Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

NFP and Truth (and Suffering)

This is the second in a series of posts dealing with NFP and some recent controversies surrounding it. The first post dealt with how accusation that Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae because if he did otherwise the Church "should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 [when Casti Connubii was promulgated] and in 1951" is fundamentally a concern about the nature of the Church and the authority of the Church's teaching power, not an accusation about clerical misogyny or failing to listen to the experiences of married couples. In this second post, we're going to talk about NFP itself, some of the problems with it, and some of the problems with how people talk about it.

Back in July, Melinda Selmys (whose post series inspired this one) had post on NFP (Natural Family Planning, lest the insider acronym be unfamiliar to anyone) which was somewhat inspired by the "NFP awareness week" which many in the Catholic online world were conducting.
So it’s NFP awareness week, and nothing will do a woman more good in the midst of a faith-crisis than blogging about NFP…right?

Anyway, I did end up reading one of the many NFP articles that are circulating this week. The upshot of this one is that the woman who is writing it hates NFP. It doesn’t improve her marriage, or increase intimacy in her relationship, and it’s not really preventing her from getting pregnant. Her body doesn’t have time to recover between pregnancies, and she’s experiencing pregnancy loss – possibly as a result. So far, so familiar. However, she is continuing with it because she believes in the unchanging teaching of the Catholic Church and so she is being obedient even though it is causing her suffering and she doesn’t understand why it’s a good thing.

Also, painfully familiar.
I remember when the awareness week was going around, and I recall studiously not taking part in it, despite the fact that NFP has been fairly intimately connected with our lives for the last sixteen years. There is too often, I fear, a boom and bust cycle to NFP boosterism. The bust is not always the kind of complete questioning of Church teaching authority which Selmys's struggle with it seems to have led to (following up on the above linked post in which she questions why the Church teaches someone in her situation must not use contraception, she went on to a four part series on papal infallibility, which she more or less rejects now, demonstrating I think that rejection of the Church's teaching on contraception ends up hinging on questions of doctrinal authority, not sexuality.) But even when the result is simply grim compliance rather than attempted rejection of the Church's teaching about contraception, I think that the tendency of NFP boosters to over-promise results in the ten-to-twelve-years-into-marriage disillusion with those promises which I've often heard from other Catholics.

MrsD: Perhaps it was around NFP Awareness Week when I heard someone who'd been married for a few years and had a few young kids, bemoaning the fact that no one had ever mentioned that NFP was so hard, and why did no one ever talk about this? And I said nothing, because we already wrote that same post back when we'd been married a few years and had a few young kids ourselves. It seemed like we were constantly fighting this monthly battle pitting desire against risk of pregnancy, and dear God, how long would it go on this way? Well, the answer is that nothing in life is static. NFP has been, intermittently, a trial, a slog, a blessing, a lifeline, and just a thing that we do or don't do, depending on necessity.

By now the term "NFP" is almost too fraught, carrying connotations of some big oppressive system. Say it with me, though: all it is is 1) observing the signs of female fertility -- a morally neutral act -- and 2) using those observations as part of a prudential judgment about whether to have sex based on the possibility of pregnancy as a result. That's a bit long to type out, so at least in this series of posts, all "NFP" refers to is this basic idea of observation and decision-making process, not the guidelines and rules of any particular system -- Marquette, Creighton, CCL, whatever. And these rules are not moral imperatives. The Ten Commandments are moral imperatives. The injunction against contraception is a moral imperative backed by the authority of the Catholic church, all dissent to the contrary. Not having sex on day seven when mucus is present is not a moral imperative, and pregnancy is not a punishment for breaking that rule. It's simply a guideline.

There are two different ways that NFP advocates often over promise. One has to do with ease and accuracy of method, an area of technical over-promising if you will. This often seems to have to do with wanting to make NFP seem like an easy and reliable way to space pregnancies, and so choosing (perhaps unconsciously) to make things sound more universal and consistent than the variations of actual women's biology are. The one of these which we ran into as a young married couple was the insistence (at the time at least) in Couple to Couple League materials that you didn't need to worry about fertility coming back quickly while you were breastfeeding, and that you'd probably have a couple infertile cycles coming off of that post-partum infertility in order to let you get used to it. Well, MrsDarwin was the one who gave the OB a double take on the first appointment for our second child by answering the question "when was your last period" with "eighteen months ago."

My impression is that this technical simplification/over-promising has gotten somewhat better over the last sixteen years that NFP has been on our radar (CCL has, for instance, apparently scaled back somewhat it's claims about ecological breastfeeding always resulting in long post-partum infertility) but it's still often the case that when someone talks about the difficulty of knowing when is and is not a fertile time, there are eager people who turn up to explain how the sufferer is doing it all wrong. This defensiveness (it would be easy if you would just do it right!) can be an additional frustration for people already having a hard time with NFP, but it is not the kind of problem that I'd like to talk about in this post. Rather, I'd like to discuss the more relationship-focused aspect of NFP discourse.

If you've moved in these circles, you've probably heard the claims: NFP will divorce proof your marriage! It improves communication between husband and wife! It encourages respect for the whole person! It increases intimacy, and each return to sex after a brief period of abstinence is like another honeymoon!

NFP Is Not Magic
One of the problems with claims such as "NFP improves your communication!" or "NFP will divorce proof your marriage" is that they seem to suggest a rather confused idea of what NFP is and why a couple would practice it. When a couple uses NFP to avoid pregnancy, what are they trying to achieve? Their immediate goal in using NFP is not to reduce their chances of divorce or to achieve better communication (though both of those are good things!) but rather to avoid getting pregnant.

Now, as we think about avoiding pregnancy, there are two obvious ways to succeed. The absolutely sure fire method is not to have sex. Your humble correspondents here spent four years dating and engaged as hotblooded and very fertile young people, and yet by this very simple expedient of not having sex, we never got pregnant through that entire four years. By comparison, after getting married and starting to have sex, we got pregnant within two months.

Yet, though not having sex is an age-old, cheap, and incredibly reliable means of not having children, it's not one that most married couples want to sign up for. Why? Because in addition to making babies (the procreative aspect) sex provides couples with a powerful means of expressing love and unity (the unitary aspect.)

Thus, couples have, throughout history, sometimes wished that they could have sex and enjoy those feelings of unity without risking getting pregnant, and attempted this by means of various barrier or chemical means. (Yes, both barrier and chemical birth control was known in the ancient world -- it was just somewhat less reliable than the modern medical versions of these methods.) And yet the Catholic Church, in keeping with the teaching of Christians dating back to the earliest days of the Church, teaches that rending sex intentionally sterile by using artificial contraception is wrong, because it intentionally removes the procreative aspect from sexual intercourse.

So how does NFP fit into this situation? Natural Family Planning consists of observing the wife's natural cycle of fertility and abstaining from intercourse during the periods when she is fertile. In other words, it's the age-old means of avoiding pregnancy by not having sex, but made somewhat less draconian by allowing couples to target their abstinence just towards the times when they might conceive. During standard cycles, this would mean abstaining for a week or two at a time out of each month, rather than abstaining totally. (Some health issues can, however, make the signs of fertility much harder to read and thus require a couple who very urgently need to avoid pregnancy have to abstain from sex for much longer.)

NFP to avoid pregnancy is nothing more or less than targeted abstinence, allowing the couple to avoid pregnancy by giving up sex some of the time rather than all of the time. This is why claims that NFP itself is "contraceptive" in its mentality so clearly fall flat. Avoiding sex is always a moral means of avoiding pregnancy, and NFP is nothing more than avoiding sex.

Why, then, do we see all these expansive claims about the benefits of NFP which have seemingly little to do with avoiding sex or avoiding pregnancy?

MrsD: At the moment Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the temple sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. Now the presence of God was immediate; his holiness was not hidden, and the veil ceased to provide a lulling sense of being hidden or protected from the gaze of God. 

NFP is not magic. It doesn't divorce-proof your marriage, because married couples who use NFP can still sin in other ways. It only improves communication if a couple chooses to communicate. But it does rend the veil. It strips away the false sense of security and certainty that contraception provides. It shines a sometimes harsh white light on the characters of a husband and wife and how they respond to the necessity for chastity and prudence. Light can help a person see, or it can dazzle and blind. That's not magic. That's exposure to truth. 

Nor is contraception magic. Using the veil of contraception to hide from the demands of chastity might allow you to have sex when otherwise you'd have to abstain, but it doesn't make chastity moot. Hiding behind the veil of contraception may give a false sense of control, but doesn't mean that having sex in a fertile period will actually never result in pregnancy. Why is it that Mary is praised for asking how it's possible that she can become pregnant while Zechariah is punished for doubting for asking the same thing? Because Mary's question is predicated on not having sex at all, sex being the natural process through which babies are conceived. Her situation actually requires a miracle. The situation of Zechariah, a married man, does not. Since humans do not actually create life, we do not control whether any particular act of intercourse will or will not result in pregnancy. We can only cooperate with the biological systems God has given us, and if we want to avoid pregnancy, that means avoiding intercourse when scientific observation indicates that the female, whose fertility waxes and wanes, is fertile. Methods of contraception do not provide perfect security if a couple chooses to have sex while the female is fertile. God does not, with the exception of the Incarnation, will that conception take place outside of intercourse (which is why IVF and other assisted-reproduction methods are such grave evils), but pregnancy resulting from intercourse is not a miracle, contraception or no. 

NFP Requires Virtue
Read some news or opinion piece online, and you've almost certain to see advertisements for quick fix remedies: This simple exercise will get you totally ripped in five minutes a day! This little pill burns fat like nothing else! Local mom discovered this one simple trick!

The attraction of such claims is that they promise some desirable result that normally takes a lot of work (building muscle, losing weight, etc.) with very little work or time investment. The alternative is building the habit of actually eating well, exercising, etc. If you do that work, which is hard and requires forming good habits and having the discipline to keep them, you will not only achieve the goals of less fat or more muscle, but also side benefits such as sticking to a schedule, continuing to do things even if they are hard, etc.

The side benefits which are often cited in regard to NFP are sort of like these side benefits of eating right and exercising: if you go about NFP in the spirit of building good habits (a virtue, after all, is also described as a habit to the good) then practicing NFP will help you grow in virtue in other ways. Because NFP means, at times, saying as a couple: "It would be unhealthy for us (physically, emotionally, or financially) to get pregnant right now. I don't want to put my spouse through that. So I will not press my spouse for sex at this time. I will find ways to express my affection for my spouse that don't make my spouse crazy."

If you build these habits, you will find they apply in other areas as well. If I can not pester my wife for sex when I know she is probably fertile and is not ready to get pregnant, then I can also not pester her about the state of the house of the schedule of her activities. If I can not demand sex when it would cause a pregnancy we are not ready for, I can not demand sex when she is sick or is so pregnant that it is uncomfortable or is not in the mood. (I've read in the past that pregnancy and immediately after a baby are born are periods when husbands sometimes initiate affairs. This sounds incredibly heartless, but for couples who don't normally have to deal with periods of abstinence for any other reason, these might be the first times that a husband would encounter the necessity of not having sex for an extended period because of his wife's health.) If we can sit down and have a rational conversation about whether we are ready to get pregnant at the moment, and if not agree to abstain during potentially fertile periods, then we can sit down and have a rational conversation about what family time commitments to take on, where to spend our money, and whether we can afford that home renovation project.

But practicing NFP will only help in this development of virtue if one actually practices it in a virtuous way. If the desire to avoid pregnancy means that a couple utilizes self mastery and communication and consideration for each other, then they will strengthen these virtues in themselves and experience the benefits of these virtues in other areas of their lives. But we're fallen human creatures with fallen human desires. When we're faced with doing something hard, we often lash out at others to express our frustration. This isn't something unique to sex. Last weekend I was tilling over a section of the yard and digging out the area where I'll be building a retaining wall. It was hard work, harder that expected because the area was criss-crossed with roots. After a couple hours of hard labor with the sun overheard, if the kids came up with some question I was growling and snapping at them. My frustration with the roots and sun were turned, unvirtuously, into frustration with my children, and I treated them ungraciously as a result. Mastering our desires can also be hard work. If our response to that difficulty is to lash out at our spouse, to pester and accuse, to seek other forms of release, then facing this hard work becomes not a school of virtue but a school of vice.

Is NFP at fault here? No, not in and of itself. Ask about the reason that couples fight and you'll hear a couple standard ones: money, sex, relatives, work. All of these are things where we might have to make difficult decisions, have to allocate scarce resources, have to choose between competing desires. Put people under stress and force them to make choices, and at times they will respond by behaving badly. The rigors of practicing NFP are no different.

But is it an extra burden which no couple, or not all couples, should have to bear?

MrsD: Feelings are feelings and desire is desire. It arises unbidden at inconvenient times, or refuses to make an appearance at the right time. And it's unequal -- one spouse's desire may inspire the other, but it may also frustrate. So desire itself is not a good regulator of sexual life within marriage. But virtue is. The virtue of justice calls spouses out of themselves to render the particularly marital form of love that is intercourse even in spite of daily frustrations or the thousand stresses of life -- and to never withhold intercourse as a punishment. The virtue of temperance reins hotblooded spouses in from pushing the erotic  limits with degrading or sinful acts, or keeps one hotblooded spouse from pressuring the other to do something unwanted. The virtue of fortitude allows a married couple to be open and emotionally honest with each other even at the most vulnerable times, and sustains them through bouts of abstinence or the natural sexual imbalances that are a normal part of married life. 

And prudence, the queen of virtues, is the practical application of these virtues to every aspect of a couple's sex life. It takes the question of achieving or avoiding pregnancy from an abstract consideration (Is this a healthy time to get pregnant? Can we afford another child?) to the nitty-gritty choices couples make each instant. If I don't intend to get pregnant, but signs indicate that I'm fertile tonight, I should not have sex. If I should not have sex, I should be careful about the way I present myself to my husband (who is, of course, on the same page with me) so I'm not sending a false message. If I don't intend to have sex, and he doesn't intend to have sex, should I push at him this way? Should I touch him there? Should I let him do this particular thing which is awfully sexy? Prudence looks at each action, each moment, and allows me to exercise my judgment over whether this is a particularly wise action right now, or whether it's going to lead me closer to either a lot of frustration. Am I willing to gamble the chance of nine months of aches and pains and a delightful but demanding baby at the end on the chance of a moment of pleasure? If not, am I pushing myself toward a moment of insanity where I just don't care about the possible consequences? Is finally making the decision to have sex at this moment actually an act of love and surrender, or am I allowing lust to make a fool of me? Sex has a unitive aspect, but people can be united in making poor decisions. Prudence takes the facts gleaned from NFP observations and turns them into the moment-by-moment action or sacrifice that is the lived Christian life.  

NFP Is Not Impossible
Sometimes we like to imagine that things we don't like have horrific consequences.  NFP opponents sometimes claim that some couples or some men just can't deal with the periodic abstinence it requires. By this theory, the Church's teaching about contraception must be wrong because some couples both can't deal with abstaining during fertile periods and also can't deal with having lots of children, so if both of those are just out, just totally impossible for them, then obviously God must mean for those people to be allowed to use contraception. After all, marriage is supposed to be a source of joy, not of suffering!

We guys are notorious for claiming dire physical results for not being satisfied. "Oh, baby, it'll hurt if I don't!" Let's be clear, though: abstaining from sex is possible. No one ever died from lack of sex. Men who respond to the need for temporary abstinence by turning to porn, to masturbation, or to other women are not the victims of some sort of dire necessity. They are choosing to do the wrong thing. It's sometimes hard not to do the wrong thing. And as Catholics, we are given the sacrament of confession to turn to and receive both the forgiveness of our sins and the graces to avoid sinning again.  But the basic truth remains: doing the wrong thing is wrong.

And indeed, there are many others that we are in union with when we experience the difficulties of abstaining for a time. We have brothers and sisters in Christ who have not been able to find a spouse, who are separated by distance or death or health from their spouse, who have vowed celibacy for life, or who are in the time of waiting after meeting someone and before getting married. Many other people are having to make the same sacrifices that we are, and if they are without the tantalizing presence of the spouse with whom it would not be a sin to have sex, even if it would be imprudent in potentially causing a pregnancy which would be a risk to health or resources, those people also lack the compensations of at least being physically near someone whom they love.

God's grace is sufficient to the tests that are put before us.

MrsD: The first of the Ten Commandments is, "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me." That sex is a good thing does not make it the greatest thing. That it is the form of love particular to marriage does not mean it is the only way, or the highest way, of showing love in marriage. That it is tantalizing, powerful, desirable does not mean that it is irresistible. In fact, we already know that sex is a limited, temporal, earthly form of love because in heaven, where love is perfected, there is no marriage or giving in marriage. Is it good to have sex in marriage? Yes, of course. Is it impossible not to have sex in marriage? No, of course not -- and as an example of this, we have the ultimate model of the family, the Holy Family, not plaster saints, but a real husband and wife living under conditions of celibacy. Through God's grace, they achieved this not by not desiring one another, not because they were too boring or holy or frigid to have sex (and although we know that Mary remained sinless, we're not given much of a window into Joseph's struggle except being told that he was a virtuous man), but by the actual, practical fact of abstinence. 

One thing we know: that God never commands us to sin. His will is perfect, and ours are not. We want things that are not right. We desire things that are not good. We desire good things, but at inappropriate times. We justify bad means on the theory that they will achieve good ends. We imagine that our particular circumstances give us some personal wiggle room within universally binding moral norms. Because we are human, we fall, sometimes through negligence and sometimes through actively rejecting the possibility of God's grace. But grace means that nothing God commands is an impossibility, even when it requires something as painful and humbling as setting our own imperfect wills aside.

Part 3 will deal with sex and the mistaken views about it that contribute to the difficulties in discussing the Church's teaching on contraception.


Anonymous said...

This is a good article on NFP, which I define as: having something useful to say even to those past their child-bearing years.

Anonymous said...

I particularly appreciate the section: NFP Requires Virtue

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Very well thought out and written!

Emily said...

Years of accumulated musings and experiences here-thank you for writing.

NFP has not been easy for us. I have by turns been bitter, guilty, hateful (not of God or the Church, but my own body), etc. It sounds silly and weak to say, but it has been our biggest cross. This coming from a couple whose marriage has endured closely spaced babies over and over, health crises, family crises, stressful jobs...but I'll still pin it on NFP. I'm the lady whose Napro practitioner told her he hoped she could read her chart and make some sense of it, because he couldn't. This led to hormone therapy to regulate cycles, which worked. But insurance changes soon rendered it impossible, and we were back to abstaining 30 out of 35 days again. For months and months. We went four months once, when our twins were little and I wasn't cycling but had constant signs of fertility. And then, one of the two times we had sex in two months, we managed to conceive. On a dry day. I give up. Strangely and wonderfully, after our 6th in 6 years, we were blessed with normal!!! cycles and textbook!!! fertility signs. So our sixth and seventh will be 3 years apart. God has blessed us bountifully, and we love our family.

That time of successful NFP did change things for us. With an end to the abstinence in sight each month, we found it easier to put aside our bad feelings and work with the circumstances in more positive ways. Some our our most intimate moments of conversation, sharing our deepest feelings, have been in times of abstinence, when, craving intimacy, we chose words over acts. Some of the sweetest kisses we have shared have been those where we knew that was all- we needed to stop there. It was freeing for us when we chose to instead of being angry and frustrated when we had to abstain, we chose to be frustrated-yes-but acknowledge it, accept it, and work to find intimacy anyway. And I have to admit, it is incredible how both spouses bodies respond to the woman's fertility. For a year, we didn't even use anything but my husband's interest in me as a fertility sign-and it worked. At any rate, using NFP with success and comparative ease, made us start to see that there actually is some truth in those soppy, balloons-and-flowers, articles promoting it. (They go way overboard though!)

NFP does take virtue. Conscious and deliberate practice thereof. But like muscles, you find the virtues grow stronger with use, and it gets easier.

Anonymous said...

How is imprudence not a sin? If you choose to have sex with your spouse at a time you know another pregnancy would endanger the health of the wife (and potentially the health of any baby conceived), and/or would have a negative impact on the family's resources and the children already born, how is that not a sin?

The church teaches that we should be responsible parents when it comes to regulating births. To me, that means that when parents do not regulate births in a responsible fashion (by not having sex when fertile--or simply, by not having sex at all), they are committing the sin of imprudence.

Of course, this notion does stand somewhat in opposition to the age-old teaching of sex as a remedy for concupiscence, and a debt you owe to your spouse (particularly if there is a good chance he/she will sin if you do not pay the debt), but it's been a long time since we have heard the church actively teaching that aspect of marriage. The tension between our responsibility to prevent our spouse from sinning vs. our responsibility to regulate births seems to have been addressed heavily in favor of responsible parenthood in the modern world. Irresponsibility is a sin.

mrsdarwin said...

Emily, thanks for sharing your story. I think it's really helpful to hear about couples who've struggled through adversity without despairing or falling away.

mrsdarwin said...

Anon, God's very first command to humanity was to be fruitful and multiply, so it seems he has a different standard of prudence than the worldly version of regulating every birth. And St. Paul, no big fan of sex, advises couples: "Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer, but then return to one another so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control" (1 Cor. 7:5).

As St. Paul indicates here, the concession to concupiscence is not to keep a spouse from sinning (which is a very strange formulation, since no one can keep another person from sinning, and often there are bad consequences if someone tries to control another person that way), but for one's own self. Focusing sexual desire on a spouse trains it in the proper direction -- toward another person, one who may be licitly loved that way. If a wife gives out to her husband to keep him away from porn or masturbation, sex is just a bandaid over deeper problems.

It's also a strange claim that teaching that is not actively emphasized at a particular moment becomes defunct.

Finicky Cat said...

What an excellent article! You two should write a book...eventually. Thanks also, Mrs Darwin, for the above response to Anon. I hear arguments like theirs sometimes, and never quite know how to sort out the layers.

Except for one outburst years ago on Melinda's blog, I generally keep silent about NFP because for us, so far, it's generally been ridiculously simple to figure out what my body is doing. I chart now, but I didn't used to do so - and we've never had a surprise baby. It's not been an issue of low fertility, either, because after the first one (who took over a year to conceive), each of the other five was pretty much just a matter of saying, "Hey! Let's make a baby this month!" And that was that. The week of abstinence each cycle is frustrating and annoying and disruptive...but not otherwise stressful since there's no anxiety tied to it. And even when I was nursing the babies, I could choose exactly when my fertility would return by choosing when to stop those night feedings. It's all been very simple. And it's just about the ONLY thing in my life that's been simple, mind you, so I'm very grateful!

I share this just to offer yet another experience of NFP - they do vary wildly.

Anonymous said...

NFP doesn't let us hide. Issues with self-mastery, consistency, or hormonal imbalance will be covered up by contraception like credit cards debt can cover greed. I find the people who are the most encouraging about NFP are the ones who have paid the most deep and serious price of contraception. They get what a gift this is, even with all its demands. You know, people also told me that money issues were tough in marriage, but getting through them would make us stronger...I don't resent those people for "misinforming me." I get that I couldn't really understand until I experienced it. At that point, it was our responsibility to reach out and keep working on it. But, with NFP, I hear complaint after complaint that people didn't really tell the truth about it. I wish there would be supportive, problem-solving articles on NFP.