The weighty cross and even weightier beauty of natural family planning

How God’s used a difficult teaching to pursue me with his mercy

As a convert to Catholicism, the Church’s teaching on birth control has been — by far — the hardest one for me to accept. Sounds funny coming from someone with seven kids, right? But it’s true. I’ve literally struggled to accept the Church’s (Christ’s) authority on this matter to the point where my conversation with Jesus often sounds like this:

Are you going to leave me, too? he asks. 

To which my reply always echoes the one given by his disciples long ago: To whom should I go? You have the words of eternal life (see John 6:68).

The why

Coming from an evangelical/secular background, the idea of not using contraception when I was newly married and curious about Catholicism was profoundly disturbing. I’d been taught that the world was overpopulated (it’s not; actually, our birth rates are catastrophically low) and that responsible people are the ones whom avoid having children most of the time.

So I researched the why behind the Church’s stance against artificial contraception and was shocked to discover that virtually all Christian denominations were opposed to its use prior to the 1930s. And without trying to oversimplify the complex, much of these reasons are based in the philosophical reality that the ends do not justify the means.

Virtually all Christian denominations were opposed to its use prior to the 1930s.

Sure, many church-going people still use contraception and their thinking is: What’s the difference whether I use times of abstinence or the pill? Both will lead to the same result — avoiding unwanted pregnancies/children. But this is the same ideology as asking another question about another life issue: What’s the difference between letting grandma die a natural death or pushing her from a train? Both actions result in a dead grandma.

While the issue of natural family planning versus artificial contraception is virtually never discussed from the pulpit (I wish it was!), it’s important to acknowledge that since Christianity’s almost wholesale acceptance of contraception, divorce rates as well as abortion rates have risen. The practical, sociological, and philosophical reasons for these phenomenon would require separate, complex, and detailed explanations.

For example, why contraception in itself goes against natural order, how it innately opens doors to fornication, and changes the view of children from one of the crowning gift of marriage to the unintended, accidental result of a self-directed, leisure activity. I’ll further sum up the why behind contraception being innately disordered by comparing sex to food.

Contraception … goes against natural order.

Quite simply, contraception is like bulimia — the eater purposely severs the enjoyment of the act from God’s intended consequences (caloric gain, weight gain, nutrition). This purposeful severing results in a wide array of physical, emotional, and sociological problems with far-reaching effects.

Natural family planning — on the other hand, and continuing with the food analogy — is like waiting for dessert. Sex isn’t changed. Rather, it’s just delayed at times and when used properly has a 97 percent to 99 percent success rate. No severing of the “unitive from the procreative” of the act takes place. Rather, a couple works within the parameters of a woman’s natural fertility cycle to prayerfully build or limit their family size.

Blah, blah, blah — what’s this got to do with me? 

Seriously — what does this have to do with me? Because remember, I struggle with this issue — a lot. Back when I was in the process of converting and busy reading tons of literature about NFP and how it leads to lower divorce rates (it does) and to improved communication between spouses (yes, that too), I’d lose sleep at night, tallying up all the kids I’d have in the next decade if my fertility (and our lack of reasons to abstain/will power to abstain) continued at its present rate. Then, the next morning I’d visit Mass, craning my neck, searching, searching, searching: So where are all these happy, communication-savvy, NFP-using couples I’ve been reading about?

NFP … leads to lower divorce rates … and to improved communication between spouses.

But what I’d find is a parish virtually empty of children, because as I came to learn — 90 percent of Catholics, whether purposefully or due to a lack of clear information, simply disobey this teaching. Many a time, I’ve been so overwhelmed and lonely on this journey, I’ve sadly considered joining them.

But for me to break with such a definite teaching would be the same as breaking with Christ himself. My heart never let me. Also, and I’m certain, God’s always met my mustard seed-sized faith with the grace I needed to raise the beautiful children he’s brought me. And for this I’m eternally thankful, or else I’d be missing out on the joy of all these smiling faces and hilarious personalities around my kitchen table.

Speaking of beauty

A decade later, the cross of NFP feels a little lighter. While we’re richly blessed with seven strong sons, only one of them was a true “surprise” (to us anyway) and we successfully used NFP to space several births in a way to give ourselves much-needed breaks.

That’s another thing innately different about NFP compared to the typical secular usage of contraception — we Catholics are supposed to be “open to life,” welcoming children as cherished gifts, and using NFP to avoid them only for “serious reasons.” (see Humanae Vitae, 10).

And while the Church won’t list these reasons because they’re going to be different for each family, my husband and I learned quickly that the grace always came to abstain when we had a reason to abstain. One year it was a super sick baby. Another year it was the fact that our family had three surgeries on the calendar. Now, I look back on those times of growth fondly. Sure, sometimes my husband and I had fights and there was tension that would have been alleviated simply by having sex. But overall, our love for one another and our faith in God was deepened.

The grace always came to abstain when we had a reason to abstain.

Now when I do struggle with NFP — in theory or practice — the words of my confessor come to mind: “This teaching is not only for your holiness, but for your happiness, as well.”

He’s right. Not only do I have cherished children I would have never had if avoiding them had been as simple physically and theoretically as popping a pill, but I have a relationship with my husband that’s lively and joyful and — without getting too personal — one where he’s often found writing love letters to me after only a few days of abstinence. I could look awful, like dumpy pajamas and greasy hair awful, but still, he’ll ask with eager eyes and a smile as he zips out the door to work: “Green light tonight?”

My inner-dialogue always responds in the same way: It’s pretty cool to be desired this much after almost 20 years of marriage — maybe our Mother Church does know a thing or two about creating happy families after all.

To learn more:

National NFP Awareness Week is July 21-27

From our archive:

Humanae Vitae at 50: What can we learn from it?


Familyhuman sexualityHumanae VitaeMatrimonyNational NFP Awareness Weeknatural family planningparentingSarah RobsdotterSt. Paul VI
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