There seems to be concern among some faithful Catholics that NFP is often treated as a kind of Catholic contraception - that it is routinely used, and even promoted, as a morally acceptable way for Catholic couples to have a "normal" family including only a few children and that its use to space or limit pregnancies ought not to be condoned except in truly dire circumstances.

Can NFP be used selfishly?  Absolutely.

Is it often used this way?  I don't think so.

NFP is inherently sacrificial.  When used to avoid pregnancy it includes regular, brief -  but nonetheless sometimes difficult - periods of self-denial, requires on-going conviction of the need to limit the size of one's family and provides regular opportunities for reassessing the seriousness of that need.

The periodic abstinence required of those who use NFP to avoid pregnancy is really a kind of fasting.  A husband and wife who have agreed that God is not calling them to conceive another child at the present time must fast from each other for a week or two each cycle and just as fasting from food is often encouraged as an aid to discernment in other areas of our lives, the fasting from marital relations prescribed by NFP serves to both clarify and purify a couple's reasons for wishing to avoid conception.  Having to repeatedly forego something good and proper that one desires is a very good way to cut through any self-deception that one may have engaged in when listening for God's call.  Sacrifice and selfishness usually just don't coexist well for any significant length of time.

To obey the constant teaching of the Catholic Church and forego artificial birth control at all is also an act of some courage in this day and age and all but guarantees that one will be criticized, mocked and discouraged - if not by family and friends, then by medical professionals, the media and even complete strangers.  We can be certain that this kind of courageous obedience is very pleasing to God and that He rewards with His grace even our most feeble attempts to do His will.  Many young couples who marry with the intention of using NFP to have only a few children find that time and again, as God continues to reward their obedience by pouring out His grace for them, there is room in their hearts and lives for "just one more".

Most of the couples I teach are either engaged or fairly newly married and while I have never taught a couple who experienced a true surprise pregnancy (one which occurred despite their correctly following the rules for avoiding pregnancy), I have taught several couples who began learning NFP with the intention of avoiding pregnancy for some time (until their debts were paid, until they bought a house, while they "got to know each other", until their older child or children were less demanding . . . all the reasons society tells us not to have children too soon after marrying or too close in age), but were pregnant by the end of their instruction simply because when it came down to a choice between forgoing marital intimacy for a short time or accepting a child sooner than they had planned, their reasons for avoiding pregnancy just didn't seem so important after all.  And every single one of these couples was thrilled to discover that they were "ready" for a new baby sooner than they thought they would be.

Again, in the words of Pope Paul VI, "Self-discipline of this kind [periodic abstinence] is a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife and, far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character. And if this self-discipline does demand that they persevere in their purpose and efforts, it has at the same time the salutary effect of enabling husband and wife to develop to their personalities and to be enriched with spiritual blessings. For it brings to family life abundant fruits of tranquility and peace. It helps in solving difficulties of other kinds. It fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another. It helps them to repel inordinate self-love, which is the opposite of charity. It arouses in them a consciousness of their responsibilities. And finally, it confers upon parents a deeper and more effective influence in the education of their children." (Humanae Vitae paragraph 21)

None of this is to say that every couple must, or even should, use NFP to limit the size of their family or space the births of their children.  Pope Paul VI also tells us that, "those are considered to exercise responsible parenthood who prudently and generously decide to have a large family." (HV paragraph 10)   It is a wonderful thing for a couple to find again and again that they have no serious reason to avoid pregnancy and couples who are able to very generous in their acceptance of children should be encouraged and supported.  It is important, though, that all of us recognize that the number and spacing of a couple's children is a matter between a husband, a wife and God only and that God sometimes asks us to follow Him in ways that others around, even those who share our faith, us do not understand or appreciate.  God's own son was, after all, an only-child and conceived before his earthly parents were married.  We are all called to grow in generosity and holiness.  For some this means opening their lives to the possibility of another child even if they are afraid of the struggle it may entail, but for others it means peacefully accepting that it is necessary to regularly abstain from the marital embrace so that pregnancy may be avoided - for a time or even for the remainder of a couple's fertile years - for the good of one's children or spouse.  Neither path is objectively better than the other as either may be God's will depending on our own specific circumstances, so let us pray that He will grant each of us the wisdom to know His will, the courage to do it and the humility to recognize that each of us receives a different call.

Copyright 2009 Sara Fox Peterson