A Defense of Natural Family Planning

There is a great difference between NFP and contraception

Pope St. Paul VI
Pope St. Paul VI (photo: Register Files)

A self-described “traditionalist” argued the following things (all false, and number 4 is a distortion and contrary to fact):

1. Women must be open to having an unlimited number of children.

2. Married couples cannot decide to limit this number for any reason.

3. Married couples cannot decide to space children for any reason.

4. Pope St. Paul VI made a “drastic change” in Catholic tradition by making the purpose of marriage happiness of the couple rather than procreation.

5. Pope St. Paul VI’s reasons given in [the 1968 encyclical] Humanae Vitae for limiting and spacing children are wrong and come from “Protestant” reasoning: against Catholic tradition.

6. Natural Family Planning (NFP) is no different from artificial contraception and is, therefore, evil. It is a corruption of traditional teaching, not a development of it.

Following is my reply to all these serious errors and distortions of what the Church teaches and has taught:

The doctrine taught in Humanae Vitae is infallible teaching, and NFP is a legitimate, consistent development of the ban on contraception. Spacing children for the right reasons is perfectly acceptable and Catholic. The unitive function of marriage has always been part of it. To deny that is to feed into stereotypes that Catholics are anti-sex and anti-pleasure.

Similar thinking of this sort leads to genital mutilation of women (or “female circumcision”), which still occurs today in many cultures. Women are not supposed to have any pleasure in sex, right (which would be shocking news to the writer of the Song of Solomon)?

Spacing can be done for health, financial or emotional reasons (as Humanae Vitae discusses). Pope St. Paul VI wrote:

In relation to physical, economic, psychological, and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth. (Section 10)

It’s not a sin to intelligently, thoughtfully plan, in the matter of children. That is a matter of stewardship, just as in any related matter of care of that which God has entrusted to us. We are stewards of our children, as well as of our gifts and abilities and money and possessions and responsibilities, or our time. Hence, Pope St. Paul VI wrote in Humanae Vitae (16 and 20):

[T]he Church is the first to praise and recommend the intervention of intelligence in a function which so closely associates the rational creature with his Creator; but she affirms that this must be done with respect for the order established by God.

If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way to regulate birth . . .

Take my own family’s case, for example (to see how this works out in real life). God has blessed us with four wonderful children. We did practice NFP. We have never had much money (given that I am an apologist, a profession that is not thought much of) and that is a legitimate consideration. (Having fifteen children and a fairly low income is not a wise life choice).

But there were also serious health reasons. My wife, Judy, has had six miscarriages, and very difficult pregnancies (the last one required several months of bed rest).

Moreover, there were emotional difficulties, with extremely serious postpartum depression after our second child (who had colic for a good year, so that her sleep was severely disrupted, and I couldn’t help much since my wife nursed the children and I had a driving job and so couldn’t be up all night either).

These are all, I submit, perfectly legitimate reasons to exercise NFP. And it’s no different in essence from the following biblical passage:

1 Corinthians 7:4-5: For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control.

NFP is, in effect, one such “season.” The couple abstains during fertile periods, for good and permissible reasons (assuming these are present, in good conscience; NFP is also itself abused if used wrongly for illegitimate motives). This is fundamentally different from contraception, because the couple who practices NFP accepts the natural order of things and natural law by not having sex during fertile periods.

Contraception eliminates the possibility of conception (during fertile periods), thus violating God’s law, by not willing a child who might be, if sexual relations occur. In other words, it is immoral to engage in sexual relations when a woman is fertile and deliberately thwart what might be a conception. That is not being open to life. NFP involves no such contralife will, because it entails abstinence during fertile periods (for the right reasons).

To understand these issues better, I highly recommend The Teaching of “Humanae Vitae”: A Defense, by John C. Ford. S.J., Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, John Finnis, and William E. May (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988). In the chapter “Every Marital Act Ought to Be Open to New Life: Toward a Clearer Understanding” (p. 89) the authors state:

There is a real and very important difference between not wanting to have a baby, which is common to both [1. contraception] and [2. the noncontraceptive use of NFP], and not wanting the baby one might have, which is true of (1) but not of (2).