Troubles with NFP: Part 1
Several months ago I wrote a post in honor of National NFP Awareness. One of the commenters, Brett from Vox-Nova, asked me to discuss the issues which arise when couples who are sold all the praises of NFP wind up experiencing great difficulties in putting it into practice. They often struggle to discern fertility and become weighed down by guilt as if they were doing something wrong. Some couples who are using NFP out of obedience and do not understand Church teaching on the issue may be tempted to reject Church teachings over their difficulties and abandon NFP. Brett is “convinced we need to do some serious ministry to those who struggle with NFP.” I concur, and now that I have a few spare moments I hope to offer my own reflections based in part on personal experiences and on those of friends and acquaintances.
It seems there are two separate but related issues. There are some couples who have been told of the benefits of NFP but have never of the sacrifices it requires and the difficulties that practicing it often entails. There are other couples who experience extraordinary difficulties, difficulties which far surpass the “normal” challenges of NFP, in their attempts to practice NFP responsibly. [Certainly there may be overlap among these two groups]. I shall address the second group more fully in Part 2 of this post.
What is primarily at issue for the former group is not that NFP can be difficult, but that it is sometimes taught and advertised as an economical, natural, Church-approved method of family planning and as a cure-all for all marital problems. After hearing this pie-in-the-sky version of NFP, couples may become resentful when NFP does not automatically eliminate all their marital woes but rather presents them with real challenges in the realm of self-control and continence. While these challenges may be opportunities to make sacrifices and to exercise discipline and patience, because they were led to believe that practicing NFP is quite easy, they are left feeling alone in their struggles and at fault for them. Such couples, especially those who may not be entirely convinced of the truth of Church teaching on sexuality and contraception may abandon NFP and assume the Church is wrong on this issue.
For my wife and I this was not an issue because we were not personally exposed to the “NFP through rose-colored glasses” which is sometimes taught to couples. Moreover, through our own study of theology and NFP we realized that NFP, like marriage, would not always be easy. Therefore, when we had difficulty determining fertility and thus faced extended periods of abstinence, we were not surprised or resentful and were never tempted to question the efficacy of NFP or the truth of Church doctrine. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that there exists a significant amount of poor teaching, misleading catechesis, and insufficient support networks which can lead to much disappointment, guilt, and confusion. Thus we must ask ourselves how are we to minister to couples who had been misled?
Generally speaking the answer is simple: we must demand proper and complete NFP training, but doing so effectively is not so simple. Couples who have chosen to practice NFP must be willing to talk somewhat openly about their experiences so as to raise awareness of NFP among those who have not yet given it serious consideration. Furthermore, our openness may provide opportunities for couples who use NFP to vent their frustrations. When that happens, we ought not feel as if they are attacking NFP or Humanae Vitae; rather, we must truly listen to their concerns and complaints and try to find ways to help them. Also, if we can determine from whom they received the misleading information, we ought to be willing to charitably confront them and to inform them that some couples whom they have taught received an incomplete perception of NFP. However, we should keep in mind that those teaching NFP are offering a valuable and important service and are intending to help those seeking to learn NFP. Therefore we ought to attempt to help them discern where they have gone wrong in order to prevent any future failures to teach NFP in its depth.
Additionally, it is important for any of us would-be ministers to remember and to remind others of the proper place and role of NFP in the marital and spiritual life. NFP is not a cure-all for all marital woes. It will not automatically eliminate the possibility of divorce nor will it guarantee sexual fulfillment. Instead, NFP should be thought of as a school of virtue. While on the surface it is merely a morally licit means to responsible family planning, when viewed in its depth the sacrifices, communication, discipline, and patience it requires offers couples countless opportunities for growth in holiness and virtue. But these opportunities are lost if couples are led to believe that NFP is some sort of highway to a happy marriage. It is absolutely vital to remember that NFP does require sacrifices, and it is precisely these sacrifices which make it a school of virtue. Anyone who has been led to believe otherwise has been scandalously deceived and set up for much anguish. Therefore we must promote and emphasize proper education and catechesis which sets accurate expectations. Doing so ought to greatly alleviate the vast majority of the guilt and disenchantment with which Brett is concerned.