“Can we use NFP?”
Many couples are confused about whether or not it is OK for couples to use Natural Family Planning. Some people believe that couples must have “Serious Reasons” to even chart. They believe that it is best to let “God plan their families” and stop charting when they no longer have serious reasons. One author has gone as far as to call NFP a “Trojan Horse in the Catholic bedroom.”
Much of the confusion is due to a misreading of older Church documents warning couples about the rhythm method and a misunderstanding of the difference between learning about the body through the science of fertility awareness and avoiding pregnancy through periodic abstinence.
Problems with the Rhythm Method
We’ve all heard the old joke about the “rhythm method”.
Q: What do you call couples who use the rhythm method?
This seemed especially true for Catholics.
After all, everybody knows Catholics don’t have rhythm. Have you heard them at mass?
Older Church documents, including Pope Pius XII’s famous Address to Italian Midwives, recognized the difficulties couples would have in practicing rhythm.
In 1961, Fr. John Hardon, S.J. wrote about rhythm in his work on moral theology. While Fr. Hardon’s work is not an official Church document, he is a well-respected moral theologian.
Unlike contraception, which was always sinful, the use of rhythm was “morally indifferent”. Church teaching was clear that the use of rhythm to avoid pregnancy was not immoral. The Church recognized that rhythm could be abused, however, Catholic moralists could not agree on when the use of rhythm became an abuse or how serious of a sin such abuse was. (My own opinion is that sometimes non-married people, including celibate priests, think periodic abstinence is far easier than it is and that such abuses are, in practice, rare.)
The Church’s concerns were not only about how many children the couple had, but the stress that periodic abstinence may put on a marriage by restricting relations.
Both husband and wife must first agree to practice periodic continence, and especially the wife should not too easily assume that the husband goes along with her desire to abstain from relations during her fertile span. The marriage vow assumes that each has a right to the other’s body, without arbitrary restriction on either wide. Both must also be honest in appraising the reaction that the frequent practice of rhythm may create in their bodies and emotions. If either finds that they or their partner is becoming seriously tense, inhibited or otherwise handicapped in their manifestation of love, then rhythm may not be used. Any grave threat to the harmony between spouses is a sign that periodic continence is not for them. St. Paul explained these two conditions, agreement and avoidance of temptation, when he told the Corinthians: “The husband must give his wife her due, and so too the wife her husband. So also the husband has no right over his own body; that right belongs to the wife. Of this right do not deprive each other except perhaps temporarily by mutual consent, that you may be free for prayer; then resume your common life, lest for lack of self-control, Satan tempt you.” (36). The husband may find it harder to abstain than the wife, and unless she is realistic in this regard, she may unwittingly lead him into temptation by not permitting intercourse during a certain period each month.
But paradoxically, if reasons to abstain were very serious, a couple could consider complete abstinence:
Or again a Catholic couple may be advised, on occasion, to consider the possibility of complete sexual abstinence. To the unbelieving critic of the Church this is madness, but not to those who love God and know the strength of His grace. Unique in the religions of the world, Catholicism offers its members the idealism of perfect continence, not as a duty but as an opportunity, and the hundreds of thousands who live consecrated lives of celibacy are a standing proof that it can be done. Married people who already have several children, and where the wife’s periods are irregular and unpredictable, may be told that abstinence is not fantastic. The Church has formally encouraged this where it seems advisable.
Couples who had less serious reasons were encouraged not to use rhythm and to just trust divine Providence and let God plan their families.
Granted that a couple might avoid sin if they practice rhythm, yet they should often be counseled that it would be better and more pleasing to God if they continued to build their family and placed their trust in divine Providence. Instead of taking their cue from the non-Christian world around them, they may be advised to follow a profound instinct of the spirit and do more than their minimal share in rearing children for the faith on earth and for eternal happiness in the life to come.
The Church’s advice was simple in the context of its time: Rhythm can be frustrating and unreliable. Catholic couples shouldn’t try to plan their families because children are good and relations are good. If couples have serious reasons to avoid, complete abstinence may be a better option than rhythm.
But the times, they are a changin’…
A Decade of Change
The 1960s were a decade of change. Many Catholics think of the “change” as being Vatican II and the new mass. Others think of the “change” as being the social changes, including the civil rights and anti-war movements in the United States. But much of the “change” of the 1960s was technical. In the 1960s, the world went from shooting basketball sized satellites into orbit to putting a man on the moon. Satellites revolutionized telecommunications, allowing events to be televised live and transmitted all over the globe. The decade saw an explosion in computing power, including the beginnings of the internet.
The 1960s also included major discoveries in the field of fertility awareness. In the mid-1960s, teams led by Dr. Josef Rötzer of Austria and Dr. John Billings of Australia independently developed what is now known as the symptothermal method of NFP. (Billings would later drop the temperature observations.) Unlike rhythm, which was on an educated guess based on previous cycle history, or the temperature method, which left couples few infertile days, the symptothermal method promised an accurate assessment of a woman’s fertility.
Additionally, unlike rhythm, which was only useful to help couples plan their relations in order to achieve or avoid pregnancy, the new methods were based on observation and recording of the the woman’s body. The fertility charts created from the new methods provide an excellent record for doctors to use to diagnose and treat fertility disorders.
Periodic Continence in the Era of Fertility Awareness
The new discoveries promised to provide couples with significant information about their fertility. Many at the time, including Pope Paul VI, were optimistic that fertility could be precisely determined with no unnecessary abstinence or guesswork.
Still, even precise knowledge of fertility doesn’t make abstinence any easier. Dr. John Billings recognized the difficulties of any form of periodic continence on married couples in a 1969 pamphlet about his new method, “Every Man a Lover”.
Nowadays, whenever the subject of human love and marriage are discussed, family planning is soon mentioned. It is a widely held belief that one of the most serious problems to be solved by young people getting married, is that of preventing children arriving too soon or in too great a number. This attitude is altogether wrong. It is a kind of mental sickness in society which creates problems that ought never to have existed. My own observations have persuaded me that the avoidance of pregnancy in the early years of married life, whatever the means adopted, imposes a serious strain upon the marriage.
The marriage may survive it, or it may not.
If young people could be persuaded to marry with a willingness and eagerness to follow their natural inclinations in their love-making, and to leave to Almighty God the decision as to whether they will have children immediately or not, there would be many more stable and happy marriages in the community that there are at present. Family Planning would be recognized as being only a temporary necessity for the majority, to be applied when sexual maturity and harmony in living together make its acceptance easy for both the husband and wife.
He noted that rhythm could be especially frustrating for newlyweds.
The tendency to be too concerned about family planning brings its own problems. There are a number of married couples who in the past tried to use the Rhythm Method from the time they were first married. Either through inaccurate knowledge or because they took chances from time to time, they found that a number of pregnancies occurred. Eventually they acquired a moderate or a large family, although throughout their married life they had been trying to avoid pregnancy. Little wonder that they should complain of irritation and frustration regarding the physical expression of their love. How much better it would have been, and how much wiser, if they had allowed their natural inclinations to find normal expression, until the size of the family had made family planning truly essential. They have never known the joy of planning a baby.
Yet Dr. Billings recognized that under the right circumstances, periodic continence could be good for a marriage relationship.
It is sometimes said that periodic abstinence is likely to create emotional difficulties between the husband and wife. This may be so in the first few years of marriage, and more particularly when the reasons for the avoidance of pregnancy are trivial, so that the husband and wife may then disagree on the need for abstinence and one regard the attitude of the other as an indication of lack of affection. It may be difficult to secure the co-operation of the husband or wife if they have not been properly instructed in the method and assured of its effectiveness. Those people who are so sadly out of date as to be unaware of the reliability and usually easy application of the newer methods of determining the safe period, and yet upset persons who are already anxious about the risks imposed by further pregnancy, are very mischievous.
The demand for the right to have intercourse at any time the inclination exists can be an expression of a sexual gluttony for which the only cure is periodic continence; unchecked it may destroy the very love it purports to express and to foster.
It has been my experience that periodic continence may have a very beneficial effect upon the psychological relationship of the husband and wife to one another. The act of loving is frequently refreshed by rest, and it is very important for married persons to learn that love is expressed in many other ways. Sometimes it does create difficulty and the wise husband or wife who perceives this learns a new measure of the other’s love. There are words sometimes used in the marriage service which put it this way, “Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy; and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And when love is perfect the sacrifice is complete”. [The Marriage Service in the Baltimore Ritual.] And there is no remedy save love for the fear of the woman who believes, rightly or wrongly, that her life will be imperilled by further pregnancy; “Love drives out fear.” [1 St. John, 4: 18.]
The natural method of family planning involves complete abstinence from all sexual contact during the days of possible fertility. When these days have passed and the safe time has arrived, some women feel that they have lost the inclination for intercourse. It is helpful to them to explain that she now has the opportunity to return the generous love the husband has given in his self-restraint for her good and the good of the family, by making a positive conscious effort to be attractive and to invite her husband to the physical act of love. The woman who loves her husband readily understands that he will respond immediately to a loving invitation. She will find great joy in this responsiveness and in her ability to satisfy all his physical and emotional needs. The safe time is awaited with joyful anticipation and their greater awareness of each other can even enable them to experience a level of happiness hitherto unknown in their marriage. (Note: Abstinence during the fertile period can be difficult for women, too. Also, if a wife does loses interest during the infertile period, husbands have the opportunity to show their love by making a positive effort to meet her physical and emotional needs, making sex a mutually positive and loving experience they both will want to say “Yes” to.)
He considered charting to be “an observation of God’s handiwork” which allowed couples to co-operate with God.
There are some people who consider that the observation of the natural workings of the body is somehow improper, or at least indelicate. These people often regard certain parts of their bodies as “rude” or obscene”. This indicates an unhealthy attitude about sexual matters in general, with conscious or repressed feelings of guilt on the subject. Observation of natural phenomena is observation of God’s handiwork, and the Catholic attitude is one of co-operation with the Creator in the natural fulfilment and use of what he has provided. The observations do not lead to hypochondriasis, for the hypochondriac mistakes natural occurrences for the expression of disease. In learning more about the workings of her body, the woman learns that symptoms she may previously have observed but not understood, can now be recognized as an indication of normal health.
His wife, Dr. Evelyn Billings, said that the self-awareness that comes from charting is “[A] gift of knowledge that all women are entitled to have.”
In other words, periodic continence to avoid pregnancy may or may not be good for a marriage, depending on the circumstances, but fertility charting is always virtuous in itself. It is self-knowledge and self-awareness and has proven health benefits.
Fertility charting can also be used to accurately date a pregnancy, even a “surprise” one, leading to healthier outcomes for mother and baby.
No, the Catholic Church does not require that couples chart, but this does not mean that charting can’t be virtuous or that couples shouldn’t chart.
Can this knowledge be abused? Of course. Any good thing can be used improperly, however, the idea that we should avoid good things out of fear that we might misuse them is not a Catholic concept, but a Calvinist or Jansenist one. The Catholic Church does not teach the total depravity of humanity, that is, that people are so corrupted by sin that they are unable to good things for their proper purpose. Instead, a better response is not to avoid good things but to ask for God’s grace to help us use what is good without misusing it.
New Discoveries Lead to New Pastoral Advice
Because fertility charting for NFP gives the couple a very accurate awareness of their fertility, true “Providentialism” doesn’t make much sense. Although a couple may not be trying to achieve or trying to avoid, if the woman is charting, then the couple has a good idea about their fertility every time they come together. They know whether there is a significant chance of pregnancy or whether pregnancy is unlikely on any given evening.
Pope Paul VI was aware of the latest scientific advances when he wrote Humanae Vitae. As a result, the Church’s pastoral advice to couples changed. Instead of encouraging couples to rely on divine providence, the Church encourages couples to learn about their combined fertility and prayerfully discern how to use this information. The Church also recognized that periodic abstinence in the service of responsible parenthood, like complete abstinence, can be virtuous.
With regard to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means an awareness of, and respect for, their proper functions. In the procreative faculty the human mind discerns biological laws that apply to the human person.
With regard to man’s innate drives and emotions, responsible parenthood means that man’s reason and will must exert control over them.
With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.
Responsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.
Did Church teaching about marriage change? Humanae Vitae makes clear that it did not.
From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out.
Humanae Vitae simply gives couples a new option for how to live out their marriage vocation—one that science had only made possible a few years earlier.
Applying this in Your Marriage
Is Providentialism still virtuous? If it was virtuous in 1961, it is still virtuous today. Is a Josephite Marriage still an option if couples have very serious reasons to avoid pregnancy? Of course. There is nothing wrong with either of these options.
But the discovery of the science of fertility awareness and modern methods of natural family planning give couples a better option. Fertility charting provides women with valuable health information. The Church recommends that couples learn about their fertility and then pray about how to use this information in accordance with God’s will.
Still, the Church does not teach couples to “plan their families” in the same way that secular culture does. In fact, they warn against it. With nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States unplanned—even with near universal access to “reliable” contraceptives—the Church has good reason to tell couples not to overly concern themselves with precisely planning the size and spacing of their families.
Some Catholics have read the older documents anachronistically, thinking that NFP is just like the rhythm method, and that couples without serious reasons to avoid pregnancy shouldn’t use it. Others think that complete abstinence or pure providentialism is somehow “holier” than the prayerful discernment discussed in Humanae Vitae. This is not the teaching of the Catholic Church.
Some Catholics treat NFP like the rhythm method, taking an all-or-nothing, totally achieve or totally avoid, rule based approach. While there is nothing wrong with this, couples can use the fertility information however they want. Something in-between “totally trying to avoid” and “totally trying to achieve” may be best for their marriage at the current time.
On the other hand, some NFP promoters treat the methods as a form of Catholic birth control. While the methods are every bit as effective as modern methods of contraception, this is not how the Church wants couples to use the information.
Such confusion is one reason why I hate the term “Natural Family Planning”. It is neither “natural” in the common sense of the word (as Dr. Billings explained) nor is it intended (in the Catholic context) to be used as “family planning” in the way that contraceptives are. The term “fertility awareness”, common among secular users, is a far more accurate description of what the methods are.
I personally like the term “Catholic Fertility Awareness” to describe the science of fertility awareness used in accordance with Catholic teaching.
Fertility charting is good for all women, but the Catholic Church teaches that abstaining to avoid pregnancy may not good for a marriage. Newer Catholic material on the subject seems different from “pre-Vatican II” teaching, not because of Vatican II, but because of scientific discoveries that happened at about the same time.
In other words, the Catholic Church recognizes that NFP is NOT the rhythm method!