peterson_saraSo NFP is great, right?

We promoters and teachers of NFP use a lot of breath and ink letting everyone who comes near us know that.

It’s 99% effective!
It’s moral, it’s safe, it’s healthy, it’s inexpensive!
It strengthens marriages!

But a few recent conversations – both online and ‘in the flesh’ – have made me wonder if perhaps we sometimes give the wrong impression about what couples using NFP to postpone or avoid pregnancy can expect to experience.

"By it’s very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them it finds its crowing glory" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1652).

God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit exist from all eternity in loving communion with each other.  Each and every one of was created us not because God is somehow lacking without us – for God lacks nothing – but because the infinite love of the Trinity desires to create others, many others, made in His image and likeness, with whom He can share that love for eternity.  Marriage, and in particular the marital embrace, is the way in which human beings most closely image this fruitful, creative love of the Trinity and so the logical outgrowth of authentic marital love is the desire for that love to bear fruit in the form of children who can then participate in the loving communion of persons that is a family.

So, by design and definition Christian marriage is supposed to result in children and, in the beginning, God’s plan was for every marriage to result in many children who would go on to have many children themselves and the communion of saints in heaven would become ever larger.

Because of original sin, however, we do not experience marital love – or any of life - as it was intended by God in the beginning and many couples find that at some point in their marriage they have serious reasons - physical, material, psychological or social - why they should not conceive another child. These couples do what is right by cooperating with God’s plan for them and using NFP to avoid pregnancy.  However, in a perfect world - a world without sin- pregnancy and childbirth would never be difficult or dangerous, there would be no poverty or material lack, there would be no friction or division or 'issues' between husbands and wives or between parents and their children. In short, there would never be a good reason to avoid pregnancy, so NFP would be totally unnecessary.

Obviously this is not a perfect world and sometimes NFP is necessary, but it's OK to be a little unhappy about that.  Using NFP to avoid pregnancy can be a joyful experience in that it is a way in which we cooperate with God’s will for us, but disappointment that the sacrifice required by NFP is necessary is not evidence of weak faith or lack of trust in God or contempt for the teachings of the Church or anything of the sort.  Usually is it simply the (often subconscious) realization that we live in a fallen, sinful world and that the sacrifice and suffering result from that were not a part of God’s original plan for humanity.  When we are saddened or frustrated that NFP is necessary, what we are really experiencing is sadness and frustration over one of the effects of sin.

The other concern about NFP I have been hearing recently seems to have to do with a misunderstanding about how the use of NFP leads to stronger, healthier, happier marriages.   We live an extremely pleasure oriented society and tend to think of things that are pleasurable as good and things that are difficult or painful as bad.  As we meet and date and get to know our future spouses most of what we do is pleasurable and without a doubt much of healthy married love is wonderful and satisfying and very enjoyable.  So, again, we tend to think that even in marriage the things we enjoy together are good for the relationship and the things we don’t, aren’t.

Using NFP to avoid pregnancy requires significant sacrifice and self-discipline and these things are not, in and of themselves, pleasurable.  They are, however, absolutely necessary for a lasting, happy marriage.  The willingness to delay gratification for the good of one’s spouse or children is one of the most powerful demonstrations of love and fidelity that there is and even though it is not particularly fun, makes us better people, better spouses and more trusting of each other.  When I see that my husband is willing to deny himself something that he wants for the sake of my health (physical or emotional), the good of our children or whatever the reason for avoiding pregnancy may be I see powerful evidence of his love and commitment.  And he sees the same in my willingness to do the same.  I may say that I love my husband, but unless I am willing to actually love him, our relationship is going nowhere fast.  Christ told us that "no one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13) and the self-denial required by NFP is unquestionably an act of dying-to-self.

In addition, the sacrifice required to use NFP to avoid pregnancy is a mutual sacrifice and one that couples discuss again and again – ideally asking themselves and each other each cycle, ‘Do we still have a good reason to avoid conceiving?’  This kind of communication and shared responsibility simply doesn’t happen when a couple uses contraception and the tendency to drift apart and lose track of what the other person is thinking, feeling and hoping for is much greater without the monthly period of abstinence to remind them to reconnect and reevaluate.  Communication and connection still do not happen automatically and even couples using NFP must make the effort to sit down and talk about why they are abstaining, but abstinence itself is usually an excellent incentive to do this.  And even if a couple are not completely in agreement about whether they truly have serious reasons to avoid pregnancy, at least that is known, the issue is revisited frequently and they each have an additional opportunity to die-to-self for the sake of the other.

Are these discussions and ‘chart crunching’ sessions as much fun as participating in the marital embrace?  Nope.  Do they contribute to the overall strength and happiness of the marriage?  Absolutely!  Marital love endures (and grows) in good times and in bad.

In the gospel reading for the first Sunday of this month Christ tells us that "whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27) and for couples with serious reasons to avoid pregnancy NFP is the cross – in its power to liberate and sanctify and save, but also in its struggle and sacrifice and it is not, at least this side of heaven, only sweetness and light.

Copyright 2010 Sara Fox Peterson