Catholics Do What?,  Family Life,  Marriage,  NFP,  Parenting,  Sex

Contraception and the Catholic Church: {part 5} NFP vs. contraception: common objections and FAQs

Limping across the finish line to finish up this week-long love fest for the Church’s teachings on sex and babies. (Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 here.)

Let’s take a couple bites out of the elephant in the room today: the idea of NFP as “Catholic birth control,” and why some people continue to simultaneously tout the 98% effective statistic while ably captaining our small herds of humanity.

Here’s the thing that gets a lot of people confused, Catholic and non alike. NFP, at first glance, looks a whole lot like primitive, “natural” (aka less effective) birth control that the Church reluctantly throws out as a bone of concession to ensure we don’t all end up with a veritable baker’s dozen of children and driving a cargo van.

Except that I personally know like, at least 20 families who fit that exact description. So what gives?

If NFP is so wonderful and effective, why are lots of us who sing its praises sized out of the entire efficiency auto market?

First off, NFP does not equal contraception. It is not, in fact, “Catholic birth control,” however doggedly our sexually-illiterate culture persists in this misnomer.

Contraception necessitates a step taken, a physical or chemical interference in the life-giving process of human sexuality.

Delaying or avoiding conception, on the other hand, or to use Bl. Pope Paul VI’s phrase, “the intentional spacing of children,” via periodic abstinence, does not tamper with the life-giving potential of sex.

On the contrary, using knowledge of one’s cycle to avoid a pregnancy virtually bows down in the face of Divinely created human fertility and says “I defer to your awesome power” — there’s no shutting down or circumventing or cutting off or wrapping up and proceeding as if nothing has changed.

So in this way, fertility awareness aka NFP aka “birth control” in the fullest sense of the phrase is about the furthest thing from contraception. A better term for it might simply be self control.

Instead of enabling sterilized, life-denying sex, it summons temperance. Prudence. Delayed gratification.

NFP says “I recognize the gift, I am in no position to receive the gift at this time, I offer the gift back to the Giver in gratitude…even when it’s a difficult offering to make.”

And it’s sometimes a very difficult offering — both the abstaining part and the “maybe we really are ready to welcome another child” part.

In practice it looks like this: a married couple, determining that now would be an imprudent/dangerous/unwise time to have a baby, practices abstinence during the fertile phase of the woman’s cycle, ranging anywhere from 5-18 days depending upon the individual woman, the particular season they find themselves in (postpartum NFP can be a real b, can I get an amen?) and a series of other possible factors based on the unique biological makeup of each human person.

For some couples, the grave reason can be a lifelong condition, a debilitating illness, a permanent state of “we can’t accept another child right now.” I know several couples who fit that description, and their practice of NFP is heroic, but talking with each of them they’ve found that even in their particular and very, very difficult circumstances, it has continued to be a gift in their marriage.

Are they more “careful” than the average couple, weighing the gravity of what a pregnancy could mean each time they come together? Yes, for sure. But NFP has given them a confidence in their sexual love that God will not give them more than they can handle, and that through diligent and very conservative observance of the method they’ve chosen, they can confidently avoid pregnancy.

(And as an aside, no method of contraception is completely failsafe. So when a couple who really ought not to conceive for grave medical reasons does so due to a failure or flaw, what becomes of the baby? Abstinence remains the only 100% effective method of avoiding pregnancy. )

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to human reproductive system. We’re all designed similarly, but we each work a little differently. (And that’s one major score for NFP over mainstream western gynecological care. Many physicians are unwilling or ill-equipped to examine an individual woman’s unique cycles and physiological makeup, opting instead for an automatic prescription for hormones, a temporary bandaid instead of a more in depth analysis of the difficulties or idiosyncrasies of her particular body.)

Remember too, the Church isn’t anti contraception because She is anti science or anti technology, but rather, because contraception is fundamentally anti-woman and anti-life.

The Church’s promulgation of NFP is not a matter of finding a “natural” way to avoid getting pregnant; it’s about coming to terms emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually to the reality that sex and procreation are intentionally, inextricably linked. For a reason.

NFP isn’t the Catholic solution to the problem of ‘too many children;’ rather, it is the Church’s response to the gaping void of too little love.

Yeah, but if it works so well, why do you have so many kids?

Nobody has kids as close together as some of us practicing Catholics tend to (well, maybe Mormons and Muslims), and so while to some people it’s repulsive, for most it’s simply … surprising. And I don’t mind being surprising.

I actually fairly frequently encounter friendly, non-hostile and curious strangers who are genuinely surprised and happy – if a little confused – to see a youngish mom with so many little kids in her charge. Especially kids who look like they could maybe be twins but aren’t.

And often the topic turns to matters of a reproductive nature. Especially, it seems, with strangers. And so explaining to a fellow mom on the playground that we use NFP to space our kids and then watching her eyes fill with horror as she does the mental math to discover the age gap between them (19 months for us, but intentionally so, for the most part) is probably not the most compelling case for the method’s “effectiveness.”

But here’s the thing. We haven’t yet had a grave reason to avoid another pregnancy indefinitely. We’ve for sure had seasons of hardship where NFP was successful in allowing us to buy a couple more months of breathing room as I clawed my way out of PPD, but after each baby we’ve always come out of the woods (thankfully, so far) by about month 10, feeling sane and stable and ready to welcome another little life into ours.

That’s not the case for every couple, and the beauty of it is, it doesn’t have to be! But the fact that many couples who practice NFP may tend to have larger families, on average, is not necessarily proof of the methods “ineffectiveness” at spacing or avoiding pregnancy.

It’s just that when your default setting isn’t “sterilized” but “periodically fertile,” there comes a time each month where spouses are compelled to discuss the nitty gritty of where they’re both at, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and whether or not now would be a good time to tap the procreative brakes. Some months that answer is an unequivocal YES. And other months, it’s a more tentative “maybe?” … and then some months there is real, authentic readiness to welcome another child.

And into each of those scenarios we invite the Holy Spirit into our consultation, asking His wisdom and guidance and giving Him a warm welcome into our marital relationship.

And sometimes He shows up in a particularly tangible way. The 2 pink lines on a stick way. But we’re never surprised about it, even when we perhaps have felt less than prepared for it. Because we’ve never intentionally tried to shut Him out of the equation.

So that’s the gift of NFP, in a nutshell.

Customized fertility awareness, increased spousal communication and discernment, openness and (hopefully) receptivity to the workings of the Holy Spirit, and yes, some of the time, a bigger than average family. And that can be really hard. And we shouldn’t be afraid to say so.

But we’re never surprised when sex = babies, even if we were perhaps hoping for a little more time. Because sex does, in fact, lead to babies, does it not? Unless something is broken, has been intentionally disabled or damaged via medical intervention, or a couple have arrived beyond the physically fertile years of their relationship.

That’s the real difference between contraception and NFP. We’re never surprised when sex leads to babies, because that’s what sex does.

And when we encounter the reality of how the human person was designed head on, acknowledging the nature of of make up, body and soul, our relationships with each other and with our Creator are always deepened and enriched, in good times and in bad, for better and for worse.

contraception and the catholic church

29 Comments

  • Maureen

    “Let’s take a couple bites out of the elephant in the room today: the idea of NFP as “Catholic birth control,” and why we continue to simultaneously tout the 98% effective statistic while ably captaining our small herds of humanity.”
    I think that that 98% stat is one of the reasons for this confusion. When we try to “sell” NFP based on it’s effectiveness we’re sure making it sound a lot like we’re selling birth control. I often see this stat put up against or compared to similar statistics for forms of artificial birth control. The Couple to Couple League, for instance, has a bar graph on their website comparing the effectiveness of NFP to various forms of birth control. If they’re not the same thing, why are we comparing them? Apples and oranges, right? I think by trying to market NFP on the same grounds as artificial birth control as if they’re competing brands of the same product we’ve really over complicating a rather simple, though certainly not easy, matter.

  • Sean North

    Jenny,

    You’re an amazing writer! Found your series at http://newadvent.org/

    Word usage is awesome!

    “Even Freud and Ghandi, no staunch advocates of Christianity, opposed the practice, identified it as a sexual disorder and a symptom of a deeper societal illness.”

    “Kind of crazy, right? To hear that intensity of condemnation for something which has become such a widely-accepted and even lauded practice, coming from secular and non-Christian voices?”

    – Part 1

    “It’s the same reason I say no to my kids when they bolt in parking lots and run blindly into the street after a stray soccer ball. It’s the same motivation that compels me to store poison up high and restrict certain media content from entering our home.

    I love them.

    I love them enough to say no to them even when they’re really, really sure the thing they want to do is worth doing, and is a good to be pursued.

    I don’t want them to get hurt, and if I know better, as the wiser, older, well-formed and properly instructed parent, I say no.

    Even when it frustrates them. Even when they tantrum.”

    – Part 2

    “So there you have NFP, or Natural Family Planning, in a nutshell. It’s cheap to practice, relatively easy to learn, and not to be confused with some kind of baptized, backwards, papal-approved form of contraception.”

    – Part 3

    “Sex is good, but just like too much of any good thing, it’s best enjoyed outside of the all-you-can-eat Golden Corral mentality”

    – Part 4

    “Let’s take a couple bites out of the elephant in the room today”

    – Part 5

  • Ashley

    Standing ovation, Jenny! Well done!! This whole week was simply perfect.

    “We’re never surprised when sex leads to babies, because that’s what sex does” Exactly!!

    And the idea of “not birth control, but rather self control” will definitely be a regular part of my NFP conversations from here on out.

    Thank you!

  • Elizabeth

    I think I’m sticking to the idea of NFP as [licit] birth control, because “planning” and “control” do share so much common meaning.

    I agree 100% that it is the furthest thing from contraception.

  • Kris

    Great NFP post, per usual! I’m one of those people that has, for specific reasons, used NFP to space our children. And it works really well, if you follow the plan. But it is NOT easy. It has blessed our marriage though, on so many levels. We have a conversation about our family multiple times a month and we pray a lot. Our first two are 25 months apart, then a 4 1/2 year gap (that was the spacing!) and then a 20 month difference. And while I agree that postpartum NFP is a big struggle, wait until you become peri-menopausal….!

  • Julie

    Why don’t you come back and write about NFP after you’ve been a mother for a few more years? Why don’t you consider what factors exist in your life that make it possible for you to feel stable and sane at 10 months postpartum that don’t exist for many, many other people? Life’s a lot of fun when you can just take the kids as they come. I remember that stage. It lasted less than a year. If all your children are napping at once, you haven’t been a mother very long. Why don’t you come back and write about NFP after you’ve actually NEEDED to use it for more than a month or two? Until then, you’ve just been dabbling in NFP. If you only know people who say that NFP was a gift for their marriage, you haven’t gotten to know enough people well enough. Why don’t you come back and write about NFP when you’ve done enough research to learn that no method teaches 2 days of abstinence per cycle? Even 14 days of abstinence is optimistic. Write about NFP after you’ve talked to some people who’ve had to abstain for months and months at a time. Write about NFP after you’ve talked with some people who’ve had unplanned pregnancies in spite of abstinence, in spite of careful study of their method, in spite of trying different methods, causing them extreme hardship that doesn’t just “all work itself out in the end.” Until then, you have a naive perspective that is actually damaging to the faith, because couples experience a bait and switch because they don’t understand how difficult it can be for many people to actually practice in real life. You benefit no one by giving a rosy-eyed picture of NFP.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      How on earth is writing about NFP damaging to the faith?

      Granted, I’m only 6 years into this gig, but I don’t foresee embracing contraption in my 40’s, or discontinuing my belief in the Eucharist. The Church teaches hard things. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong. And it doesn’t give us the right to reject/change/adjust at will.

      And unplanned pregnancies result from sex – not from an NFP or contraceptive “failure.” Remember, sex = babies.

      P.s. I’ve gotten plenty of “why don’t you write more positively about babies/marriage/motherhood” comments, too, so I guess you really can’t please everybody all of the time. Go ahead and peek back in my archives if you’re perceiving all roses this week.

      • Julie

        Spreading misinformation (e.g. this fiction–NFP teaches that someone women needing to avoid pregnancy would only need to abstain for 2 days in a cycle) can be damaging to the faith. A bait and switch is a morale-killer to someone who has become Catholic, or decided to do NFP at great cost and finds they thought they had a reliable way to avoid pregnancy, and now they don’t, and they need one or have to abstain. It can feel like being abandoned by God. It doesn’t help when people say things like “sex=babies” when for them NFP is at least somewhat effective or a pregnancy wouldn’t endanger their family.

        I didn’t recommend adjusting Church teaching. I didn’t suggest that someday if your circumstanced changed that you’d abandon NFP–I’m suggesting that perhaps someday you might have a different, more valuable perspective. Writers should write about what they know and acknowledge their limitations of perspective. I suggested that you defer to the experts when explaining the basics of NFP because you have a major extremely significant fact wrong. I recommend that at least some of the people who speak/teach about NFP should have many years of experience using NFP for serious reasons and be very fertile–because these are the people who have the most problems with NFP.

        If we were honest about how NFP is not reliable in avoiding pregnancy for a significant minority of people and that it is a hard teaching, maybe there would be more emotional and material community/parish support from baby boomers who benefitted from using contraception and now don’t pay it forward to their kids/grandkids/fellow parishioners. There are a lot of baby boomers enjoying life in a way that current child-bearing Catholics will never be able to.

        • Jenny Uebbing

          Funny, I know plenty of miserable baby boomers, too. Ones who fell hook line and sinker for the cultural message that sex can be whatever we want it to be.

          As for “sticking with what I know,” since the Church’s teachings are timeless, imma go ahead and keep on keeping on with the truth, regardless of whether or not I’ve lived every.single.aspect of it in my own personal experience. Because that’s the great thing about the truth – it’s non negotiable and it applies to everyone! What a relief, right?

          Sorry you’re having such a hard time with this, I’m not trying to be flippant with you, but you’ve taken a really myopic view of one single piece I’ve written – out of literally dozens and dozens – and you don’t seem to be open to further dialogue. So maybe it’s time to move along.

        • Nick from Detroit

          Julie,
          NFP is not supposed to be used as “a reliable way to avoid pregnancy.” It’s only proper, moral use is “[f]or just reasons […] to space the births of their children” (CCC 2368). NFP is not supposed to be used as “Catholic birth control.”
          You speak of “extreme hardships” and “great costs” but the Catholic Church still teaches that children are a great gift and blessing from God. Again, from the CCC, para. 2373:
          “Sacred Scripture and the Church’s traditional practice see in large families a sign of God’s blessing and the parents’ generosity. [Cf. GS 50 § 2.]”
          I’m not married, but, I believe from observing my two sisters (one has 8 kids, the other has 5) that raising children is as hard, if not harder, than conceiving and birthing them.
          The proper frame of mind is essential. If you look at obeying Christ’s teaching on creating a family as a “problem,” a problem that God gave you which is “more than you can handle,” your attitude is already in the wrong place. God does not give you more than you can handle. You have to trust Him, totally. Christ will help you carry your cross, if you let Him. You have to co-operate with God, not fight against Him.
          Those baby boomers who used contraceptives most certainly did not benefit from it. Their skyrocketing divorce rate proved that much. God Bless!

          • Sheila

            “I’m not married, but, I believe from observing my two sisters (one has 8 kids, the other has 5) that raising children is as hard, if not harder, than conceiving and birthing them.”

            Hahahaha….. understatement of the year. 😉

            My parents used birth control most of their marriage. They were fine. Right as I was leaving home they switched to NFP and had four more kids. It’s put an immense strain on their marriage, coping with these kids. And my mom called me one day in tears, saying “I followed God’s will, why didn’t he make things work out better?”

            I wish I knew the answer to that question. But the fact is, he DOES give people more children than they can handle. People with severe health problems, people suffering extreme poverty, people whose marriages are on the rocks, still get pregnant. God doesn’t stop this from happening … that’s why we HAVE NFP. It’s not just to “space” … the church says we may use it to avoid births for a temporary span of time or even indefinitely, if our reasons are serious.

            I know from your still-unmarried perspective it might look like all these NFP-using couples are a little selfish, that they can’t possibly have really serious reasons. I thought that before I had kids. Then I found that serious reasons crop up kind of a lot. We’re not talking about people who use NFP because they don’t like kids or they’re selfish — I thought it was understood in this conversation that we were talking about people who really should not have kids right now. NFP is supposed to be a reliable way to achieve that — using our God-given minds responsibly to be generous when we can and avoid when we can’t.

          • Jenny Uebbing

            I mean, if Nick were a priest, would he still be unqualified to speak on it because of lack of personal experience? I think that’s a weak argument to make.

          • Nick from Detroit

            “It’s not just to ‘space’ … the church says we may use it to avoid births for a temporary span of time or even indefinitely, if our reasons are serious.”

            Completely wrong, Sheila. The Catholic Church has never said it’s okay to use NFP “indefinitely.” Whoever told you this was very mistaken.
            I’m sorry that your parents bought into the lie of using artificial contraceptives. But, your four new siblings are a blessing from God, not a curse or burden. They should be loved and embraced as any gift from our Lord.
            Studying the Gospel of Christ, the teachings of His Church, and using the gifts of the Holy Spirit will help immensely to strengthen your family. Pray for your parents, constantly. Also, learn more about redemptive suffering. Christ told us that His “burden is light” (Mt. 11:30). Was Christ not telling the truth?
            I will say a prayer for you, your parents, and the rest of your family. Please, say a prayer for me. God Bless!

          • Sheila

            You’re simply incorrect, Nick: “There are serious motives…that can exempt for a long time, perhaps even the whole duration of the marriage, from the positive and obligatory carrying out of the act. From this it follows that observing the non-fertile periods alone can be lawful only under a moral aspect.”
            — Pope Pius XII, Oct. 29, 1951

            And thank goodness, because what else do couples have when the wife has a serious medical condition where another pregnancy could kill her? We are NOT required to die rather than avoid pregnancy.

            And yes, of course I do love my siblings; that wasn’t my point. My point is that God does not make things turn out okay. Sometimes following his will will make things worse on earth — he never promises it won’t! So promising people that God will somehow provide and make everything turn out if they’re generous is simply not true, and in my experience with married couples I’ve seen scads of examples where this is not so. Rather than promising people what God never promised, better to just say that God requires it and obedience is good.

    • Cami

      “…Unplanned pregnancies in spite of abstinence…”
      A curious comment. NFP or not, sex = babies and abstinence = no babies.

    • Elizabeth

      Julie, I really appreciate the points that Jenny has been making here, but I also just wanted to express some solidarity with your frustration with NFP.

      The Couple to Couple League’s magazine (“Family Foundations” I think?) recently published a piece called the “Cross of NFP.” It highlighted several couples’ struggles with NFP that reached truly heroic proportions. I was so glad to see their efforts acknowledged because NFP can be so very, very hard sometimes. I think those hardships are too often glossed over in an effort to “sell” the teaching.

    • Sheila

      I was going to say, TWO DAYS? There is no method that allows for that little abstinence. Sperm lives up to 5 days and an egg lives 24 hours, so you are actually fertile for about six days PLUS you have to leave days on either end of that because you’re not always sure when you’re fertile.

      Postpartum NFP is a real b, that is for sure …. I know a couple who abstained for almost a full year because they had no safe days. And at that point I don’t think you can call it NFP, it’s just straight-up abstinence.

      I use NFP, 10 months postpartum I’m getting maybe 5 safe days per cycle. Previously I just “let the babies come” and didn’t get pregnant till 18 months PP, so for all I know I’m wasting my time and effort and I wouldn’t be able to get pregnant anyway. Our reasons are important enough that I can’t take that chance.

      Hey, it beats all the alternatives ….. but it still SUCKS.

      Oh, and when your reason to avoid is a marriage that’s falling apart …. turns out that much abstinence DOES NOT help! I wish I could have the feeling that the Pope, bishops, and priests actually had some inkling of how difficult it is. Instead I feel like they’re reading the promotional pamphlets and are sitting here looking at us like “why are they complaining, it told me 2 days of abstinence a month!”

      • Jenny Uebbing

        But here’s the thing, as hard as it is, as much as it can suck…it’s still the best option. And honestly, the only option that won’t harm us. Contraception will not heal a hurting marriage, nor will it provide lasting relief – real relief – for a couple who are struggling with what NFP requires.

        That’s the heart of this teaching: contraception isn’t good for us, it’s destructive and damaging, and that is why the Church says no. Not to impose more suffering, but to avoid far worse suffering.

        I wish everyone would take the time to order and then listen to Dr. Janet Smith’s most recent version of “Contraception, Why Not?” She’s far more eloquent, her research is impeccable, and it will blow your mind when you put all the pieces together.

        http://www.janetesmith.org

  • Julie

    Sorry that I was obtuse. A very fertile couple on the whole might have many weeks/months of abstinence, and then dip their toe in the water and try to reattempt NFP, then get a typical use error or method error and become pregnant. Is error the right word? They might consider themselves having abstained quite a bit even if they had sex once or twice that year. Also, some people also have to abstain during pregnancy because of risk of preterm birth, or other medical reasons. Technically, you are correct, but if you make this comment, it sounds like you don’t have this problem of God giving you more than you can handle.

  • Cami

    I HAVE more than I can handle. NFP helped me diagnose a few things before marriage. Once we married, we prayed for fertility. After a couple months, we ramped up our prayer and 2 weeks later we were pregnant. I got my cycles back 3 months postpartum and was pregnant again at month 4 postpartum. My sons are 1 year and 10 days apart. My husband and I were surprised to become pregnant with my second because ovulation was 5 days after relations… Pretty far for conception but not impossible. But we knew that. Feeling overwhelmed having a big baby and a little baby, we worked hard to space our next pregnancy. Hard! My cycles are not super typical so they take a lot of looking after. There was a lot of abstinence. A lot. And a lot of communicating. And prayer. Then we got pregnant with our daughter unexpectedly with ovulation taking place immediately after my period- I wasn’t even able to detect it but also wasn’t quite looking for it yet. I’ve had a cycle like this before so I should have kept a closer eye. My husband and I know God insisted on these babies because of the interesting times at which we became pregnant. That’s the idea of NFP… You learn your body and you plan, but God is ultimately able to bring forth the children he has planned for you. You never shut the door on our Creator! NFP is not meant to be used with a contraceptive mentality, but one of collaboration with God in growing your family. So back to the point of my comment… My daughter is 2.5 yrs younger than my second son. I am now 4 mo post partum and I just got my cycle back. To simplify the math, I had 3 beautiful babies within 3.5 years. And it’s really hard. Really, really hard. I worked many jobs and this is by far the most demanding. Many days I don’t understand why it has to be so hard. BUT… I’ll take being fertile, abstaining, using more self control, avoiding sin, loving my husband rather than using him, not wondering “what if I stopped using birth control?”, not mindlessly aborting my babies in utero, not adding more contraceptive hormones to our drinking water, teaching my children to trust and cooperate with God, enjoying a lower divorce probability rate, and being obedient to my Heavenly Father OVER contracepting, shutting down my body’s life-giving abilities, and being angry if my contraception “fails”. Life isn’t peachy everyday here, but doing what’s right is what gets me to Heaven, learning to love more and trust more… NOT taking what *seems* to be an easy road by rejecting my beautiful children, my body, my husband, and God’s plan.

    **Please excuse any poor typing or lack of organization. My sweet baby girl is teething and needs extra cuddles today.

  • Therese

    This was an amazing, thorough series. I really liked reading it and it helped me understand the laws of the Church even better.

    I was wondering, would you consider doing a similar series on IVF?

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