Recently I wrote about how NFP is not good in and of itself, but rather can be good when used with virtue and faithfulness. I wanted to follow up that article by discussing the real suffering that many couples endure because of NFP and why that suffering is also not good.
Before we address NFP specifically it’s important to step back and talk about suffering. I think Christians sometimes forget that pain and suffering are objectively evil. Not morally evil, but rather evil in their nature. They ought not be, but are because we live in a cosmos fractured by sin. God did not create suffering but He allows it because he respects our freedom. Our bodies and minds are supposed to be whole and integrated, but because the physical world we live in is limited and because human beings have a knack for inflicting suffering on others, we experience illness, suffering, and death (CCC 385 and 405).
Therefore, not only is it good to avoid suffering and seek consolation, but it’s a moral obligation to comfort others and help alleviate their suffering. However, because of our broken world, we will inevitably encounter suffering that is unavoidable. As Christians though, we believe in a God who not only stoops to our level and suffers with us (which is an incredible thing in itself), but who also allows us to give our suffering meaning by uniting it with his suffering for the sake of others. Paragraph 618 of the Catechism says:
“The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one mediator between God and men”. But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, “the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” is offered to all men. He calls his disciples to “take up [their] cross and follow [him]”, for “Christ also suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example so that [we] should follow in his steps.”
And if we follow after this Suffering Lord, we are promised not only restoration of body and mind, but resurrection. We are destined to “share in the divinity of Christ” and become “partakers of the divine nature.” For the reason that God became man was so that man may become God (CCC 460).
Now let’s get back to NFP. I have heard it argued that NFP is good because, in order to practice it effectively, it requires discipline and self-denial. That it’s a kind of asceticism, something required to live out our baptism and something essential for growing in holiness (CCC 2340 and 2015). Blessed Paul VI discusses the value of self-discipline in Humanae Vitae:
“The right and lawful ordering of birth demands, first of all, that spouses fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life and that they acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions. For if with the aid of reason and of free will they are to control their natural drives, there can be no doubt at all of the need for self-denial. Only then will the expression of love, essential to married life, conform to right order. This is especially clear in the practice of periodic continence. Self-discipline of this kind is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character. And if this self-discipline does demand that they persevere in their purpose and efforts, it has at the same time the salutary effect of enabling husband and wife to develop to their personalities and to be enriched with spiritual blessings” (HV 21, emphasis mine).
At first glance this passage appears to be saying that the abstinence caused by NFP is good because this kind of asceticism has a whole host of positive fruits for marriages and families. However, a closer look will reveal that’s not the case for two reasons.
First, Pope Paul is specifically talking about “periodic continence.” However, periodically abstaining from sex is vastly different from the prolonged abstinence that isn’t uncommon with NFP. As I shared in another recent article, I have talked with multiple friends (who have instructors and are healthcare professionals themselves) who regularly abstain for months during postpartum in order to avoid getting pregnant again right away. Not to mention the years of indefinite abstinence required by couples who, for any number of serious reasons, absolutely cannot get pregnant again and have abnormal cycles that make effectively using NFP impossible. These scenarios are far from “periodic continence” and that kind of abstinence can damage a marriage. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council directly admit this in Gaudium et Spes:
“This council realizes that certain modern conditions often keep couples from arranging their married lives harmoniously, and that they find themselves in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased. As a result, the faithful exercise of love and the full intimacy of their lives is hard to maintain. But where the intimacy of married life is broken off, its faithfulness can sometimes be imperiled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined, for then the upbringing of the children and the courage to accept new ones are both endangered” (GS 51).
In other words, long periods of abstinence due to the necessity of avoiding pregnancy have the possibility of damaging the vows of faithfulness and fruitfulness in that marriage. And while long term abstinence is at times necessary, it is still evil. It ought not be. Marriage is “ordered by its nature” to sex (Canon 1061). Just like we were not made to be infertile, our bodies were not meant to have medical conditions that prevent us from sexual intercourse. God’s plan was not for spouses to have long periods of abstinence for “it is not good that man should be alone.” Whether it’s because of NFP or because of a tragic accident, we rightly recognize this kind of prolonged abstinence as a tragedy and we should be doing everything we can to alleviate that suffering.
The second thing to point out from that passage from Pope Paul VI is that while the “periodic continence” he is talking about may be a form of asceticism, circumstance where abstinence is absolutely necessary for serious reasons is not asceticism. Asceticism is not forced, it is freely chosen. Just as it is the freedom to act or not to act that makes man responsible for his sins, it is that same freedom that makes man’s acts of virtue and asceticism meritorious. Paragraph 1734 of the Catechism says, “Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary.” Now, because of God’s infinite love and mercy, one can freely choose to take up their cross and offer their inescapable suffering to Christ, but in of it itself forced periods of prolonged or indefinite abstinence are not good or meritorious, they are evil.
We need to end the myth that just by practicing NFP a marriage will be better or a couple will be happier or more virtuous. We need to stop selling NFP as an elixir that will automatically bring you closer to your spouse. I know those of us who use and promote NFP are swimming upstream in a culture that accepts contraception without question, but we can’t let that make us so defensive that we reject any and all criticism of NFP. If we only speak about NFP in glowing terms then those who legitimately suffer from it will not only feel like they were lied to, but they will feel alienated, like something is wrong with them. NFP isn’t good enough, and if we want it to get better we need to stop pretending that there’s nothing wrong with it and that people who use it aren’t truly suffering.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles, read his work at Where Peter Is, or follow him on Facebook.