October 9, 2008

Natural Family Planning

Maiasura asked the following question on the Poll post:

I know this is a catholic thing and that I don't need to understand. It's probably none of my business, but I'm really confused by this. If the church advocates this NFP system, why do you feel guilty about having a "contraceptive mindset"? Doesn't the name of the system imply that you are meant to use it to plan your family? I don't understand why the system is in place at all if you aren't supposed to have a "contraceptive mindset." Why not just ignore all your biological signs, go about your business, and have babies as they come? If the church says NFP is okay, why do you feel conflicted about planning your family? Feel free to ignore this inquiry. Again, I know I don't need to grasp this. I guess I'm just curious.

It's a good question and deserving of an answer. I'm going to borrow very heavily from Christopher West, a Catholic theologian who basically takes John Paul the Great's Theology of the Body and writes the "For Dummies" version. He states:

Pope Paul VI stated clearly that those are considered “to exercise responsible parenthood who prudently and generously decide to have a large family, or who, for serious reasons and with due respect to the moral law, choose to have no more children for the time being or even for an indeterminate period” (HV 10). Notice that large families should result from prudent reflection, not “chance.” Notice too that couples must have “serious reasons” to avoid pregnancy and must respect the moral law.

...The Church has always recognized that the only method of “birth control” that respects the language of divine love is “self-control.”

...Contraception, by definition, is the choice to engage in an act of intercourse, but then do something else to render it sterile...

Couples who use natural family planning (NFP) when they have a just reason to avoid pregnancy never render their sexual acts sterile; they never contracept...

To some people this seems like splitting hairs. “What’s the big difference,” they ask, “between rendering the union sterile yourself and just waiting until it’s naturally infertile? The end result is the same: both couples avoid children.” To which I respond, what’s the big difference between killing Grandma and just waiting until she dies naturally? End result’s the same thing: dead Grandma. Yes, but one is a serious sin called murder, and the other is an act of God.

So hopefully that will explain the Catholic perspective of NFP a little better.

And now to the "contraceptive mentality" bit. Some people have a very good reason to not get pregnant and to use NFP to not do so. For example, after I miscarried I was told to wait a few cycles before we tried again. We wanted to get pregnant but we also knew that for my health and for the health of the next baby we should wait. So we were "open to life" and would have rejoiced at a pregnancy, but we felt like it was very important to wait. You can also have good reasons involving money, housing, schooling, health, depression, etc. In these circumstances you are not wanting the act to be sterile - you are not trying to change sex.

But - and this is where my struggle comes in - to engage in the marital act and to not be open to life, to not want there to be any chance of a baby, this is having a "contraceptive mentality." This is the line I have to discern every time Travis and I consummate our marriage.

Maybe I've just muddied the water even more. You can read the entire Christopher West article here. Also, if my fellow Catholics feel I got it wrong, please correct me! I would love to be shown the Truth!


  1. I think it is a very complex issue. I feel the church gives people mixed messages about NFP, and I think a lot of priests realize this. I think you are very brave for being so honest and truthful about the issue. I know there are endless discussion boards about this very topic. I still struggle with if it is okay to use NFP without the spiritual direction of a priest and what about abstaining all together for a month or a determined amount of time. Is this any different? Then it is not like you are choosing to avoid a fertile day specifically. I am also not married and do not have children so can not relate on that level of what it is actually like.

  2. "But - and this is where my struggle comes in - to engage in the marital act and to not be open to life, to not want there to be any chance of a baby, this is having a "contraceptive mentality." This is the line I have to discern every time Travis and I consummate our marriage."

    (I'm not sure if you saw my comment on the previous NFP post, which is more in depth than what I'm saying here.) If you are not using contraception, the very act itself is open to life. You don't have to want that a baby result from the act to be "open to life". The openness is inherent in the kind of act - an act in which the unitive and procreative aspects have remained in tact. While our emotions and thoughts matter, they do not affect the morality of the act in the case you are describing.

    I think many NFP-using couples have needless guilt over this. If you were just being selfish and didn't have a serious reason to avoid pregnancy, that's a different story; maybe you should feel guilty. When there are serious reasons to avoid having a child, you've done nothing wrong to think/feel like you do not want a child to result.

    My point boils down to the Chris West quote you posted about the "difference between killing Grandma and just waiting until she dies naturally". When Grandma dies naturally, you need not feel guilt because you've done nothing wrong. See what I mean?

  3. AB, I did see your other comment - thank you very much for your insight and information. I guess what it comes down to is that I don't know if I have good reason or if I'm just being selfish.

    Jackie, I think you are right that we should have spiritual direction while using NFP, which is exactly why I'm scheduled to meet with my priest. I need help with all this!

  4. " to not want there to be any chance of a baby, this is having a "contraceptive mentality." "

    ~totally agree with this thought here Bonnie! without getting into too many details, i have not really had a 'baby itch' since Bridget has been born. When Lucy was out of her newborn stage (around 3 months) I was already talking about having another baby. We then decided that we should wait until I was done with school to have #2.... And then we got pregnant with Bridget only a few months later. :) and, of course we were so happy, but at first it was scary to be pregnant with two so close together while I was still in school. We were scared to tell people and to give NFP a 'bad name.' We actually had a few relatives ask if we were pregnant because our 'natural contraceptive' (NFP) didn't work. So, we had to try to explain to people that we 'took' a 'gray day.' (if you understand that). But, now, i have no desire to have a child anytime soon, and thats okay. Part of that is that I would like to finish school first, and part of that is I now know how tough it is to be pregnant while already having a baby to look after (VERY TOUGH, fyi :) ).
    Anyways, what I'm saying is that right now I really am 'scared' of getting pregnant. I don't think that my body or my mind could handle one more thing in life right now. I do get really nervous about it, and I do feel guilty about not feeling so open to life at this period in my life.
    Basically, I guess I'm just agreeing with how you are feeling right now. :)
    ps-it was great to see you this morning, and i hope we can see each other more!

  5. Bonnie, regarding "contraceptive mentality," I applaud your intentions and sincerity, but I want to reassure you that I think you're being too hard on yourself!

    I read a very interesting article that begins like this:

    A friend recently called with questions about childbirth, timidly confessing that she was pregnant with her fourth baby in six years while her youngest was eight months old. “It was unexpected,” she said quietly, “But I can’t tell my best friend that we were trying to avoid having another baby. She says the Church teaches that NFP can only be used when having another child would cause some kind of disaster in the family.”

    The article claims that part of the problem comes from a bad translation of Humanae Vitae. The first translation, which is unofficial and goes from Latin to Italian to English, is more quoted and published than the official Vatican translation. Here's a paragraph from the official Vatican translation:

    If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.

    Two examples of differences in the unofficial translation: At the end, the phrase "in the least" is omitted. And at the beginning, instead of "well-grounded reasons," it's "serious motives." Subtle differences, but when you're dealing with source material that seems quite undefined, even subtle differences can influence interpretation.

    So much more could be said on this crucial topic, but I think that's more than enough for now. Keep thinking, keep praying, cooperate with Christ and His Church to form your conscience well, then follow your conscience in those matters that the Church leaves up to your prudential judgement, and don't second-guess or beat yourself up! - Ryan.

  6. thanks for attempting to explain this, bonnie. i think it is just so different from my own perspective, it's still a little fuzzy to me. but that's okay. i don't really need to fully understand it. i am hoping that you can work out the details for yourself and not feel too conflicted over this issue. see you and lydia tomorrow!