On Facebook, I’m in several Natural Family Planning (NFP) groups, and the same question pops up on a regular basis: “What reasons justify using NFP to avoid pregnancy, according to the teaching of the Church? Is there a list?”
I’ve scoured encyclicals, papal letters and addresses, and several scholarly tomes on the subject, I’m confident that I can provide the list of reasons, sanctioned by the Catholic Church, in which a couple may licitly use NFP to avoid pregnancy. Here is the list:
You can stop highlighting now — that space is intentionally blank.
Why? Because there is no list. The Catholic Church does not have one for a reason.
- The Church provides guidelines, and leaves the actual reasons up to the individual couple’s discernment.
- The Church has not outsourced the job of compiling a list to Catholic bloggers.
- The Church does not require that the couple consult a priest, deacon, or other spiritual director. Although, it’s always a wise idea to discuss one’s discernment process with a faithful spiritual director or orthodox, holy priest, it’s not required for couples to do so in order to use NFP to avoid pregnancy and remain in good standing with the church.
- The Church does not require that couples adhere to a faulty translation of Humanae Vitae when engaging in their discernment.
- The Church does not now, nor has She ever, considered NFP a heresy. For anyone who wants to challenge me on that point, please read the linked article first, and then you can explain to me why you oppose the teachings of Blessed Pope Pius IX, Pope Leo XIII, Pope St. Pius X, Pope Benedict XV, and Pope Pius XI (among others). Also, please don’t take any quotes from St. John Vianney’s “The Cure’D’Ars” out of context.
- The Church does not now nor has She ever stated that Catholics who allegedly use NFP for frivolous reasons as having a “contraceptive mentality.” As a point of fact, it is ontologically impossible for NFP to be contraceptive, or used in a contraceptive manner. Pope St. John Paul II, when speaking of the world’s contraceptive mentality, was not speaking about faithful Catholics who use NFP to avoid pregnancy. He was speaking of people (Catholic or otherwise) who use contraception.
Can faithful Catholics misuse NFP out of fear or selfishness? Probably. But I’ve never met any who has.
I’ve been Catholic for over a decade now, and I’ve been using NFP that entire time. I’ve encountered thousands of Catholics, both online and in person, who use or have used NFP both to avoid or achieve pregnancy, as well as single women who use it to monitor gynecological health. I’ve also volunteered with my local parish’s marriage preparation program, where my husband and I were chosen to present the session about sexuality within marriage, a topic that covered Theology of the Body, NFP, contraception, infertility, etc.
Throughout all that time, I can truthfully and honestly say that I have never met a single Catholic who has used NFP for a “frivolous” reason. I can say that with confidence for two reasons:
1. NFP can be hard. It’s almost like it was designed to persuade couples that the reasons they have to avoid pregnancy aren’t really that serious. (I see what you did there, God.) If Catholics are inclined to be selfish, they aren’t going to use a method like NFP, which requires one to be selfless. As blogger John Gerardi says, “When Catholics want to be selfish, they don’t use a method of fertility planning that involves enormous amounts of self control and long periods of continence. They just use contraception, something naturally tailored for people who are trying to be selfish.”
I have two children that were the result of my husband and I discerning in mid-cycle that the reasons we had to avoid pregnancy were not as serious as they seemed at the beginning of my cycle. We’ve also had other cycles where we’ve been sorely tempted to throw caution to the wind, but all we had to do was remind ourselves of the reasons we’d discerned to avoid pregnancy in the first place, and agree that, yes, they were serious enough that it wouldn’t be prudent to conceive a child this cycle. Too often, we forget that we are called to both generosity and prudence when it comes to our vocation as parents. Children are a great gift, but also a great responsibility, and both factors need to be carefully considered in the course of discernment when it comes to family size.
2. God has not granted me the power to read hearts and minds, nor has He given me the ability to know the intimate details of every Catholic person’s physical, psychological, emotional, situational, and/or financial health. Since He has not, I have no business judging another person’s use of NFP. When discussing this subject with other Catholics in the above-mentioned Facebook groups, I hear assertions that abuse of NFP is a serious problem. Apparently, according to them, misuse of NFP among Catholic couples is a veritable epidemic!
When I ask these people for evidence of this epidemic (given that only a quarter, if that, of Catholic couples actually use NFP instead of contraception to avoid pregnancy), I get comments such as, “Well, I know for a fact that my acquaintances X and Y at my parish, St. Busybody’s, use NFP for frivolous reasons. X told me that they only have two kids because she never wants to drive a minivan.” However, what you may NOT know:
- Y is a recovering alcoholic who struggles to stay sober but has lapses, and X doesn’t want to bring any more kids into that situation — nor does she want to introduce more stress into their lives if she can help it, because stress threatens Y’s sobriety. She’s certainly not going to share that information with acquaintance Z from St. Busybody’s, so she makes up a flippant excuse when asked why they only have two kids.
- X and Y are actually suffering from secondary infertility, and it’s an enormous cross to bear. They’re not able to adopt due to a felony conviction in Y’s past, but they don’t want to have to explain that whenever anyone at St. Busybody’s asks why they only have two kids, so she makes up a flippant excuse.
- X wasn’t a practicing Catholic for many years, and she asked Y to get a vasectomy after their second child was born. She’s since come to realize the error of her ways, but she and Y can’t afford a reversal, nor does his doctor recommend surgery for Y that’s not absolutely necessary due to some of his health concerns. She tells the other ladies at her parish that she and her husband use NFP to avoid because she’s ashamed to tell them about his sterilization, since it was at her urging. She IS using NFP to monitor her gynecological health, so it’s not entirely false. She tries to justify the benefits of only having two kids to herself and others — she really wouldn’t want to drive a minivan.
I could go on.
The point is, unless you are intimately involved with every aspect of a couple’s life, you have no way of knowing what their reasons for using NFP to avoid pregnancy truly are, and if those reasons are serious or not. That’s why the Church leaves it up to God to decide, and for the couple to discern, if their reasons are serious enough, as He is the only one with that knowledge. If their reasons aren’t serious enough, we have to trust that God will make it known to them and hope that the couple will discern correctly, just like we do with every other Catholic in a position of discernment. We don’t hover over the shoulders of seminarians and caution them that their reasons for not being ordained a priest aren’t serious enough if they haven’t asked for our input.
This is truly one area where Catholics shouldn’t judge, or throw out blanket statements about how too many Catholics allegedly use NFP selfishly, because quite frankly it’s a miracle that they are using NFP at all, given the current state of our culture.
Leave the changing of hearts to God, and simply pray for clear discernment for all of our NFP-using brothers and sisters in Christ.