I got a question from a reader asking why NFP is ok when the Church says artificial birth control is not. I was reminded of this comment I received on a recent post of mine:
Use the pill for a month while having sex. No pregnancy.
Use condoms for a month while having sex. No pregnancy.
Use NFP for a month while having sex approximately for a possible 10-11 days of the month because that’s when fertility is low [disclaimer: this number is way off]. No pregnancy.
Different ways of getting the same thing. No real difference.
Well, NFP does have a difference I guess. It means having a lot less sex.
I see why the Catholic Church approves.
Zing! Gotta love the one-liner, right? Unfortunately, while one-liners are great for eliciting laughs, they’re rarely ideal for facilitating thoughtful discussion. And even though thoughtful discussion may not be the goal of the mock-news shows we watch on Comedy Central, it becomes a problem when us normal, everyday-folk confuse these snarky remarks for valid arguments. So let’s take this one head-on.
“Natural Family Planning is just Church-approved birth control”
The funny thing is that no one is really trying to say this premise isn’t true. The Church has always said that there exist valid reasons that a married couple may have for wishing to delay or space out pregnancies. If you want to call it “control” then fine, but we’re less delusional about how much control we actually have over things in this life, so we call it “planning.” Semantics, I guess.
Anyway, the issue I have is with the unspoken punch line that, since the Church approves a “natural” form of birth control, it’s silly for Her to oppose it in an artificial form.
Clearly this argument is operating on the [false] assumption that just because two parties may agree to a certain end, it automatically follows that they must agree on each and every means to achieve that end. (“Different ways of getting the same thing. No real difference”) We hear it argued again and again that contraception and natural family planning are of the same moral and ethical weight because their goal is [often] to achieve the same end: No pregnancy.
Allow me to show you how absurd this assumption is.
I can agree with you that someone who is 70 pounds overweight should probably lose those 70 pounds. It doesn’t mean that I have to agree with you when you tell that person, “Hey! A great way to shed those pounds is to just throw up after every meal…you can eat whatever you want to and still lose weight!”
End result of bulimia: 70 pounds lighter.
End result of healthy diet and exercise: 70 pounds lighter.
“Different ways of getting the same thing”? “No real difference”? Hardly…
No psychologically healthy person is trying to say that these two options used to achieve weight loss should be treated equally, much less that the option that makes rapid weight loss “easier” (bulimia) should be preferred to the natural and healthy way.
A common goal does not automatically validate every means used to achieve that goal.
To be clear: Even if you don’t think there is anything wrong with using artificial contraception, please realize that you’re not making any sort of witty argument against the Catholic Church by pointing out that the Church, too, understands there are valid reasons for delaying pregnancies. …You’re kind of just helping out bloggers like me in showcasing Her Wisdom.
The Church’s Teaching: NFP vs. The Pill
So we have established that NFP and artificial contraception are not one and the same, and that to support one does not necessarily mean you are required to support the other. Now we should probably answer the question of why, according to the Church, NFP is ok and artificial birth control is not.
[I've already written a post about why the Catholic Church is against artificial birth control, so I won't re-hash all of that here.]
To deny the reciprocal total gift of self its true expression in the marital act is to deny a true expression of love, which the Church is just not ok with. You are not expressing love for someone when you are holding back a part of yourself from him or her.
So, then why is NFP ok? Well first of all it’s not always ok. If your motivations are simply selfish and there really is no serious reason why you cannot or should not have another child at this time, the Church does not intend for NFP to become simply a “natural” alternative to artificial birth control. It’s meant to be a way for families who would be harmed financially, or in some other way, by having another child at that time. Also, it should be said that choosing to practice NFP has to be agreed upon by both husband and wife. If at any time either the husband or wife wishes to stop practicing NFP, the other cannot use NFP as a justification for denying his or her spouse their marital right.
Natural Family Planning is not simply a “natural” alternative to artificial birth control because it does not reduce sex simply to a means to achieve pleasure. It’s not that pleasure is bad; it’s just that sex is supposed to be about so much more than pleasure—it’s supposed to be about love (i.e. total gift of self).
So yes, while practicing NFP, you are choosing to abstain from sexual activity during those days on which you are most fertile (which by the way, is usually about 4 days out of the month). But you are choosing to do this with your spouse, whom you love, and whom you would never wish to reduce merely to an object of achieving pleasure for yourself. It’s a more consistent expression of the life-giving love that isn’t afraid of a little sacrifice for the greater good of the family.