I am Torn About NFP


Our new pope, Pope Francis, has said that we need to step out of our comfort zones when it comes to our faith, that we need to challenge what we have been doing all of our lives and look at what the Catholic Church really teaches.

I have been trying to do that, but I admit it is not an easy task. He (the Pope) has been taking us to task on the poor and the oppressed, As well as challanging a lot of people’s conception on what it means to lead a Christian life.

For me this means looking at what I am doing. Looking at what I have been doing and trying, the best way that I can, to understand why it is that I am doing it. That means understanding the churches teachings behind it.

As I have shared before, my wife and I are NFP Teachers. In the last couple of years something about doing this has been niggling at the back of my mind. I do feel called to help people understand NFP. But It was not until I had a conversation with my wife that I think understood some of what has been eating at me.

The conversation was about a question that came up. What do you do / how do you approach a family who is totally open to life. This came from a teaching couple who live in a diocese where the NFP class is part of the marriage preparation. The answer my wife gave, which at first startled me but the more I thought about it the more it made sense was, “You don’t need to do anything with them.”

I understand that using NFP is a choice. Heck if you read my other post, you know that we call ourselves the NFP dropouts, because while we know it, and we teach it, we don’t usually feel called to use it.

That has kind of set me on a path of trying to figure out what it is, exactly, that the Church teaches about NFP. This morning, at my wife’s suggestion I read the following article. (Yes, my wife is very smart) Heroic Parenthood and The Sorrow of Natural Family Planning

NOTE: Below I have stolen (borrowed / Made Reference to) several parts from the article. I highly recommend that you read the whole thing, but here are some of the things that I found important and relevant to my topic today.

One of the things that I was, well surprised is not the right word maybe interested to find out, was that NFP is a dispensation.

the Venerable Pius XII in his Allocution to Midwives:

The individual and society, the people and the State, the Church itself, depend for their existence, in the order established by God, on fruitful marriages. Therefore, to embrace the matrimonial state, to use continually the faculty proper to such a state and lawful only therein, and, at the same time, to avoid its primary duty without a grave reason, would be a sin against the very nature of married life. Serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise from medical, eugenic, economic and social so-called “indications,” may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life. From this it follows that the observance of the natural sterile periods may be lawful, from the moral viewpoint: and it is lawful in the conditions mentioned.

(I used wikipedia but this appears to be pulled from canon law)
A Dispensation is defined as In the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, a dispensation is the exemption from the immediate obligation of law in certain cases.[1] Its object is to modify the hardship often arising from the rigorous application of general laws to particular cases, and its essence is to preserve the law by suspending its operation in such cases.

And this is also backed up again by Pope Paul VI, and Pope John Paul II in Humanae Vitae

What does all this mean? In plain simple language that someone like I can understand, Pope Pius XII said that sex, (the marital embrace) has a procreative aspect that cannot be divorced from the rest of it. Despite that, the church recognizes that there are times when a married couple may have serious reasons such as medical or economical to avoid a pregnancy. It is in those cases that the dispensation of NFP is permitted.

That in short means that unless you have a serious reason, you should not be using NFP. (a little side note here, and this is going to be me talking. Keeping up with the “Joneses” economically, is not a serious reason. But tif you can’t put food on the table, cloth your kids and for goodness sakes a roof over your families head that is a serious reason. You might find you are are happier if you are not keeping up with the Joneses, maybe even move out of their neighborhood and find a community of people who, like you believe that the Joneses have it all wrong in the first place.)

Alright so where to I stand:

Up until recently I would have said that I thing all married couples should learn NFP. I still don’t think that is a bad idea. I am a big believer in knowledge is power. I also believe that you can’t make informed decisions without all the information. I believe that having the information about knowing how to read a woman’s body is not a bad thing. But as my wife points out, once you know NFP and know how to read the signs, it is not like you can ignore them. (See I told you she was smart.) So the temptation would be to use them. Even if you are not actually charting or any of that, if you have really learned NFP, then you know what you are looking for and you know when you are fertile or not.

So the argument might come up that NFP can be used to achieve pregnancy as much as it can be for avoiding it. To that I say, “Yes! of corse it can.” But if you are open to life, and you trust that God take care of this, then shouldn’t it be more like, you will get pregnant when the time is right? Again there is the dispensation for couples who are having trouble conceiving.

So how do I plan to approach this in the future? I’m not sure yet. I still thing teaching NFP is very valuable. If nothing else it keeps women from being put at risk by using the really dangerous hormones in artificial birth control. But I really believe that we need to approach it differently, and to do that we need to approach family differently, and to do that we need to approach marriage differently.

One of my favorite parts about the article I read this morning was the suggested way that we approach the subject in marriage preparation. I am guilty of having approached it like this:

Catholicism does not require that you become parents of a large family — rather it wants you to be responsible parents. NFP offers you a reasonable alternative to artificial contraception: a way for you young couples to be responsible while not availing yourselves to drugs or devices that degrade your humanity. You should use these NFP techniques to grow closer, to communicate better, and prayerfully consider whether and when you should bring children into the world in a responsible manner. If that means that you need to delay — even permanently — having children, that is acceptable today with the use of NFP. And what’s more, NFP is proven to be 99% effective for avoiding pregnancy — just as effective as the pill.

I would love to think that I have the strength of faith to approach it more like this:

For you young Catholic people who are marrying in your twenties, you can expect, God willing and absent a physical impairment or grave reason, to have a home filled with many children. You should mentally, physically and spiritually prepare for seven, eight, nine or more children given your ages. You should be prepared to accept the hardships that come with having a large family for two important reasons: children please our Lord and your cooperation with the Lord in bringing forth new souls will in turn please our God, which will bring you many graces. Second, having a large family will help you be saved, it will re-focus your attention from the material attachments that are both rampant today and hazardous to your eternal destination. Your many children will help you to become better and holier people and will stand as a contradiction to a world that has forgot how live the abundant life. You, and your large faithful families, will turn the tide against the scoffers and misanthropes who would revile God’s creation and man’s place in it. We cannot promise you it will be easy because it won’t, but if you persevere in prayer and virtue, you will overcome with God’s grace. And should you live to see your children’s children, you will praise God all the more that he saw fit to give you the gift of faith.

This will not be popular. This will not be easy. But, this, I think, is where we are falling down and where we need to start, with God’s Grace, to pick ourselves back up.

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6 thoughts on “I am Torn About NFP

  1. I replied directly on the article, because there is a lot of badly flawed (but-oh-so-tempting) theology.

    Women have a right to know how their bodies work. Charting is good for every woman and every couple should learn the methods if they don’t already know them. This wasn’t really possible before the discovery of NFP in the mid-1960s. Once women know about their bodies, parenthood becomes a matter of discernment and true “providentialism” isn’t possible.

    Humanae Vitae deals with all of this. The encyclical was well ahead of its time.

    As for encouraging large families, the catechism talks about large families being a blessing. Reminding couples of this and that “You don’t need a reason to have a child, you need a reason not to” is appropriate for an NFP teacher.

    Going beyond this as a layperson is really not. Different people have different needs. There is no “one size fits all” guidance because there is no “one size fits all” marriage. What may encourage one couple to holiness may drive another to scrupulosity. Some people need to learn modesty and reverence around sex, others need to learn how to be comfortable with their bodies and to see sex as a positive good. Some couples need to let go of their need for control, other couples need to learn self-control and responsibility. People’s family needs and spiritual needs are different and such issues are best discussed with a priest or trained spiritual adviser.

    1. Thank you for the reply.

      I guess I should have made it clear that while I liked the article I didn’t agree with every part of it. And There have been writings since that give some guidance on this. I do believe a lot more people / families would be better served by taking the approach of, you really need to be open to life. Self control or the need to let go.

      Slight side note here: Also, I agree with the need to discuss this with a priest or a good trained spiritual adviser. The problem I have with this, comes in finding one. I can’t tell you the number of people I have talked to about this and have flat out turned me down. (Priests included.) in the absence of that we are left with what we, ourselves can discern and what help we can find from other sources.

      Last, while I agree with a woman’s right to understand their body (really how can I not agree with that) (I believe that I said that in my post, but if not sorry) I don’t feel that every couple coming through Marriage Prep needs to be taught NFP. And it certainly should not be taught as Catholic Birth Control, as I have seen and been guilty of, in the past. I will invoke one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite priests, we can’t freely say yes unless we are free to say no. Without some knowledge about the Churches teachings and how the woman’s body works how can we (anyone) make and informed decisions.

      As I said in the title, I am torn about how to proceed.

      1. Based on some of the research I have done as to why Catholic women don’t use NFP and our own experience, I believe there needs to be a divide between people who do (pre)marital counseling and people who teach the method. (Not that one couple can’t wear two hats, but they need to be explicit about which hat they are wearing.)

        While there is this fear among some Catholics that Catholic women have bought into the contraceptive mentality, this isn’t really the case. Catholic women are still quite positive on children and still want more children than the national average. (A large part of the decline in Catholic family size is delayed marriage.)

        But Catholic women still want to be able to prevent pregnancy when they do have serious reasons. They want to hear from doctors and they want to hear from couples and their concerns are more practical than theological. They want to know if it really works and if it is really good for their marriages. There is a very real fear that the methods are more like voodoo than actual science. We’ve all heard the jokes about “Vatican Roulette”. (See http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2013/07/natural-family-planning-is-catholic-birth-control-based-on-science.html) I think lingering cultural anti-Catholicism combined with some very naive ecumenism (especially in the pro-life movement) has made a lot of people associate Catholicism with hostility toward science and women’s health.

        I think it really comes down to where you feel you are called to focus your time and talent. If you feel most called to help women understand their fertility, then do that. If you feel called to help couples grow in their marriage vocation, then do that. If you can do both ministries, great, but better to do one well than to be conflicted about both.

      2. I am going to quote my wife, because she is much wiser than I am here.

        ” I think the important thing to remember with regard to how NFP is taught from a Catholic perspective is that we need to go back to teaching that although NFP is a good thing, it is not a good in and of itself. We need to remember that the default in general for couples is to be open to life. That the need to use NFP to space pregnancies or prevent them for a time should be considered as a sad thing, a temporary thing, a necessary sacrifice for a time. My thoughts sounded much more eloquent in my head. The dangers in mandatory NFP classes and the current way NFP is often taught is that folks are often told they are being irresponsible or stupid if they have more than a small number of children. If they kids are not spaced out by some magic number of years. This is very sad and improper thinking. I will admit that I do not know what it is like to carry the cross of infertility but I have been called to live a slightly different life. Our calling has been to raise a large brood and it comes with it’s own crosses. The dangers in the way NFP is taught is that we judge each other on things we have no right to judge for.”

        With that being said I think maybe we should distinguish between NFP and teaching Fertility Awareness. I think the ladder is part of the former but they are not really one and the same.

        Just a thought on doctors. We have personally struggled with this. We have lived up and down the East coast and in parts of the midwest, and everywhere we have been doctors have looked at us like we are nuts when we mention NFP, or the fact that we are on our 5/6/7/8/9/10th child. Where we live now, there are two NAPRO doctors in the area. They won’t even really talk with us about NFP because we don’t use “Their Brand.” It is very frustrating. So yes, women, men. couples need to hear from doctors that NFP is a viable solution. They need to know it is not voodoo. They need to know it is real science. They need to hear from couples that it works. I for one can tell you that it does. And I “Preach” that every chance I get. I guess my only question is really in the way we teach it. The way it is promoted, and even making it mandatory for engaged couples. If you have ever taught a class with a hostile couple and a couple who were actually there to learn you know what I am talking about. They both end up suffering.

      3. Let’s continue our conversation here.

        Don’t get me started on CrMS and NaPro. We had a terrible experience with them. They wanted to keep us in the “brand” even though the “brand” was clearly not working for her body. K kept getting more and more confused as they tried to fit her into their “standardized” method. 😦

        “The dangers in mandatory NFP classes and the current way NFP is often taught is that folks are often told they are being irresponsible or stupid if they have more than a small number of children. If they kids are not spaced out by some magic number of years. This is very sad and improper thinking.”

        We’ve taken three NFP classes (CrMS, (old) CCLI, and Billings) and NONE of our instructors have taught ANYTHING like that. CrMS is non-religious, but our particular instructor kept dropping not-so-subtle hints to encourage us to have children and very much wanted us to read the “Catholic” material. CCLI was downright pushy, at least back then, which was not what we needed to hear after having two unplanned with CrMS. Our Billings couple told us don’t worry too much about “serious reasons” when we asked (Billings itself is non-sectarian), but they like to joke about how many rules they break and how all their children were “planned by about 10 minutes.”

        I’m sad to hear CCLI has gotten worse since Kippley left. From what I have heard from you and others, they seem to have gone from one extreme to the other. It’s a tragedy if they are now teaching the method as Catholic birth control. Anyway, our biggest problem w/old CCLI wasn’t theology or “pushiness”, but that they didn’t seem to take the science seriously. There were some rather outdated and incorrect portions in the old manual.

        Our Billings teachers are one of the few who can do both well. IIRC, he is a former Protestant minister and Billings has put a lot of effort and research into teacher training. They were also very helpful when K had her ectopic pregnancy.

        As for us, we believe our call is to promote the fertility awareness side of it. K literally had a dream about that, but that’s another story. 🙂

  2. Christopher Gawley

    Thank you considering my article on Heroic Parenthood — I appreciate the thought and attention that you have given it. Christopher Gawley

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