Natural Family Planning device and smartphone app (CNS photo/ Natural Cycles)

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? [...]

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.

Christopher C. Roberts is studying for the permanent diaconate in Philadelphia. He is the author of Creation and Covenant (Continuum, 2008), a book about the theology of marriage.

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