Sharing NFP: A Holistic Approach to Sexuality

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.


Hidden Consequences

“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.

NFP - acronym from wooden blocks with letters, abbreviation NFP, Natural Family Planning concept

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.

As president of Human Life International, Fr. Boquet is a leading expert on the international pro-life and family movement, having journeyed to nearly 90 countries on pro-life missions over the last decade. Father Boquet works with pro-life and family leaders in 116 counties that partner with HLI to proclaim and advance the Gospel of Life. Read his full bio here.

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  1. James Mckenzie on August 30, 2021 at 10:00 PM

    You left out information about the pill’s occasional abortifacient effect. Knowledge of that effect is something that would deter some people from using the pill. I’ve encountered widespread ignorance about the pill’s ability to cause an early abortion, even among Catholics (even from an RN in our parish!).From interviews, I’ve found that doctors commonly don’t give out this information.
    And if someone does acknowledge that human life begins on day one it is not uncommon to hear the argument that because of the early stage of development the child is not yet entitled to life. There is also the argument that that the child’s life may not be worth living. “Life not worth living … life not worthy of life” -these ideas go back to rationalizations that some Nazis used to justify the killing of Jews.
    I find it especially ironic that abortion in the cases of rape or incest means that the innocent party is the one who suffers capital punishment rather than the one(s) committing the crime.
    I also find it ironic that some women use the slogan “It’s my body”. I made a poster showing the fetus saying “It’s my body too”.
    Early abortion takes a human life just as much as a later abortion.

    • Anonymous on August 31, 2021 at 2:34 PM

      All hormonal contraceptives are potentially abortifacients and work by literally poisoning the woman and her womb. No woman has a “right” to birth control pills.

    • Jenny on August 31, 2021 at 3:02 PM

      There is an excellent HLI discussion about the birth control pill as an abortifacient here —

  2. NFP Teacher on August 17, 2021 at 1:07 PM

    As a NFP instructor, one of the things I struggle with is couples who want to use NFP as Catholic contraception. In my view, a healthy couple without significant financial distress should not be using abstention to space pregnancies for more than a year or maybe two years at most. I don’t want my couples I’m teaching to use NFP for contraception. I want them to have as many babies as health and resources allow. But if I said that out loud, I probably would never have another student. So instead we do what we can.

    One of the most beautiful parts of NFP is how it teaches young women not to be afraid of their fertility. I think of NFP as unlearning or detoxing from the contraceptive mentality. Many of our young women have been sexually active and on birth control. Trying NFP and embracing abstinence for a period prior to marriage is a way for some of these women to recommit to the faith. For many of them at first even the idea of having intimacy without a pill or rubber barrier to make it “safe” is truly terrifying. Over time they adjust to the idea that they don’t need “protection” from their husband’s seed. Still, it often takes some coaxing and patience to get them to the point where they are truly freed from the anxiety of being “safe” with marital intimacy.

    By being very patient and getting to know my students, I have been able to convince almost all of them eventually one step at a time to get relaxed enough about charting and “bending the rules” and taking a “cheat day” as a reward “just this once” that eventually they experience the joy and blessings of becoming parents. I try to get them there quickly, but sometimes they need a little help from me.

    It always warms my heart when one of these students asks me to “double check” her chart because it’s their anniversary or his birthday, and it is super obvious that her chart says that being intimate would be perfect timing for a couple wanting to start a family or welcome another little brother or sister, but they really need and want permission from me that’s okay to “risk” it whatever that means. I always tell them “It’s a little risky” and then find some way to squint at their chart and say I’m not sure. That always leads to my favorite question, “What would you do?” Well, I have six kids, so I know exactly what I would do. At that point my work is usually done.

  3. Alyssa on August 6, 2021 at 12:03 AM

    NFP is based in reality and nature, all we have to do is look around to see this truth. Contraceptives come with a list of side effects which are not told to girls and women. I know this from experiences. The most obvious being infertility which is a clear sign of ill health. Contraceptives damage the liver and plug bile ducts shortening one’s life. My only addition to the article is the concept of polygyny where a man’s first wife need never be put away.

  4. Terri on August 3, 2021 at 7:40 AM

    I think one of the reason why so few catholics don’t use NFP is that they are not taught it, therefore, they have no knowledge of it except that they hear it doesn’t work. I am a teacher of NFP, I have only two children by choice, my husband has a serious mental health problem. We have stayed together as a family, now into our 52nd year of marriage. I would loved to have had more children but circumstances dictated that we should not. I think with prayer and an understanding of the gift of fertility, a most beautiful gift from God, to be part of his creation through new life, created in Gods image, MIND BLOWING. I would like to see NFP teachers giving a talk to seminarians, sadly, alot of priests don’t know the science behind it and perhaps we should be teaching the grandparents so they could encourage their grandchildren to understand it as it seems to be them attending mass and sadly, few parents. Also to be allowed to go into schools as part of the education programme that is carried out in all our schools on contraception. God bless. Terri from UK

  5. Joseph Caristo on August 2, 2021 at 2:27 PM

    Pope Paul VI also made the observation that birth control means no birth and no control. A saying that rings true.

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