Monday, June 2, 2008

The Great NFP Battle

It may come as a surprise to non-Catholics that Catholics have a tendency to fight over Natural Family Planning--and no, it's not what you think. Sure, lots of people who say they're Catholic dissent from the Church's teachings about artificial birth control, and use it in spite of the sinful nature of this decision. I tend to proffer helpful Church resources to these people when I meet them, and to pray for them to turn away from birth control. So would most other orthodox Catholics I know.

No, the battle is between two different orthodox Catholic factions. Both agree emphatically and wholeheartedly with Catholic teaching on the subject of birth control. Both also agree that for Catholics who find it necessary to postpone the birth of their next child temporarily or even, as Paul VI mentions in Humanae Vitae, for an indefinite period, NFP is a morally licit option.

But the devil, as he always is, is in the details.

I want to make it clear that the two groups I'm describing below represent two extreme factions in this debate. There are many families who do not use NFP who do not at all fall into the first group described; there are many families who do use NFP who do not at all fall into the second group. But since the members of these two groups tend to be the loudest and most vocal ones whenever the issue of natural family planning is brought up for discussion, they're hard to overlook--and a lot of us orthodox, practicing Catholics end up somewhere in the middle of the argument, bewildered and wondering what's really going on here.

The first group of people are those who might be called the "Quiverful Providentialists," or QPs, for short. The QPs don't all have extremely large families, but it's not for lack of trying, as they'll be the first to tell you should the subject of NFP come up. They interpret the Church's teachings on the matter of marriage and family as meaning that, extraordinary circumstances alone excepted, the "default" mode for every marriage is to have, or try to have, as many children as is physically possible for the wife to bear. There are only two acceptable states for a faithful Catholic wife, for the QPs: pregnant, or trying to conceive. The third state of "no longer able to conceive" will come someday, of course, but in the meantime a woman's job is to maximize her fertility and add as many children as she can to surround the family table.

The QPs will admit, somewhat grudgingly, that the Church does allow NFP for "grave" reasons. (The other two words used in the context of the Church's teachings on NFP, "serious" and "just" reasons, seldom come up in the QP vocabulary--it's "grave" or nothing.) The QPs tend to discuss only two possible categories of grave reason: finances and the physical life/health of the mother. Their answer to the first question tends to focus on the fact that we live in America, the "richest country in the world," and that therefore means exist to allow people to have children even when they are suffering financial hardships. I have heard QPs discussing the various ways a family can continue to have children when there are limited funds, such as declaring bankruptcy in order to qualify for Medicaid, and taking advantage of various aid programs such as WIC, children's health insurance programs in various states, and other forms of welfare; thus the notion is presented that being prudent about one's economic circumstances is actually a "contraceptive" mentality, and that as long as there are charitable and government resources to help keep the family's basic needs supplied it is almost sinful to postpone a child using NFP under these sorts of circumstances.

The QPs answer to the second question is similar; I have been personally informed that in this country, with this country's medical resources, no condition exists which would really be a "good enough" reason for a woman not to become pregnant. If a woman is able to explain her medical condition in a way that satisfies this first objection, the next objection will be that she shouldn't trust the medical advice she has received unless a pro-life Catholic doctor has given it to her--all other doctors are just trying to scare her, and can't be trusted. Should she have spoken to pro-life and/or Catholic doctors, the next thing she is told is that perhaps if she trusts God, her medical condition will be miraculously resolved once she becomes pregnant--or, if it isn't, that she is being invited to become a mother/martyr like St. Gianna Molla. When all of that has been said, a stern warning in the form of the Cure of Ars' famous (and I believe, misunderstood) statement to the effect that women go to Hell for not having all the children God wanted them to have will be the final word on the subject; at this point the QP person seem to believe he/she has done his/her duty and can wash his/her hands of you in good conscience.

On the opposite side of this argument we can find the NFP cheerleaders, or Nfpteers. Again, just as not every family who decides not to use NFP is a QP, so to are there many NFP users who are not Nfpteers. The Nfpteer is the person who thinks that NFP is the source of most of the marital blessings out there, aside from one or two that may come from the sacramental nature of marriage itself. They believe that NFP is the sole reason that good Catholic couples are able to solve marital problems and stay married, that somehow the open communication NFP requires leads to an openness of communication and respect in all other areas of matrimony, that, if you'll forgive the phrase, "the family that charts together hearts together." While the Nfpteer may recognize that there are families out there who never use NFP but are still good Catholic families, they're almost as grudging about the idea as the QPs are toward the idea of NFP.

To someone they suspect of being on the QP side of things, the Nfpteer will often focus on the many "side-effect" benefits of NFP, ranging from the aforementioned communication to the depth of knowledge a woman gains about the mystery of her female and cyclic biology. Nfpteers may express the notion that nobody says you have to use NFP just to abstain or postpone children--why, if you want to have as many as possible, why wouldn't you want to use NFP to help with that? They may express the idea that a couple who doesn't use NFP may experience periods of satiety, when their supposed lack of self-control has a dampening effect on the mystery and romance of marital union. They may even start to hint about a lack of prudence, or to discuss the importance of focused types of parenting.

Some of the Nfpteers find that the number three has a near-religious significance--not three as in three total children, but three as in the "right" number of years to space each child from his or her next youngest sibling. They will point to pregnancy and nursing patterns among primitive women in support of the idea that God's real intention was for the female body to rest for three years between each birth; they will also cite various medical or sociological studies aimed at proving that three years between children is best for everybody--fathers, mothers, children. To the objection sometimes raised that this would tend to create smaller families, the Nfpteer will show that a woman of normal fertility who marries in her early twenties will still be quite capable of having anywhere from six to eight children, each three years from the other.

The QPs see the Nfpteers as sinfully lax in their ideas--what, is family spacing suddenly supposed to be a "grave reason"? The Nfpteers see the QPs as sinfully imprudent in their ideas--what, going on welfare constitutes responsible parenthood? Each side tends to caricature the other in arguments and discussions, and each side tends to get boiling mad at the representatives of the other. In the end, both the QPs and the Nfpteers are each secretly convinced that they, and they alone, understand what the Church really means in Her teachings on marital fecundity, NFP, and responsible parenthood.

Those of us who fall somewhere in between these two extremes are left to puzzle over the whole thing. To many of us, what the Church teaches seems to be both reasonably clear and abundant in wisdom and generosity--and both the QPs and the Nfpteers seem a little unbalanced on the subject. To say the least.


Anonymous said...

Umm...I have a question. I am single, but I know and understand the basic concepts about NFP. However, I was wondering if you could explain why a Protestant would say that they have used NFP in the past, but not with the "Catholic parts". What does that mean? I can't for the life of me figure it out! Any ideas?


Red Cardigan said...

DLS, check your mailbox. :)

~cactus mouse~ said...

Thank you, Red. Excellent!

Elena said...

Very good post! I have been on both sides of the NFP spectrum and I think you presented them very accurately!

Anonymous said...

I have no idea where we fall since we are new to even knowing what the church expects of us and NFP.
This is how we view it: Be open to life and know yourself and your situation well enough to be able to take care of everyone you have been blessed with.

Great observations.

Sarahndipity said...

This is a great post! You really hit the nail on the head, especially when it comes to "NFPteers." :) I don't run into too many QP folks, but I run into a lot of NFPteers, mostly online. They are quite irritating, and I speak as someone who uses NFP.

BTW, my daughter and her sibling, who I am expecting now, will be about four and a half years apart. I'm sure both sides would think it’s quite scandalous that we waited so long. :)

Red Cardigan said...

Oh, congratulations, Sarahndipity! :)

Sarahndipity said...

Thanks! :)

freddy said...

Congratulations, Sarahndipity!

Opal, I think your view is spot-on!

Provocative post, Red -- I know people on both ends of the spectrum. What I can't understand is why good, pro-family folks get caught up in worrying about family size -- their own or anyone else's.

BTW, what do you think about parishes that require NFP classes for engaged couples?

molly said...

Great post Red!

lwestin said...

I thought this post was very fairly stated. As a family aware of NFP, but not anticipating the need - not using it, I have been called a 'dangerous providentialist' by , I guess, a Nfpteer!

I have been to several nfp presentations, including the one at our marriage prep class, that presented NFP as 'alternative' birth control. I think they're a bit more careful with their language these days, but the sentiment is sometimes still there. I finally , recently ,went to an excellent presentation. It makes all the difference.

Having had eight children, providentially, I found the nursing cycle did in fact space them rather well. Although we never needed to deliberately withold from having children, I do believe there are some circumstances, that only the couple themselves can judge, that would warrant it. I still am not sure why , as serious or grave circumstances are not likely to be frequent in the population, its necessary to instruct in detail ahead of need. Its not really that tough to learn, and anyone can abstain long enough to get organized...

Red Cardigan said...

lwestin, I can attest to how difficult it can be to learn NFP following childbirth, as I was like you--didn't start out using NFP, never really planned to use it, etc.

When my medical condition first appeared my dh and I had to overlook our one previous (unsuccessful--but we were happy about that) attempt to learn the method and try all over, this time with the stress of really *needing* to learn NFP or face potentially dire consequences--and the rules, interpretations, charting aren't all that straightforward when you're coming off of nursing amenorrhea. So I don't think it's a bad thing for couples to learn a bit more than I did prior to absolutely needing to postpone.

But to answer freddy's earlier question--I'm not in favor of mandatory classes for engaged couples, provided that the couples demonstrate maturity in this area and also are clear in their rejection of contraception; I think offering the classes is a good thing, but requiring them may be too much.

One more thing, lwestin--many serious circumstances are unforeseen, such as the loss of the husband's job and health insurance (which in this economy is happening more and more) or a medically fragile child who in justice requires more attention than previous children. There are plenty of serious circumstances that might make at least a short postponement of additional children a prudent and wise decision.

Alexandra said...

This was interesting. I am only vaguely familiar with the two Catholic camps. I have never come across either camp in any of my parishes, just online. I'm in the middle somewhere, and I was always taught not to judge others, so I keep out of the fray. I am just trying to focus on what I need to do in this life(beyond reproduction) to be more Christlike...hard enough to do this! LOL. Of course, I'm nearing the end of my reproduction capacities, so I guess my head is in a different place.

mdavid said...

I disagree with your analysis of "Quiverful Providentialists". I think you've either ran into some wackos, or you have a bias.

Everyone I know who falls into this camp is not "trying to conceive". Rather, they are just letting nature take its course, and going with the flow. They are not "seeking" conception.

Reading HV, this is the default mode - letting nature take its course unless you have "serious" reasons not to. Seems pretty simple to me.

Red Cardigan said...

mdavid, would you believe I've run into some wackos?

Seriously, there are Catholics out there who debate whether it's all right to continue nursing (in the presence of nursing amenorrhea) past the child's first birthday because that's using breastfeeding as a "contraceptive."

And many in this crowd would reject as "serious," reasons such as disparity of age (i.e., mom is 42, dad is 52) or the father's health (what does that matter if he's not having the baby?), mental health concerns (so what if you've been diagnosed with severe clinical depression following your fourth or fifth bout of extreme post-partum depression? You're just selfish; snap out of it) the need to care physically and/or financially for aging and ailing parents (c'mon, Mom! It's just another set of diapers to change--when you're finished with the two year old and the baby, you can change your father-in-law and mother-in-law; what's so hard about that?) and so forth.

Most people who "let nature take its course" are not QPs by my definition, but these people really do exist, and seem to think that Catholics who use NFP in the scenarios I've described both in the post and just above are really going to Hell for it.

But I know lots of "nature-takers" and admire them; thought I'd be one till the health problems started. The thing is, even nature can be uncertain, and I'd almost never tell some other couple that their reason wasn't "serious" enough, should they decide to share it with me (oh, sure, if they said they wanted a boat or something, but seriously, how many of those people bother with NFP in the first place?).

mdavid said...

Fair enough Red. I think you must get out more than I. Wild stuff, thinking breastfeeding past a year, just doing what is natural, is some sort of deliberate anti-child birth control.

Just curious, what's with ...reject as "serious," reasons such as disparity of age (i.e., mom is 42, dad is 52)? Is the problem that the father is too old to provide or help out? I'm not being snarky, genuinely curious - this fertility discussion is like a minefield, it's hard to ask an honest question without people thinking you're on the attack :-)

Interesting stuff, though. I guess I'm a nature-taker (sort of makes me laugh, that moniker - and I always I was just a normal human who thinks kids are cool and is too lazy to care much about it...what was I thinking!) barring, like you say, some serious reason such as health. This sounds like your position as well.

Right Said Red said...


I'm also known as Red on my blog...and I believe Rod Dreher linked to both of our blogs yesterday regarding this issue. We have been having a robust discussion on Building Cathedrals (Catholic mom blog, all 6 of us are Princeton grads ), regarding Ecological Breastfeeding and NFP in general., see post entitled Ecological Breastfeeding, A Crunchy Catholic's Dissent. Our discussion touches upon many of the same themes you have pointed out in your post.

Right Said Red (Red)

Anonymous said...

I would like to make one more comment about it being mandatory for us Catholics to learn NFP.
I think it should be mandatory and this is why: should you choose to not use this or not need it, it still provides an excellent way for women to be on top of their health care. For instance, I have a high chance of devolping cervical cancer. Because my observations are second nature and my data, I can let my doctor know probably ahead of time when something is amiss. We would also be the first to know when perimenapause is coming on AND if something else is interferring with our cycles eg diabetes. So I think the classes are valuable. We had to learn on our own via emails and books and phone calls.

We are called to know ourselves. Wouldn't that be a great benefit to all young/older ladies?


Red Cardigan said...

Hello, Red! It's always nice to meet another Red. I don't mind being "Red C." to avoid confusion.

mdavid, for some couples disparity of age is a factor, but for others it won't be. I was thinking of eventual retirement concerns, aging and health related questions, and the like. For the couple with a ten-year difference, 42 and 52 might still be fine-- if both are in good health, family income is sufficient to meet the needs of all the existing children, etc. But for others things might be more complex.

My parents are only two years apart, so when my mom had my youngest brother (at 47) my dad was only 49. For a couple where dad is already 57, though, there may be serious discussion about the fact that dad will be nearing 80 by the time the child is an adult.

Again, for a couple in good health and a reasonable financial state, or with supportive extended family, this may not be an issue at all, but this is why I think the Church leaves these prudential debates to the couple (with appropriate guidance). What will be a serious reason to use NFP for one couple/situation may not be for another.

eulogos said...

I think it is a good idea to have required classes, for several reasons. First, it conveys seriously that the church expects the couple NOT to use artificial contraception. In the diocese I am in, such classes would not be required because the local church does not have that expectation.

Second, the argument given above about trying to learn NFP during breastfeeding. It is a very difficult time to learn it and gain any confidence. Similarly for someone who might have medical problems later in her reproductive life, during premenopause; this would be a much more difficult time to learn. Third, some people may wind up needing to use NFP to help them conceive. NFP might enable some to avoid expensive medical evaluation and intervention. For instance one women had such intense "mittlesmertz" (pain with ovulation) that she didn't desire sex during her most fertile time. So, no kids. Once she learned, when they wanted a child, she overcame this feeling. Fifth, fertility awareness is beneficial to women in other ways, for instance in having accurate conception dates, which can prevent labor being induced too early, aid in the diagnosis of fetal growth retardation, or prevent the misdiagnosis of the same.
I think that is enough reasons for women to learn fertility awareness. If taught as fertility awareness, to be used when needed for any of these purposes, rather than specifically as alernative contraception, it shouldn't give the impression that all couples have to limit their families.

You do describe quite extreme viewpoints. I have read debates like this on Catholic sites or lists, but the participants didn't take such extreme points of view. There is certainly nothing in Humanae Vitae which says a couple must have as many children as possible. It does praise those who choose to raise a generous family but that is hardly the same thing. I think it is just barely possible for people to use NFP with a contraceptive mentality, but usually the need to abstain quickly clarifies for the couple what a grave or even a serious, reason is, not to have a child.

Personally, I wasn't very good at NFP. I could always figure out afterwards, which rule I had broken. (Except for one which is still a bit of a puzzle.) But I never had any health problems and did tolerate a degree of poverty greater than many would find acceptable. I had nine. The youngest is a freshman in college. Now I only wish I had had a few more!

Susan Peterson

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post, Ms. Red Cardigan :).

Honestly, I think we've all missed the boat on NFP sometimes because the conversation becomes all about fertility and faith/trust in God and the like and the part about improving communication between the spouses is overlooked or is made to sound like some automatic benefit of practicing NFP. I think many writers who discuss NFP focus mainly on fertility, but fail to look at the big picture of what it takes to live together in a sacramental marriage for life. That's no small task. I don't know how many times I have read about "using the fruits of the marital sacrament" to make it all better in a marriage without the author providing any concrete ways of how to do this. Most of what is written is so shallow and general or, on the other hand, too scholarly; so most folks (me included)can't really spend much time reading something that will be a rehash of what you've already read. Can you see why I am discouraged at times?

It seems that the conversation about NFP has sometimes gotten boxed into a corner and there's very little coming from the pulpit that addresses married life specifically that has clarified any of the confusion or soothed any of the burden of trying to make a marriage work with another human being. I have heard 1 sermon in the last 20 years about NFP specifically and heard only very general comments about the marital bond during Sunday homilies. Doesn't it make sense that a lot of people are in the dark about how to improve their marriages and obtain that wonderful marital bonus of "wonderful communication as a benefit of NFP" when the average Catholic hears little or nothing from the pulpit about it?

The other issue is that most people don't have exceptional marriages....we read about them because those are the ones that get written about in Catholic magazines and blogs and their advice is fine for those whose marriages are functioning well, but for many their words are salt in a festering wound. I know that's not the intent of the authors, but it does feel like they're saying, "Nah, nah, na-nah,nah...I'm married to the most wonderful person in the world and I'm gonna brag about it and get paid for my bragging on top of that!!!" It's a beautiful vision, but most of us aren't there yet.

What would be more helpful to me would be information that is easily obtainable at any hour of the day (hey, moms and dads are busy people)and would provide more specific solutions for riding out the challenges in a marriage and how NFP can be the icing on the cake that so many NFPteers claim it is. I'd feel so much better.

eulogos said...


I don't have the answers for you. I just wanted to say that my marriage had all sorts of problems and I can't say that practicing or trying to practice NFP taught us to communicate. Rather, our difficulties communicating interfered with our successful practice of NFP. We loved the children that resulted, but we weren't the best possible parents for them, either. The stress of poverty because I couldn't work, having a baby every 20 months or so, and of so many people around making a mess and having urgent needs also caused marital stress. But I don't think having only two kids would necessarily have cured this. And I can't bring myself to regret not contracepting. I regret things like not reading bedtime stories to my 7th and 8th but leaving it to older kids, and like not making more effort to teach them the faith myself when the parish religious education clearly was falling down on the job. Not that I didn't do it at all; I remember sitting on the cold, dirty roughcut lumber cellar stairs with a child going through the first communion booklet, because that is the only place the older kids would not interrupt with mockery, mockery they partially learned from my husband. (He was an unbeliever then. He has since been baptized, and is a conservative Anglican, hasn't made it all the way to Catholic yet.) That gives you some idea of the un-ideal nature of my marriage and family. There were good parts also. My kids clearly love and support each other and some have moved to a particular city just to be near their siblings. I am proud of many things about them, even if I am unhappy about their lack of faith. (Currently only two practice, one Catholic and one who has become Orthodox.)

I don't know if "information" is what you really want, is it?
There is a Catholic program for people in troubled marriages, Retrouvaille. I have no idea whether it is orthodox in its approach. And of course, ones spouse would have to agree to attend.

All I can think of to say is pray. And try not to take offense at anything you wouldn't want the other person to take offense at if you did the same or an analogous thing. Take irritable outbursts with a grain of salt the way you want your own irritable outbursts to be taken. Be realistic about your spouses breaking points. I would approach mine for help only at a point when I was driven to it and my emotional level was over the top. But he could not handle over the top emotions. He couldn't hear anything I said when I was that upset. I resented that I couldn't raise my voice without completely turning him off, while he could shout. But that was reality, he couldn't deal with a woman who raised her voice, or got hysterical, cried, etc.

These are things I learned with much pain. You probably have different lessions to learn, and I am not sure there could possibly be a website to teach all of the lessons people need to learn in marriage. I suppose a more generally applicable one might be to praise anything you find praiseworthy in your spouse, be appreciative of anything positive he does, in general, build him up rather than criticizing him. It is then easier for him to respond that way to you...although you may feel it is a long wait.

Hope this has been of some help. I will say a prayer for you, and probably other readers here will also.
Susan Peterson

Joanne said...

I guess we fall in between the two camps, too. I do wish that NFP were taught to engaged couples in my diocese, because then it would have to be mentioned. As it is, it is never mentioned and my husband and I feel like misfits for not knowing the answer to the question put to us ALL THE TIME - "are you going to have more children?" We only have two! We just ordered a kit from the CCL because up until this point, we have just been trying to conceive since we got married (four years ago). But now I am 40 and I have a son with autism and a newborn daughter and I would like the opportunity to prayerfully consider each month what our plans are for our family. My husband and I are perfectly happy to work with God and do
His will when it comes to our family. I am glad to read something about NFP on the internet, as I never get to hear about NFP or artificial contraceptives in real life. So thanks!

Rebecca Urban said...

Good post. I fall somewhere in between. While I do think that Mother Church permits NFP use, She certainly doesn't REQUIRE it of us. Couples who choose to not chart and to freely accept children as God gives them should never be looked down upon by the "NFPteers," as couples who choose to act providentially should be careful not to judge whether or not another couple's reasons are "grave" enough for postponing a pregnancy using NFP. I'm torn as to whether or not couples wanting to marry in the Catholic Church should be required to take NFP courses before they wed. On the one hand, given the crisis in the Church right now with the vast majority of Catholics using contraception and having sexual relations prior to marriage, perhaps a required NFP course could be helpful in leading them away from sin and for introducing them to the Church's beautiful teachings on God's plan for marriage. On the other hand, people could view a required NFP class to presuppose that all couples will need NFP at some point in their marriage, which simply isn't the case. While I understand that God designed a woman's body with visible fertility signs, not every engaged woman or husband-to-be is comfortable getting up close and personal with mucous observations. I think there's something to be said for purity and a man not knowing about his wife to-be's mucous observations, etc...especially before they're even married, KWIM?

Maria said...

Great post, Red Cardigan. As usual, you are insightful, yet oh-so-funny.

As someone who presents at Engaged Conference for our diocese, it seems that those who object to mandatory NFP classes may be unaware of the state of affairs in the Church. There is MASSIVE dissent on Church teaching on sexuality - premartial sex, contraception, masturbation, pornography, everything. Generally 1/3 to 1/2 of 160-180 couples we speak to at each conference put the same address on their registration forms. There is no attempt to even conceal their rejection of Church teaching on sexuality. NFP classes at least give us another forum to introduce these couples to a rightly order notion of sexuality. And at least, I would rather have a couple selfishly use NFP in an attemtp at some obedience to the Church than just thumb their noses at the Church and contracept. By opening themselves up to at least part of the Truth, they are taking a step in the right direction.

Matilda said...


You present an interesting side of the argument over mandatory NFP before marriage. I had never thought of it that way before. People who agree with the Church's teachings usually debate over whether or not it is necessary or even proper. But I have never heard the argument addressed from the side of those who disagree but yet want to be married in the Church. Thank you for sharing your experience.

Anonymous said...

Very insightful article. It made me laugh because I see this going on so clearly.

Those QPs do worry me sometimes with their insistence that all the doctor's are trying to scare you if they say your life may be in danger with another pregnancy. It unfortunately is a very consistent focus of this group.

It is ironic how individuals who really hold the same values become at odds with each other. A dear friend who did almost died from a reoccuring condition after the birth of her second was told by a QPer that her use of NFP was contraception. Aren't there other things out there in this world that should concern us besides fighting each other over who is really the holiest in the way we use or don't use NFP?

Chris Schelin said...

My wife and I are Baptists who use NFP but I don't know what it means to say using it w/out the Catholic parts means either...