You all know what NFP stands for, don’t you?
Of course, it actually stands for Natural Family Planning. As a Protestant, however, I certainly used to agree. Six years ago, as my husband and I were preparing for marriage and reading various Christian books on marriage and sex, it seemed that non-abortifacient contraception was God’s gift to the sex lives of married couples.
I can see some admirable qualities in the “quiverfull” mentality of welcoming as many children as marital life brings about, but it doesn’t seem tenable for our family. It’s also a biblical mandate for husbands and wives to have frequent sex…at least, that was our understanding of the apostle Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 7:5. Abstinence within marriage was okay if mutually agreed upon, but we interpreted that he couldn’t possibly mean it to last more than a day or two. How could any married couple (especially the husband) be expected to hold out longer than that?
And more to the point, why should they, when there were contraceptives and non-fecund modes of sexuality available to them? In fact, we were encouraged by books and popular preachers to get very practiced at “other ways of taking care of your spouse” and learning to “give a helping hand” during times when normal intercourse was impossible, difficult, or boring.
It was a downright wifely duty to make sure her hubby never had to go a day or two without “release.” I once heard on the radio show of a well-known (and very conservative) Evangelical psychologist an interview with a colleague of his who asserted that most depression in men was caused by an excess of testosterone. Thus, providing frequent opportunities for “release” was a surefire way for wives to attend to the mental health of their husbands.
So, fully convinced that contraception was a blessing, my husband and I used barrier method contraception for the first four years of our marriage. Some would say it was not very successfully done, since we had three “surprise!” children in the span of those four years.
After I found out that I was expecting our third child, I began to worry that we needed to find a better system for postponing pregnancies. Obviously, condoms were none too reliable at preventing pregnancy, yet I opposed the use of any kind of birth control which could act as a possible abortifacient.
I had been perusing a couple of Catholic mommy blogs (how that came about it is a long story in and of itself!) and was intrigued to read about NFP. Maybe this is the answer for our situation, I thought. It can’t hurt to research, anyway.
Honestly, I had not the foggiest idea of why the Catholic Church objected to birth control. In fact, I used to remark that if Catholics really wanted to help reduce the number of abortions in our country, they’d get behind the free distribution of condoms. Fewer pregnancies, fewer abortions. I also thought it was mean-spirited to oppose IVF, and I didn’t even know—until I looked into it—that things like mutual masturbation, oral sex, and anal sex between husband and wife were not morally permissible. Within our sphere of theologically conservative Evangelical Protestantism, all of these were considered licit activities for married couples—although I hasten to add that not all theologically conservative Evangelical Protestants would agree on this point.
So when I first realized that with NFP when trying to avoid pregnancy meant not only abstaining from intercourse during fertile times but also abstaining from any of those other ways of “having fun together,” it was a shocking idea. Wasn’t sex good? We were married—how could any opportunity to have mutual sexual gratification with each other be off-limits? “Are Catholics supposed to have a bunch of kids or just hardly any sex?” my husband asked with some bitterness during our many discussions about whether or not we would try this out.
We weren’t Catholics; we weren’t even sure we wanted to become Catholics, as there were still many other theological distinctions to work through. Yet I was feeling increasingly convinced that this method of total abstinence during fertile times was the right way to go. Why?
I thank God that I was brought up by faithful Christian parents and a particularly staunchly pro-life mother. She taught me to know that no matter what euphemisms were used to discuss it—particularly around children—abortion always came down to the killing of a living child. Even when questioned and belittled for my pro-life views, I always knew that abortion was wrong.
But before learning about NFP, I never saw a connection between abortion and contraceptive use (and the mentality which leads to it). I honestly didn’t see them as being related issues. I only saw a connection in the cases of types of birth control that can act as abortifacients, and to those I was opposed. But there were many other ways to contracept “naturally” (i.e. without chemicals, hormones, or inserted devices), and I couldn’t see any problem with those.
My husband and I had been trying to avoid pregnancy (albeit unsuccessfully) because we felt we weren’t in a financially stable situation. But why should that put us out of getting the satisfaction of sexual pleasure together? We were entitled to it—commanded by God, we thought—to have as much of it as possible. I had once heard a pastor preach from the pulpit that Christians ought to be having the best and most frequent sex of any couples in their city. Contraceptives and non-fecund sexual practices would help us achieve that mandate.
But really, the same thinking could be used to justify abortion. Avoiding inconvenience, irresponsibility, burdening the state and taxpayers, overpopulation: these are all arguments that are trotted out by abortion advocates. Why should our “need” for the enjoyment of sex—at least our society tells us it is a need—be stymied in any way?
The whole thing clicked for me when I learned that it wasn’t until the 1930s that any Christian group decided contraception was morally permissible, and then only in dire cases where another pregnancy would threaten the life of the mother (hmm, sounds familiar.) I had naively assumed that somehow the “contraception is God’s gift to married couples” ethic I’d been soaking up had been around since the Reformation…maybe it was the 96th thesis that fell off the Wittenberg door?
To realize that there was uniform disapprobation throughout Christendom against it until fewer than 100 years ago was the final understanding that artificial contraception was of the same type of self-centered thinking that eventually led to widespread acceptance of abortion. If I was going to continue to be pro-life, I had to believe that not only did life begin at conception, but how the baby was conceived mattered.
And still, we wrestled. At first, I thought I would only have a week of fertile days in a month, and it wasn’t hard to take a week off. But as we took classes and got educated about the signs of fertility, the “days off” grew more numerous when we took both possible and certainly fertile days into account. Suddenly, between fertility and menstruation, we were looking at a minority of “available days” within a cycle. We went from having nearly any day available to a limited number.
Here we really had to question whether or not we would follow Catholic doctrine on total chastity. It seemed unfair to us, and even immoral. If the God-given gift of sex unifies us, then why not allow sex play or other non-fecund modes or positions? Wasn’t it essential to our real unity as a couple?
It’s been a thorny and tough road to walk together, but my husband and I have come to believe that partaking in “sexy time” with no intention of intercourse is analogous to sexual bulimia. A bulimic wants the physical—and perhaps emotional— gratification of eating whatever types and quantities of food he or she desires without having to deal with the natural consequence of gaining weight. A bulimic binges and then purges, whether through vomiting, over-exercising, or abusing laxatives.
Similarly, we wanted the physical and emotional gratification of sex any time of the cycle without the natural consequences of children. I don’t know of any sane person who advocates bulimia, even occasionally, as a healthy way to live. Yet our society applauds and even promotes this sort of sexual bulimia: get the fun with none of the consequences. Just as bulimia wreaks havoc on your body and psyche to the point of becoming a fatal addiction, so too with sex.
My husband and I have come to believe that sex is optional and that it is not the highest form of love, even for married people. We used to think that Christians only needed to abstain until they were married, and then life would be a no-holds-barred sexual smorgasbord; now we believe that if there’s a good reason to avoid adding a child to the family, then restraint and self-control are appropriate responses.
Has it been easy? No. Have we discovered things about ourselves and our marriage that have been highly uncomfortable? Oh yeah. Are we more convinced with each passing cycle that this is the right way to plan our family? You’d better believe it!
In fact, for a while it had been our plan to start trying when our youngest turned one last fall, but after discussing it for a few cycles as his first birthday drew nearer, we realized that financially we just aren’t ready for another child. Our 500 sq. ft. home and our stuffed-to-the-gills compact car (and our current inability to upgrade either) are pretty good indicators of this! Truthfully, we admitted that we had been ready to “start trying” mostly because we were getting tired of the extra self-control required to avoid.
But now we’ve had some practice with abstaining and found out that:
(a) the world did not end
(b) my husband did not fall into a pit of testosterone-overload-induced depression
(c) our marriage did not lose its validity, unity, or intimacy
(d) on the last point, the marriage has gained intimacy: as my NFP instructor likes to say, if you can talk about mucus, you can talk about anything.
Having discovered these things experientially, we feel empowered to stay the course until God changes our circumstances and clears our way to having more children, if that’s His will. Also, I feel that I ought to mention that it’s working! I feel more secure now about our ability to plan pregnancies than when we were using contraception. Hey, it’s like the purity campaigns constantly tell us: only abstinence is 100% effective. And contrary to what others may report or how it may feel, NFP doesn’t require you to abstain 100% of the time. The more you learn your body’s signs, the more flexibility you can have with deciding which days you’ll engage in sex. You as a couple decide how much you’d like to “play it safe.”
In conclusion, I would urge all Protestants out there to look deeply into why the Catholic Church teaches what it does about what it means to be “open to life.” Even if you’re anti-Catholic, consider that your Protestant forebears also considered contraception and non-vaginal methods of intercourse to be unnatural and immoral until not that long ago. Research it, think on it, pray about it, try it, and you may decide, as we did, that NFP is a truly consistent pro-life approach to sexuality.
About Jenny Cook
Jenny Cook is a recent convert (class of 2015!) to the Catholic Church, thanks in large part to Catholic blogs and websites. She is a wife, mother of 3, homemaker, and writes when she can.