Isn’t NFP Just Another Birth Control?

December 15, 2009

My most recent RCIA class was on the subject of marriage. When we got to the bit about the Church’s teachings banning contraception, there were questions. One woman in particular asked, “Isn’t using Natural Family Planning to avoid a pregnancy the same as using birth control to avoid a pregnancy? Isn’t it just another birth control?” I so badly wanted to answer her, especially because I could see that she was where I was three years ago, but my raised hand was lost in a sea of hands and too little time. I went to find her after the class, but she had left in the middle. What I would have said to her, I can write here for everyone who asks google the difference between postponing births by birth control and postponing by Natural Family Planning.

Proponents of NFP say the ends don’t justify the means, such that postponing births or spacing children doesn’t justify birth control. They usually don’t say exactly why the birth control means is bad except to say that it isn’t open to life. But if you’re trying not to have kids with NFP, you’re not very open to life either, except to the miraculous 0.1% life that may still be conceived. So why is birth control bad? Some say if you use birth control, you’re withholding your fertility from your spouse. But… aren’t you withholding your fertility from your spouse if you don’t have sex with them when you’re fertile?

The difference between NFP and birth control is that with birth control you have sex, but change the act itself such that you deny the natural consequences of sex. When my husband presented this argument to me, telling me that contraception destroyed the natural order of the sex act, I didn’t see what was wrong with changing the natural order of things. After all, we change the natural course of diseases with medicine as best we can, and that is good. Why can’t we achieve the good of postponing births when needed through the same means? There is that difference between pregnancy and disease though. Pregnancy is a good thing for which we were designed. Disease is a malfunction, our bodies falling short of how they are supposed to work. Regardless, I saw pregnancy as sometimes undesirable, and didn’t see why we can’t interfere during that undesirable time the same as when we interfere with our undesirable medical problems.

The “natural order” of sex refers to the natural observation that sex is both unitive and procreative. It brings a man and woman together physically, spiritually, and emotionally. It also is for the creation of new life. This is what the Church teaches, and this is the natural order that they preserve with their teachings. We should not interfere with the natural consequences of sex, whether it be during a fertile or infertile time. Neither should we change and distort the sex act itself to be merely for pleasure, objectifying our partner.

Contraception changes the natural order of the sex act, and its primary goal is to eliminate the consequence of children. If we can change the nature of the act itself to avoid children, then why can we not also change the act itself for other reasons? With contraception it’s easy enough to have sex whenever you want, with your spouse, for pleasure alone. Why not have sex however you want for pleasure? With this goal in mind, there’s no reason to believe things like masturbation and pornography are wrong. When it’s used for pleasure alone, why not have sex with whoever we want, premaritally even, since it becomes merely a recreational activity with no other consequences, procreative or unitive. When we define sex by what we want it to be, not by what it is naturally, there is no objective way to determine where to draw the line. Moreover, all of these steps are extensions of the same line of thought. They all separate sex from its consequences and change the God-given order. They are all attempts for us to define what sex is instead of accepting what God has ordained.

Arguments would not have changed my mind. What has changed my mind is my experiences showing me that changing the natural order of sex leads to evil. I’ve seen the mindset that people fall into when they think it’s their right to distort sex. I’ve seen the extent people will go to in order to avoid the consequences of sex. Because of this, I’ve come to realize the wisdom of the Catholic Church’s teaching.

A breakthrough in my understanding the value of NFP came when I was battling the recently proposed pro-abortion Freedom of Choice Act. In researching things, I read up on Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood. Although much of Margaret Sanger’s work was done at a time when there was poor health care and women often died from childbirth, her work was done in the name of sexual freedom. She believed women were suppressed by men through child-bearing and that only through controlling their reproductivity absolutely could women be free and in turn lower the population and better society. In particular, she believed society would be bettered by lowering the poor and non-Caucasian population. In this, she believed that women should have “no gods and no masters” and be “the absolute mistress of her own body”. Although she thought sexuality was a weakness, she wanted to control the “negative side effects” and worked hard for sex without consequences.

Sanger believed that her most sacred goals of sex without consequences and total individual autonomy would bring happiness to us all. This is the “contraceptive mindset” and it’s alive and well in varying degrees throughout the world. You can see it in the ordinary couple who uses birth control to postpone births, because they want sex without the consequence of children. You can see it at strip clubs when men go objectify women, separating sexuality even from a partner, because they want sex without unity. You can see it in abortion clinics when pregnant and single women go to eliminate the natural consequence of sex, because they want sex without children. You can even see this attempt to change the natural order and have things the way we want it when couples use in vitro fertilization to have children. Many end up with multiples and sadly they are three times more likely to divorce. Our attempts to be our own master, have things the way we want it, and pick and choose what consequences we accept inevitably end in pain because we are trying to have our own will instead of God’s will. Only God’s perfect will entirely contains His own perfect goodness and can bring us whole happiness.

So the Catholic Church has drawn a line. Do not separate the sex act from its natural and good God-given consequences. During infertile times, there is usually no natural consequence of having a child. During fertile times, if you are unable to handle the natural consequence of a child, don’t have sex. They haven’t created these rules to make things hard on people or make them feel guilty. They haven’t created these rules to overrun the Earth with an enormous population of cradle Catholics. They have guided Catholics in these matters because there is a right and wrong way to handle our sexuality, like every other created thing. There is no Catholic corporate conspiracy motivating their stubbornness regarding contraception. It is only that they stubbornly lead Christians in God’s truth. It is a Christian ideal to surrender your self to God’s will, not to grasp at being your own master. It is Christian to accept the good consequences that God has ordained for our actions, not to try to take what we want and leave what we don’t, inevitably perverting His goodness. I’m able to accept these teachings now because I’ve seen that contraception grasps autonomy and leads down a road of avoiding consequences. I’ve seen that the contraceptive attitude is anti-Christian in nature, because the Christian attitude submits our own desires and will to God’s perfect will.

This post doesn’t address other factors that come into play with NFP, it was really only written to answer the question, “What is the difference between NFP and birth control?” The answer is that NFP does not change the nature of the sex act itself. You abstain from sex instead of separating sex from its consequences. It is the sex act itself that left intact when postponing children with NFP. That is better and more holy than dissecting sex, taking what you want, and leaving everything, including your soul, in pieces.

Now I feel I understand the reasons for using NFP, but it doesn’t always make it easier to follow through on it. Not that it’s difficult or ineffective. By actually doing it, the concerns I had about that beforehand are laughable now. I know a time will come when after we’ve had our five or six children on the menu, we’ll be “done”. We won’t want to have any more. Considering the fact that Chris and I began our marriage eight months pregnant, I know that I will not be open to life indefinitely. I know that there will come a time when I want just me and him, and that will probably be before I go through menopause. After years of practice, continuing to use NFP will not be difficult, but I know my attitude will not be right. I know that I will be using NFP with a contraceptive mentality, wanting to take control of my life and have sex without children. My intent will be selfish although the method will still be good. I pray God will give me the grace to be ready for this challenge by the time it comes, and I will do my best to accept His will in all things and to trust Him.

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The Beginning of My Mental Conversion

December 5, 2008
Although it can be hard to trace in hindsight, I think the biggest help in changing my mind about Catholicism was seeing first hand that it wasn’t what I thought it was. My eyes were opened about different issues separately and through different events, but I can begin with the major issues Chris and I faced when we were considering marriage (because they dealt with how you live your life together): contraception and infant baptism.

On contraception:

I kicked and screamed on this one. I thought natural family planning would be difficult and unreliable. I thought Chris was hell-bent on keeping me subdued and pregnant till I was driven to an early death (a mindset that I now realize comes from eugenic propaganda, go figure). I’ve always been against abortion of any kind, so the pill which can be abortifacient was not an option I wanted to take, but I was not against barrier or sterilization methods of birth control.

So Chris more begged me to accept his view on this rather than stonewalled me like he has done on other issues. He showed me the catechism and explained the Catholic teaching that sex must always be both unitive and procreative, and the two purposes cannot be separated. In the end, since my view was more permissive I grumpily consented to his so as to not force him to sin against his conscience. “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” 1 Cor. 8:9

We signed up for the Natural Family Planning class put on by the CCL. There were four monthly classes, a massive book, and a bunch of pamphlets and materials they put out. Through the first two classes I whined perpetually about the method, how it was so subjective, that I didn’t think we’d be able to do it, it wouldn’t work, and on and on. By the third class, we had it down. We skipped the fourth class because it was pointless to keep going. Now the method seems really clear and simple to me. I love the health benefits of not drugging myself and screwing with my hormones. We have both successfully avoided and achieved pregnancy. I now recommend the method to others, especially since I know a lot of women who can’t use the pill for health reasons, are allergic to certain birth controls, or have trouble getting pregnant.

I still have trouble with the idea that sex must always be unitive and procreative, not just one or the other. I even see periodic abstinence as making sex only unitive, since you’re infertile at that time. I guess they say that since you’re not working against baby-making during the act, you’re “open to life”. The idea grows on me even now, because I see how degenerative the loving act of sex has become in our society. Forget unitive and procreative, sex has become purely recreational. The masses are desperate to free themselves from any and all consequences of sex. This is the mindset that has dehumanized individuals, leading to sexual assault and abortion. In practice, the Catholic teaching seems to be the way to go. It protects the family and guards against perversion, not to mention protects the woman from medicinal harm. This may be the first of many issues in which I’ve judged a tree by its fruit (Matt 7:15-20), and found the Catholic way is best.

On infant baptism:

I was baptized in an outdoor pool by my uncle, who is an ordained minister, in the middle of winter. I was eleven years old at the time. My parents waited until I could make the decision for myself, and “confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” Rom 10:9. They believed it was merely a symbolic outward confession of your internal conversion, and not a necessary one at that.

Chris came along and wanted to baptize our babies as Catholics. He lost two points with me off the bat. I hadn’t yet agreed that our children would be raised Catholic, and baptizing babies was foreign. Neither he nor I can remember exactly how I accepted the first point. I think it was a gradual thing. As I came to accept the Church and see her for what she is, the more I wanted to raise our kids Catholic.

As for the second point, baptizing babies, I grudgingly consented to baptize our children with the condition that if they wanted “re-baptized” as adults, Chris would support them. He said that was nonsense, I insisted, he said he wouldn’t be able to stop them now, would he? So I went with my crazy Catholic husband to the baptism class at our local parish ran by our priest, Father Chuck. He is a rather open minded (but not heretical) priest. He’s good at explaining issues to us Protestants, including us in things, explaining traditions, and most importantly, he looks like Santa Claus and is just as congenial. Going to mass was a frighteningly foreign thing for me to begin with, and a friendly face was a huge help.

In this baptism class, Father Chuck went around the room getting people’s religious backgrounds and baptism stories. He explained the important and universal aspects of baptism like being baptized with water and in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He discussed the differences between immersion and sprinkling. He explained the baptismal fount at the entrances, and that when people cross themselves with the water, they’re remembering their baptism. He suggested ways of helping our children remember their baptism, keeping their baptism candles on a shelf with a picture of the event, along with the little sashes they provide “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Gal 3:27

After initializing all of us with these pleasantries, Father Chuck moved on to finer points of theology. There were two major issues: the meaning of baptism, and baptizing infants versus adults. My initial standpoint that baptism is merely a symbol wasn’t much of a barrier to accepting the reality of baptism as a grace given to sinners, washing away their sins and admitting them into the membership of the body of Christ. He also explained that the Catholic Church doesn’t re-baptize people who’ve already been baptized with water in the name of the trinity, because they’ve already received that grace. It would be nonsense to try to re-grace them.

During this class, I found my perspective shift rather suddenly on the issue of baptizing infants. Catholics saw this as a way to initiate members into the body of Christ, a path that parents can readily claim for their children since they are the ones responsible for raising them. This especially makes sense viewed with the belief that salvation is an ongoing process. It’s not as if they’re saying they’ve saved their children “once and for all”, in a common Protestant sense of salvation. They’re claiming their children for Christ and setting them on the right road. There’s also the idea that whole households got baptized together in the early church (1 Cor 1:16, Acts 16:15, Acts 18:8). In the end, I was looking forward to claiming my little girl for Christ.

As far as the actuality of the grace of forgiveness in baptism, I wasn’t as convinced at the end of the class. There’s plenty to support it biblically (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38 Acts 22:16, etc.). However, I think this is closely tied in with the issue of sola fida, justified by faith alone, and the understanding of how God’s grace is conferred. I have just recently been looking into these issues, but there’s far too much to get into it in this already lengthy post.

And that’s how it started. Things began to make sense because they worked. I could accept them as at least logical and self-consistent. Then, slowly, I began to see truth in it by judging the tree again. I’m trying to get to the point where I can embrace these things as my own. Intellectually, I think I’m mostly there, unless some craziness is unearthed in my research in which the Catholic Church rejects Christ as Lord. Until then, I have some more reading to do.