NFP: Not Just Natural Birth Control
If you think you’ve found the key to a better life, the most natural thing in the world is to want to rush out and convince everyone else to do likewise. We want to shout from the rooftops, “Hey! Better life to be found here! You can too!” As someone who finds significant meaning and happiness in the Catholic understanding of sexuality and prohibition of contraception, this view (and the approach to natural family planning that springs from it) is indeed something that I think other need to hear — but as a result it’s doubly frustrating when it seems like it’s being “sold” wrong.
This is why my teeth went a little on edge when I ran into what ought to have been a very encouraging article to see in the Washington Post detailing the efforts of young and faithful Catholic women to re-explain the Church’s teachings on contraception to the modern world. Here’s the section that threw me off:
Yet the images the church uses to promote its own method of birth control freaked her out. Pamphlets for what the church calls natural family planning feature photos of babies galore. A church-sponsored class on the method uses a book with a woman on the cover, smiling as she balances a grocery bag on one hip, a baby on the other.
“My guess is 99 out of 100 21st-century women trying to navigate the decision about contraception would see that cover and run for the hills,” McGuire wrote in a post on her blog, Altcatholicah, which is aimed at Catholic women.
McGuire, 26, of Alexandria is part of a movement of younger, religiously conservative Catholic women who are trying to rebrand an often-ignored church teaching: its ban on birth control methods such as the Pill. Arguing that church theology has been poorly explained and encouraged, they want to shift the image of a traditional Catholic woman from one at home with children to one with a great, communicative sex life, a chemical-free body and babies only when the parents think the time is right.
Now, before I go any further, let me say that my limited experience of dealing with interviews is that what you say and the way you come off in the article are often very, very different. So I don’t want to suggest that McGuire was misrepresenting NFP. It may well be that the WaPo writer talked to her for a long time, wrote up the article in good faith, yet ended up infusing it with an attitude that’s just — off. (And indeed, I see that Jennifer Fulwiler of Conversion Diary (quoted elsewhere in the article) feels like what came across in the article is not exactly what she was trying to convey.)
That said, I think the message that the article conveys is problematic in that it simply doesn’t reflect all that accurately what it’s like using NFP, and when your advertising message doesn’t fit the reality of your “product”, user dissatisfaction is sure to follow. Emily Stimpson covers this well in a post titled Truth in Adverstising:
Let me be clear: I think it’s all sorts of great when young, attractive, faithful women talk to The Washington Post about contraception and NFP. And I totally get the importance of marketing and branding in this media age. We want people to know that NFP is not your grandmother’s rhythm method: It actually works. Nor is it your mother’s birth control pill: It doesn’t give you cancer or diminish your sex drive.
So what unsettles me?
Me, I guess. Me and my 11:45 a.m. battle with the brownie.
Like passing up turtle brownies, NFP requires self-control, temperance, and prudence. Only, it requires a heck of a lot more of each—more self-control, more temperance, more prudence, plus a ready knowledge of how to make chastity within marriage work. (I may be single, but it doesn’t take a genius to know that. Besides, I live in Steubenville, and my girlfriends talk about NFP as much as my sister’s friends talk about “Jersey Shore.” So…a lot.)
Regardless, temperance, prudence, and chastity aren’t virtues most people possess in spades anymore. Our culture, where instant gratification and over-indulgence are the norm, has seen to that.
At the same time, rejecting contraception in general requires trust—trust in God’s will and God’s provision. It requires generosity—a willingness to put others needs before our own. It requires a spirit of poverty—detachment from the extras our culture says are essentials. And it requires a heart that delights in pictures of fat smiling babies, that believes babies are precious gifts from God, not a reason to run for the hills.
Basically, it requires that we be everything our culture has programmed us not to be. That’s why NFP is a challenge for the most faithful couples I know, let alone those decidedly less faithful. Few are able to use it to space births with the same precision the manuals promise. Not because the methods don’t work. But rather because wills are weak and temptation is tempting. If a tiny tasty brownie can almost fell us, what can love and desire do?
Does that make NFP impossible or unrealistic? Of course not. Nevertheless, we should remain realistic about the fruit better branding can yield. We also should be realistic as we go about that branding.
No matter how savvy our marketing may be, NFP will remain a radical, counter-cultural choice, at least for the foreseeable future, because it asks…no, it demands that we reject our cultural programming and embrace a different way of thinking. Not simply about sex, but about everything: children, family, marriage, finances, work, God, desire, love, life’s purpose, life’s meaning, human freedom, the Divine Will, suffering, sacrifice. Again, everything.
NFP is not Catholic birth control. It’s the Catholic world view…lived out in the bedroom. [emphasis added]
The corrective is not some sort of bitter, “Oh I hate NFP. We can never have sex when we want to, half our kids were ‘unplanned’ and I never even feel like it during the infertile times, but it builds character, dammit, and it’s about time people learned that marriage isn’t all about self indulgence.” That’s not going to win any converts, and unless you allow yourself to be completely taken over by resentment (at which point people are able to make even unloading the dishwasher into some sort of Bataan death march of marital suffering) it’s not even true. But living the NFP lifestyle — which can be most briefly summed up as understanding that if one doesn’t want to get pregnant at the moment, one is going to have to not have sex on some occasions when one would really like to — takes effort and commitment. If you go into it with the idea, “all I want is to not have a baby right now” or even “all I want to do is control my fertility without using chemicals” it’s going to seem pretty onerous.
With a difficult and commitment heavy process, success and satisfaction depend on actually learning to embrace the process itself, not just the goals. The people I know who look seriously fit are not the ones who hate exercising and eating well, but like to look good and so struggle through. Almost no one is able to put that much consistent effort into something he doesn’t actually want to do. Success in that area comes from finding an athletic activity one can like and working up to the point where one actually wants to engage in it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. But it’s something hard that you want to do.
Using NFP is rewarding. It trains spouses into greater consideration for each other, a more communicative and other-focused sexuality, and a greater appreciation of the way that their love for each other ties intimately together with their parenthood. But it’s no more a natural form of birth control than picking up a loaf of “organic” bread at Wal-Mart is the same as farming.