Asking couples to use NFP is asking a lot. Can’t the Church help more?

It is no secret: Natural family planning has its discontents. A number of studies have shown that few Catholics use it, and it is not hard to see why. N.F.P. can be difficult, it can be frustrating, and occasionally it is impossible. I am a discontent myself, albeit a stubbornly faithful one, which is why I wrote a whole book about how ordinary, non-saintly couples can learn to navigate the spiritual, emotional and marital problems that N.F.P. sometimes brings into sharp focus.

N.F.P. is worth learning well and sticking with, despite all the trials it can bring. When we were first married, my husband and I did not know how to communicate well. We did not understand what sex was really about. We had no clue about how God’s will actually works in our lives. Sacrificial patience, generosity and transformative suffering were mysteries to us. They are not mysteries now but are daily practices, thanks in part to the rigors of N.F.P. I wrote my book to let other struggling couples know they are not alone, and that their suffering does not have to be in vain.

But one thing my book did not cover was the logistical obstacles to using fertility awareness based methods of family planning successfully. (Most now shy away from the more colloquial label N.F.P.) These obstacles are not negligible. It was not long ago that we desperately wanted to switch to another fertility awareness based method that would work better with my body, but we simply did not have the money; so we were stuck with an unsuitable method that caused frustration and confusion. Some struggling is inevitable and can bring about growth; but some is avoidable and causes only pain. A small cash grant would have made a world of difference for our family.

I wondered how common our experience was; so I designed some surveys and shared them on social media and on my personal website, targeting women who use or have used a wide range of different forms of fertility awareness methods. Nearly 700 women responded. Here is what I learned.

Some women love N.F.P. Some of them find it cheap and simple and empowering. Some of them find it pricey and labor intensive, but well worth the cost. Some of them say it healed their bodies, enriched their marriages and drew them closer to God.

But for others, N.F.P. brought one trial after another. The church teaches us to forgo birth control, and so they did, whether out of obedience, love of spouse or a desire to understand their own health better. But even if they were willing to take on the spiritual and psychological challenges of N.F.P., they found themselves stymied by logistical problems beyond their control—things that could easily be solved with something as mundane as money, or better marketing, or better organization or even something as simple as a babysitter.

Oddly enough, even as the church struggles to interest its flock in fertility awareness based methods for spiritual reasons, fertility awareness is having a moment in the secular world. Cosmopolitan gave N.F.P. some positive press, and so did The New York Times. The interest is fuelled partly by a slow but growing disenchantment with artificial contraception among women of a variety of backgrounds and faiths. There are now countless fertility awareness based methods (usually paired with targeted condom use in secular circles) on the market; and women, religious or not, are snapping them up. You can buy bluetooth-enabled super-thermometers for $300 and compact fertility monitors straight out of Star Trek that smile at you when you are fertile. It is a far cry from the days of a scrap of graph paper, a thermometer and crossed fingers.

There are dozens of slick fertility apps, many free, some with millions of downloads. Women who have no idea that the church pioneered fertility awareness are turning to fertility awareness methods because they cannot seem to get pregnant or because they are thoroughly sick of birth control side-effects like migraines, blood clots or mood swings and wandering I.U.D.s; and they are ready for something else, something natural.

Here is the frustrating part. The church has something natural and effective to offer, and it is not some antiquated calendar system. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has approved a number of fertility awareness based methods: MarquetteCreightonBillingsSympto-Thermal, Boston Cross Check and N.F.P.I. The church is, in theory, delighted when a couple want to manage their fertility naturally. And many of these methods offer some level of personal instruction, which greatly increases their effectiveness. But because they can also come with some psychological, cultural and logistical baggage, women who have powered through the judgment of the secular world find themselves facing obstacles from within the church itself.

What Women Want

Given the church’s desire for couples to practice fertility awareness based methods, you might think every parish and diocese would offer numerous, easily accessible and affordable ways to learn these methods in order to use them consistently and reliably. You would be wrong.

It is a long history, and it would be funny if it were not so maddening. Back in 1932, Leo Latz, M.D., of Loyola University Chicago wrote his slim volume The Rhythm of Fertility and Sterility, outlining the basic principles of calendar-based family planning, so couples could learn to chart their fertility cycles quickly, easily and cheaply. It sold 600,000 copies to a readership ravenous for information.

Dr. Latz, for his trouble, was booted out of the university, a decision some historians attribute to his attempt to put dangerous information in the hot hands of so many married Catholics who might make decisions without the blessing of a priest.

Read the rest of my article for America Magazine

 Photo via Good Free Photos (Public Domain)

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43 thoughts on “Asking couples to use NFP is asking a lot. Can’t the Church help more?”

  1. Creighton user here, and cradle Catholic.

    I have mixed feelings about this post. On the one hand I’m like yea it’s a good idea to ask the church to help essentially explain and support these fertility awareness based systems. And sure why not have the church help? Maybe have diocesan NFP instructors that recieve a stipend to help teach couples at the local level. Maybe provide a small supply of charting supplies, test strips etc for parish families once they register in a particular parish. Maybe do all that was suggested in the blog.

    And then there is a part of me that remembers that as Catholics we believe that there isnt a single pleasure in this world that is owed to us. So when I hear stuff like “Well XYZ is hard, strenuous, inconvenient, expensive, unfair etc.” I wonder if perhaps we are too focused on what we feel we deserve more than what God is asking of us. If you have discerned you have to strictly abstain, change methods or any of a million potential difficult scenarios that come from accepting and living church teaching in this way then you are living something difficult God has asked you to live. So…then we just knuckle down and deal despite it being difficult.

    And in all honesty perhaps I am saying thing because of my own experiences with difficulties of an opposite kind. It’s not the difficulty of having to abstain because another pregnancy would be unwise. Mine simply is that I have struggled with infertility, miscarriage, and now secondary infertility problems. For me there is no such thing as “cant the Church make it easier”? Its just the cross I’ve been asked to carry. There’s nothing magical, no stipend that can fix my infertility. It’s just there. And while we have NaPro and all that it’s still expensive as all get out to treat and diagnose my health problems. But rather than expect things to be made easier for me I have come to accept what God needs of me and right now it’s this. Its staring at large Catholic families with a sense of longing knowing we probably wont have nearly as large a family as we had hoped for.

    Rather than go too far down a personal tangent I do want to ask… Why cant we just sometimes be okay with what God needs from us even if it’s difficult? That includes unexpected expenses, lifestyle changes, relationship strain, all of that. Sometimes we just have to be okay with things being hard. Hard doesnt equal detrimental or evil. It just means its difficult.

    Anyway, I really did like the article despite my mixed feelings about the overall message. Thanks!

  2. Non-Catholic fertility-tracker here, thanking you for this article. I feel for Catholics trying to be faithful but getting priced out of their method of choice. I’m glad you’re calling attention to that, and I hope your good proposed solutions get implemented.

  3. Gotta love the conversation on Twitter.

    Simcha: NFP is easy for some people, but not everyone. How can we make it easier?

    Readers: It works for me, so you’re clearly making this up to undermine Church teaching.

    This is the version of Twitter everyone hates.

    1. Huh. Over on Facebook it’s “I absolutely HATE NFP, it’s HORRIBLE, and there’s NO WAY it’s the only moral option.”

      I mean, I guess between the two everything is balanced?

  4. I would love to see doctors (especially Catholic ones) actually use more of the knowledge generated by NFP or various fertility awareness methods. I have charted very carefully for a few years and could show my Catholic OB exactly when our last baby was conceived (day 7, ovulated on day 11), but she insisted on using the standard due date calculated according to conception on day 14 and a 28 day cycle (which I have never had in my life). My baby was born on the due date I calculated, a full week before the OB’s due date. That doctor also never had any of my hormone levels checked, even though my luteal phase was very short and there were other signs something was not right.

  5. Thanks for the article and the book. To be honest, my husband and I are NFP strugglers. We did not have sex before marriage, and boy has NFP made that part of marriage difficult. I think it’s different if you start NFP after you’ve been married for awhile. But man, having no experience with each other and then not being able to be intimate for long chunks of time puts a serious strain on things. I do wish the church would talk more about that (especially during classes), and that they offered more help for tools and all the rest.

    1. Yes, it would be very difficult for newlyweds. When my husband and I married in the late 80s, we really hadn’t given much thought to NFP. I knew my parents had a homemade rhythm wheel, but given that my mother had a child every year for seven years, I doubt it was reliable. My husband and I both wanted children asap. I cried when five months into our marriage I hadn’t conceived (conceived the sixth month). I had a very good pro-life Catholic doctor and after our first child was born, he set us up for meetings with his wife who taught NFP. I think I rolled my eyes a bit, but became fascinated by the classes. I started charting, not to avoid pregnancy, but to make sure I knew as much about my fertility as possible. It was a good thing because later I did need to avoid pregnancy (or space my babies out) because of health problems. Naturally, practicing NFP has always been more difficult for my husband than me. I tended to be overly cautious. It was hard for me mostly because it was hard for him and caused strain in our marriage. It was really the only issue we had. I think the happiest day of his life was when I entered menopause.

      What I think the church needs to do is encourage mentoring programs at the parish. Support of older couples is invaluable. Our parish has older couples volunteer to mentor a couple during their marriage prep and afterwards. I really couldn’t talk to my parents about our sex life and I don’t think they would have understood. My parents were from the WWII generation and they didn’t complain about hardships. It-is-what-it-is, offer-it-up, and this-too-shall-pass were all deeply ingrained in them.

  6. Thinking over all you wrote, I wonder…
    The recent movie “A Hidden Life” highlights (among other things) what happens when Catholics in general, and certain clergy in particular, think that “X is terrifyingly, painfully hard” has “God doesn’t ask X of anyone” as a corollary. Part of the Jägerstätter family’s suffering was because their pastor thought the latter did follow from the former – so no one gave any help to the family Franz left behind.

    Maybe more of your “things the Church should be doing to help” would actually have been done over the past several decades if so many in the Church hadn’t been like the Jägerstätters’ pastor and bishop. “Do it if *you* want, but don’t expect *us* to be Simon of Cyrene” or something like that. Pure speculation on my part.

    1. YES. I think you’ve cracked it.

      Interesting tidbit I found out recently that may tie into this…did you know that there was a letter similar to Humane Vitae released in Poland, around the same time, that was written much more pastorally? That actually acknowledged that using ‘natural spacing’ was hard and entailed sacrifice?

      I mean, if anyone knows how to suffer Catholic style, it’s the Poles, so I definitely think you’ve hit the nail on the head. When it’s heroic just to BE Catholic, you may as well go whole hog and enable your people to do it, and be honest with them.

    1. You know, I hope Simcha deletes this comment thread because this was one of the best articles on NFP I have ever read. It’s work of true scholarship. And that comment is so grossly ignorant, it doesn’t belong here.
      However in another way, this adds so much credence to her other discussions on the anti Semitism and racism that we still face today. So disgusting.

    2. What’s wrong with you? Who goes onto someone’s personal blog and racially abused them. Put your real name next to your comment…coward.

      1. Thank you so much for voicing how so many of us feel. I’ve developed a heart issue In my second pregnancy that makes any more future pregnancy potentially deadly, so It’s a subject that’s very much relevant. I’d like to live and care for my babies.

        We’ve had to be completely on our own for NFP. The only courses offered “nearby” (cough 90 minutes away) are more unreliable methods, and only sporadically offered. I also have to take medication that makes only the Marquette model an option.

        I even shelled out all the cash needed to do the Marquette model, to be harshly and VERY rudely told I can basically sleep with my husband a few times a year safely. 🙄 Due to the nature of my cycles, not given kind advice, or brainstorming ways to maybe fix my cycles. I sold the monitor and gave the sticks to a friend trying to conceive.

        So I’m left with the option to, oh potentially die of heart failure, or sleep with my husband 1-2 times a year, maybe. Which would definitely be great for our marriage, I’m sure.

        Really excited to figure out my plans after I have this baby.

        1. I am so very sorry. That’s horrible. 🙁

          I wish I could recommend something to fix it. I’m guessing NaPro has already been explored, or is off the table for other reasons? Maybe one of those natural diets that help regulate cycles (seed cycling) will actually work?

          I’ll be praying that a solution offers itself. <3 I'm really, really sorry that you're facing this.

        2. So sorry for you, Sarai. I am experincing a similar situation and for us it means lots and lots of abstaining… This obviously puts a strain on our marriage, especially because there are also emotional and psycological issues involved. It’s not easy for many of us.

        3. Just my personal opinion, but I think our culture way overemphasizes the “need” for sex in “healthy” relationships, to the point that people actually think everything is going to go wrong if they are abstinent for any length of time. Not saying that most people should be abstinent or not, but the expectation is not helpful. I had some mom friends who swore that marriage was harmed if the husband wasn’t able to have sex at least every ten days, so of course they used contraception and made sure not to “cause trouble” in their marriages (which just kind of grossed me out). And I’ve heard a popular radio priest ridicule couples who are married and don’t have frequent sex, because of course that’s what marriage is all about etc. It’s all rather dumb because God gives every couple their own unique challenges and nobody else can tell you what it’s supposed to be. Having the mindset that we have to have sex with a certain frequency or else we will have “problems” is not a helpful thing.

      2. Argh. Two villains with a single posting. I’m truly horrified and – after a sleepless night- feel rather like bursting into tears myself at the awfulness of humanity. I’m so sorry.

  7. NFP is difficult. The problem is that artificial contraception is a sin, and has adverse health side effects. So you kinda have to stick to NFP to avoid a pregnancy, as a faithful Catholic. We want to do the right thing. So the issue is the technology. Why hasn’t anyone invented a device that clearly and reliably detects fertility times with complete accuracy? I am not aware of any and it is not a far fetched idea. We only have graphs, thermometers and our eyes which are so very antiquated and prone to human misinterpretation.

    I don’t believe doing so would make us “have fewer children” and have a “contraceptive Mentality”, because the effort still needs to be there to abstain and communicate. I just think it will help women and men immeasurably. Maybe the Church could put money in creating the technology. That’ll put many of the pharmaceuticals and IVF clinics out of business also. So Win win.

    1. It’s scientifically impossible. The ClearBlue monitor gets close to what you are looking for by testing hormones in women’s urine; just pee on a stick daily and you can pretty much confirm that ovulation has happened. The problem is that it is impossible to predict exactly when ovulation will occur…our bodies might be just about to “drop an egg” when suddenly stress affects things, etc etc.

  8. NFP as it stands today isn’t contraceptive per se, but it IS birth control. Asking the Church to subsidize it only proves what NFP naysayers have felt about it all along.

      1. NFP is a method of controlling birth. Not sure what’s so ridiculous about that comment.
        Simcha is for the church subsidizing a ‘licit’ method of birth control.
        Outright abstinence is free.
        It’s when you have to get really crafty and technical in order to have regular sex and avoid pregnancy that it becomes costly.

        1. I’m happy to allow protestants to comment on my site, so don’t worry, Emily.
          For those who are interested obeying what the Church teaches, though, it’s been very clear that NFP is licit, without quotation marks. Yes, abstinence is free and it works, but there’s no reason to resort to it if you don’t absolutely have to, because sex is a gift from God and it would be rude to turn down such a nice present.

        2. So tell me – would it be wrong to avoid engaging in sexual relations at those times when you knew you were less likely to become pregnant? Or perhaps it would be wrong to avoid engaging in them except at those times when you knew you were most likely to become pregnant! After all, is that not the logic of the anti-contraceptive, pro-birth mentality carried to its most logical conclusion?

          No, really. You are suggesting that Catholics should reject any technological refinements of the knowledge we have acquired over the centuries of women’s fertility. Very well. But morally, the next step would certainly be to insist that couples only engage in sexual relations when most likely to conceive, because it is clear that engaging in sexual relations for any other reason is sinful. The only reason we were ever permitted to do so in more ignorant times was that nobody *knew* when babies were most likely to be conceived. It follows that all real Catholics – the sede-vacantists I assume you are – should carefully use the instruments that in fact you reject in order to be certain that you do not commit the sin of sex during a non-fertile period.

          1. No. Simcha is advocating that all Catholics should have equal access to the NFP method that best suits their cycle without being hindered by cost. This is something that should be taken up with health insurance providers, not the Church.

            No I am not a sede, but it’s interesting that you would assume I was. Says more about you than me.

            1. I said what I did in response to your implicit suggestion that Catholics should restrict themselves to ‘outright abstinence’. If the purpose of ‘outright abstinence’ is to adhere to the spirit of the teachings of the fathers, which is NOT that the sexual act should remain open to conception, as far as I can determine, but that it should be fruitful when nature makes this possible. Indeed, I strongly suspect that the Fathers – and Mothers – would have required that all sexual acts should be fruitful if in fact it was possible and within the capacity of human knowledge to make it so. (Hey, people -NO sex without conception… )

              1. NFP proponents usually accuse people who bring up the point I made of that. Namely, that pointing out that the intent to have regular sex and not conceive is evidence that they must believe people can only have sex during the fertile time. That isn’t what they’re saying. You can have sex (or not) whenever you want. We’re just bringing up the point that NFP is going as far as you can possibly go to determine that you aren’t fertile and reserve sex to just those times. Your argument is the exclusive one, not mine.

                Like I said earlier the sex act is technically still open to life but you are waiting and restricting sex to those times *exclusively* to avoid conceiving, which is fine the Church says it’s okay.

                However, Simcha is saying the Church hasn’t gone far enough by just allowing NFP. The Church now needs to help people pay for it because people’s cycles are often too complicated to successfully avoid pregnancy without a lot of technological help and personalized instruction.

                When NFP came out people were calling it Catholic birth control. The Church kept trying to say there was no such thing as Catholic birth control but sure enough we’ve arrived at that.

                I also was not “rejecting” years of development regarding women’s bodies. The pill and IUDs are developments too, why are you rejecting those?

                The Church keeps trying to remind people that sex and babies go together. You can’t get the Church to pay for monitors and strips without a major redaction in a millennia of Church teaching and language about sex, marriage and children.

  9. Thank you! I don’t know what future plans you have for the data you collected, but I would love to see an analysis of the cost data to help people decide on a method (me, I want to know if I should bother switching to Marquette).

    1. I can only speak from my own experience, but I switched to Marquette after using sympto-thermal for a few years (and after 3 kids and thus 3 very murky postpartum phases). Sympto-thermal ended up being a lot of guesswork for me for various reasons. I love Marquette because I like getting confirmation about the rise in hormone levels and seeing it peak. It also showed me that I actually have two days of peak fertility, which I didn’t know previously, so I know I need to wait longer to begin phase 3 when TTA.

      The app is really easy to use, too. I like that you can set the goal (TTA or TTC) and then also how committed you are to that goal, on a scale of 1-10. Personally my husband and I are committed to a longer space in between children right now (if God wants to give us any more), so the app sets a longer window of abstaining.

  10. I’m glad you brought up improved instruction at nursing schools! I went to a Catholic nursing school, and they tried to spend equal time on FABM and other methods (since in the “real world” of medicine we’ll see the other methods frequently), but since FABMs are so much more involved it barely scraped the surface.

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