Catholic Birth Control?

Catholic Birth Control? April 19, 2012

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.

I think we’re getting into uncharted waters here with NFP because for the first time ever, there’s natural child spacing which is so darn reliable. It works folks! If you have a need to avoid a pregnancy for an indeterminate amount of time, NFP is effective for doing that. Much more so than any other natural method that has come before. It may be stinkin’ hard, as many have pointed out, but it works.

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.




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  • Karyn

    Great post, Sarah. And I totally agree with your points! Thanks for taking the time to so eloquently articulate your thoughts.

  • You are right on the mark – exactly. In fact, when we teach NFP we discuss the difference between ‘birth control’ and ‘contraception’ and that the Church doesn’t say we have to have as many babies as physically possible, but that when we prayerfully discern it is just to avoid pregnancy we are permitted to use natural means of controling it.

    We also talk about how contraception only as one goal – to prevent pregnancy, where NFP can actually be used to plan a pregnancy and try to achieve one – which allows for true birth control – because you can actually work to plan a birth :).

    You are spot on with this my friend – and said it so much better than I ever could’ve – thank-you!

  • 1) Thank you for the link love.

    2) A-freaking-greed. NFP is birth control. NFP trying to avoid is birth control. NFP trying to conceive is birth control. Shit scheduling an induction is birth control. Birth control simply means ‘controlling when you give birth.” It’s not inherently bad. As long as God is involved in you deciding when you give birth then it’s perfectly fine.

    Ok, I could rant for probably a bajillion pages on this but I think I’ll spare you combox. I can’t make any promises I won’t be back though. 😉

  • Nina

    Thank you for explaining the difference between birth control and contraception, because I’m at the point of just throwing my hands up when some NFP users tell me NFP is not birth control. It is, regardless of whether one is using it to increase chances of conception or decrease chances of conception. Once a couple attempts to exert any control over matters regarding birth of children, it’s birth control. I think there are couples who fall somewhere in between camps 1 & 2 who want to eat their cake and have it too regarding the birth control/NFP issue. On the one hand, they “sell” NFP by telling everyone it’s as effective as using hormonal BC in preventing pregnancy, but, on the other hand, they justify its use by claiming “but it’s not birth control, really!”. And that’s the moment when skeptics start to pick up on some of the logical inconsistencies and hypocrisies inherent in the NFP debate.

    I’m not an NFP user (never used any birth control, contraceptive or otherwise, because becoming pregnant was never easy for me, and “NFP” during my child bearing years was the rhythm method), but I have great sympathy for young women now who struggle with NFP and who are met with some real ugliness from the Camp 1 types. It reminds me of the old La Leche League days where women were bullied and denigrated if they dared voice anything but gushing enthusiasm regarding breastfeeding issues.

    Sometimes I think that “Bully” documentary could easily have been made about how women treat each other over issues that are uniquely female in nature — working mom v. sahm, breastfeeding v. bottle feeding, NFP v. non-NFP use, etc.

  • Newish reader here-great post! You are exactly right. I think a point that often gets missed is that children are always and in every case a gift, and that faithful Catholics, whether practicing a providentialist type of thing or needing to space out children for a good reason (which, according to all the NFP experts and theologians I’ve come across is a highly individualized discernment process) KNOW this and accept it. We’re supposed to be willing to accept children. That’s what it says in the marriage vows. We’re supposed to understand that we say “yes” or “no” to our spouses when the time comes to initiate intimacy, and we’re supposed to accept with love the consequences. Those consequences could be a baby, or it could be the painful journey of infertility, or it could be the consequence of a beautiful encounter with the one you love leading to more love and unity. The point is openness and acceptance with love.

    When I got married, after the greatest pre-Cana ever, to a faithful Catholic man, we both knew we would never use contraception. But, we were very young, very anxious, and I was genuinely frightened at the idea we’d have a honeymoon baby. All my friends seemed to have honeymoon babies. I wanted to learn about my irregular cycles so we started learning NFP. We became pregnant nine months after the wedding and miscarried. It then took us three years to conceive our daughter. A little over a year later we conceived again, and miscarried. Four years after the birth of our daughter we are pregnant again. What has this taught me about NFP and openness to life? Well, getting pregnant, for many people, is not easy. Openness to life can mean a great deal of suffering but with no baby in the end. It can mean accepting the child, only to have God call him home before you can meet him. It can mean staying loving and willing to engage in sex with your spouse because that is a good of itself, even if you’re terrified you’ll get pregnant and lose the baby again. It doesn’t mean the one with the most babies wins the most-Catholic crown.We all, providentialists, people trying to avoid, and those of us who just can’t have a lot of children, prayerfully discern what is best for our family and our own souls, leaving the rest up to God.I guess you could have a contraceptive mentality and practice NFP, but you can also conceive every year and not welcome the child God gives you. This long-winded response is just to say that openness to life is not so much a set of rules to be carried out as it is a disposition of the soul to be nurtured.

    First comment on this blog-it’s WAY too long!

  • The issue with FA/NFP users is that they are more likely to be accepting of the results if FA/NFP fails where as those open to the other contraceptions have quite a few options if pregnancy is achieved. An FA/NFP couple is more likely to say “We’ve descerned that it is not in the best interest of the mother/parents/prospective children to/to be conceived right now (for whatever ever physical/mental health or extreme financial reaon), but if concept happens there IS NO Plan B other than welcoming our next child into the world.”

    As more of an FA practicing family (I know some of you will say shame on you, but lets keep this civil), we still don’t consider ourselves in a contraceptive mentality – we abstain as a primary source of “control”, use plain condoms as a #2 (because I have unreliable fertility signs right now) and if conception happens, it happens and we’ll gladly welcome that new life and rejoice (particularly because we have no gaurantee we’ll ever have another child), but what we’re doing in the mean time is working to create the best environment we can for those future children that we truly want.

  • joymhb

    Agree! Well said!

  • Jules

    I’m trying to think how many different languages I can type the words: THANK YOU! Gracious! Merci! That’s probably it, but I’m so grateful to have read this post!! My husband and I are praying Catholics, who love Jesus and the Church and –brace yourself–are hoping to space out our children….GASP!! I am so so so sick of feeling like that is a bad thing from people in the Catholic world, because we do prayerfully discern…does that mean we’re not “open” to being pregnant if it were to happen when we didn’t “plan” for it? Of course not, but I am so grateful that the Lord entrusts us to make that prayerful decision for our family and that we aren’t simply left to abandon all practice of NFP and “see where God leads you.” Thank you Sarah, I think you hit it right on the mark!!! 🙂

  • equusnomveritas

    “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?”

    I agree in principle with your post in general, and even with acknowledging that NFP is “Catholic birth control.” However, you also hit on an important point when you wrote that “Birth control and contraception are not the same thing.” And that is a big part of the problem, which is a problem with the culture (of death) in general, that they do not make this distinction. So long as the culture does not make this distinction (and in many cases, this failure to do so is willful), we will have a sort of language problem.

    On the one hand, there will be some who continue to view NFP as just one among many options for avoiding pregnancy, and by extension even some Catholics who view it this way with a ritual caveat (it is the only “ritually pure” form of birth control). The conclusion is that there is no moral difference between birth control and contraception, nor really between contraception and NFP, and hence that there isn’t *really* a moral problem wit contraception. At the other end, there will be some Catholics who take this same view, but then (correctly) note that contraception is morally wrong, and draw the incorrect conclusion that NFP is also morally wrong, whether or not it is ritually permissible (this would be your “Camp 1” of Catholics, but also those few Protestants who continue to reject contraception as morally illicit).

    Therefore, I think that we can do alright to acknowledge that NFP is “Catholic birth control”–or better yet, that it is morally licit birth control–provided that we are explicit in making the distinction between birth control and contraception clear.

  • I was one of the prolific posters on the WP article. I loved the fact that they published a story on NFP; I think that’s half the battle, just getting the word out there. We’ve used NFP to avoid and to achieve for four years. We’re 100% infertile so for a great while, I didn’t chart at all because we couldn’t conceive no matter what. Now, we’re using NFP to avoid, purposely because we made a decision to remain childless. I guess that could be considered harboring a contraceptive mentality but we have the ability to make a choice, we had to make a choice for the health and stability of our marriage and I’d do it again. Using NFP to avoid, IMO, is preferable to using a drug or barrier method. We never interrupt the marital bond so I think we’re on the right track.

  • Sarah

    I totally agree Sarah. I think we are in uncharted waters. Love this statement—“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?”

  • Nina

    @Airing The Chapel, I’m a little confused. You’re 100% infertile, but you’re charting to avoid pregnancy because you made a decision to remain childless? If you’re 100% infertile and, as you say, can’t conceive no matter what, what’s the point of charting to avoid pregnancy? NFP charts fertility. If you’re 100% infertile, what exactly are you charting?

    You also say you had to make a choice to remain childless for the health and stability of your marriage, but if you’re 100% infertile, then what choice, exactly, are you making?

    You also say you’ve used NFP to avoid and achieve pregnancy (I assume, although you don’t resolve the verbs with an object in your statement), yet you’re 100% infertile and are also committed to remaining childless.

    Do you see where a statement like this has many women running for the hills?

  • Hey Sarah,

    I think you’re right on target. Technically when we use NFP we are trying to control births – whether to avoid or achieve them. I love Katie’s comment that even scheduling an induction is a type of birth control!

    I think the main reason we haven’t been able to acknowledge this is that “birth control” for most of our society is so firmly entrenched with contraception. No one outside of Catholic circles uses the term contraception – they all say birth control. In our great effort to show that NFP is not contraception, the phrase birth control gets subbed in and we’re too busy trying to show the difference that we don’t bother to clarify (or can’t because then they’d really be confused). Then as you point out, group 1 considers both “birth control” and “contraception” to be unacceptable, so the conflation continues.

    As a side note, I wonder if maybe group 1 should be defined more along providentialist lines than along as many kids as possible lines – with the understanding that this usually does mean as many kids as possible. Because it seems like the quiverfull folks are definitely “as many as possible!” but some of the Catholics I know that fall into this group are a bit scared to become the Duggars, but still do think they should leave all of it up to God. Hm, but on second thought perhaps I’m overcomplicating it.

    Anyway, I love that you’re addressing this and look forward to reading further comments here and posts on the topic!

  • WOW. This post is beyond awesome! I didn’t know whether to cry or shout from the rooftops by the time I was done. (Maybe just climb on my roof and cry tears of joy?) It’s just that fabulous, and I agree completely!

    This part really had me grinning: “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!” AMEN!!!

  • @Nina- Hmmm, well I should clarify. I strongly believe based on the past three years that we are 100% infertile but I am not 100% sure of that fact. God controls everything and while we’ve done everything possible within NaPro to get pregnant (even using injectibles at one point) I have never been pregnant. So, I go with what I know. When we made the difficult decision to remain forever childless, we had decisions to make. It would be irresponsible in my mind to say we won’t try and get pregnant and then we do. I mean, we have our financial future to think of. We do avoid times of fertility in the cycle, and to me, that’s NFP to avoid. So, we’re just being totally sure. That’s all and I don’t think anybody would need to run for the hills.

  • Nina

    The “run for the hills” comment is hyperbole, meant to indicate that there are so many inconsistencies in your original post that logical-minded women would write NFP off as some crazy religious mumbo-jumbo as a result.

    What if God chooses for you to become pregnant in spite of your decision to “remain forever childless”?

    This is where the message gets sketchy. The Church teaches that you must remain open to life. You and your husband are clearly not open to life. Do you think the use of NFP justifies your choice and makes it somehow more “Catholic” than the choice of a couple who is open to life, who welcomes children, even many children, but uses a diaphragm to space those children?

    Messaging 101 is having a clear and concise message. Reading through the WaPo article and subsequent commentary, and then the several blog posts that cropped up in response to the WaPo article, the message is all over the place. We’ve got the extremists on the right who think NFP is only to be used as a last resort in cases of extreme illness or financial ruin, and the extremists on the left who think NFP is just birth control and I can decide to never have kids at all for whatever reason I want as long as I use NFP and not any other method of BC. And then we have all the tangential stuff in the middle that has nothing to do with the Church’s teaching on marriage and family (like the carcinogen issue — if the pill is morally wrong because it’s a known carcinogen, then everything else in that category of carcinogens is equally morally wrong — like cigarettes).

    But that’s the problem with “modernizing” NFP. Even the existing practitioners of NFP aren’t on the same page, so what’s an outsider to think?

  • You’re right. We’re no longer open to life and that decision was arrived after considering very serious circumstances within our own lives. I don’t need to detail that for the Web; we’re intelligent adults that can evaluate realities and make the right decisions for us. I’m not a poster child for NFP and never claimed to be. Since I’ve never conceived, I can’t personally attest to NFP success rate as a pregnancy preventative measure. NFP users are as varied and different as the population at large.

    We don’t use NFP to avoid to justify our choice, we use NFP to avoid because that’s the option we feel is right for us. That’s all. I’m one person’s opinion and I fail to see how any of my comments could cause “logical-minded women to write NFP off as some crazy religious mumbo-jumbo.” I’m probably not the best Catholic but I think I doing pretty good.

  • Happy with three

    Nina, implying that Airing the Chapel isn’t a logical minded woman is behavior that is detrimental to an open dialogue on the issue. Everyone should have the opportunity to express their thoughts without feeling attacked.

    The argument seems like a slippery slope. If two married adults choose not to have sex because they aren’t ready for children (financially, emotionally or otherwise) does it really mean anything at all? Does the moment you choose to have or not have sex really matter? Look at Mary I mean…if God wants a life to exist he will make it happen. Does the intent of physically abstaining from sex make a difference? Look at how many people think they can’t get pregnant and end up conceiving. The point here is that when married adults choose to have sex they should be open to that possibility of life. Key words here CHOOSE to have sex. Abstaining from sex at certain times is a passive choice. Its not the choice to Kill life, block it, or get rid of it the day after. There’s a HUGE difference.

  • Pat

    I really liked the posting. It seems to be really helpful for Catholics.

    I am a United Methodist. Our church teachings do not address anything about contraception or birth control. We do have many teachings about proper behavior in other facets of life. “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God” Old testament, but I do not remember the exact place. And Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and his many parables are strongly emphasized within the our church. There is a big focus on being Jesus’ hands in the world and on the grace of God and on the healing power of being at one with God. My favorite religious writer is Marcus Borg

  • So what I’m getting out of this article is there actually is no such thing as ‘birth control because, as you say, it’s really in God’s hands which is absolutely correct. NFP when used to achieve pregnancy doesn’t mean you’ll get pregnant. Using NFP to postpone a pregnancy doesn’t mean you won’t get pregnant…. ask me about #3 and the early rule.

    I haven’t run into any of the #1 type of commenters. I think God has asked us to be open to life, not to have our uterus act like a clown car.

    I also don’t feel that NFP should be considered “Catholic”. It’s healthy, no chemicals, brings you closer to your spouse (I happen to like having a honeymoon every month), safe, effective, all natural.

    I find it very interesting that I came across this post as I’m sitting at my desk preparing for NFP week begins tomorrow July 22-July 28, 2012.



  • Mother of 3

    Can I add my thoughts to this debate somewhat belatedly ?

    I agree that there is nothing wrong with a couple mutually choosing when or if to have sex – for whatever reason.

    But where I struggle with the NFP consensus is when they (she) uses increasingly scientific and intimate techniques to time intimacy specifically so as to be 90+% sure it will be infertile.

    Sex is supposed to be unative and potentially procreative – certainly open to life and as a wife to be so deliberately acting so as to enjoy the act but to avoid conception troubles me – a lot. I don’t think WHEN she has sex a Catholic woman should ever be less than 100 open to conception or ever do anything t try and prevent it in anyway.

    I appreciate that this is an ideal and that many women use NFP because they have very good reasons to avoid or delay but, to be frank need to have sex for the good of their husbands or marital relationship. But I suspect that most would be just as happy to abstain after all there is a reason made us most receptive when we are fertile.