When NFP Does Not Work

Natural family planning — distinct from artificial family planning via contraceptives, abortion, sterilization, and abortifacients — does not work in a culture that is presently anti-life (there were 58 million abortions in the last year alone). Natural Family Planning is not practical nor efficient compared to artificial means of preventing pregnancy since it requires tough perseverance. Likewise, it takes personal discipline to monitor a woman’s fertility, a requirement of both husband and wife. And like artificial means, it may “fail” and permit a child to be conceived. Why go through all the trouble of self-disciplining one’s sexual desires if you may still have a child you did not want? Artificial contraception looks easy by comparison, considering that modern medicine does not want to reveal too loudly the many potential down-sides to women, like cancer, strokes, and the like.

It has been alleged by many studies that approximately 1-2% of all married couples in the USA practice various natural methods of preventing conception. This is compared to the majority of couples, wherein the woman takes a daily pill or becomes sterilized – oftentimes to please her husband. Men adopting mechanical barriers to please their wives are in the minority. Using something artificial to make certain that women do not become impregnated with an embryo seems paradoxical since men, barring a dysfunction of their sperm or glands, are always fertile until death, whereas women are fertile a few days each month until middle age and their eggs weaken after the age of 35. Yet the vast majority of women bear the brunt of using artificial means to prevent pregnancies while men are in the minority of doing something unnatural to themselves. There are a host of reasons for this. Feminists were wrong to think contraceptives would bring them a newfound freedom.

Happy_family_(1)If a woman’s fertility and children are considered a disease or a health issue because it interferes with future marriages, a job, or the getting a job, then artificial “contraconception” is the cure in today’s culture. This is now ingrained in the customs and felt values of today’s modern world throughout the Western globe, not just in the USA. In such an atmosphere, how can the teaching on chastity seem feasible to a young couple wishing to get married? The Catechism gives the following advice, which in light of the signs of the times is absolutely true and at the same time rather naive given the dearth of praxis:

1632 So that the “I do” of the spouses may be a free and responsible act and so that the marriage covenant may have solid and lasting human and Christian foundations, preparation for marriage is of prime importance.

1. The example and teaching given by parents and families remain the special form of this preparation. 
2. The role of pastors and of the Christian community as the “family of God” is indispensable for the transmission of the human and Christian values of marriage and family,[133] and much more so in our era when many young people experience broken homes which no longer sufficiently assure this initiation: 
3. It is imperative to give suitable and timely instruction to young people, above all in the heart of their own families, about the dignity of married love, its role and its exercise, so that, having learned the value of chastity, they will be able at a suitable age to engage in honorable courtship and enter upon a marriage of their own. [134]

What parents actually teach faith and morals these days? Homeschoolers definitely and perhaps families of “greens.” Many children do not even know their prayers, let alone what chastity is and how one goes about acquiring the virtue. I have heard of stories of mothers bringing their adolescent girls to see the doctor because of the natural discharges that take place each month prior to menses. Since these mothers are taking the pill and so do not experience this natural phenomenon, they falsely assume their daughters are having sex outside of marriage.

Do priests preach on premarital, marital, and post-marital chastity? According to many polls and anecdotal knowledge, this is the exception. Do parishes and dioceses promote the virtues or simply the commandments? With all the hookups and “free unions” or trial marriages, breakups, and high divorce rates, can children and teens really be taught the values associated with chastity, except through God’s gift of special and extraordinary graces to some individuals?

From the point of view of the secular culture, the public schools should emphasize sex education, not chastity-driven enlightenment, and machines dispensing condoms to teenagers in high schools should be the norm. The next number of the Catechism, while eminently true, has not be fulfilled in decades:

2344 Chastity represents an eminently personal task; it also involves a cultural effort, for there is “an interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society.”[130] Chastity presupposes respect for the rights of the person, in particular the right to receive information and an education that respect the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life.

What is involved in NFP is discipline, self-mastery, and communication, all of which should be learned in the teenage years and later. First, girls should learn about the purpose of their periods and the need to be modest in their clothes and demeanor, and boys should learn about their fertility. Then, when the time comes for marriage, both husband and wife will be able to plan their families and do the work of charting periods of infertility in a woman’s cycle. Second, during periods of adolescence and before marriage, if chastity or freedom from sexual urges is mastered, it will facilitate those times in a marriage when abstinence is essential during the fertile period of the wife. These occur when it is not reasonable to have a child for a particular period of time based upon prudent rational discernment and prayer. Third, during periods of abstinence, other ways of manifesting affection and affirmation need to be cultivated by words and deeds. Love is strengthened by surprise, not simply authentic conjugal intercourse.

Now, given today’s world where most doctors do not even know about NFP and most parents practice artificial family planning, and teens and “twenty-somethings” are hooking up, watching porn, living together in “trial marriages” with contraceptives as their sacrament of life, how will it be possible for anyone, unless God gives special graces, to renounce such self-centered lifestyles and embrace discipline, self-mastery, and communication?

In this morass of no norms license, NFP will not and cannot work because there is no will or virtue to take up this lifestyle, which demands sacrifice. If the home life has not been attuned to a sharing, sparing, and a frugal lifestyle, then seeking the perfection of virtue and the common good is impossible for NFP to even begin, let alone practice. Even though where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more, God does not take away man’s ability to resist Him.

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
Articles by Fr. Cole:

  • L.S.

    Fr. Cole,

    I respect you very much and do not mean to be contentious, only to try to understand.

    Our age very much need to develop the practice of chaste love inside and outside of marrige, and the virtue self-mastery. However, I don’t see the promotion of NFP as a norm as a necessary part of that, rather, I think it feeds into many of the problems of our age. If I may borrow a bit from this Sunday’s Gospel (a little out of context, perhaps), even the pagans welcome children when it is easy.

    I personally know women who have welcomed children despite the fact that their husband has lost his job, or that the husband had a terminal disease, or that the mother was recovering from cancer and looking at a possible relapse. I personally know women who have welcomed pregnancies even though they are converts from atheism and had no support from their families, and women who have welcomed pregnancies despite advanced age or repeated miscarriages. And the list goes on, though I know anecdotes do not a principle make.

    Of course, these women may be acting heroically. And surely there are grave situations that warrant the postponement of pregnancy (of course, when things are truly grave, total abstinence, not periodic continence, is what is necessary). Yet it seems that there are few voices exhorting married couples to take up the cross of their fertile years and accept with generosity whatever it is that God has in mind. Instead it seems there are many voices saying the postponement of pregnancy would be a normal part of most marriages.

    There are plenty of opportunities to learn all the good things you mentioned in your article in a marriage apart from any sort of fertility regulation, and it would be good to hear them promoted apart from NFP. I do know some couples where one spouse is more open to children than the other, and NFP can be used in a manipulative way. Our culture promotes materialism and selfishness in all things, and it is very hard for even Catholics to resist the temptations to be of this world. I have never heard a priest from the pulpit say, “Don’t be afraid to have all the children God sends you!” I have also never heard a priest preach, “Be on guard against selfishness in your use of NFP.” And I think the idea that NFP must be a stepping-stone for contracepting couples to accept the Church’s teaching is erroneous.

    If an elderly parent needs expensive and time-consuming care, we do not opt to delay it. If a needy person lands in our lives, we must help them as we can. And it seems to me so it is with children – if God deigns to send us ten in ten years, or several with special needs, or few, or in troubled times, that is His plan and He will also send us the grace to do it with great love.

    I suspect you mostly agree with me, and of course I agree with all the good things you are promoting in marriage and culture. Certainly it would be a better thing for couples to learn NFP than to use contraception. It seems to me an even better thing to try to learn to be as generous as possible and open to God’s will in all things. I hope I expressed my thought in a charitable and clear way.

    In Christ,

    • Fr. Basil, OP

      One has to keep in mind that generosity needs to be led by another virtue called prudence, the charioteer of the virtues. The Church teaches “responsible” parenthood within due limits, which takes into account a lot of factors of the spouses from health to finances etc. The Lord Jesus expects future parents to use their intelligence about these matters as well as prayer and sacrifice of self in following an informed conscience..

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  • nannon31

    The other post uses the word “grave” as the reason needed to postpone children. That word is from a lower venue document, an address by Pius XII not from an encyclical. Humanae Vitae uses the word “serious” instead of grave. Grave makes you think of a grave. LS is a providentialist but it only seems to work where the government can step in and provide money if one parent leaves or dies early. Between 2010 and 2012, 129,000 children from large agrarian families starved to death in Somalia where there was no US government to come to the rescue.
    The Lancet recently gave a figure of 3.1 million children dying of undernutrition worldwide in 2012 therefore Providentialism does not work outside affluent welfare countries. Two largely Catholic countries, Brazil and the Phillipines, have street children living in the streets and are in the top four nations for child sex trafficing. Shinto Japan has no children living on the streets. How can we convert countries who have safer more orderly cultures than many Catholic countries. Google nicest countries to live in…best elder care…etc. Protestant Scandinavian countries are always in such lists…no street children like Catholic East Timor. The many Latin American Catholic countries are not on such lists. Four are in the forefront of the cocaine trade and two, Brazil and Peru, have two of the largest numbers of uncontacted tribes on earth despite Catholicism being there for 500 years. Catholicism needs another Council just addressing this denial of reality issue and the fact that we have historically partly produced countries that non Catholics don’t want to imitate so why would they convert. Japan is fifty times safer against murder than the two largest Catholic countries…Brazil and Mexico. How are you going to convert Japan, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark when their countries are safer than the majority of our countries? On birth control, Popes need to go on TV and debate the best minds from the best schools in public just like Christ debated in public. The world does not trust the writing of documents followed by non accessibility which is the odd style of the papacy that is rooted not in Christ’s example but in Euro royalty culture. It’s over. CEO’s and Presidents now face hard questions in public. Popes must do the same then maybe the moral stats will improve.

    • L.S.

      Nannon31, I think people in third world countries could use our help in making things safer and improving their circumstances. Instead of pouring resources into helping them not have children (which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also sees as the solution, albeit through artificial contraception), why not focus that money and time into evangelizing? The peace and prosperity of the “First World” is not the result of spacing children, rather a christian ethic (sadly, now decaying).

      • nannon31

        How about cleaning up already Catholic countries where children are being trafficked because they live on the streets?

        • L.S.

          I think Fr. Cole was not writing about the third world, where the application of NFP could indeed be different. I thought he was writing towards an American audience.

          • nannon31

            Zai Jian

  • basicreason

    My wife and I have used NFP throughout 14 years of marriage. We have 4 children, ages 13 – 4. It does require self-mastery. There are good reasons for this teaching.

    1. Fertility is a gift from God. Fertility is not a disease to be “prevented” with medicines.

    2. As intelligent and rational people, we are supposed to use our faculties according to the manner and purpose God created them. Justice to God must be a principle in all our actions. Human sexuality must be experienced according to God’s design, which is also the most loving.

    3. As Pope John Paul II taught, in authentic love a man and a woman give themselves to each other fully and completely, holding nothing back. A child is a living expression of the love between husband and wife.

    4. There are serious reasons why a couple would postpone or decide to not have any further children, such as the life of the mother and well being of the children already conceived and being cared for.

    Using artificial contraceptives, wrong in itself, leads to so many moral problems.

    1. Husband and wife manipulate human sexuality to seek primarily the pleasurable nature of being together. This injures the attitude of love and tenderness toward each other. It creates an environment for lust; the desire to use person solely for the experience of pleasure. Lust is the root of many sins. It is a cardinal sin.

    2. Also, if you have sex without being open to life, you lay the foundation for the abortion mentality.

    3. It darkens the intellect to live contrary to the true meaning and purpose of human sexuality.

    Thank God for the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. So sad few priests and parishes teach it.

  • Karen

    My husband and I are in our early fifties now, and have seven children ages 24 to age seven. We had our first three boys in three years. We went from basically a prolonged hedonistic adolescence to intense responsibility for souls in those three years. We were given the grace by God through the Catholic Church to know with iron certainty that the teaching against birth control was correct and from God. Our strength to “practice” it came from the Eucharist and the prayers of a few holy souls (and probably the Communion of Saints) who cheered us on, for we found ourselves scoffed at by so many other Catholics, all our close family members, and not a few Catholic priests. We learned NFP only to give ourselves a chance to breathe while we figured out how to raise the ones growing up so quickly. By living the teaching, either as a chaste single person or religious, or as a married couple open to life, one begins to acquire wisdom through sacrifice (of time, of leisure, of career, of prestige, of…), not having (house beautiful, cool car, perfect lawn, perfect anything…), not knowing (when you will be done, when you will “have a family already,” when you will stop working…) I am praying that the bishops and Church leaders who meet at the synod on the family next fall will inspire the whole Church to be able to communicate and live the truth and beauty of her precious teaching. I can’t think of anything more vital for our world today.

  • Karen

    By the way, thank you for the article!

  • Charbel

    NFP is Catholic contraception
    NFP is family Planning

  • Michelle Berghout

    Thank you Fr Cole for your excellent article and authentically communicating the teaching of the Church. Through the use of NFP, a woman becomes in tune with her body which results in respect and harmony between spouses. It creates a “sustainable” relationship that produces healthy spiritually ecological side-effects thus causing the relationship to flourish and grow. As the couple strive to be in harmony with themselves, nature and God, they are given supernatural graces that enable them to reach the heights that Christ intends for the Sacrament of Marriage. Furthermore, the spiritual benefits which result from the practice of NFP, help the marriage to climb towards it true identity and dignity. They are to be a sacramental sign of Grace reflecting the union of Christ with His Beloved Bride the Church.