NFP, Suffering, and Asceticism

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.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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 Isor follow him on Facebook.


NFP is not good

I have often heard it said that natural family planning (NFP) is good. Both in the sense that practicing NFP is necessarily good for marriages, good for families, or good for growing in virtue. But also in the sense that NFP is good in and of itself. I would disagree with both points. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that NFP is evil. Rather, in and of itself, NFP is a neutral tool, an indifferent method of planning one’s family that can be good, but doesn’t have to be.

That being said, I think that NFP lends itself to good things. If used effectively, it demands self-control and discipline. It also encourages regular communication between spouses about the size of their family. In other words, it lends itself to growing in virtue. Pope Paul VI makes that point in paragraph 21 of his encyclical, 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.”

Likewise, as NFP lends itself towards virtue, contraception lends itself towards vice, particularly towards the sin of objectification. Pope Paul also reflects on this in paragraph 17 of the same encyclical:

“Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”

Further, Saint John Paul II comments on this idea in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae when he talks about the relationship between contraception and abortion. He says:

“It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation of abortion. But the negative values inherent in the “contraceptive mentality”-which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act-are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived…[Both contraception and abortion] are rooted in a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfilment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs…” (EV 13).

In other words, John Paul II argues that if a person doesn’t respect procreation and “the full truth of the conjugal act” they are more likely to disrespect any newly conceived life that could arise from their sexual activity, that this life “becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs.”


Photo by Shelby Deeter on Unsplash

However, just because NFP lends itself to goodness and virtue doesn’t mean it necessarily *is* good and virtuous. If we go back to Humanae Vitae we will see that responsible parenthood is good, that following the moral law is good, and that self-discipline is good. So it’s easy to see how one could jump to the conclusion that because NFP is a way to plan one’s family responsibly, that it it allowed by the moral law, and that, if used effectively, it demands the exercise of self-discipline that NFP itself is good. But that conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow. NFP, like any other tool, can be misused. Couples can use it to reject their vow to be open to life (which is different from the infamous “contraceptive mentality”). Couples can refuse, or be incapable, of the self mastery demanded by NFP and resort to pornography or masturbation or just close themselves off to their spouse entirely. Spouses can use NFP to manipulate their partners into having sex or not having sex. And the list can go on.

I was talking with a more veteran couple not too long go and when asked if NFP brought them closer together, the husband remarked, “You mean despite how much it brought us apart?  Faithfulness to each other and to God is what brought us closer together.” This comment really gets to the heart of the matter. NFP itself isn’t going to divorce-proof a marriage anymore than contraception is going to cause a divorce. NFP won’t necessarily make your marriage great, but rather faithfulness will.


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 Isor follow him on Facebook.

What to do when NFP isn’t good enough?

Recently I’ve had a few conversations with Catholic friends about family planning where they’ve opened up about their own struggles. One friend, who has several kids, said something like, “The method we were taught failed us many times, or perhaps did not work at all. And when we spoke up about this our concern was dismissed” Not too long after that another friend of mine was telling me that after having one of their kids they had to abstain for six months in order to avoid getting pregnant again right away because their cycles were so weird that following the NFP method meant simple don’t have sex. Another friend is deathly afraid to get pregnant because she has a medical condition that has caused multiple miscarriages and will cause more in the future, so the failure rate of NFP really scares her.  These are the stories about NFP that I’ve come to hear on a regular basis now, couples that find themselves in a place where NFP, indefinitely or for a time, simply isn’t good enough.

When the Catholic Church talks about family planning there are three principles that frame the discussion. The first is that parents have the obligation to be responsible, to look after the common good of one’s family. This means that the “physical, economic, psychological and social” circumstances of the family should be taken into consideration when a couple is considering having another child (Humanae Vitae 10). The second is that artificial contraception, that is, “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation” is absolutely prohibited by the moral law (Humanae Vitae 14). And the third principle is that long periods of abstinence in marriage due to spacing children have the possibility of damaging the vows of faithfulness and fruitfulness in that marriage (Gaudium et Spes 51).

In other words, couples need to be discerning about having children, but they can’t use contraception, and an extended lack of sexual intimacy could harm the marriage. Clearly then, there are very limited options for Catholics here, two options to be exact. The first option is do nothing. To let Divine Providence guide one’s fertility and family size. The second option is NFP. For many couples I imagine that the first option is a privilege they wish they had, that they didn’t have the health issues, psychological conditions, economic problems, etc. that force them to do whatever they can to avoid pregnancy. This leaves us with NFP, but what does a couple do when NFP isn’t good enough?

Like the friends I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’ve encountered many people over the past few years who have found themselves on the margins of both the Catholic community and the secular world. These folks are apart of a silent minority of “hyperfertile” NFP users. They have tried multiple NFP methods with multiple instructors but ultimately their only recourse to prevent having a dozen kids back to back has been months (or more) of abstinence at a time. Then there are the couples who have serious, life threatening reasons not to get pregnant, and who also have irregular cycles that make NFP difficult and less effective. These couples are on the margins of a secular society that just encourages contraception and sterilization, but they have also found little support from their Church. Their suffering gets dismissed out of hand with statements like “God must have wanted the baby” or “carry your cross” with little empathy or actual support.

Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

It’s often said in Catholic circles that fertility isn’t a disease, that “hyperfertility” is just someone’s body acting the way it’s supposed to. However, while this is technically correct, it’s also very dismissive. Due to health issues, family issues, financial issues, and the other consequences of sin, hyperfertility can be a genuine and severe source of suffering. In some cases fertility has all the characteristics of an illness. If a woman truly risks death every time she gets pregnant then at the end of the day her and her husband’s fertility is reasonably treated like a disease.

The Catholic community needs to know that these struggles are legitimate. The Church, from clergy to regular Catholics, needs to offer more support for our brothers and sisters who find themselves carrying this cross. We need to recognize that couples in these situations need actual assistance, not just platitudes. Telling someone to just “carry their cross” without at the same time offering to help them carry that cross is the Catholic version of saying “just suck it up.”

We need to listen to people’s actual stories about the suffering in their life caused by NFP instead of constantly being on the defensive about how great NFP is. We need to offer to make dinner or babysit or simply be a friend for the parents of large families. We need to invest more resources into developing easier and more effective methods of NFP.

I think that Catholics (at least in the circles I run in) have done a good job in the past several years of recognizing the heavy burden and real suffering of infertility. We’ve invested resources into ethical treatments for infertility and we’ve made efforts to empathize and support those in our life who we know suffer from this. My hope is that the suffering that comes from hyperfertility and irregular cycles could likewise be acknowledged and supported.

Bishop Barron recently said, “At the core of Jesus’ program is a willingness to bear other people’s burdens, to help them carry their loads. And this applies to the moral life as well. If we lay the burden of God’s law on people, we must be willing, at the same time, to help them bear it.” There are people freely embracing the full weight of the moral law but are finding little support from their Catholic community, what can we do to help change that?

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 or follow him on Facebook.

Trump: Pulling Back the Curtain on America’s Hypocrisies

I think that Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency have unveiled, and exploited, the hypocritical underbelly of the Left, the Right, the media, and Conservative Christianity and put those faults on a national display.

(Obviously I’m making generalizations here, not every individual in these groups is responsible. Though it’s clear that these generalizations aren’t void of some truth.)

First, in the past few months we have seen the violent intolerance of the tolerant left. One of my old professors used to say “The tolerant cannot tolerate the intolerant,” and this has been displayed at places like UC Berkeley where free speech is something to fight against and not for.

Second, one of the things that set Trump apart early in his campaign and helped attract such a loyal base was his nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric. He taped into the underbelly of American Conservatism that in one breath wants the Ten Commandments in courtrooms but also ignores the command to welcome to stranger. Who in one breath says “we are pro-life” and “all lives matter” while also saying “America First” and refusing to recognize the dignity of the foreigner fleeing violence and poverty.


Third, Trump has revealed and exploited the subtle (and not so subtle) liberal bias within the media. The very bias that has refused to call pro-lifers anything by “anti-choice” and has consistently ignored the March for Life every. single. year. The very bias that has driven conservatives toward “fake news” for years because people do not like being continually deceived and misrepresented.

Finally, Trump’s campaign put the hypocrisy of American Conservative Christianity on full display. For years the Christian Right spoke of “family values,” the “sanctity of marriage,” and, in the era of President Clinton, they insisted that “character matters.” Then when Trump was the only Republican left standing they, without apology or hesitation, publicly endorsed a thrice married adulterer who makes money off of porn and who treats women as sexual objects. They proved that their Party comes before their Faith.

Politics runs downstream of culture. President Trump isn’t the cause of our woes, he is the symptom. We who made winning a higher priority than our principles created President Trump. We who claimed a moral high ground with lectures on tolerance while totally demonizing those we disagreed with created President Trump.

He is my president because I am guilty of this hypocrisy, he is our president because he is who we deserve.

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 or follow him on Facebook.