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NFP: When Is It Permissible to Avoid Pregnancy?

August 20, AD2014 24 Comments

On Facebook, I’m in several Natural Family Planning (NFP) groups, and the same question pops up on a regular basis:  “What reasons justify using NFP to avoid pregnancy, according to the teaching of the Church? Is there a list?”

I’ve scoured encyclicals, papal letters and addresses, and several scholarly tomes on the subject, I’m confident that I can provide the list of reasons, sanctioned by the Catholic Church, in which a couple may licitly use NFP to avoid pregnancy. Here is the list:

 

 

 

You can stop highlighting now — that space is intentionally blank.

Why? Because there is no list. The Catholic Church does not have one for a reason.

  • The Church provides guidelines, and leaves the actual reasons up to the individual couple’s discernment.
  • The Church does not require that the couple consult a priest, deacon, or other spiritual director. Although, it’s always a wise idea to discuss one’s discernment process with a faithful spiritual director or orthodox, holy priest, it’s not required for couples to do so in order to use NFP to avoid pregnancy and remain in good standing with the church.
  • The Church does not now, nor has She ever, considered NFP a heresy. For anyone who wants to challenge me on that point, please read the linked article first, and then you can explain to me why you oppose the teachings of Blessed Pope Pius IX, Pope Leo XIII, Pope St. Pius X, Pope Benedict XV, and Pope Pius XI (among others). Also, please don’t take any quotes from St. John Vianney’s “The Cure’D’Ars” out of context.
  • The Church does not now nor has She ever stated that Catholics who allegedly use NFP for frivolous reasons as having a “contraceptive mentality.” As a point of fact, it is ontologically impossible for NFP to be contraceptive, or used in a contraceptive manner. Pope St. John Paul II, when speaking of the world’s contraceptive mentality, was not speaking about faithful Catholics who use NFP to avoid pregnancy. He was speaking of people (Catholic or otherwise) who use contraception.

Can faithful Catholics misuse NFP out of fear or selfishness? Probably. But I’ve never met any who has.

I’ve been Catholic for over a decade now, and I’ve been using NFP that entire time. I’ve encountered thousands of Catholics, both online and in person, who use or have used NFP both to avoid or achieve pregnancy, as well as single women who use it to monitor gynecological health. I’ve also volunteered with my local parish’s marriage preparation program, where my husband and I were chosen to present the session about sexuality within marriage, a topic that covered Theology of the Body, NFP, contraception, infertility, etc.

Throughout all that time, I can truthfully and honestly say that I have never met a single Catholic who has used NFP for a “frivolous” reason. I can say that with confidence for two reasons:

1.  NFP can be hard. It’s almost like it was designed to persuade couples that the reasons they have to avoid pregnancy aren’t really that serious. (I see what you did there, God.) If Catholics are inclined to be selfish, they aren’t going to use a method like NFP, which requires one to be selfless. As blogger John Gerardi says, “When Catholics want to be selfish, they don’t use a method of fertility planning that involves enormous amounts of self control and long periods of continence.  They just use contraception, something naturally tailored for people who are trying to be selfish.”

I have two children that were the result of my husband and I discerning in mid-cycle that the reasons we had to avoid pregnancy were not as serious as they seemed at the beginning of my cycle. We’ve also had other cycles where we’ve been sorely tempted to throw caution to the wind, but all we had to do was remind ourselves of the reasons we’d discerned to avoid pregnancy in the first place, and agree that, yes, they were serious enough that it wouldn’t be prudent to conceive a child this cycle. Too often, we forget that we are called to both generosity and prudence when it comes to our vocation as parents. Children are a great gift, but also a great responsibility, and both factors need to be carefully considered in the course of discernment when it comes to family size.

2.  God has not granted me the power to read hearts and minds, nor has He given me the ability to know the intimate details of every Catholic person’s physical, psychological, emotional, situational, and/or financial health. Since He has not, I have no business judging another person’s use of NFP. When discussing this subject with other Catholics in the above-mentioned Facebook groups, I hear assertions that abuse of NFP is a serious problem. Apparently, according to them, misuse of NFP among Catholic couples is a veritable epidemic!

When I ask these people for evidence of this epidemic (given that only a quarter, if that, of Catholic couples actually use NFP instead of contraception to avoid pregnancy), I get comments such as, “Well, I know for a fact that my acquaintances X and Y at my parish, St. Busybody’s, use NFP for frivolous reasons. X told me that they only have two kids because she never wants to drive a minivan.” However, what you may NOT know:

  • Y is a recovering alcoholic who struggles to stay sober but has lapses, and X doesn’t want to bring any more kids into that situation — nor does she want to introduce more stress into their lives if she can help it, because stress threatens Y’s sobriety. She’s certainly not going to share that information with acquaintance Z from St. Busybody’s, so she makes up a flippant excuse when asked why they only have two kids.
  • X and Y are actually suffering from secondary infertility, and it’s an enormous cross to bear. They’re not able to adopt due to a felony conviction in Y’s past, but they don’t want to have to explain that whenever anyone at St. Busybody’s asks why they only have two kids, so she makes up a flippant excuse.
  • X wasn’t a practicing Catholic for many years, and she asked Y to get a vasectomy after their second child was born. She’s since come to realize the error of her ways, but she and Y can’t afford a reversal, nor does his doctor recommend surgery for Y that’s not absolutely necessary due to some of his health concerns. She tells the other ladies at her parish that she and her husband use NFP to avoid because she’s ashamed to tell them about his sterilization, since it was at her urging. She IS using NFP to monitor her gynecological health, so it’s not entirely false. She tries to justify the benefits of only having two kids to herself and others — she really wouldn’t want to drive a minivan.

I could go on.

The point is, unless you are intimately involved with every aspect of a couple’s life, you have no way of knowing what their reasons for using NFP to avoid pregnancy truly are, and if those reasons are serious or not. That’s why the Church leaves it up to God to decide, and for the couple to discern, if their reasons are serious enough, as He is the only one with that knowledge. If their reasons aren’t serious enough, we have to trust that God will make it known to them and hope that the couple will discern correctly, just like we do with every other Catholic in a position of discernment. We don’t hover over the shoulders of seminarians and caution them that their reasons for not being ordained a priest aren’t serious enough if they haven’t asked for our input.

This is truly one area where Catholics shouldn’t judge, or throw out blanket statements about how too many Catholics allegedly use NFP selfishly, because quite frankly it’s a miracle that they are using NFP at all, given the current state of our culture.

Leave the changing of hearts to God, and simply pray for clear discernment for all of our NFP-using brothers and sisters in Christ.

About the Author:

JoAnna was baptized, raised, and married in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America but converted to Catholicism in May 2003, on G.K. Chesterton's birthday. She has five terrific kids here on earth, two saints in heaven praying for her, and a wonderful husband of 13 years who supports her in all things. By day, she is a content editor for a global information company; by night, she enjoys defending the Catholic faith online (in between her duties as chief cook and bottle washer for La Casa Wahlund). She blogs sporadically at http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com.

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  • Bill S

    The Church has not outsourced the job of compiling a list to Catholic bloggers.

    Bravo. I just happened to catch this just as it came out (can’t sleep so I thought I’d troll for a bit, oops). Haven’t even finished reading but I had to say I agree with you for once.

  • Rosalinda Lozano

    Anytime someone says such and such is not wrong, I’m doing it, it’s suspect. I believe your wrong for many reasons, but the main reason is God’s directive. We are to go out and be fruitful. Just looking at the world as it is today, we have failed God. We aren’t even replacing ourselves in the world population as Christians. So what if you think you’re righteous in your “study” of church teaching after 10 yrs as a Catholic. The world is on fire with no one to put it out because we have killed 56 million babies with our “no burdens” attitude in the past 42 yrs. We have failed!! and continue to fail because of writings like yours that justifies failure just because. …

    “The world will offer you comfort, but you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.” Pope Benedict XVI

    • Jennifer J in MN

      God didn’t direct us to have all the children physically possible, He didn’t even create women that way. Controlling births is not immoral, the way we do it can be. That’s why we can be totally abstinent or periodically abstinent. You are putting too great a burden on people trying to faithfully follow the very clear teachings of the Church. Also, equating abortion and NFP is just so insulting.

    • guest

      Thank you for all these good words!!! Also, equating contraception and abortion is just so insulting as well!!!

    • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com/ JoAnna Wahlund

      Please point me to Church teaching that says spacing pregnancies using moral means is wrong. I’m also 100% opposed to abortion (as is the Catholic Church), so I have no idea where you’re getting that from.

    • guest

      Great reply, thanks so much!!!

    • WSquared

      We are to go out and be fruitful. Just looking at the world as it is
      today, we have failed God. We aren’t even replacing ourselves in the
      world population as Christians.

      So do you mean to tell us that priests and religious who don’t have any children aren’t and can’t be fruitful, then? So God can’t possibly make infertile and sub-fertile women fruitful unless He gives them a child, right? And Pope Benedict’s family wasn’t fruitful enough, and neither was the Holy Family, with “only” three children and one child, right? Talk about materialistic.

      “The world will offer you comfort, but you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.”

      Presumptuous platitudes and facile thinking about family size that the Church does not teach may be comforting, but they sure as heck don’t smack of any greatness.

      You might want to think more carefully about how the Devil is subtle. Cari Donaldson alludes to this subtlety far better than I can in “The Devout Objectification of Children”
      “”[h]aving failed at luring us to embrace a culture of death, the devil seeks to poison our souls in this other way. He seeks to
      have us glorify children in a way that verges on idolatry. Or fetishism.
      And from there, children stop being important because they are unique
      souls made in the image and likeness of God, but rather important
      because they signal a resistance to snares of the devil that we just
      backed ourselves right into.”” Having a big family, therefore, is no inherent indication that somebody isn’t thinking with the world, the flesh, and the Devil.

    • WSquared

      Sorry, I should have said “using Pope Benedict’s words in a trite, platitudinous way.” That quote from him is far from a platitude, even if it can be reduced to one through facile thinking as it has been further up in this thread.

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  • Elijah fan

    One of the best essays I have ever read on the trad busy body, moral voyeur phenomenon. One thousand kudos to JoAnna Wahlund.

    • WSquared

      “the trad busy body, moral voyeur phenomenon.”

      Pity about that kind of attitude, because the Latin Mass is wonderful.

    • Liberty

      Pity that so many “trads” have terrible attitudes which turn people away.

    • WSquared

      Yeah. And it’s precisely because I love the Latin Mass so much and love how much it’s helped me pray the OF Mass better than ever before that those attitudes really set my teeth on edge.

      Speaking for myself, I’m bi-formal. I attend the EF at least once a month (I’m also the only EF-lover in my family). The EF has made me love Mass more than I ever have, and I’m comfortable in both the EF and the OF.

      I’ve often had to point out the various ways in which people should not be afraid of the EF: 1) go in with an open heart and mind; go in with no motive except to understand the EF on its own terms, and how it relates back to what Catholics believe, and you will catch on faster than you think. The key here is receptivity: it’s simply not true that we’re supposed to understand everything immediately, else it’s “hopeless” or “useless.” It’s not even that way with God! 2) The lay responses are EASY! Memorize those, and it frees you up to pray the Mass more readily. Oh, and their meaning sinks in better over time. 3) Don’t let the bad attitudes of others ruin it for you. We don’t go to Mass to socialize with other people; we go to Mass to be with Jesus, and to participate in His salvation of us. 4) If you struggle with all of the above, always pray– pray to the Blessed Mother, and ask her to help you. In prayer, we often seek understanding: not for nothing did Solomon ask God for an understanding heart. We are to love the Lord with mind, heart, soul, and strength, after all. We can’t do that if our brains are missing.

    • voxcantor

      I’m getting sick of the red herring that “trads have terrible attitudes which turn people away.” Drop it, it’s tiresome. I don’t know any of these so-called “trads” at any church I attend. There are idiots everywhere.

  • russ

    Equating NFP with contraception is as silly as believing that the reason Catholics contracept is because they go to a Novus Ordo parish. “If people only attended the TLM, they’d throw away their contraception… ” Really?

    • WSquared

      “If people only attended the TLM, they’d throw away their contraception… ” Really?

      Good grief.

      What Mass does anyone think Catholics who contracepted before “Humanae Vitae” came down the pike went to not that long before? If there was widespread dissent on HV because so many Catholics expected Paul VI to change Church teaching, it’s because enough of them were already contracepting some years before: in the United States, the FDA approved the pill for menstrual disorders in 1957, and then for contraceptive use in 1960.

      So yeah, I wonder what some Catholics who knew only the TLM before 1962 were doing. By the time the Novus Ordo came along, there were already Catholics who were potentially contracepting for about 5 or 6 years. Moreover, if you barely believe in the Real Presence, if it’s not what you love above all things in your life, and it’s not an important spiritual reality to you, it doesn’t matter what form of the Mass you go to.

  • Joel Everett

    Thanks for sharing this – my wife and I use NFP, but after a dangerous last pregnancy (complications / age) where even her pro-life Ob / Gyn was seriously concerned for her health and future health we have been judicious – but continue to be open to life – which is the beauty of NFP – every act has the potential of life and respects the natural law.

  • Thea

    Brava Joanna! It’s rare to read such a down to earth piece on NFP on any kind of Cathplic blog.

  • WSquared

    The whole thing was good, JoAnna. But you had me in stitches at “St. Busybody’s.” I also read the article at Crisis and at Homiletic and Pastoral Review on the faulty translation of “Humanae Vitae,” and boy, the combox discussion at Crisis was predictable.

    I’ve been reading about the family-size issue lately from the perspective of fertility and sub-fertility, and there are pervasive attitudes out there there that only folks with big families are the ones being fruitful, holy, and are “following all the Church’s teachings.” Other variations on that theme: “you’re not a ‘real’ mom if you don’t have more than four children,” “more babies equals more holiness,” “you must have x number of children in order to be a ‘true’ Catholic,” “the only holy wives and mothers are the ones who stay home and have big families,” “small families are scared of vocations,” “more kids, more vocations,” and “we don’t want to learn NFP! We’re grown-ups: we want to start having babies right away!” Then there are some convert versions that go something like this: “then, we became Catholic and the babies kept coming, because that’s what happens when you’re Catholic, you know?” or “when we converted to Catholicism, we learned NFP and all, but ditched it, because we wanted to follow all of the Church’s teaching!”

    Those types of comments aren’t wrong simply because they’re hurtful, rude, and insulting. It is wrong to misrepresent what the Church teaches by mandating what she does not. So many Catholics seem to thoughtlessly pick up the rather pervasive assumption in the larger culture that the only “realistic” choices open to any couple are providentialism or the pill. NFP and its focus on self-control helps a couple discern, and self-control is needed for the self-gift that is crucial in a marriage. One of the myriad ways in which God provides for us is to give us the wisdom necessary to discern so that we may steward well what He gives us. Grace enables us to have the self-control and that wisdom that we need when we discern whether to have a child or to abstain, and that we need to treat our spouses with loving respect. That sanctifying grace is why not being in a state of mortal sin is very important.

    Stuff like “more babies equals more holiness” also sounds eerily like this usual hoary chestnut: “the Catholic Church wants all women to lie back, think of the Pope, and pop out as many Catholic babies as humanly possible.” Neither of those things are what the Church teaches. Those with big families who have heard lectures about “what causes that” one too many times understandably look for validation that they’re doing something right and aren’t “irresponsible.” Yes, they are doing something right, and no, a big family is not inherently irresponsible. You can prudently decide to have a big family. But that search for validation should never be at the expense of the Truth, which is precisely what happens when well-meaning Catholics mandate what the Church does not. A big family is a gift. It is not something to whack other people over the head with and to needlessly trouble the consciences of other Catholics who obey the Magisterium, but whose families supposedly “don’t measure up” to those who on their own authority think themselves the poster children of the Catholic Church.

    Women who are experiencing infertility or sub-fertility know a
    good deal about how remaining in Christ is what ultimately allows for
    that fruitfulness and bearing good fruit. What form that fruitfulness
    takes, however, is up to God. That much should be a wake-up call for
    all of us. As for being fruitful, the Church’s reverence and respect for celibates and virgins directly challenge any attempt to read that passage of Genesis like a biblical fundamentalist (on a related note, fundamentalists commonly use this way of reading of Genesis to bash the Roman Catholic priesthood’s discipline of celibacy). It is indeed important that Catholics do not understand fruitfulness as a numbers game: Joseph Ratzinger observed that celibacy and virginity challenge the idea that a woman’s destiny is exclusively biological, and here again is one of the reasons why reducing discussions of Benedict XVI to nothing but the liturgy is frustrating and disturbing: one consequence of these truncated discussions is that we end up with Catholics who can’t effectively address any “war on women” rhetoric, despite the fact that their Church’s teaching– and so much of Benedict’s other writings– actually can. Instead, the best they can come up with is some form of “well, we like making babies to pay for your social security and help replenish the population, so there!”

    As an example of how size isn’t everything it seems to be, an acquaintance of mine is one of five children. Each one of those kids were “planned” on some form of contraception. But it’s not like the self-styled “true” Catholics at St. Busybody’s would know unless somebody told them. If that family were Catholic, the “true” Catholics would be too busy congratulating that acquaintance’s mom on what a “saint,” a “true” Catholic, and a “real” mom she is. Size isn’t the issue. The issue is how anybody gets there. And both small families and big families can be conceived in lust and a lack of self-control, or alternately in responsibility that comes with a prudent generosity. Lust in marriage is still sinful, and a lack of self-control is still contrary to self-gift, regardless of whether anyone opts to call it “heroic” or “responsible” parenthood, according to whether they’ve opted for some form of providentialism or the pill.

    • Liberty

      BRAVO. BRAVO. This is a great explanation of the whole issue and I’m so glad to see it. Thank you.

    • Almario Javier

      One angle I would also point to: Benedict XVI grew up as the youngest of three children, as did St. John Paul. Also (soon-to-be-blessed) Paul VI, who as we know, wrote Humanae Vitae, had only two siblings. According to some people of the providentialist-or-bust stripe, the Ratzingers (let us also remember that the Ratzingers produced not one, but two vocations), the Wojtylas and the Montinis would be no “true” Catholics or were “scared of vocations” – these families, who produced Popes and a Saint, and a Blessed!

      And I also know of the sort of cases where there is a brace of children, but they have openly admitted to using contraception to space them. To confine ourselves to public figures, we know of a certain prominent Representative currently leading the minority party who has admitted as such, and is one of the shrillest voices for the culture of death (though if we take her at her word, this is because, from an objective point of view, she was misled by some of the sorts Wsquared refers to – which makes this even more depressing, given that we have proof these sorts of provocations to calumny and scandal can have deleterious effects on entire societies).

    • WSquared

      According to the Providentialist-or-bust view of the world, not even the Holy Family would be “Catholic enough.” Just look: “only” one child. Therefore, the Blessed Mother must’ve been contracepting or had a “contraceptive mentality.” When Benedict XVI was still Pope, I used to issue an open challenge that these guys write to the Holy Father to tell him that they thought his mom and dad had a “contraceptive mentality,” and that’s why the Ratzingers had “only” three kids. I didn’t get any takers.

      Moreover, I find that a lot of the “we have big families; we’re not afraid of vocations!” statements often convey a desire to cover all the bases: having a big family will allow for much-wanted grandchildren and “giving God His due.” Except folks who say things like that neglect to imagine that they would be just as worried as those with small families if God called ALL of their children to the priesthood and religious life.

      That’s happened on a couple of occasions. A family friend had four daughters. They were all nuns. The Loeb family from the Netherlands were a large family whose parents
      were Jewish converts to Catholicism. All but one of the Loeb siblings
      were called to the priesthood and religious life (and the Nazis also killed all of the latter for being Jews). My spiritual director is one of two boys. Both of those boys are priests, and their mom is was a pediatrician, now retired. I think there’s a reminder about Pharisees and surpluses, widows and mites here for us all when we talk about generosity.

      We’re either generous with whatever we’ve been given, no matter how much or little, entrusting all of it to God, or we aren’t.

  • JZ

    I really needed to read this today. Been conflicted in the prudence/generosity department, and am reminded to pray and be at peace with whatever God’s will may be, and that He will make it more clear in time, I hope. Thanks for writing this!

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