Any fair analysis of how well the Catholic Church has done in educating Catholics about – let alone convincing them of – the Church’s teaching on contraception, would have to conclude that the Church’s ministers have failed quite spectacularly.
One much-cited poll from 2016 found that only 13% of weekly Mass-going Catholics agreed with the Church’s teaching that contraception is “morally wrong.” The number was even lower for those Catholics who do not attend Mass weekly – around six percent.
To say those numbers are dismal is an understatement. So, what went wrong?
Answering that question would take several volumes. Certainly, there is the blunt fact of the unforeseen cultural revolution of the 1960s, which swept and radically transformed practically every nation, class, institution, religion, and denomination, with few exceptions. In the face of the tidal wave of revolutionary moral teaching, the Church was in many ways caught unaware and unprepared.
Then of course, there is that little object, that small round pill, that made that revolutionary tidal wave possible: the birth-control pill. With the invention of the Pill (so monumental was this discovery that we tend to capitalize the “P”), for the first time in history it looked as if it might be possible for human beings to engage in the one activity that for many represents the height of physical pleasure, but without any thought for the enormous consequences that sex naturally carries with it.
“Looked,” I say. Because as Pope St. Paul VI so prophetically warned in Humanae Vitae, behind that great, glistening promise of a new age of unfettered sexuality lay a whole world of pain. As Paul VI anticipated, the Pill unleashed abortion on a scale never seen before; caused men, allured by the promise of “consequence-free” sex, to objectify and abuse women as a matter of course; coarsened public morals beyond recognition, undermining marriage and elevating hedonism; and led to grave threats to human dignity and freedom, with totalitarian nations imposing coercive population control measures on their populace.
But there have been other consequences, too.
A friend of mine, a father of a large family, was describing how, on one occasion, he mentioned to two non-Catholic female friends that he and his wife used Natural Family Planning (NFP). He mentioned to them that not only does the method work, but that, among many reasons, he appreciates it because it is healthier for his wife and respects the love-giving and life-giving natures of marriage. Contraception, on the other hand, he added, not only distorts the ends of marriage but many women who take large doses of artificial hormones suffer from several physical side effects. “Yeah,” one of the women agreed wryly, “like reducing a woman’s libido.”
Of course, this is hardly the most important reason to oppose hormonal contraception, but it is a very telling reason. Modern human beings, in their drive to conquer nature, have also attempted to conquer sex, taming it, and making it do our bidding on our terms. And yet, while progressives have a great deal to say about how subjecting nature to violence inevitably leads to unforeseen consequences, for some reason they never seem to consider how our technological violence against sex has had unintended side effects.
The fact that many women do experience reductions in libido while on the birth control pill is perhaps the most ironic of these side effects. In the effort to unleash sex from all limits and to maximize pleasure, our technocratic solution has sometimes had precisely the opposite effect!
However, there are other, graver side effects associated with the Pill: increased risks of stroke, certain types of cancer, and even heart attack; weight gain; headaches; high blood pressure, and others. Which should hardly come as a surprise. What, after all, could possibly be “healthy” about using the blunt instrument of huge doses of synthetic chemicals to interrupt the delicate and complex processes of a woman’s reproductive cycle?
A Better Way
All of which brings me to the central point of this column, and a possible answer to the question I raised above. One possible reason that the Church has not been successful in convincing Catholics of Catholic teaching, is that we have done a very poor job of preaching the beauty of Church teaching regarding the dignity of marriage and the conjugal act and its openness to life. We have not preached an attractive alternative to the contraceptive mentality.
Last week, the U.S. Catholic Church marked Natural Family Planning (NFP) Awareness Week. Let me begin by saying that I don’t want you to misunderstand me: It would be a grave mistake to think of NFP simply as an “alternative” to the Pill. While it is true that NFP is a method (or rather, a collection of methods) that can be used by married couples to postpone having another child for legitimate reasons, it is certainly not a method of contraception. For starters, unlike contraception, NFP is a method that is equally successful in helping married couples who are having difficulty conceiving to do so. I’d like to see the Pill do that!
What I mean by an “attractive alternative” is that NFP is a collection of methods that translate into action the totality of the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality in a way that offers a compelling response to the many unforeseen side effects and sources of pain brought about by the sexual revolution.
In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II beautifully expressed the truth about NFP in a single paragraph, writing:
The work of educating in the service of life involves the training of married couples in responsible procreation. In its true meaning, responsible procreation requires couples to be obedient to the Lord’s call and to act as faithful interpreters of his plan. This happens when the family is generously open to new lives, and when couples maintain an attitude of openness and service to life, even if, for serious reasons and in respect for the moral law, they choose to avoid a new birth for the time being or indefinitely. 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 precisely this respect which makes legitimate, at the service of responsible procreation, the use of natural methods of regulating fertility. From the scientific point of view, these methods are becoming more and more accurate and make it possible in practice to make choices in harmony with moral values. An honest appraisal of their effectiveness should dispel certain prejudices which are still widely held, and should convince married couples, as well as health-care and social workers, of the importance of proper training in this area. (no. 97)
Unpacking that paragraph, we can note a few key characteristics of NFP:
1) It’s scientific. The Church has always acknowledged that married couples may have legitimate reasons for postponing having another child, and that there is no intrinsic moral impediment to timing sexual relations to coincide with the infertile period of the woman’s cycle. However, while a rudimentary understanding of the female reproductive cycle has existed for a long time, until relatively recently we lacked sufficiently detailed scientific information to formulate clear principles.
That all changed beginning in the early 20th century. Now, the science of fertility is a highly developed science, and there are several different methods of NFP that, if carefully followed, will help married couples either to postpone having a child, or to conceive a child, with a remarkable degree of reliability. With the recent explosion in, and popularity of, fertility apps, it is rarer to hear people denigrate “the rhythm method.” But even still a huge number of people remain unaware of just how scientifically advanced NFP has become, and how much easier to practice, due to a huge growth in resources and training materials.
2) It is embedded in a basic stance of “openness to life.” Unlike the case of artificial contraception, married couples who practice NFP always have fertility and children on their mind. Whereas the contracepting couple can simply take the Pill and go on “autopilot,” never giving a moment’s thought to children for years and years, the couple practicing NFP is prodded to re-evaluate their reasons for postponing having a child on a monthly basis. It is very difficult for the couple practicing NFP to lose sight of the fact that their reproductive systems are naturally designed for procreation. In this sense, NFP is simply more biologically and philosophically “truthful” than artificial contraception.
3) It demands personal virtue. Unlike artificial contraception, NFP demands personal sacrifice from the married couple, and often, in a special way, from the man, who must gain control over his sexual desires and channel them in a healthy way out of respect for his wife. At first glance this may not seem like a particularly “attractive” feature of NFP, and it is certainly the one that scares many couples away from it. However, those who have achieved any level of personal maturity have learned the truth that true satisfaction in this life is closely linked to the willingness to do difficult things and to delay gratification for good reasons. Married couples who use NFP consistently report all sorts of positive benefits, including better communication; a deepening of the couple’s love; a growth in spiritual and personal maturity; a sense that the woman is not being “used” by her husband for sex; more fulfilling sexual intimacy.
In an age where we prioritize and value “holistic” lifestyles, NFP is the ultimate holistic approach to sexuality: embracing body, mind, and soul. The Church has every reason to be proud of the fact that, long before Silicon Valley app designers discovered the benefits of “fertility awareness” (which is an often flawed ideology that relies on some of the same biological principles) we have preached a holistic approach to sex that emphasizes profound respect for natural processes.
But more than that, we should be proud that the Church’s prophetic vision saw clearly the spiritual, social, and physical dangers of the sexual revolution and the contraceptive mentality. In championing NFP, the Church highlights a far better response to our modern culture of sexual exploitation, or what Pope Francis calls the “throwaway culture,” a culture of discarding the fruit of our sexual unions as well as our exploited sexual partners.
Sexuality must be integrated into a holistic vision of the human person, that considers our fundamental dignity, deepest needs and moral responsibilities. Sexual pleasure is a good, but only when integrated into a loving, permanent union that is open to life. This is the vision of human sexuality embodied in Natural Family Planning. It is worth celebrating, and it is worth telling others about.
As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae, “The Church is grateful to those who, with personal sacrifice and often unacknowledged dedication, devote themselves to the study and spread of these methods, as well to the promotion of education in the moral values which they presuppose.” (no. 97)
In its teachings on sexuality, the Church has a great light to share with the world. It is time to stop hiding that light under a bushel basket. For this reason, I am grateful to the USCCB for organizing this NFP Awareness Week.