Why NFP is not just ‘Catholic contraception’

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As someone who teaches couples about Natural Family Planning (NFP), Jeanice Vinduska most often fields questions of doubt from couples who are used to artificial means of contraception, such as birth control pills and IUDs.

It can be difficult to convince some people that a natural means of planning and spacing children is effective and worthwhile, especially in a culture where artificial contraception is widely accepted and used, Vinduska told CNA.

But Vinduska also fields questions from Catholics and Christians who are dubious of NFP because they are concerned it could be contraceptive too.

"I had a woman in my parish who said…'Well, this is just natural contraception,'" Vinduska recalled. Vinduska works as the co-director of the FertilityCare Center of Omaha, with the St. Paul VI Institute, which specializes in teaching women and couples the Creighton method of NFP.

The Creighton method is a method of NFP that tracks cervical mucus as a symptom of fertility in women. It can be used by couples to achieve or avoid pregnancy, and it can also help diagnose conditions like endometriosis.

But methods of NFP differ from artificial means of contraception in that they do not do anything to disrupt the sexual act, Vinduska said. "Contraception basically prevents fertilization. It prevents human life," she said. "Oral contraception can even act as an abortifacient."

NFP, on the other hand, allows married couples to track their fertile and infertile days and to decide when to be sexually intimate and when to abstain from sex, based on what is best for their family at that time, Vinduska said.

And unlike contraception, NFP is approved by the Catholic Church as a means of planning and spacing children in accordance with God's plan.

The 'quiverfull' movement

Some Christians are part of the "quiverfull" movement, which gets its name from Psalm 127: 3-5: "Certainly sons are a gift from the LORD, the fruit of the womb, a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons born in one's youth. Blessed is the man who has filled his quiver with them."

Christians with a "quiverfull" mentality towards family planning believe that they should have as many children as God will give them, and refuse the use of contraception or Natural Family Planning. They also do not attempt to resolve any physical defects that cause infertility, which they also see as God's will.

But the "quiverfull" mentality has never been a part of the teaching of the Catholic Church, Vinduska said.

"That's never been a teaching. It's more about being open to life and finding a responsible way of family planning, of fertility regulation."

Dr. Janet Smith is a Catholic theologian and author of "Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later" and "Self-Gift: Essays on Humanae Vitae and the Thought of John Paul II." She has frequently written and spoken about Humanae Vitae, including in her signature talk, entitled "Contraception: Why Not".

Smith said the Catholic Church instead teaches that God has given humans reason and freedom to choose to have children freely, or to abstain when they are fertile.

"God gives us the possibility of pursuing many goods; he forbids us from doing evil, but permits us to choose freely between goods," Smith told CNA.

"Some couples are blessed with many resources both material and spiritual that enables them to have many children, but others need to limit their family size because of various difficulties in their lives. Certainly couples should be generous in their child-bearing, but the Church teaches that for serious or just reasons spouses may limit their family size," she said.

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NFP differs from contraception by allowing the couples to fully participate in the marital embrace without removing the possibility of conceiving, Smith noted. The Church supports NFP because it does nothing to change the meaning of the marital act.

"Contraception undercuts that meaning since it removes the commitment-making power of procreation."

Church teaching also differs from the quiverfull mentality in that couples experiencing fertility are also free to attempt to remedy physical defects so that they may have children, Smith said.

"[I]f couples have correctable physical defects that prevent them from conceiving, it is fully in accord with God's will that they attempt to have those defects repaired," she said.

Humanae Vitae

Pope Paul VI, for which the institute in Omaha is named, wrote one of the most oft-referenced encyclicals on the subject of marriage, sexuality and family planning in his encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae.

In it, Pope Paul VI first states that "the transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. It has always been a source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships."

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In section 10 of the letter, the pope states: "Married love, therefore, requires of husband and wife the full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood, which today, rightly enough, is much insisted upon, but which at the same time should be rightly understood."

Rightly understood, responsible parenthood is exercised "[w]ith regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions...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."

What serious reasons are serious enough?

Pope Paul VI wrote that while Catholic couples are free to exercise their reason and freedom in planning their families, they also must involve God in their decisions.

"[T]hey 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," he wrote. "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."

Smith said that there are a variety of serious reasons for which couples may decide to avoid having children for a time or an indefinite period, depending on the circumstances.

"For example, if a family is financially strapped and can't pay the bills, it would make sense to postpone having a child; if the wife has serious health conditions that a pregnancy would exacerbate or if she has duties that are so consuming (such as caring for an elderly parent or challenging child) another child may be an excessive burden," Smith said.

Vinduska said she has worked with couples to avoid pregnancies for certain periods of time for such reasons. For example, she said, one woman was on a strong medication for a disease that made her bones brittle that would have caused serious defects if she were to become pregnant; other women with cancer have needed to avoid pregnancy while going through treatment.

The woman was successfully able to avoid a pregnancy while on the medication using the Creighton method, Vinduska said.

"We want to make sure that they are using a natural system and following their moral beliefs," she said. "And they don't have to be Catholic to do this. We teach NFP for everybody."

Smith said that NFP could even be used for lesser reasons. During a 2018 talk at for a symposium at Benedictine College, Smith noted that couples can morally abstain from having sex for all kinds of non-fertility related reasons: someone has a headache, the couple wants to catch a sports game, or finish a movie, or they are staying somewhere with thin walls, and so on.

In those instances, Smith said, it is perfectly moral to abstain from sex.

"So I have a simple question for you. Why would it be wrong not to have sex because it's not a good idea to have a child at that time?" she said.

The Church does not mandate any particular amount that couples must be sexually intimate, she said.

However, she told CNA, couples should "keep praying that God will let them know if they are being selfish," although she added, "that selfishness is usually incompatible with long term use of NFP since only the virtuous and unselfish can use NFP over a long period of time."

The benefits of NFP for marriage

Both Vinduska and Smith said that using a method of Natural Family Planning can be very beneficial for couples.

Vinduska said one of the biggest benefits of using NFP in a marriage is that it improves "communication, especially communicating where they're at with their fertility and infertility. If the couple is charting together, it's not such a surprise for either one of them where they're at in their cycle."

Something else that benefits couples using NFP is using the periods of abstinence to reconnect in ways other than sexuality, Vinduska said. She said she encourages couples she works with to use these times to develop common hobbies and interests, which serve to strengthen their relationship in other ways.

"Once you're married, you kind of slip a little bit in doing the things like you did when you were dating," she said. "But you shouldn't have to always spend a lot of money. If you both like the outdoors, find a time to set aside to go hiking, go to a park. Maybe they can garden together, take up a new activity that gives them that sense of doing something together."

The low divorce rates among NFP using couples speak for themselves, Smith added.

"The fact that couples using NFP almost never divorce...is a very revealing fact. NFP is a lot more than abstaining during the time a woman is fertile; it is a method that requires a lot of communication and shared values," she said.

"It fosters the virtues of patience and ability to sacrifice. Women in couples who use NFP believe their husbands are exceptional (and husbands love that) and know their husbands love them for more than their sexual availability - a feeling that delightfully leads to them wanting to be more available (and their husbands love that)."

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