When Natural Family Planning Gets Tough

When Natural Family Planning Gets Tough January 11, 2010

Readers who have been watching Vox Nova for a while know that one of my favorite hobby horses is encouraging a more sober and realistic view of Natural Family Planning in marriage prep classes and other venues.  I am particularly concerned that those who struggle with NFP are often hung out to dry by the very same Church community that promised so many benefits from its use.

In August, Josh B over at Evangelical Catholicism wrote a post for NFP Awareness Week.  I asked him, in the com boxes, if he would be interested at some point in writing a bit for and about couples who struggle with NFP.  He has taken some time out of his busy life to respond to my request and now has two posts up on the topic over at EC.  I think they are well done and I am encouraged any time Catholics actually bother to talk about this stuff.  It is my sincere hope that Josh’s work will be an encouragement and show of solidarity for those couples for whom NFP is a cross.  I also hope that continued conversations like this one will lead to more effective pastoral support of such couples.

Check out:

Troubles With NFP: Part 1

Troubles With NFP: Part 2

And do let Josh know what you think.

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto.  He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.  He is the co-author of How Far Can We Go?  A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.


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  • Thank you for both sharing these articles and for being a strong proponent of sharing the “whole truth” about NFP. For my wife and I, NFP has been one of the best things that we’ve done for our marriage, and our experience has been overwhelmingly positive. That said, there are certainly challenges and difficult times to be faced…NFP is not the easy road.

    We present about NFP and Sexuality at Pre-Cana conferences, and we do explain the challenges of practicing such a counter-cultural approach to family planning. I am very enthusiastic about promoting NFP on my marriage-improvement blog as well, and your thoughts have motivated me to post soon on the realities/challenges to the NFP lifestyle…but clarify that it IS worth it!

  • David Nickol

    I did some googling, and it doesn’t seem to me there is much out there in the way of practical tips on coping with abstinence. Maybe people don’t want to talk about it, or perhaps they would feel foolish advising husbands to take cold showers or sleep in separate bedrooms.

    Here is a question. Suppose a husband (or wife) has a much stronger libido than a wife (or husband). (Some of the sites I looked at raised this possibility, and of course the situation of the husband who wants to have sex more often than his wife is a familiar them on sitcoms such as Everybody Loves Raymond. And of course sometimes it is the wife who would prefer sex more often, but for some reason that is not the subject of humor. Probably because it’s mostly men who write sitcoms.) Suppose it is really difficult for the husband (or wife). May he (or she) resort to libido-lowering drugs (or surgery)?

    I have read glowing “reviews” of NFP from spouses who say how much it helps them understand each other, etc., etc., but I have also heard people who quit smoking go on an on about how much better they feel, how they can taste food as never before, etc., etc., and eventually they start smoking again.

  • grega

    In my view this is a bit like beating your dead hobby horse just a bit more. As expressed earlier, since it seems to take a support group to make this emotionally work even for such highly motivated and thoughtful Catholic like yourself – the method will stay the sideshow it is.
    End of story.

  • brettsalkeld

    Highly motivated and thoughtful. Gee, thanks grega.

    I might point out that I am not the only one reiterating my position. 😉

    It is not my goal here, however, to entertain the same back and forth as one comes to expect with these things. It is my hope, rather, that it might actually help someone else participating in the sideshow. You know, communion of saints and all that. I find concrete action is usually a more effective argument for one’s positions in any case. Concrete action is what I am trying to inspire here.

  • brettsalkeld

    Dustin,
    Feel free to let us know when you have posted those pieces.

  • I, for one, never reiterate my positions on things.

  • brettsalkeld

    Sorry Sam, I’m not sure I got that first time through.

  • Brettsalkeld,
    Are there any collected data coming out of communist China on Catholics there and whether they observe NFP? Here on the web it seems this topic is always about US suburban families who have many kids,own their home and also have internet access so they can’t be hurting financially too much…. but in China, if a young couple does not have a fool proof method to prevent a second child and they conceive a second time, they can be fined ten times their yearly income or be forced by police to a place where an abortion is performed. Ergo any faulty method can mean tragedy on the second child and perhaps prison on a third conception and the stresses that could destroy some couples as a unit. But have you seen any hard data as opposed to opinion coming out of China as to obedience to Rome on this.

  • brettsalkeld

    Bill,
    China is a fascinating question here. (You may have seen that I mentioned China implicitly in my comments over at EC.) I have a friend from China who I would like to talk to more about this. I am under the impression he and his wife use NFP, but that has never been stated explicitly. They have one child. Whether they use NFP or not, I do know that they are an incredible witness to the faith. I phoned the other day and he was out buying more Chinese Bibles because he had “run out again.”
    I have a hunch, and it is a totally unsubstantiated hunch, that Ratzinger had China in mind when he convinced John Paul II not to declare on the matter of artificial contraception ex cathedra. The binding of all those consciences between de facto excommunication and possible forced abortion would have been pastorally disastrous.

  • David Nickol

    A quick search on Google indicates that those promoting Natural Family Planning (almost always the Billings method) claim a near-perfect success rate in China. For example, “There is no method of avoiding pregnancy which is more effective than the Billings Method. It has given 100% success in some trials and consistently in recent years has yielded a success rate of 99% to 100%.” On the other hand, the Merck Manual says the pregnancy rate for all methods of periodic abstinence “with perfect use” is “1–9%/yr or higher, depending on method,” and 25 percent “with typical use.”

    It would seem that the Chines use the Billings method perfectly at minimum. Part of the phenomenal success of the Billings method seems to be that its promoters claim a high success rate for the method itself and do not count pregnancies due to “cheating” or incorrect use due to misunderstanding. (I emphasize seems because these are merely my impressions from brief research.) Consequently, they are reporting only on those who understand the method well and use it 100% of the time. (One of the criticisms we hear of condoms is that while they may have a high success rate if used consistently and correctly, they simply aren’t used consistently and correctly.)

    But here is part of an abstract of a 1994 study by the Shanghai Municipal Family Planning Commission, People’s Republic of China:

    Between July 1988 and May 1990, 688 couples of child-bearing age, most of whom were parous, used the Billings method for contraception. Five hundred and fifty of these couples used the method for more than 12 months. Efficacy, continuation rates, and discontinuation rates were analyzed using life-table analysis for 10,175 woman-months of data collected. The net cumulative discontinuation rates per 100 women at 12 and 18 months were 19.85 and 34.58, respectively, resulting in continuation rates of 80.15 and 65.42. The discontinuation rates per 100 women for method-related reasons at 12 and 18 months were 1.61 and 2.84, respectively, while the discontinuation rates for unintended pregnancy were 1.02 and 1.18.

    So 688 couples began the study, but by the end of a year, 19.85% of those couples had dropped out, and by the end of 18 months, 34.58 percent had dropped out. Part of the efficacy of any method of fertility control is how people use it in actual practice. In this study, it looks like the Billings method doesn’t fare too well.

    One very important point to note is that none of these studies report whether the married couples engaged in sexual activity other than vaginal intercourse during the days the Billings method requires abstinence. Couples using periodic abstinence as a method of contraception but for nonreligious reasons need not abstain from all sexual behavior during fertile periods. They must only abstain from sexual behavior that may impregnate the woman.

  • Brettsalkeld,
    The non transparency of our leaders (despite Benedict praising transparency for others in his last encyclical)…that non transparency breeds hunches in us all. I love ya…but reject your hunch about ex cathedra. John Paul II found a way to circumvent that process when he declared infallibly against abortion in section 62 of Evangelium Vitae by polling the bishops worldwide on that and two other issues (euthanasia and killing innocents) and then he used a shortened version of the IC formula but ackowledging the bishops unanimity on those topics..which is the way around ex cathedra… (see Theological Studies/ Lawrence Welch/#64/ 2003…online in past issues as to abortion’s infallible condemnation in section 62). I have my hunch that he polled them..the worldwide bishops also on birth control and got nowhere’s near a unanimity on that even after appointing people in high places based on such stands. Lol…you remember his appointees… the erstwhile Cardinal Groer in Austria who talked conservative about sex but turned out to have been gay active with seminarians and it took John Paul over a year to admit it and remove him and you remember Cardinal Law who talked the right talk on birth control because he wanted to the first US Pope… but then was disgraced for moving perv Fr. Shanley around more times than a queen on a chess board.

    Also I don’t think John Paul wanted to break his schedule for the retreat and deep study that ex cathedra would require on birth control in particular. And in the 70’s just prior to his accession and something he may have known about (see EV section 60), the theological journals were debating the moral status of the fertilized egg but now with Catholic geneticists set against Catholic biologists with the former group arguing for early hominization due to genetic uniqueness (thus pill as homicidal) against biologists who argued that there was uniqueness but no individual as long as: there was no primitive streak; and the cells remained til day 14 totipotential to becoming diverse organs and no organ specifically until after implantation when an organizing element directs them… with twinning then still being possible until then along with the rarer chimeric individual ( two fertilized eggs fusing to become one person in the first four days)…and thus the pill is not homicidal as long as the cells are so totipotential. I think John Paul knew of this area and knew it is relevant, unsettled even now and outside his strengths for the time being.

    But my hunches are just hunches too and we really need the end of theater and the end of opacity at the top. It breeds a hunch culture where there should be clarity of communication.
    Fr. Brian Harrison and Ermenegildo Lio also had hunches that Msgr. Lambrushini spoke on his own when he introduced Humanae Vitae as non infallible twice to the press in 1968 at the publishing of HV… despite Paul VI not correcting Lambrushini in actual reality and publically in a way that normal people usually go by…. but only in Lio’s imagination as to an omission of that non infallible detail in Osservatore Romano weeks later as though such an omission was ex cathedra itself… when right now, years later, pro life people do not even like Osservatore Romano. Please. Are we a Church or a rubrics cube? That is why I asked for hard data. But hard data is hard to come by where theater and signals are rampant. And then China has its opacity of its own (my wife is Chinese and we support each month babies abandoned to the warm Catholic love of China Little Flower (online)).

  • David
    Very interesting. Shanghai is actually allowed to diverge and though a city, it is trying to encourgage a second child policy due to its population being something like Japan with too high a percentage of elderly. Some rural areas in parts of China have this exception and couples who each have no siblings themselves are allowed in some places. And then other areas are vicious around this issue with forced abortions and arrests. Rule in China has always been less universal than we think living in the US. In the 19th century, the south simply chose not to come to the aid of the Emperess in Beijing in the Boxer incident so that she then obtained troops from Muslim areas in the far west of China since none would come from the south.

  • John

    As an aside, the Church does a horrible job supporting long-term single people–many of us who want desperately to be married but can’t meet other single Catholics who actually practice their faith.

    They tell us that being single is great! It’s wonderful! Whoopee! Why would any single person want to be married?

    We also get lectures on chastity that are age appropriate for high school seniors and college kids–its like we are going out on hot dates every Saturday night.

    The reality is that if you are a single Catholic over 30, the loneliness is intense.

    • John,

      Yes, it is difficult being single, over 30, and going to churches all alone, seeing everyone else with families and being the only single person around. I know. The question is: what could be done better? What should be done?

  • I’ll be laconic and add here briefly that if it is God’s will and your will to be married and you pray, God is working on it (“my Father worketh and I worketh even until now”…Christ in Jerusalem) but He has this habit throughout the Bible of making people wait for a good reason which you won’t know til the other side. How many women waited to be fertile almost til the end of life and they thus had sorrow within marriage waiting for that area instead to be fulfilled. If it…marraige… is meant to be, it can be sudden in some cases and one will know quickly the older one gets. But it has its seasons. There is a vow involved precisely because it is not always rosy. If it were paradise all the way through, it would not need a vow at all. You could do it without a vow like Adam and Eve.
    The vow is there for the difficulties. Job was married and a blameless man but in his worst period what did his wife say when he looked for support (and watch because Job indicates that she is normally sensible):
    ” Then his wife said to him, “Are you still holding to your innocence? Curse God and die.”
    But he said to her, “Are even you going to speak as senseless women do?”

    So she was normally good but under stress, she withered in that scene.

    There are gorgeous seasons and there are tough ones. Satan will want you to think it is all paradise.

  • Dan

    “I have a hunch, and it is a totally unsubstantiated hunch, that Ratzinger had China in mind when he convinced John Paul II not to declare on the matter of artificial contraception ex cathedra. The binding of all those consciences between de facto excommunication and possible forced abortion would have been pastorally disastrous.”

    This statement seems problematic to me. If the prerequisites for ex cathedra were present and unambiguous, I’m not convinced that the Church can withhold it simply because of pastoral reasons. I tend to agree with Bill that the prerequisites simply weren’t there.

  • Dan

    One further comment on “the binding of all those consciences between de facto excommunication and possible forced abortion would have been pastorally disastrous.”

    I’m also not entirely sure I see how an ex-cathedra pronouncement would change much. The current teachings of the Church on F&M, whether ex-cathedra or not, are still binding on the consciences of the faithful. Circumstance alone cannot provide the necessary prerequisites for sincere dissent. It would seem that the pastoral checks and balances that you are postulating would be annihilated by ex cathedra don’t exist today; the Church is essentially silent on the instances whereby artificial contraception may be the lesser evil. Therefore, in the absence of any guidance on this matter, the faithful who don’t have solid theological ground for sincere dissent should theoretically have a similar crisis of conscience right now.

    Perhaps an ex-cathedra declaration would force some clarity around the extreme circumstances whereby artificial contraception may (or may not) be permissible as the lesser evil (see capital punishment).