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”?
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.