by Jenny Uebbing
Limping across the finish line to finish up this week-long love fest for the Church’s teachings on sex and babies.
Let’s take a couple bites out of the elephant in the room today: the idea of NFP as “Catholic birth control,” and why we continue to simultaneously tout the 98% effective statistic while ably captaining our small herds of humanity.
Here’s the thing that gets a lot of people confused, Catholic and non alike. NFP, at first glance, looks a whole lot like primitive, “natural” (aka less effective) birth control that the Church reluctantly throws out as a bone of concession to ensure we don’t all end up with a veritable baker’s dozen of children and driving a cargo van.
Except that I personally know like, at least 20 families who fit that exact description. So what gives?
If NFP is so wonderful and effective, why are lots of us who sing its praises sized out of the entire efficiency auto market?
First off, NFP does not equal contraception. It is not, in fact, “Catholic birth control,” however doggedly our sexually-illiterate culture persists in this misnomer.
Contraception necessitates a step taken, a physical or chemical interference in the life-giving process of human sexuality.
Delaying or avoiding conception, on the other hand, or to use Bl. Pope Paul VI’s phrase, “the intentional spacing of children,” via periodic abstinence, does not tamper with the life-giving potential of sex.
On the contrary, using knowledge of one’s cycle to avoid a pregnancy virtually bows down in the face of Divinely created human fertility and says “I defer to your awesome power” — there’s no shutting down or circumventing or cutting off or wrapping up and proceeding as if nothing has changed.
So in this way, fertility awareness aka NFP aka “birth control” in the fullest sense of the phrase, is about the furthest thing from contraception. A better term for it might simply be self control.
Instead of enabling sterilized, life-denying sex, it summons temperance. Prudence. Delayed gratification.
NFP says “I recognize the gift, I am in no position to receive the gift at this time, I offer the gift back to the Giver in gratitude…even when it’s a difficult offering to make.”
And it’s sometimes a very difficult offering — both the abstaining part and the “maybe we really are ready to welcome another child” part.
In practice it looks like this: a married couple, determining that now would be an imprudent/dangerous/unwise time to have a baby, practices abstinence during the fertile phase of the woman’s cycle, ranging anywhere from 2-14 days depending upon the individual woman, the particular season they find themselves in (postpartum NFP can be a real b, can I get an amen?) and a series of other possible factors based on the unique biological makeup of each human person.
For some couples, the grave reason can be a lifelong condition, a debilitating illness, a permanent state of “we can’t accept another child right now.” I know several couples who fit that description, and their practice of NFP is heroic, but talking with each of them they’ve found that even in their particular and very, very difficult circumstances, it has continued to be a gift in their marriage.
Are they more “careful” than the average couple, weighing the gravity of what a pregnancy could mean each time they come together? Yes, for sure. But NFP has given them a confidence in their sexual love that God will not give them more than they can handle, and that through diligent and very conservative observance of the method they’ve chosen, they can confidently avoid pregnancy.
(And as an aside, no method of contraception is completely failsafe. So when a couple who really ought not to conceive for grave medical reasons does so due to a failure or flaw, what becomes of the baby? Abstinence remains the only 100% effective method of avoiding pregnancy. )
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to human reproductive system. We’re all designed similarly, but we each work a little differently. (And that’s one major score for NFP over mainstream western gynecological care. Many physicians are unwilling or ill-equipped to examine an individual woman’s unique cycles and physiological makeup, opting instead for an automatic prescription for hormones, a temporary bandaid instead of a more in depth analysis of the difficulties or idiosyncrasies of her particular body.)
Remember too, the Church isn’t anti contraception because She is anti science or anti technology, but rather, because contraception is fundamentally anti-woman and anti-life.
The Church’s promulgation of NFP is not a matter of finding a “natural” way to avoid getting pregnant; it’s about coming to terms emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually to the reality that sex and procreation are intentionally, inextricably linked. For a reason.
NFP isn’t the Catholic solution to the problem of ‘too many children;’ rather, it is the Church’s response to the gaping void of too little love.
Yeah, but if it works so well, why do you have so many kids?
Nobody has kids as close together as some of us practicing Catholics tend to (well, maybe Mormons and Muslims), and so while to some people it’s repulsive, for most it’s simply … surprising. And I don’t mind being surprising.
I actually fairly frequently encounter friendly, non-hostile and curious strangers who are genuinely surprised and happy – if a little confused – to see a youngish mom with so many little kids in her charge. Especially kids who look like they could maybe be twins but aren’t.
And often the topic turns to matters of a reproductive nature. Especially, it seems, with strangers. And so explaining to a fellow mom on the playground that we use NFP to space our kids and then watching her eyes fill with horror as she does the mental math to discover the age gap between them (19 months for us, but intentionally so, for the most part) is probably not the most compelling case for the method’s “effectiveness.”
But here’s the thing. We haven’t yet had a grave reason to avoid another pregnancy indefinitely. We’ve for sure had seasons of hardship where NFP was successful in allowing us to buy a couple more months of breathing room as I clawed my way out of PPD, but after each baby we’ve always come out of the woods (thankfully, so far) by about month 10, feeling sane and stable and ready to welcome another little life into ours.
That’s not the case for every couple, and the beauty of it is, it doesn’t have to be! But the fact that many couples who practice NFP may tend to have larger families, on average, is not necessarily proof of the methods “ineffectiveness” at spacing or avoiding pregnancy.
It’s just that when your default setting isn’t “sterilized” but “periodically fertile,” there comes a time each month where spouses are compelled to discuss the nitty gritty of where they’re both at, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and whether or not now would be a good time to tap the procreative brakes. Some months that answer is an unequivocal YES. And other months, it’s a more tentative “maybe?” … and then some months there is real, authentic readiness to welcome another child.
And into each of those scenarios we invite the Holy Spirit into our consultation, asking His wisdom and guidance and giving Him a warm welcome into our marital relationship.
And sometimes He shows up in a particularly tangible way. The 2 pink lines on a stick way. But we’re never surprised about it, even when we perhaps have felt less than prepared for it. Because we’ve never intentionally tried to shut Him out of the equation.
So that’s the gift of NFP, in a nutshell.
Customized fertility awareness, increased spousal communication and discernment, openness and (hopefully) receptivity to the workings of the Holy Spirit, and yes, some of the time, a bigger than average family.
But we’re never surprised when sex = babies, even if we were perhaps hoping for a little more time. Because sex does, in fact, lead to babies, does it not? Unless something is broken, has been intentionally disabled or damaged via medical intervention, or a couple have arrived beyond the physically fertile years of their relationship.
That’s the real difference between contraception and NFP. We’re never surprised when sex leads to babies, because that’s what sex does.
And when we encounter the reality of how the human person was designed head on, acknowledging the nature of our make up, body and soul, our relationships with each other and with our Creator are always deepened and enriched, in good times and in bad, for better and for worse.
Jenny Uebbing is the content editor for Catholic News Agency's marriage and family life channel. She blogs at Mama Needs Coffee about faith, sex, family life, contraception, and Catholicism. She lives in Denver with her husband David and their growing family. This blog is reprinted here with permission of the author.