Dr. Gregory Popcak
Natural Family Planning (NFP) continues to be one of the least understood and most underappreciated aspects of Christian family life: the majority of Catholics dismiss it, and many others struggle to understand the very real and important differences between NFP and various forms of contraception, which are universally condemned by the Church as immoral. But for those couples who use it–both to help them conceive children and to help them licitly postpone pregnancy–NFP is a blessing that has taught them many unexpected lessons about married life, self-giving love, and living a holy life. Here are some examples of those lessons drawn from the life experiences of couples with whom I have been privileged to speak. (Disclaimer: This is not an article discussing the morality of contraception or NFP but rather an exposition of the joy and beauty attached to Natural Family Planning, taken from the mouths of those who have practiced it.)
1. Encouraging Couple Prayer
Jacqueline and Mark have been married eight years. They have five children. Jacqueline says, “In the early days of our marriage, we used to pray separately, but we really struggled to pray together. Because NFP requires couples to actively discern God’s will for their family size on a month-to-month basis, it really made Mark and I start praying together every day.” Gaudium et Spes (known as Joy and Hope in English) tells us that while children are a great blessing, husbands and wives must “thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which may be foreseen. For this accounting they will reckon with both the material and spiritual conditions of the times as well as their state of life. Finally they will consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself. The married partners should make this judgment in the sight of God.”
The Church asks parents to take their role of “co-creators” with God seriously. Couples who use it properly see NFP as a constant reminder to unify their hearts by praying together about the kinds of issues listed above. Done prayerfully, the simple act of charting together (the daily observation of a woman’s fertility signs) can force a couple to constantly ask each other the question, “how do we reconcile what’s going on in the most private aspects of our bodies and our relationship with the concerns our family, our state in life, and our Church are calling us to address at this time?” By means of this ongoing call to prayerful reflection, parents are empowered to become conscious and responsible co-creators with God of new life.
2. Making Conception Easier.
Lane and Jerry are the parents of five children. Jerry says, “Everyday, we ask God to give us the wisdom to know when it’s time to add the next member to our family. Every time God has placed that call on both of our hearts, we’ve used NFP to help us cooperate with that call. Each of our children was conceived using NFP.” As any couple that has struggled to get pregnant knows, sometimes conceiving a new life isn’t as easy as falling off a log. In those times, knowing the bodily signs that indicate the most fertile times of the month, and knowing ways to increase the likelihood of pregnancy when it isn’t happening as simply as it should can certainly give the couple the ability to cooperate with God’s call to life more proactively. Though the biology of conception is not unique from person to person, the actual signs and symptoms of fertility and infertility can be radically different from person to person. When a husband and wife both have intimate knowledge about how God created their particular bodies to work, they are able to use this knowledge to more competently collaborate with the plan God has for their lives.
3. Challenges a Couple to Grow in Intimacy
Alice and Peter are the parents of seven children. Here’s what Peter says about what NFP did to their experience of intimacy. “Alice and I grew up really influenced by what the world said about sex. We wanted to live by Church teaching, but we just didn’t know how to do it very well. When we were first married, we thought that sex was the be-all-and-end-all of intimacy. When life got hectic, we got to the place where the only thing we really did together was have sex. We had stopped talking, we rarely prayed together, and we never took the time to do anything except take care of the kids and keep up the house. Once we understood what NFP was all about, we really felt God asking us to step back and focus on other ways to be close to each other in addition to sex. Not in the least because we really weren’t being a good example to our kids about what a godly couple is supposed to look like all day long. We made a point of taking several months where we abstained during the fertile phase and in that time, made a point to talk, or take walks, or play cards, or just cuddle without going all the way. And pray, of course. Every day. Together and by ourselves. It’s made all the difference in the world. Now, when we start to realize that we are losing touch with each other’s heart and soul we make a point of taking time off during our fertile phase so that we can honor our promise to God to really be one–not just in our bodies, but with every part of ourselves. Alice and I are closer for it, and the kids see what a happy Christian couple is supposed to be like.”
In order to be truly sanctifying, marriage must be ordered toward both the building of unity and the begetting of children. What the Church calls “responsible parenthood” requires that the parent actively and prayerfully consider how to balance and expand their capacity for exhibiting all the virtues associated with creating a life-giving family, and all the virtues associated with creating an intimate family. One or the other isn’t enough. Both are required if families are to practice all the virtues that enable them to live life as a gift.
It Keeps Couples Honest.
Just as NFP, properly done, can invite couples to pursue deeper intimacy, it can also force a couple to regularly evaluate their motivations for postponing pregnancy. Couples are permitted to postpone pregnancy, even indefinitely, provided that the decision to do so is made prayerfully and with serious cause, and that the couple uses only those methods of family planning that respect that natural, moral order. That said, because God’s command to be generous in the service of life is so important, couples who are postponing pregnancy must challenge themselves to resist selfish impulses that stand between them and another child.
Rachel, wife of Frank and mother of two puts it this way. “I’ve had some pretty serious health problems. Frank and I could conceive again, but we are both concerned about what that would do to our ability to meet the emotional and spiritual needs of the two children we have already. We live far away from family so we don’t have a lot of help, and because of Frank’s schedule, I’m the one who is with the kids most of the time. If I’m laid up, well, I hate to think about it. Of course, if I got sicker, we’d find a way, but after a lot prayer Frank and I just don’t think it’s the most prudent thing to intentionally take the risk.
“Even so, we sometimes worry that the financial and other benefits of having a smaller family might cause us to give in to selfish reasons for not trying to have another child. But NFP has been great for keeping us honest. To tell the truth, abstaining during my fertile time is pretty hard for both me and Frank. When we really want to be together, but it isn’t time, we have some pretty serious discussions about why we’re doing this to ourselves. But every time we talk it out and pray about it, God leads us back to the same conclusion. So far, anyway. Maybe I’ll get better someday. Or maybe God will just let us know we should just go for it and leave what happens up to him. Either way would be great by us! But until then, I know that through the prayer and talks that come along with the occasional frustration of periodic abstinence, we’ll never take this decision lightly. And whatever we do, we’ll do it together, and we’ll do it with God.”
Advocates of NFP are sometimes criticized for “overselling it”; for making it out to be the greatest thing since manna, the cure for all marital ills, or an essential part of a “real” Christian marriage. It is none of those things. What it is, though–what it can be–is a very powerful tool, which, if used prayerfully and with the proper spirit, can challenge couples to become more prayerful than they might have otherwise, more intimate on more levels than they might have otherwise, and more open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to pursue both generosity and selfless love than they might have otherwise. For these qualities alone, Catholics of all political and theological persuasions would do well to learn more about this little understood but surprisingly enriching catalyst of grace and intimacy.