The “Controversy” Around Natural Family Planning

I have had the unfortunate experience of hearing yet another ultra-traditionalist critique about the Church’s promotion of Natural Family Planning.


This particular critique called promotion of Natural Family Planning by the bishops a “scandal” that ignored “traditional” Catholic teaching about the blessings of large families. It went as far as to call NFP a “scandal” and accused bishops of buying into the “contraceptive mentality” of the secular world instead of promoting Catholic teaching.

So, is promotion of NFP from the Catholic Church “watering down the faith”? Are the bishops spreading scandal? What to make of this “controversy”?

NFP Controversial?

Natural Family Planning is NOT controversial in the Catholic Church.  The Church teaches that NFP is morally licit and has taught so ever since it was first theorized back in 1853. This teaching of the magisterium is unambiguous and undisputed.

There is no controversy. Just because some individual doesn’t agree with Church teaching doesn’t make it “controversial”. 

Ultra-traditionalist Catholics don’t get a pass on this any more than “Catholics for Choice”. “More Catholic than the Pope” is simply another form of protest and yet another way of being “Protestant”.

Taking a closer look at the critiques, those who think promotion of NFP is a deviation from “traditional” Catholic teaching have often misunderstood the actual traditional teaching by reading older documents anachronistically and out of context.

Likewise, just because someone has misunderstood Catholic teaching, past or present, doesn’t make it controversial either. That is why we have pastors, bishops, and the entire magisterium of the Church to help us on our journey of faith. Unlike other traditions, we do not have the burden of every person having to define his or her own doctrines and his or her own understanding of the faith.

Finally, if you are looking for genuine controversy in this area—as in where priests, bishops, and theologians have actual disagreements—it was never over whether NFP is licit, it was over whether contraception is licit. The question of the licitness of NFP was settled by a brief statement from the Holy Office. The question of whether contraception remained illicit given social changes and advancements in scientific knowledge required a Papal Commission that lasted several years. Furthermore, promotion of NFP has always been associated with the more conservative and faithful elements of Catholicism, not the more liberal and dissident ones.

Why the Catholic Church Promotes NFP

Still, the critics are right about one thing: Catholic NFP promotion can be awkward and somewhat distracting from the Church’s overall message about marriage. I agree that the Church would be far better off telling married couples about the theology of marriage, the blessings of children and a large family, the duty to responsible parenthood, and the need for prayer and discernment in this area and leave it at that. Matters of women’s health are and the details of family planning aren’t really something that are in the area of expertise of most Catholics. (I believe some Catholic NFP programs are lacking for this very reason.)

So whose job is it to promote women’s health? According to Humanae Vitae, this is the proper role of the medical community…

Moreover, [doctors and members of the nursing profession] should regard it as an essential part of their skill to make themselves fully proficient in this difficult field of medical knowledge [fertility awareness]. For then, when married couples ask for their advice, they may be in a position to give them right counsel and to point them in the proper direction. Married couples have a right to expect this much from them.

Pope Paul VI wanted the medical community to promote NFP so that the Church could continue on its mission of helping married couples live out their vocation and grow closer to each other and to God. Unfortunately, the medical and scientific community has largely failed in its duty to learn more about the workings of human fertility and educating their patients about the benefits. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions, but doctors and medical professionals who look to fertility education first over artificial contraception are a small minority of the medical community.

Nevertheless, women and married couples have a right to this knowledge. Because the medical community is not giving it to them, the Church must step in. It is the exact same principle of why the Church founded hospitals in underserved communities. The people needed hospitals and the Church stepped in to serve that need. The Church has an obligation to care for the sick as well as to share knowledge and give advice to those who need it. Teaching Natural Family Planning methods is not so much a matter of instruction in faith as it is a matter of instruction in health.

Put another way, the Catholic Church promotes NFP not because the Church has “caved” to anyone, but because couples need to know this information and nobody else has stepped up to provide them with it. This is part of the Church’s duty to show Christ’s love through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

And if you think the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are “controversial”, then you’re doing it wrong.



12 comments to The “Controversy” Around Natural Family Planning

  • Cojuanco  says:

    Here’s what I don’t get about these critiques:

    The whole mechanism of NFP is at certain times, NOT having sex. Last I checked, not having sex is not a sin, or couples would be sinning when one partner was tired, or ill, or was distracted by their children.

    IIRC, though, this sort of nonsense is nothing new. I remember one tract from the 1920s where Fr. Lord, S.J. had to reassure people that the antecedents to NFP were actually in line with Catholic teaching, and that it was totally different to those other methods the latitudinarian Protestants were promoting. I think the problem is we’ve been listening for far too long to certain strands of Protestantism, like, say, Comstock, and we’ve internalized the culture of the Protestant majority. I mean, looking at a tract published in 1920s France (I can’t find it atm, sorry), I remember them talking about this sort of thing as a given that it was keeping with Church teaching.

    • James  says:

      I think the entire Anglo-American Church has internalized the culture of the Protestant majority in various doses over the years. Currently, the “conservatives” have internalized Evangelical culture, while the “liberals” have internalized Mainline culture.

      What is most troubling is that many have taken the Protestant idea that they have a right to their own private interpretation of Church teaching. Instead of interpreting scripture, they interpret Vatican documents. It seems like most of the critics have a fundamental misunderstanding of the Catholic concept that “primary purpose of marriage is procreation”. In the context of the faith, this is a philosophical statement on the meaning of marriage. Without understanding the underlying Aristotelean philosophy, it doesn’t make sense. It is not an instruction to couples to “outbreed the heathens”, and Catholic teaching has repeatedly rejected the idea that marriage and sexuality are only for making babies.

      (While the Church acknowledges that NFP can, in theory, be abused, there is no definitive magisterial teaching on when use becomes abuse, nor is their any consensus among moral theologians on this issue. At any rate, abusing NFP would be like binging on vegetables—not a very common problem.)

      • Cojuanco  says:

        I think part of the problem is the deracination that occurred most strikingly in North America. “America” (by which I primarily mean Anglo-America/Canada, though sadly it’s seeping into Latino culture in Southern California, unfortunately) is the first Western society that did not have a real root in a pre-existing Catholic culture, at least in its dominant form. This deracination has occurred elsewhere in the West, particularly in the British Isles and parts of the Commonwealth, but not as much as here, and seems to correlate with the pre-eminence of the United States as a cultural power.

  • Priscilla  says:

    The zeal with which many of these ultra trad groups and individuals hold up the ideal of a “large family” and “radical openness to life” is nothing more than another form of idolatry.

    • Cojuanco  says:

      Though it’s largely because that’s the only sort of thing they remember being taught oftentimes, which stems from the fact the dominant culture heavily suppressed even healthy discussion of sex and birth (now, some of the information the Comstocks of the day censored ought to have been, but not to the extent they did). That tract I was mentioning by the Young Catholic Workers from France? That sort of thing would have been confiscated at the docks in the United States before the Second World War. When the dominant culture only allows you information which leads you to idolatry, is it surprising that people will think idolatry is the right thing to follow?

      • James  says:

        Correct. 100 years ago, the US bishops were complaining to Rome that the Comstock Laws made it difficult to explain the “duties of marriage” to Catholic couples.

        Of course, some Catholics accommodated to the culture of that day, with unfortunate results.

        But the difficulties of Catholics in a largely Puritan society (modern society is full of apostate Puritans, but still quite Puritan at its core) is a not just another post, it’s another blog.

        • Cojuanco  says:

          Apologies for getting us sidetracked. It’s just I’m a trad myself, and yet I’m not as completely nostalgic for the 1950′s Church, which had its own pressing and grave problems and crosses to bear. And it irks me sometimes when people think what they’re spouting is the Catholic ideal.

    • "Matthew"  says:

      Idolatry? Really?

  • Priscilla  says:

    Just when the chorus of “stop saying contraceptive mentality” reaches a crescendo, there is an article on Catholic Stand by a Deacon who states that people can use NFP with a contraceptive mentality. Ahhh!!!!

  • Cojuanco  says:

    I think part of the problem is that for English-speakers, the terms “family planning” have been used to refer primarily to contraception (Let’s just say that if I go to the ‘family planning’ aisle of my local grocery, I’m not going to find the ClearBlue fertility monitor). So when the Church talks of natural family planning, people are tempted to think of it as “contraception for Catholics”. And even Catholics can fall into this trap.

    Priscilla, if the article is the one I think it is, the “contraceptive mentality” seems to refer to, for example, a case where a married couple, without just reasons, saying, “I will only, for as long as we both are alive, have intercourse with you on days you are not likely to concieve, and will always abstain during fertile times.” In essence, being overly obsessed with control over fertility – which is counterproductive, because, in our hypercapitalist culture, there is never enough money or time for an additional kid, at all times. The definition of contraceptive mentality is is well and good, but a lot of people (usually laymen) use “contraceptive mentality” to mean, “they’re don’t have as much children as me; therefore they must be doing something wrong, even if they’re not using artificial birth control.” Which it is not obviously meant to do, and besides, when spoken, that’s known as the sin of detraction at best.

    In the end, I think it would be better for all Catholics and others of good will to stop assuming things they can’t possibly know about another couple when it comes to using fertility awareness. It’s not my business, I’m not their confessor, and I should assume the charitable interpretation unless smacked upside the head with it. That’s my takeaway from the deacon.

    • James  says:

      There is a HUGE nomenclature problem in English. Orthodox Catholics talk about being against “contraception”, while non-Catholics take this to mean the Catholic Church is against all forms of family planning, which isn’t the case.

      English speakers,especially USians, are terrible about assuming the rest of the world speaks English and that similar words in other languages have the exact same meaning as they do in English. For example, “American” has a different meaning in Spanish than it does in English.

      • Cojuanco  says:

        I blame Planned Parenthood, primarily, for that rhetorical trick.

Leave a Reply