The Church’s teachings about birth control and openness to life remain subject to much controversy, and as part of this, the concept of Natural Family Planning or NFP, which some refer to as ‘the only method of birth control approved by the Church,’ is subject to many criticisms and misgivings. On the one hand, many from the mainstream culture wonder how NFP is any different from contraception, and whether it can properly called ‘natural’ at all- since it relies on making observations that are possible only because of modern scientific discoveries. They also complain that it is too difficult and/or doesn’t work.
On the other hand, some faithful Catholics (quite ironically) make exactly the same arguments against NFP, wondering how it is any different from contraception, and arguing that it is not truly ‘natural’ at all- since it still depends on modern technology and knowledge that our ancestors didn’t have access to. Therefore, this argument goes, NFP and contraception are both equally selfish, equally betray a lack of trust in God, and could easily be interfering with God’s Will by refusing to bring souls into existence whom God had intended. After all, they both achieve the same result- not becoming pregnant, or a child not being conceived.
It is important to remember, then, that there are many cases where two methods of achieving the same result are very different from other and not equally valid. Obtaining money to support one’s family can be done either by working honestly or by committing theft and fraud. Losing weight can be done either through diet and exercise or by intentionally vomiting. There is no obligation to invite a particular guest to a party, though it is also possible to send an unwanted guest an invitation and then turn him away at the door. Each of these examples is a clear contrast between a respectable and a clearly inappropriate method of obtaining the same result. Likewise, contraception is wrong not because avoiding conception is necessarily wrong, but because it violates natural order and perverts the sexual act. Merely abstaining from intercourse is not wrong.
The objection that NFP is unnatural because it depends on modern scientific knowledge can be answered by understanding that we rely on scientific knowledge all the time, in our everyday lives. God Himself gave us an ability to recognize and learn from what is observed in the natural world, in order to promote good health and happiness for individuals and society. The only reason science and technology become problematic is if they are used instead to destroy health, as contraception does by destroying fertility or perverting the nature of the sexual act, and degrading marriage and the family in the process. NFP, however, is based upon respecting the natural fertility cycle as good and preserving the body’s normal, healthy functioning.
It is also not necessarily selfish if a couple desires to avoid conceiving a child. The same God who endowed to parents the procreation of children desires the health, happiness, and overall well-being of the children He creates, and as such desires that couples use prudence and good discernment regarding what size of a family they can properly care for, how far apart their children should be spaced, whether it would be in a child’s best interest to be conceived within the family’s particular financial, emotional, medical, social, or other circumstances. This is also related to why God designed marriage and family in the first place as the proper environment for children to be raised. Humanae Vitae explains,
“With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.”
Lastly, it is important to realize that NFP is, by nature, much harder than contraception to use selfishly. Whereas contraception is designed to gratify the desires of the flesh at any time, NFP requires denying the desires of the flesh via abstinence. In fact, in God’s design, a couple’s desire is usually highest when the woman is fertile, in order to encourage children to be conceived. Hence, abstaining during the fertile time requires a true commitment to self-control, and often entails a great deal of struggle and suffering. Couples are not particularly likely to take this upon themselves for selfish or trivial reasons! That’s not to say that it can’t be done, since there are cases where other selfish desires can be stronger than sexual desire. But it’s important to understand that abusus non tollit usam- that just because something can be abused, does not mean that it does not have a legitimate use as well.
So in the end, the Church expects married couples to be open to life by not contracepting, to recognize that children are a blessing, and to accept as many children as they believe they reasonably and prudently can. When, for whatever reason, they discern that it is more reasonable or prudent to not have another child, they are asked to abstain from intercourse during the woman’s fertile times to achieve this result. Natural Family Planning is, in essence, any method of recognizing what those fertile times are, and there are several popular methods to choose from- rest assured that we are not talking about the old ‘rhythm’ method! In the future I hope to post some additional books and resources for those wishing to learn more.