Two years ago I wrote a letter to the editor in response to an article Commonweal had published about Jacques Maritain’s views on contraception. My letter proposed that Natural Family Planning requires and cultivates virtues that artificial contraception does not (see “Maritain’s Blind Spot,” April 6, 2012). An example: a couple using the Pill decide between themselves when and whether to have sex. This decision can be spontaneous or carefully planned. A couple using NFP have similar decisions to make, but they must also submit their wills to the woman’s menstrual cycle, a pattern independent of their volition. Sometimes, if they are trying to avoid pregnancy, they will have to put off having sex. Contracepting couples use technology in order to avoid this situation. Hence, as I wrote in my letter, NFP relies on virtues (“patience, forbearance, restraint—and even a sense of humor”) in ways that contraception does not. For this reason, it is false to suggest that NFP is functionally equivalent to the Pill. The experience of a couple using NFP is very different from that of a couple using artificial contraception. I have been married for sixteen years and have been a Catholic for eight, so I know both experiences well.
After my letter was published, several Commonweal readers replied. The most challenging response came from Anonymous in Pittsburgh (“A Greater Good,” May 4, 2012). Anonymous claimed that requiring married couples to postpone sex can have cruel consequences. Biological challenges like nursing or menopause can mean months without a predictable cycle. A soldier returning from a tour of duty “should not have to be told that he has arrived home at the wrong time of the month.” A husband who has just lost his job and can’t afford another child “needs the loving consolation of his wife.”
I do not believe these examples are as decisive as Anonymous suggests. For most couples, most of the time, the use of NFP does not entail such hardship. But I acknowledge that such hard cases do exist—including kinds Anonymous does not mention—and they demand great compassion. A few years ago, Peter Steinfels wrote memorably about some hard cases at dotCommonweal. He mentioned a childhood neighbor: a frail Catholic woman who had six children. Her non-Catholic husband was abusive. Steinfels’s mother advised the woman to get a diaphragm. I also think of Cardinal Ratzinger’s response to a question about couples who already have many children and decide to use contraception: “I would say that those are questions that ought to be discussed with one’s spiritual director, with one’s priest, because they can’t be projected into the abstract.” It’s clear that Catholics—and not just priests giving spiritual direction—must always talk about these things with humility and charity. I believe that Catholic sexual ethics can open up beautiful and charitable ways of living, but these ways can also be hard and demanding, and they can take a long time to learn. Sometimes small steps in the right direction are the best we can do.
Still, focusing on hard cases can be a way of keeping the challenges of NFP at arm’s length. Typically, when NFP is used to space births, it requires about ten days of abstinence per month. Studies of NFP techniques like the Creighton Method indicate that they are at least as effective as condoms or pills. So why aren’t more Catholics giving it a try? A friend told me he thought most Catholics don’t see the point of such asceticism, that NFP’s periodic abstinence looks like unnecessary self-denial—like going to the dentist without Novocain or telling your kid to play through a sports injury to build character. This may or may not be true. But let me concede, for the sake of argument, that many Catholics think this way. The question then becomes why. Where do these and other ideas about NFP come from? My hunch is that today most middle-of-the-road Catholics probably do not know much about what the church really teaches on this question. Catholics believe in the primacy of an “informed conscience,” but, in this case, I doubt the relevant information has been effectively conveyed.
For several years I taught a course on the theology of marriage at Villanova University. Few of my bright and wonderful students, including those who had graduated from Catholic high schools, had any prior exposure to Humanae vitae or John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Public catechesis or training on these topics is very rare in most parishes of the Archdiocese of Philidelphia, where my family and I live. One normally has to seek out such information for oneself. And, given popular caricatures about the rhythm method, many Catholics probably think they already know all there is to know about the church’s alternative to artificial contraception. In these circumstances, practicing NFP (or any other sort of countercultural chastity) can be a lonely affair. The ignorance of Catholics on this subject indicates a massive catechetical failure. Madison Avenue and Hollywood have been catechizing the culture in concupiscence for decades. It’s past time for some guerrilla counter-catechesis.
NFP is part of the church’s mission. It requires us to place our sexual desires in the context of our wider vocational discernment. Like any road to holiness, suffering and failure are part of the package. The process can be tedious: charting fertility markers is about as much fun as daily flossing, and making it a habit comes more easily to some than to others. The periods of abstinence can sometimes be an agony. But NFP is potentially a source of freedom, self-knowledge, and spiritual depth. Like understanding that food comes from farms before you find it in supermarkets, understanding fertility is basic wisdom for being at home in the physical world.
If, for most healthy married Catholics, NFP requires no more than about ten days of abstinence per month, and if NFP actually works, then what substantive objections remain? No party in the present discussion is saying women must be pregnant all the time or give up on careers. Humanae vitae’s proposal is that a married couple pray, discern whether God is calling them to have a child, and, if not, use NFP according to good instruction. So why aren’t more American Catholics trying to follow this teaching?
In most cases, I don’t think it’s because they’re in an abusive marriage or just home from the war. I believe that most twenty-first-century Catholics dismiss NFP for three reasons: because they haven’t heard a good explanation of the church’s moral teaching against contraception; because they aren’t aware of the method’s technical effectiveness; and, finally, because contemporary American culture can accept self-denial only when the aim is physical health, not spiritual health. The church has become too reticent about the benefits of even the gentlest ascetic practice. Consider how relatively rarely we talk about fasting for an hour before Mass, or how minimal our Lenten fasts are compared with those of the Eastern Orthodox. And consider how easy NFP is compared with certain diets and exercise regimens.
Could it be that we have become too insistent on our personal autonomy and the urgency of our appetites? NFP gets us where it hurts. It requires us to abstain from pleasure on somebody else’s terms. In that sense, it is profoundly un-American and unmodern. That’s a large part of why it would be good for at least some of us. Catholics are called to fasting and almsgiving for many reasons, but chief among them is the need to soften our own hearts, to yield our autonomy to God and heighten our sense of his lordship over every aspect of our lives. A devotional approach to NFP works the same way, teaching those who practice it that sex is a gift, not an entitlement.