The Challenges of Natural Family Planning Lead to Virtue

“[U]sing the natural [family planning] methods requires and strengthens the harmony of the married couple, it helps and confirms the rediscovery of the marvelous gift of parenthood, it involves respect for nature and demands the responsibility of the individuals. According to many authoritative opinions, they also foster more completely that human ecology which is the harmony between the demands of nature and personal behavior.”

          — St. Pope John Paul II, Address to Teachers of Natural Family Planning, Dec. 7, 1996

Pope Paul VI on the Benefits and Challenges of NFP

As numerous popes have made clear, couples who shun the temptation of contraception and follow the Church’s teachings on what St. Pope John Paul II called “responsible procreation,” open themselves up to a myriad of blessings. The most obvious is that couples who opt for natural family planning are far less likely to get divorced. Were this the one and only benefit, it would be sufficient reason to recommend the practice.

In Humanae Vitae, however, Pope Paul VI lists a host of other benefits. The use of periodic continence, he begins, has “the salutary effect of enabling husband and wife to develop to their personalities and to be enriched with spiritual blessings.” This practice, he said, “brings to family life abundant fruits of tranquility and peace.”

It also, he added, helps “in solving difficulties of other kinds. It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another. It helps them to repel inordinate self-love, which is the opposite of charity. It arouses in them a consciousness of their responsibilities. And finally, it confers upon parents a deeper and more effective influence in the education of their children.” 

Still, the pope also stressed the difficulties – “at times very great” – that couples face in striving to follow the Church’s teaching. “For them, as indeed for every one of us,” he added somewhat bleakly, “the gate is narrow, and the way is hard, that leads to life.” Acknowledging that some couples may become “deeply distressed” by the difficulties they face, and the real risk of failure on the part of some couples, he urged them never to “lose heart,” but to resort – “humble and persevering” – to the Sacrament of Penance.

A One-Sided Perspective

Unfortunately, in a well-intentioned, but misguided effort to lure couples away from contraception towards NFP, some teachers or preachers may occasionally paint an overly one-sided picture of NFP. In the very worst cases, this presentation can almost make NFP seem like a form of “Catholic contraception,” suggesting to couples that they can attain perfect control over their fertility at the expense of only the mildest inconveniences to their sex life or other plans.

Some teachers, for instance, may continuously emphasize how a few days a month couples might have to abstain from sex to postpone (avoid) pregnancy. Others will repeatedly point to statistics showing how reliable NFP can be, compared to contraception. Others might suggest that couples who use NFP often have more and better sex than their contracepting peers. Or they may wax eloquent on the “honeymoon effect” that can follow a period of abstinence.

None of these claims are wrong in themselves. However, without balance or a deeper perspective they can create an unrealistic and superficial picture of the Church’s teaching.

On a practical level, by creating overly rosy expectations, they set couples up for disappointment and failure. Not having been prepared for the inevitable difficulties of practicing NFP, such couples may feel tempted to give up after frustrating initial attempts, thinking they have been duped. Tragically, if their teachers have failed to transmit to such couples the rich spirituality of marriage and personal sanctity in which Pope Paul VI and other popes have always been careful to place this teaching, they will lack the tools they need to stay the course and reap its great benefits.

Why the Church Bias in Favor of Life

These couples may not, for instance, have been told about what we might call the Church’s “bias for life:” that is, the Church’s life-affirming teaching that procreation is the primary good of marriage. Indeed, so central is this teaching to the Church’s understanding of marriage, that She states that a couple that has the intention never to have children is incapable of contracting a valid sacramental marriage.

“Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children,” states the Second Vatican Council. “Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents’ welfare.”

Catholic couples intending never to have children are not in a valid sacramental marriage.

This stands in stark contrast to the contraceptive mentality of our age, in which a couple typically enters a sexual relationship with the tacit understanding that children are only something to be discussed at a later date. Children thus become a mere accessory to a marriage, to be added on once a couple has discerned at excruciating length if they are “ready.”

Indeed, if couples only ever listened to worldly family planners, economists and other experts, they might think they never have a sufficiently stable relationship, enough money, a sufficiently promising clear career path, a big enough house, or access to good enough schools, to have a child.

Unfortunately, even many Catholic couples approach the altar having unintentionally absorbed this pessimistic, anti-child spirit of our age. Such as these may never have had the chance to learn what so many other Catholic couples have learned: that it is in trusting in God’s providence and taking reasonable “risks” by generously welcoming new life that they have been blessed with the greatest joys of their married lives.

For that reason, if NFP instruction only emphasizes perfect planning or pregnancy prevention (postponement) without challenging couples by speaking of the value of a generous openness to life, it deprives Catholic couples of an important part of the Church’s Good News about marriage.

Yes, NFP Can Be Difficult

Nevertheless, the Church is also clear that human beings also have a responsibility to exercise their reason while seeking the will of God in their lives, including in the area of procreation. If a couple prayerfully discerns that they have just reasons for postponing a child at this time, then (as numerous statements from popes have made clear) they may in good conscience have recourse to natural family planning.

It is true that some couples find practicing NFP relatively easy. Perhaps they have a knack for grasping the technical aspect of NFP, or the woman is blessed with regular, predictable cycles, or they have strong communication skills, etc. However, many other couples will not find things so easy. Such as these may experience NFP as a real cross.

They may, for instance, find the scientific principles of NFP confusing or difficult to apply to their circumstances. This can cause frustration and may lead to the need for long periods of abstinence. Or they may find that practicing NFP exposes a significant difference in libido between the spouses, so that one spouse feels that they are disproportionately shouldering the burden of abstinence. This can provoke feelings of emotional rejection and resentment, which may in turn lead to temptations to seek solace or sexual release in other, immoral ways (pornography, masturbation, etc.). On the other hand, the other spouse may feel unduly pressured to engage in sex, even when doing so might jeopardize the couple’s mutual agreement to postpone pregnancy for the time being.

Another common problem is that the woman may begin to resent that the couple’s sexual relations depends entirely on the patterns of her body. This can lead to a sense that NFP places undue pressure on her, or that she is at “fault” if her cycle is unpredictable or lengthy and requires difficult periods of abstinence. Furthermore, she may resent that it is typically when her sexual desire is at its height – the days leading up to ovulation – that the couple must abstain. The man, for his part, may feel uncertain to what extent or how he should be involved in the process of charting, etc., and can feel alienated or “out of the loop.” If the couple does not already have strong communication skills, they may find that practicing NFP exacerbates this problem, leading to painful miscommunications.

Learning good communications skills is critical to effective NFP among couples.

Finally, even when practiced perfectly (and it often isn’t), there is always the “risk” of an unplanned pregnancy when using NFP. If a couple was legitimately using NFP for just reasons, this will inevitably bring with it some degree of stress. Ironically, the hardest time to practice NFP is also in the woman’s post-partum phase, when her cycles are most unpredictable. Some couples will thus find that in addition to the challenges of a new baby, they must navigate the stress of long, uncertain periods of abstinence.

And these are only some of the challenges facing couples using NFP.

Such Difficulties As Some Experience Don’t Negate NFP

The first, and most important thing to note about these difficulties is that they are not a “bug” of NFP: they are a feature.

In reading the Church’s documents on periodic abstinence, you will nowhere find the popes promising couples an easy path. They do not promise lives planned with pinpoint accuracy to minimize suffering or uncertainty, or marriages characterized by an unlimited supply of pleasurable sex. On the contrary, they continuously emphasize that NFP requires the practice of self-denial. Furthermore, they insist, any benefits that NFP brings the couple are precisely because it requires self-denial.

As St. Pope John Paul II says in Evangelium Vitae, whether couples are currently open to life or seeking to postpone pregnancy, “The moral law obliges them in every case to control the impulse of instinct and passion, and to respect the biological laws inscribed in their person.” It is, says Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, when the couple acquires “complete mastery over themselves and their emotions” that “the expression of love, essential to married life” will “conform to right order.” Then the couple will experience the “thoughtfulness,” “peace,” “tranquility,” and other benefits that Pope Paul VI promises.

Contrast this to the case of contraception. Whereas contraception promises couples endless pleasure and the security of the perfectly planned life with little or no sacrifice, instead it so often leads only to heartache, alienation and suffering. After all, if contraception were the panacea its advocates promise it to be, then why do so many contracepting couples feel sexually unfilled or emotionally alienated? Why do so many contracepting couples get divorced? Why does so much contracepted sex end in the abortion clinic?

Practicing NFP, on the other hand, can serve as a crucible, exposing the weaknesses of the couple as a couple, or as individuals: bad communication habits, emotional immaturity, a lack of self-control in areas of sexuality, a slavery to the spirit of the world, a weak prayer life or lack of trust in God, etc.

At these times, Catholic couples committed to faithfulness to the Church will find that they are instinctively driven to deeper prayer and to sacrifice. Complacency is no longer an option. The difficulties of NFP have exposed the ways that they urgently need to develop their personalities and their relationship. The couple has no option but to learn to communicate better. They must learn to pray together. They must deepen their concept of love, and learn other, non-sexual ways to express intimacy. They must learn to sacrifice immediate gratification for the sake of the long-term welfare of the other spouse and their family. They must begin to fast more in order to bring their passions under control. And thus, will they prove St. Paul right that “in weakness I am made strong.”

As Pope Paul VI exhorted couples struggling with this teaching: “let them implore the help of God with unremitting prayer and, most of all, let them draw grace and charity from that unfailing fount which is the Eucharist.” And to priests, the pope exhorted: “Teach married couples the necessary way of prayer and prepare them to approach more often with great faith the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance.”

The reason that couples that practice NFP so rarely get divorced is not, I believe, because NFP removes any difficulties in their marriages. Rather, it is because: a) They already have a deep commitment to transcendent ideals about marriage, including an understanding of love as other-oriented and rooted in self-sacrifice, and b) The primary mechanism of NFP – self-denial – forces the couple to forthrightly address their weaknesses as a couple and as individuals, opens their hearts to a supernatural perspective, and drives them to a greater dependence on God’s grace.

Peace in this life is not found in indiscriminately following our passions. It is found in gaining mastery over our passions, and directing them towards a transcendent ideal, in accord with God’s law. The “complete mastery” over ourselves and our emotions that Pope Paul VI exhorts in Humanae Vitae is the work of a lifetime. Our efforts will be punctuated by failures and times of frustration. But in the end, the rewards are worth it: a growth in virtue, and a deepening of our relationship with our spouse and with God.