September 21, 1997

NFP – Natural Family Planning

Questions about Natural Family Planning and the Church’s teaching

Question: A friend at work asked something which is difficult to explain. He asked why do Catholics think artificial birth control is wrong and NFP is correct. If the argument against birth control is that it isn’t natural and impedes the Lord’s will for us to procreate, how is that different from NFP and also preventing children? That is ultimately the outcome. I explained the reasons for NFP, but he considered them to be mostly benefits rather than the underlying theology of the reason why it is wrong. What is the difference?


There are some false premises in the question I’d like to address first.

1) The argument against artificial methods is not that they are not natural, but that they attempt to prevent conception without the exercise of human reason and self-control. They are inherently anti-life, and frequently actually result in the death of the conceived child. The IUD prevents implantation, and this prevention is considered the “second line of defense” for the Pill.

2) The Church does not teach that the Lord’s will is for us to procreate. If that were true, we would not value the vows of chastity taken by nuns, brothers and priests. Married couples are to be open to children, through natural birth, adoption, foster care or other ways that children come into our lives. Sometimes, we have to avoid conception in order to be faithful to our parental duties. Too many children, or children coming too close together can make parenting difficult for us, and so God gave us a way to regulate this.

3) The vast majority of couples using artificial means are trying to prevent children. An unconfirmed report claims the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta declared some time ago that pregnancy is the number one venereal disease. Children in this country are hated by many because they impinge on personal freedom. Perhaps that is why so many die from abuse, accidents, neglect and murder. The vast majority of NFP users are regulating the birth of children, and end up having several children at the times they select. NFP allowed us to space ours about two years apart, except for our twins. Sometimes, NFP is used to conceive when this has proved difficult. So for most NFP users, preventing children is not the outcome. We just space them out better, and stop when additional children could not be assured adequate care due to our limitations.

More thoughts on this question:

The encyclical Humanae Vitae (on Human Life) is required reading on this subject. Very well written.

At the outset, there are two issues:

1) The decision to conceive (or not)

2) How this decision will be carried out (the method).

The decision itself has nothing to do with the method. The method is irrelevant if the decision is based on greed, selfishness, pride, vanity…

OK, now let’s assume that the decision is sound. For instance, a couple might decide to delay conception because they are still establishing themselves financially. For Carol and I, we wanted to get our household established spiritually, getting closer as a couple before having our first… These are typically short-term reasons. We have decided to stop trying to conceive because we feel that five children is the most that we can raise while giving individual attention to each. These are highly personal decisions. Some couples may opt not to have any because of unresolved emotional conditions that do not preclude sacramental marriage but do make parenting risky, such as childhood abuse or substance addiction. It is possible that the circumstances may change, or God may override the decision. Sure, God could override a tubal ligation, and probably has, but He seems to respect our free will too much to go that far…

The reason for using artificial birth control is usually wrong, as it is most frequently used outside marriage, which of course is a moral problem for Christians. There are times when the reason may be sound, but these are the minority. There is a parallel to violence here: there are a few cases where violence might be required for a good reason (self-defense?), but generally we don’t recommend violence as a solution. Actually, we nearly always condemn it. So it seems that if a method is usually used for evil purposes, the method is at least suspect according to the way humans think.

Once the motivation for delaying conception is established as good, we have to look at why artificial means are considered different from natural. It has a lot to do with free will, farming and theology:

1) Free will – We are free to choose. We can decide to conceive or not, using NFP. Since NFP cannot absolutely prevent pregancy, we say, “Lord, we don’t believe this is the time for a(nother) child, but your will be done.” Being Catholic, we are supposed to be open to the possibility that the Lord will override our decision for the best reason. In NFP, this rarely happens. Apparently, God takes free will very seriously.

2) Farming – Nowhere in Scripture does it say that a farmer must plant every field in every season. The farmer uses the reason placed in the mind of man to determine what is best for all concerned. Farmers will let a field lie fallow for a year so that the soil can recover. Sometimes they plant an alternative crop like alfalfa that actively “heals” the soil by putting Nitrogen back in a natural way. The natural methods of farming, using crop rotation, trees as windbreaks, and non-toxic pest control are ecologically sound, and allow the land to continue producing for hundreds or thousands of years. God allows the farmer the free will to do as he pleases. The farmer may choose to avoid planting for a bad reason, but the natural methods were given by God, just as muscles were. Muscles can be used to lift other people up, or to beat them down. The muscles themselves were created by God, and are therefore good. Further, God allows us to be co-creators with Him. The farmer plants and waters, but God gives life to the seed, and to all of creation. God creates the conditions that allow new life or prevent it, whether in the seasons in the year or the cycles in a woman’s body. We are encouraged to work within these conditions, in cooperation with God.

3) Theology – One of the joys of being human is the ability to exercise our reason. In a group, intelligent discussion is life-giving. The ability of man to harness nature in a good way is an example of the way that God lifts us up to the status of gods. Isn’t it wonderful that at a time when world population is a problem, science (human reason again) has found a way to regulate conception without any ongoing cost, special drugs or surgery? NFP is available to absolutely anybody at anytime. It asks nothing of the couple that they don’t already do: all couples sometimes abstain because their bodies (or circumstances) tell them to. Think about it: after childbirth, a couple has to abstain for six weeks… or would a good husband insist on sex when his sick wife’s body is racked with fever? In addition, the intellect often has reasons, too. Business trips, busy schedules or not being married are reasons to abstain.

For Catholics: artificial birth control methods are against Church teaching. Since we believe that the Church’s teaching comes from Jesus, using artificial means is a grave sin. If you don’t believe the Church speaks for God in matters of faith and morals, talk to someone in the Church that teaches, such as your pastor, catechist (teacher), or knowledgeable friend. Some priests do not accept the Church’s teaching, so you may have to work to find one that can help you. It is easy to find churches that condone just about anything, but this is hardly the way to get closer to God. The Catholic Church is not pick and choose: real dissent according to conscience is very rare. Most of the time our will is offended by the teaching, not our conscience.

In short, NFP, uses only what God directly gave us: a natural rhythm like the seasons or tides, and our self-control. It makes no one rich, though, and it doesn’t glorify the medical profession. In fact, NFP was worked out by doctors that never got much credit… For Catholics, artificial methods are not allowed because of our call to obedience in matters of faith and morals.

I hope this helps. Remember to separate the purpose of an act from how it is accomplished. The end does not justify the means. Sometimes the end isn’t so great, either.

Some people feel Eccl 3:1-8 applies: “There is a time for everything…

a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.”

Part of an interview with Mother Teresa

The Catechism of the Catholic Church Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth)

The NFP Files – Very good site, a great deal of useful information and links – Atlanta, GA organization to promote the Church’s teachings

NFP Forum

By the Catholic doctor the Billings method is named after.

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