature, because “not having sex” is not an “intrinsically wrong” act that is “deliberately contraceptive.” If it were, married folks would on the most extreme reading have to actually, literally be constantly having sex, or they would be acting contraceptively. While for some single folks that might sound more like “living the dream,” even married people need to eat and pay bills and do laundry. So, now that we’ve cleared that up…
What is NFP?
Natural Family Planning, or “NFP,” comes in a few different styles. Creighton (CrMS), Billings, and Marquette are the ones I am most familiar with. According to Thomas W. Hilgers (M.D., Dip. ABOG, ABLS, SRS, CFCMC), director of the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction, in his book The NaProTechnology Revolution, NFP (specifically, CrMS)
…Can be used in two ways: to achieve, as well as to avoid pregnancy….[it] is a system focused on knowing and understanding the [woman’s] naturally-occurring phases of fertility and infertility. Through this understanding, the couple is able to make decisions (choices) regarding the pregnancy. It provides women the added benefit of being able to monitor and maintain their procreative and gynecological health over a lifetime (p. 73).
In other words, that “taking advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system” thing? NFP, through its various methods, allows women to both understand their own fertility cycle, and in the case of married couples***, make decisions about birth which “[do] not in the least offend the moral principles” of Catholic sexual ethics.
Talking about Talking about Sex and NFP
So, what’s the problem? Well, have you ever heard how sex is kind of like baseball? It is. It’s all very well and good to talk about “hitting a grand slam” or “taking a lead off of second,” but when it comes to the actual, physical realization of such things, the body, the particularity of a given person’s body, is not immaterial to the outcome.
That means, when people set out to practice NFP in their marriage, they can face the challenges that arise from being in a body as those collide with the challenges of being virtuous and being virtuous in an action involving other people.
Take an orchestral performance. Beethoven knew how it was supposed to sound. The conductor knew how it was supposed to sound. And if that was all it took—knowledge and the notes on the page, then there’s no problem. But sometimes, the second chair violin is just playing too fast. Or the trumpets are a little sharp. Or the cello player forgot to show up, or is a little late. Or you accidentally repeat a movement. Or it’s played by your kid sister’s fourth grade recorder choir, and there isn’t enough alcohol in the world to undo that mess.
Sex is kind of like that. It involves mistakes, mess, laughter, and tears, some of which are the results of our souls which move our bodies wrongly, but far more of which belong to the fact that sometimes, physical things don’t work as smoothly in reality as they do in our heads. In this way, many a naive gal or guy can find her- or himself in a digital discussion about NFP that proclaims “NFP is sooooooo scary,” “NFP doesn’t work,” “NFP is a continual source of tension between my spouse and I,” “we’ve only had sex five times the last year,” and, oddly enough, “NFP involves too much talking about sex.”
Now, I’m the first to admit, when it comes to the body, rarely is the reality a textbook case. But NFP boards can make the whole experience sound super terrifying. I mean, I’d also be freaked out by the possibility of months of abstinence. However I know I have to breathe when I panic, and think things through.
In regards to NFP you have to own the truth the Church continues to proclaim: children are not a mistake. They are not a punishment. They are, in fact, what the Church calls the “end,” or purpose, of marriage. That means that while yes, marriage is for the union and mutual building up of holiness of the spouses, it is also meant to call the spouses beyond their union as a couple and integrate them through their spousal vocation into the broader life of the Church. Spouses are able to participate in bringing new life into the world through their union. All this is to say—sex is bonding, it feels good, it’s unitive, it’s worth starting many epic wars over, it exceeds in many important respects its fundamental biological function; nevertheless, in its most fundamental essence, sex is about making babies.
Marriage is A Vocation
Does that mean having kids is easy? Does that mean raising them always looks like Instagram? Does that mean there are not times when it really feels impossible? Absolutely not. There are completely legitimate reasons to make the effort to space your kids. Remember though, Jesus definitely never said vocations were easy anywhere. NFP, in particular, has a way of crystallizing many of the challenges that vocations face; this is not a “problem” with NFP. Far more often, it is the problem of the Christian life, namely, growing in sanctity.
There are certainly medical situations where NFP is basically impossible. This could be the fact that the woman’s body does not show signs of fertility, or she has an underlying problem that shows she is fertile 89 days a month, or an innumerable number of particular situations that make the use of NFP challenging-to-impossible. What you need to remember, though, is that many of the extreme situations are not a result of NFP, but rather of an underlying condition that likely requires medical intervention of some kind.
Periods of abstinence, moreover, are absolutely challenging on a marriage. I know that at times, not having sex is going to seem absolutely impossible. I’m a 27 year old Catholic, who has been “practicing” chastity for 27 years. Believe me, I know how difficult not having sex is, folks.
Yet, in some respect, I have to say, if you are married and you are only having sex four times a year because you are just always fertile, I would want to ask: is this an NFP problem? This is not to say there aren’t grave reasons to practice NFP that have nothing to do with someone dying. There are. Postpartum depression is a real thing. PTSD from a traumatic birth experience is a real thing.
I know in the other extreme, the Catholic internet can on occasion give rise to is the idea that you are damned if you do anything less than actively pursue 50 kids. Which is patently false. So single, engaged, or married folks, I want you to know: you don’t have to have ten kids with your spouse to get to heaven. There is no threshold there. Blessed Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Blessed Maria Cosini were the first married couple to be elevated to the status of “Blessed” by now-St. John Paul II back in 2001, and they had four, not fourteen, children. It’s not a numbers game when it comes to being open to life or growing in holiness.
If you, like me when I was 22 or so, are scared by the prospect of a huge family, I do want to note, you likely won’t just go *BAM* ten kids. That’s pretty unusual. Usually it goes pretty sequentially. And, from what I hear, the hardest time is having three to four kids, when the older kids are too young to be of much help to the parents. Talking to some older friends who have more children, I understand that after six, seven, the football team, the opposing football team, additions don’t really phase you much, other than a need to re-arrange bedrooms, and possibly find a bigger car.
The thing is, you can’t refuse children should God give you the joy of having one. Having a kid you aren’t really planning for doesn’t make contraception okay, or sterilization, even if you don’t have to have nineteen kids to become a saint in marriage. But there are many things that fall under “grave reasons,” and random people on the internet are actually not always going to be the best judges of those reasons.
If you are seriously concerned about your reasoning, I advise talking to a priest, spiritual director, Catholic OB/GYN, well-formed Catholic married person you know and trust, absolutely your spouse, and most importantly God through prayer and adoration to help you discern the gravity of your reasons. But just so we are clear: much like how no one has ever died from not having sex, not having sex is not contraception. It is just not having sex.
Holiness is Hard and Kinda Sucks to Learn Sometimes
When it comes to needing to use NFP, though, I do think it’s worth looking beyond the NFP part to the rest of your life. Listen, if your marriage is falling to pieces because of NFP, which you are using, say, since your wife simply cannot handle one more kid, gentlemen, this is where you live that vocation. You are responsible for considering the common good of the family. Maybe that means when you get off work, you take the kids for two hours and your wife escapes to the coffee shop to read. Maybe that means you hire a mother’s helper. Maybe, wives, it means your doctorate will take another year. I know, these aren’t perfect answers, nor do I pretend to have perfect answers for you. But what I do want to suggest is that, if not having a child is destroying your marriage (and you do not have have a serious life threatening reason to avoid children), I don’t think it’s fair to say that is an NFP problem.
Vocations are not about happiness every single moment. Vocations are for the sake of making men and women into saints, making them holy, and holiness involves sacrifice. That might mean sacrificing sex. This might mean sacrificing complaining about the fact that you can’t have sex. That might mean having to talk about sex and let your husband chart so that he is involved. That might mean sacrificing something else so you can feel less anxious about one more child. This might mean sacrificing control (ladies), because you can’t absolutely control every aspect of your own body. This is hard. It’s hard when you can’t be rude to someone who was mean to you because we are called to forgive them, and it is hard when you get pregnant and are wondering “how can we possibly handle another kid?” Holiness is hard. Period.
NFP is not a smiling couple gardening on the front of the handbook, just like marriage isn’t a happy couple picking out dishes. Moreover, it seems that in order to encourage couples to avoid birth control, we often fall into the error of trying to pretend NFP is wonderful. I’m going to to break it to you now, people who haven’t tried it: NFP is no trip to Disneyland. It’s super hard, from what I hear, and it kind of sucks sometimes. But then, marriage is super hard, from what I hear, and it kind of sucks sometimes. Even the sex parts.
Marriage is messy, marriage is hard, marriage involves being less worried about yourself and more worried about your spouse, firstly, and your children, secondly. Marriage, whether you use NFP or not, involves a lot of trials and putting of another before yourself. NFP, like all aspects of marriage, is not perfect. But if you need to perfectly avoid children, I guarantee you that there is something else going on (either medically, psychologically, or morally, which are all extremely different cases) that has nothing to do with the practice of NFP.
TL/DR, So What Now?
So single people, when you read those panic-infused and/or overly-legalistic internet posts, don’t let it freak you out. Though, maybe, they can spur you to call up your married friends and offer to borrow their kids and run them around a park for four hours this weekend, or make dinner, or even just do the dishes. Because let’s be real, a support network can go a long way to helping lessen the panicked NFP posts, at least. Nevertheless, let me tell you the truth, as best I can. Marriage is going to be hard. It is going to demand things of you that you could never have dreamed of. It’s going to be a lesson in sacrifice, trust in God, and love for others even when you just want to throw out your dishes rather than wash another one.
Marriage is also going to be sanctifying. It’s going to teach you to love, and grow you in ways you never imagined. It’s hopefully going to lead you into becoming the saint God intended you to be. It’s going to be fun. You’re going to have sex. You’re going to make dinners. You’re going to want to cry and turn to each other and laugh because your kid thought the ten pound bag of flour was “snow.” You’re going to fight. You’re hopefully going to make up, and learn to swallow your pride, and learn to forgive. In the best cases, it will be hard, challenging, delightful, incredible, wonderful, sorrowful, laughing, thoughtful, passionate, calming, and absolutely and deeply human in the best sense of the word. It’s certainly what I hope for all of you who are called to marriage.
So, in the words of St. John Paul II: “Be not afraid.”
And also, maybe stop joining crazy Facebook groups. I find that helps a lot too.
Disclosure: for anyone under the impression I had any medical training—I am certified to possibly keep you alive with CPR until an actual trained medical professional and/or priest arrives at the scene. So if anything I mention in the post catches your attention, please, for legal reasons, don’t take my word for it. Go see a real doctor. Like one you can reach here.
Photo via pixel.com
*If you have 87 fertile days in a row, please go see a Natural Reproductive Technology doctor (NaPro) and bring your charts (or really any doctor who knows NFP). I’m not a doctor, but I have to think 87 straight fertile days should legitimately qualify as a medical condition you would want to have checked out.
**I.e. not married, so not having sex.
*** Yes, this applies to anyone having sex, actually, but since this is a Catholic blog, and I am writing this to Catholics, in particular, who are at least interested in following Church teaching, I’m making some assumptions that if you are a Catholic who wants to practice NFP, it’s not so you can be having sex with your boyfriend.