CHRISTINA DEHAN JALOWAY
It is NFP Awareness Week worldwide, and here at Spoken Bride, we couldn't pass up an opportunity to share the beauty of the Church's teaching on marriage, sexuality, and openness to life. We hope this post will be a helpful introduction or refresher for those of you are preparing for marriage, especially if your diocese or parish does not require an extensive course in NFP. Note that this is NOT an exhaustive resource on the Church's teaching or NFP. Please feel free to email us if you'd like any more information or want to hear about our personal experiences with NFP.
One of the most maligned and misunderstood teachings of the Church is her teaching on sexuality and chastity, specifically within the context of marriage. Some Catholics are under the impression that the Church requires everyone to have as many children as possible; some balk at the prohibition against contraception because it seems so unreasonable in the modern world; and some assume that since chastity is required before marriage, it must no longer be needed after a couple says, “I do.”
These misconceptions are completely understandable considering our current cultural climate, and the confusion that surrounds sexuality in general. The Church seems like a lone voice crying out in the wilderness of secular society, and it's often difficult for couples to hear that voice in the midst of the craziness of wedding planning.
The Church’s teaching on marital sexuality
In reality, the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality is both beautiful and challenging--just like the Christian life in general. According to the Church, all men and women, regardless of their state in life, are called to practice the virtue of chastity. Chastity is the virtue (spiritual strength) that helps us to integrate our sexuality into the entirety of our being, in order to truthfully love those we are sexually attracted to instead of using them.
The practice of this virtue looks different depending on one’s state of life. For married couples, chastity means respecting the reality of sex and sexuality: that God designed sexual intercourse to be a unitive and procreative expression of love between a husband and wife. Marital love should be freely given, faithful (emotionally and sexually exclusive), total (the gift of one’s entire self, including fertility), and fruitful (open to having biological children, if able, and adopting/making marriage fruitful in some other way if biological children are not a possibility). Chastity for married people also means avoiding any lustful thoughts or actions: using others (even their wife/husband) as a means of getting sexual pleasure.
This means that anything that thwarts either the unitive or procreative aspects of marital love-making is contrary to God’s design for marriage and sex, and must be avoided. Contraception (both hormonal contraceptives and barrier methods), pornography, adultery, and the like all fall into the “sins against chastity within marriage” category.
Most people can see why pornography and adultery are on the list...but contraception? Isn’t this the 21st century? Doesn’t contraception help marriages by giving couples and easy way to avoid having a child if it wouldn’t be convenient or good for the family to do so? How can the Church expect so much of couples?
The Church can ask married couples to be open to life for the same reason she can ask us to love our enemies, or care for the poor, or put the needs of others before our own: Christ entrusted the Church with the ability to dispense divine life (grace) via the Sacraments, and marriage is a Sacrament.
God never leaves us alone in our attempts to follow his will--he always provides us with the grace to grow in virtue and practice self-control.
Yes, it is easier (in some ways) to take a birth control pill or have an IUD inserted or use a condom each time you have sex than it is to practice Natural Family Planning, in which couples prayerfully discern whether or not to avoid or postpone pregnancy by abstaining from sex during the wife's fertile cycle. But the Christian life is not about what is easy, it’s about what is true, good, and beautiful. And once the physiological and spiritual differences between avoiding pregnancy via contraception and avoiding pregnancy based on Natural Family Planning methods becomes clear, it is evident that the Church, like any good mother, only wants what’s best for her children.
If this is the first time you’re learning this information, you (or your fiancé) may have some questions, which is great! The first step to trusting Christ and the Church is to be open to learning the reasons behind Catholic teaching. Below are the answers to several frequently asked questions (based on my experience as a theology teacher, RCIA instructor, and marriage prep catechist).
Frequently Asked Questions about NFP
I heard NFP is the rhythm method, and that the rhythm method isn’t reliable. Is that true?
No! NFP is not the rhythm method. You may have heard that it is because many of our parents and grandparents grew up thinking that was the only “natural” way to space children. Unfortunately, the rhythm method was based on the (faulty) idea that all women ovulate on day 14 of their cycle, which is not the case. Modern Natural Family Planning methods can be used by the majority of women, regardless of the regularity of their cycles, and are scientifically proven to be as effective as birth control when used correctly, because they are based on the observable signs of a woman’s fertility each month. Scroll down for a list of resources if you want to learn more about the different methods of NFP and which one would be best for you.
Isn’t NFP just “natural contraception”?
NFP can be used as a natural form of contraception, but that is not how the Church asks couples to use it. The Church teaches that couples must exercise prayerful and prudential judgment regarding avoiding/spacing pregnancy in each season of their marital life. This means that if a couple has a serious reason to avoid pregnancy or space your pregnancies, they may do so by not having sex during the fertile period of your cycle. It does not mean that Catholic couples may use NFP to indefinitely postpone/avoid pregnancy or avoid pregnancy for selfish reasons.
When is it okay to avoid/space your pregnancies?
The Church teaches that spouses should practice responsible parenting, meaning if a couple discerns that it is not the right time to have another child, the couple may avoid having sex during your fertile time until said problem is resolved. There is no obligation for couples to have sex during a woman’s fertile period each month. Therefore, it is not necessarily sinful to avoid pregnancy or space your pregnancies using NFP. However, it is essential that married couples prayerfully discern these decisions together, and, if need be, with a competent spiritual director.
What if I don’t want ten kids?
The Church does not teach that a woman must have as many children as her body can bear. Some couples are called to have large families, but not all. The important thing is, like in all aspects of the Christian life, to be open to the Lord’s plan being different from our plan. I know couples who desperately wanted to have large families and for whatever reason, have not been able to conceive or “only” have two or three kids. I know couples who never saw themselves having big families, but now have six, seven, or eight kids. Regardless of how many children a couple is blessed with, there will be crosses and difficulties and stressful situations. But there will also be the unspeakable joy that only comes when we let go of our plans and ideas and allow the Lord to take over.
WIll NFP ruin our sex life?
Using NFP to avoid pregnancy involves mutual sacrifice on the part of the husband and wife; it’s not easy to abstain from making love when a woman is fertile, nor is it easy to accept a child when he or she wasn’t “planned.” But it also involves increased communication between husband and wife, which can result in more intimacy, not less. The Church maintains that God would not ask something of us without giving us the grace to do it, which is one of the reasons why marriage is a Sacrament. That said, couples who practice NFP need the support and encouragement of like-minded couples, which is why building Catholic community in the local parish (or even online) is so important.
Do I have to learn/practice NFP?
Some couples have a “come what may” philosophy when it comes to family planning. They don’t learn or practice NFP (or use contraception). That is something that each couple must discern. However, it is a good idea to learn an NFP method in case you need it in the future to 1) become pregnant (this is actually one of the primary reasons why many couples practice NFP) or 2) avoid pregnancy should an issue arise later in your marriage. It’s also incredibly helpful for both husband and wife to understand and appreciate a woman’s cycle, especially if it is irregular. So many potential fertility issues can be resolved by practicing basic fertility awareness using NFP, and seeking out an NFP-only OB/GYN to address those issues.
Personally, I’m grateful that I began charting my cycle long before I met my husband, because I discovered that I have a progesterone deficiency, which can lead to difficulties becoming and/or staying pregnant. Thanks to NFP and my progesterone supplements, we are pregnant with our first child, and it only took us two cycles to conceive.
The bottom line:
Our perennial temptation as fallen human beings is to make idols. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we want to be our own gods, to make our own rules, and to live life on our terms. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know how destructive that way of life is, even though it may seem easier in the short term. What Christ and the Church ask of us isn’t easy: surrender never is. But we’re not surrendering to a capricious God who wants us as his slaves; we’re surrendering to a loving Father who loves us as his children. Choosing to say “yes” to the Church’s teachings on marital chastity is not easy, but because God is the author of marriage and sex, following His commandments is the only true, good, and beautiful way to live out this vocation.
Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla (St. John Paul II)
Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI
Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler (not Catholic, but a good resource on fertility awareness)
The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by Simcha Fisher
Contraception: Why Not? By Dr. Janet Smith
Why not just use birth control? Some possible right answers. & NFP in real life: hard, but worth it. (both by Jenny Uebbing of Mama Needs Coffee)
When Natural Family Planning doesn’t go according to your plan (by Christy Isinger of Fountains of Home)
Dear Newlywed: you’re probably worried about the wrong thing. (by Kendra Tierney of Catholic All Year)
Podcast: Uncharted Territory: Getting Real about Natural Family Planning (Jenny Uebbing, Haley Stewart, and Christy Isinger)
General fertility education:
The Couple to Couple League (Sympto-thermal NFP)
NFP-friendly Medical Providers:
The Guiding Star Project (holistic women’s health clinics)