Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Is it just me or has there been a resurgence in awareness of Natural Family Planning this year? Maybe my perspective is different from others', but it seems to me that more and more Catholics are aware of what the Church actually teaches about human sexuality and openness to life. Friends who work as family planning instructors and who staff pro-life medical clinics say that they're seeing a surge of interest in NFP lately. This year also saw the launch of some great new sites like 1Flesh and IUseNFP which pitch NFP as an alternative to artificial contraception, and which have gained a surprising amount of traction in a short amount of time.
Could it be that even the wider culture is ready to hear about natural methods of child spacing? Some of us think so.
I've thought for a while that our society is ripe to hear the truth about human sexuality. Now that we've had four decades to try out the "truths" of the sexual revolution, it's becoming pretty clear that the problem is not with the execution but with the core ideas themselves. Women feel more objectified than ever. They're seeing that contraception far too often leaves them trapped, feeling like their only exit is through the doors of the local abortion mill. They find that popping a pill or using condoms actually doesn't make marriage any better, and that the contraceptive mentality that pervades our culture even leads their doctors to fear their reproductive systems and end up pushing quick-fix prescription drugs rather than seeking to understand the underlying causes of their symptoms. If any of them ever stumbled across Humanae Vitae, they'd probably find its predictions downright eerie given the way things have actually played out.
I think that the average woman's dissatisfaction with the status quo has reached a level of intensity we haven't yet seen. I think we're close to a tipping point in which, for the first time in decades, there's a real chance of seeing significant cultural receptivity to the idea of using natural methods of child spacing, even among non-Catholics. Not only could this help countless individuals live fuller and happier lives, but any effort to combat the culture of contraception is an effort to combat the culture of death.
But here's the problem: When you pitch NFP, you're pitching a fundamentally sacrifice-based system.
For those who are interested in introducing others to Natural Family Planning, whether the outreach is targeted at poorly catechized Catholics or the wider culture, I think the biggest obstacle is getting folks to accept the self-sacrificial aspect of it. Even though people are becoming increasingly aware of the downsides of contraception, they still perceive that it has the benefit of letting them engage in intimacy whenever they want. There's no abstinence required, and it's easy to forget all about the life-giving potential of the sexual act. NFP, on the other hand, requires periodic abstinence for couples hoping to avoid pregnancy -- an almost unthinkable idea in our sex-saturated culture -- and it comes with a built-in understanding that each sexual act has the potential to create new human life. Even though contraception is just as likely to lead to surprise pregnancies, it's not an inherent part of contraception use that couples would have a regular awareness of that fact.
It's a tough problem. How do you pitch a sacrifice-based system in a hedonistic culture? How do you pose an alternative to widely accepted "truths" whose falsehoods are only beginning to be recognized?
My guess is that it needs to be explained as an alternative lifestyle more than simply another method of birth control. Natural Family Planning, and all the awareness of the truths about human sexuality that comes with it, requires an entirely different approach to marriage -- and even to life in general. When couples realize that every sexual act carries with it the potential of creating a son or a daughter, whether or not that's what they're aiming for, it gives them an new perspective on what really matters in life. When they accept periodic abstinence and find new types of romance during those times, their understanding of marital intimacy fundamentally changes.
But that's just my theory. I would be interested to hear from anyone who has been in a position to share Natural Family Planning methods with people who use contraception. What is a way to explain it that resonates with people who aren't familiar with it? What have you found to be successful?
To be sure, I don't expect that NFP use is going to sweep the culture in huge numbers, or that contraception is going to be relegated to the dustbin of history any time soon. I'm not suggesting that crafting just the right pitch will make scores and scores of people throw their birth control pills out the window. But I do think that there is a small but significant number of people who are desperate for a new solution, and that the time is right for us to tell the world about NFP.