When NFP Doesn’t Work: A Conclusion to Our ‘You Are Not Alone’ Series

When NFP Doesn’t Work: A Conclusion to Our ‘You Are Not Alone’ Series May 14, 2018


I’ve been reluctant to write an essay like this. I wanted to let the essays we published on NFP speak for themselves. I don’t want to speak for any of our contributors, or attempt to somehow interpret their experience.

At the same time, this is precisely why I feel compelled to write an essay like this. Recently, I saw someone say that our series had offered a clumsy and emotionalistic argument against Church teaching. If our argument has seemed clumsy, it is simply because we offer no argument. We offer no rebuttal. We have simply offered a space for women to talk about their experience. That women and couples cannot talk about their experiences without it being weaponized against them as a “clumsy and emotionalistic argument” is a huge problem.

There is a story we like to tell ourselves in Catholic circles. We ascribe to a narrative that says that there are faithful Catholics who follow the Church’s teachings on contraception, and then there are dissidents who don’t.

We don’t say “those who struggle.” We use the word “dissident.”

Yet our contributors are not dissidents. They are women who love the Church, who have taken the time to read and understand Church teaching and have found it beautiful. Many of them have sacrificed greatly for the sake of that teaching, have risked their lives and mental well-being to follow it. They wanted NFP to work for them, but they found that it didn’t.

Here it might be useful to note that Natural Family Planning is not actually the same thing as Church teaching. It is a method, a tool, placed at the service of Church teaching. Criticism of NFP is not coextensive with criticism of the Church, though admittedly they often go together.

Faced with the failure of NFP, couples are confronted with three options: 1.) contraception; 2.) continuing to attempt to use NFP, regardless of the possibility of future pregnancy; 3.) Josephite or near-Josephite marriages. Our contributors’ stories have reflected each of these choices.

Each of these options is the cross. Not every couple can choose to use NFP when it isn’t working. To feel so constrained by life’s circumstances that the only option you can see is to do something you aren’t sure is right – that is the cross. It also constitutes an act of trust in God’s love, that he sees you and your efforts, and that he is a God of mercy.

To live in fear of one’s life because of one’s religious practice – that is the cross.

To accept a Josephite marriage is the cross. Not only is it the cross of self-denial, but it is also the cross of feeling cut off from your vocation. Theology of the Body teaches us that the physical aspect of marriage is a participation in the life of the Trinity. Is it any surprise that someone would consider a Josephite marriage to be a worse evil than contraception or sterilization?

I have said that our series was not intended to be an argument against Church teaching. Neither is this essay an argument for anything except the disruption of the narrative in which faithful Catholics are placed in opposition to supposed dissidents. I would like to see a different model of faithfulness – one that doesn’t assume that women who describe their experiences are unfaithful Catholics.

And as far as NFP goes, I would like to see more general awareness that sometimes it just doesn’t work. It would be nice if women walking into confession didn’t find themselves having to explain why their body doesn’t work like everyone else’s. It would be nice if women concerned about their lives weren’t told to try just a little more self-control.

The response to the essays we published reveals the heart of the pastoral problem: For far too many, NFP does not work,  but we can’t call this to the Church’s attention without fear of being shunned as “dissident.”

–Maren Grossman, editor of the “You Are Not Alone” series.

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