NFP Points to Ponder

So, apparently this past week was Natural Family Planning Awareness Week. Over at Catholic Moral Theology, Beth Haile has posted about some misconceptions that she says people have about NFP, and Jana Bennett has engaged with contraception and feminisms, adapted from a presentation she originally gave to a secular feminist audience. Along with these, I strongly recommend consideration of the stories shared by women speaking about NFP for the experience of Catholic women who have sincerely tried NFP and have not found it to be good for them or for their marriage.

Ms. Haile acknowledges that there are couples for whom NFP is problematic, and I’m interested in what she says about this:

Now, there are cases of illness and disability that may make it very difficult or virtually impossible for a couple to practice NFP. These cases require pastoral guidance.

Reading this with my default “cradle Catholic” ears, I get the impression that it means “if you cannot effectively practice NFP for physiological reasons, ask your priest what to do. He may give you permission to use artificial birth control anyway because of your circumstances.” I see three problems with this: first, that mental or emotional difficulties are not a good enough reason. (Admittedly, this is only my impression: “illness and disability” might conceivably include mental illness, although in our society it tends not to by default.) Second, I wonder how you discover that you can’t effectively practice NFP except by having it fail.

But most importantly, if “pastoral guidance” really is code for “ask your priest for permission to use artificial contraception,” then that is in principle an infantilizing approach to moral theology, in which adult lay Catholics are expected to ask clergy for permission to do something.

(Now, it could be that it isn’t really code — if it really meant asking for guidance as part of faithful discernment before making a decision, that would be great.[1] Although even there, except for the relatively few lay Catholics whose parishes are served by married priests[2], it raises the question of how effectively a celibate man can counsel a married couple about sexual matters.)

I believe that some Catholics have an understanding of the church which do not see this as infantilizing, any more than they see it as infantilizing for property owners to be required to go to court to appeal for an exception to the local zoning laws. In fact, they may regard this as a quintessentially Catholic view of the church: as in, if you don’t think you should be asking your priest for dispensation from this or that element of church teaching, then you aren’t really Catholic at all, you’re a Protestant in disguise, because this legal structure which binds Catholics is constitutive of Catholicism — over against a Protestant ethics which constitutively sets no institutional binding on the individual conscience.

I think that such a perspective is grounded in the “perfect society” ecclesiology of the 19th century, which used the nation-state as its normative metaphor, insisting that the church was just as real a society as the Republic of France. From this model of the church naturally flows a set of laws which bind its members and from which they must obtain permission to deviate; from this model, too, flows a moral theology in which the obvious metaphor for “sin” is “crime,” and one is hard put to think of sin as anything other than “that for which one will be punished by God.” I’m not sure whether the seed of this ecclesiology was in place prior to the emergence of the penal substitution theory of atonement, or vice versa, but they obviously reinforce each other.

The ecclesiological document of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, does not reject this metaphor entirely, but it does dethrone it, preferring a multiplicity of metaphors taken from scripture — see paragraph 6 for a whole collection of these. There are a number of other metaphors for sin in scripture and tradition, too: “missing the mark” and sickness (for which grace is the remedy) are two that come immediately to mind.

This ecclesiological change and its implications are still being worked through by the church. The issue of whether church teachings are binding on Catholics according to the same formalism that a nation’s laws are binding on its citizens, with the associated expectation of requesting dispensation in special circumstances, strikes me as one of the inconsistencies identified by Roger Haight that still need to be resolved.

Another thing I came across this week that I found disturbing was this tweet from a young Catholic woman:

When I get married birth control will NEVER be an option. I'm not an animal; I can control myself. #NaturalFamilyPlanning πŸ˜πŸ‘ΆπŸ‘Ό

What a very starved theology of sexuality is implied here! There seems to be no room for the unitive aspect of marital sex at all. “I’m not an animal, I can control myself” equates sexual desire with lust with animalistic impulses to be controlled. Where is the understanding of sex as an expression of the intimate love between spouses? Isn’t that the foundation of a Catholic theology of sexuality, which is seen as most authentic when, or only authentic if, its expression is open to new life within a sacramental marriage?

I find the arguments made by Bennett about the positive aspects of NFP’s holistic approach to fertility to be a much better basis for encouraging the use of NFP among young people than a shame-based focus on self-control.


[1] But if it’s not really code, we need to do a way better job at getting the word out, especially given other recent trends in the church lately.
[2] Yes, there are married Catholic priests presently serving parishes. They generally converted from Anglicanism, which permits married priests.

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9 Responses to NFP Points to Ponder

  1. Personally, I was struck by the ad for this year’s NFP awareness. It claimed that NFP is “pro-man, pro-women, pro-child.” It struck me because I find a lot of the NFP discourse to be disturbingly anti-men. Much of the rhetoric around NFP talk about how contraception permits men to use women sexually. The underlying message is, “Male sexuality is so dangerous, so destructive, that only the ever-present fear of pregnancy can keep it under control.” Before anyone scoffs or says, “You just don’t understand,” consider the case of GS, one of the women listed in the Women Speak About NFP series in WIT. She talks about how many of her friends who were raised in the conservative, Catholic, TOB NFP world are terrified that their husbands will use them sexually. According to GS, these are good men, for the most part. But as far as these women are concerned, any minute their husbands can turn into monsters.

    • Interesting point, thanks for raising it. I get the impression that this is an unintended consequence of the discourse about sexual objectification/exploitation in these communities. Certainly sexual objectification as a thing is a concern shared by many mainstream feminists, but I’ve never gotten the impression that most feminists who are concerned about this therefore go in fear of their partners suddenly using them. That feels like a new spin on the old stereotype that men are inherently dangerous sexual predators who may at any time succumb to their out of control sex drives and become ravening (or rather, ravishing) monsters. (Which lives rather weirdly alongside the dominant but generally unstated belief that women are inherently dangerous whose sexual attraction may lure men into seduction and rape. Bleah.)

      It seems to come from the linking of “opennes to new life” to “right use of sexuality” and the apparent corollary that sex for pleasure is morally equivalent to sexual exploitation.

  2. As a non-Catholic I found this post to be very interesting. So first, thank you for writing it!

    As someone raised in the LDS church I have to say that the idea of the church getting involved in the private life of a married couple is very foreign to me. I once took a marriage prep Institute class (I don’t know if other churches have this, but Institute is basically something set up by the LDS church to teach doctrinal topics outside of regular Sunday services) and the teacher of that class taught us that in those matters the church feels it’s best for couples to keep their own council.

    Finally, as someone whose cycle is WAY to irregular to actually be successful in natural family planning I am curious what the Catholic churches take would be on that. Is it an illness?

    • When the Catholic church first formally looked into the morality of artificial birth control, the early indications seemed to be that it would be left to the discretion of the married couple (after prayerful discernment and considering the teachings of the church, of course). The encyclical letter finally issued by the pope on the topic, Humanae Vitae, declared that sex was only moral when it was ordered towards both the unitive and the procreative purposes of marriage.

      This teaching has not been received (accepted as valid, and therefore followed) by the faithful, including many clergy. In many ways, this encyclical epitomizes the division in the church over issues of authority and conscience. In some ways, it looms over all the other culture war issues that the RC church is involved in: not because birth control affects them all, but because the fundamental issues are all the same. So as a Catholic, it’s pleasant to be reminded that it does not so loom in the lives of other Christians! πŸ˜‰

      In terms of having an irregular cycle, note that not all NFP methods are calendar based: some of them depend on observing signs of fertility, as Haile’s post described. But I don’t know enough about them to know whether irregularity also poses a problem for them. I think that someone who was physiologically incapable of practicing NFP would be in the category of illness or disability: not that “irregular cycle” would be defined as an illness, but that the same need for pastoral guidance would apply.

  3. I would never even have thought that “pastoral guidance” was code for asking for permission to use artificial contraceptive technologies. Wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. Your post, therefore, was a pleasantly surprising, and surprisingly pleasant, read.

    It’s been a while since I perused your blog, but I think I’ll start keeping closer tabs on you.

    • Really! Isn’t it funny how perspectives differ: it took a good long time for it to dawn on me that it might not be code!

      Thanks for the kind words – I’ll look forward to seeing you stop by more often. πŸ™‚

  4. Theophrastus says:

    I’m not sure you why you frame as the question of the central church’s authority to determine standards as a late 20th century question here.

    Did not the question emerge (at least in the dispute between James and Paul over the issue of standards for gentile converts to Christianity) in the period of Acts; and did it not re-emerge over and over again during the East-West schism, in the late medieval period, and during the 1378-1417 Papal schisms, and especially during the Reformation and Counter-reformation, and then showing up almost in every question about Christianity throughout the last six centuries? And haven’t other religions (especially Judaism, but also Islam and Hinduism) faced analogous issues in their religious histories? Isn’t this the very question that perplexed Hobbes, and Spinoza, and Milton, and Goethe, and Dante?

    Isn’t this, after all, the central practical question for Catholicism (and for that matter, all religions that claim both heavenly and temporal authority)?

    • I didn’t intend to frame this as a peculiarly late 20th century question, but rather to identify the ecclesiological aspects that underlie the extreme polarization in the Catholic church today and over the past few decades. This polarization is normally discussed in terms of the presenting issues (sexual morality, liturgical tradition, & so forth), and not in ecclesiological terms. (At least, if you don’t consider “If you don’t agree with X, why don’t you just go be a Protestant already?” as discussion.)

      I think the issue does have a particular resonance with the late twentieth century, though, precisely because Vatican II was a turn towards modernity, and a turn away from the “perfect society” ecclesiology of the 19th century. The council documents embrace many of the values of the Enlightenment, for instance: democracy, freedom of conscience (at least for those outside the church), value in other religions, separation of church and state.

      The church actually formed a commission to study the question of artificial contraception to advise the pope. It included lay people! and married people! It heard testimony from married couples! This was amazing. And its majority finding was that artificial contraception was morally acceptable. And then the Pope ignored its finding, and declared that it wasn’t.

      It could be that I simply don’t have the historical and interfaith perspective that you point to, and I admit that I’m writing primarily from my lived experience as a Vatican 2 baby. But I think the attempted institutional move away from central authority and towards broader consensus is the particular manifestation of this question in the post-V2 Catholic church.

  5. Pingback: The Encyclical Crisis Then (and Now) | Gaudete Theology

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