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. Although even there, except for the relatively few lay Catholics whose parishes are served by married priests, 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 😏👶👼
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.
 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.
 Yes, there are married Catholic priests presently serving parishes. They generally converted from Anglicanism, which permits married priests.