The value of natural family planning

Commonweal magazine has produced an excellent series of articles discussing contraception from three different points of view. I would like to comment on the first article in this blog post and perhaps explore the other two articles in a future blog post. (Read the second and third Commonweal articles.)

The first article is by Christopher C. Roberts, who is strongly supportive of church teaching against contraception. He speaks of the virtues inherent in pursuing natural family planning (NFP). Not surprisingly, these virtues include patience, forbearance and restraint. He notes that the practice generally involves only about 10 days of abstinence a month, which should not be particularly burdensome for most couples. He feels that postponing sex provides an opportunity for the couple to grow together in intimacy and spirituality.

Roberts admits that most Catholics don't see the point. They see it as unnecessary self-denial. The practice is admittedly tedious, but most of all, it just seems unnecessary. The truth is none of us are free from pain and suffering in our lives, so to willingly inflict an additional hardship when there is no compelling reason to do so makes little sense.

For Roberts, one of the main reasons Catholics fail to practice the NFP discipline is that they simply don't understand the teaching. They have either failed to study what the teaching is all about or have had it explained poorly to them. He even calls it a "massive catechetical failure."

Unfortunately, I believe this is an argument that is too often used to paper over the problems with the teaching itself. I spent seven years in a Catholic seminary, and I think I have a fairly good idea what the church teaches on contraception. However, it still seems clear to me that the teaching demonstrates a lack of understanding of sexuality and human behavior. It is predicated on what is seen to be a logical but abstract analysis that fails to consider practical issues. It has been developed by men who have chosen to forgo human sexuality.

Nonetheless, I have no doubt that Roberts is correct that some couples do find their spirituality enhanced by their working together to successfully practice NFP. They choose to follow the message of Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae and place their sexual desires within the context of their larger commitment to each other. For some couples, this can promote a meaningful religious experience, especially for those who are inclined to see their relationship within a religious context. Roberts sees it as a source of freedom, self-knowledge and spiritual depth.

The problem, of course, is that we are all at different points on our spiritual journey. The majority of Catholics are nowhere near that level of spirituality either personally or together with their spouse. For example, it may be true that extreme self-denial, including flagellation, serious fasting, or other extreme practices may be an appropriate path to holiness for a few. The notion, however, that it should be a requirement for all Catholics is certainly not a good idea. Some clearly find the practice of NFP a valuable form of self-denial just as some find celibacy an important value in their lives. It is simply counterintuitive to require such extraordinary practices for everyone.

It is somewhat encouraging that Roberts seems to admit that there may be a few hardship cases where pastoral concerns may argue for some concessions in this area. He mentions the soldier home from the war who is told he will have to wait a week for sexual intimacy. He also mentions the husband who has just lost his job and may be denied the comfort and intimacy he may need just at that time.

I have to say, though, that I think Roberts has it backward. I think it is the rare couple that might appropriately be encouraged to pursue the NFP process together. Perhaps it might flow from a couples retreat or other spiritual practice and might lead to a beautiful religious experience for them. It is not, however, a practice that can be expected to work for the average Catholic couple.

Finally, I believe Roberts goes off-track at the end, when he begins to pontificate on what is wrong with American culture today. He even criticizes the church for being too lenient on penitential practices like fasting. He suspects that we have become "too insistent on our personal autonomy and the urgency of our appetites."

All Catholics and Christians need to determine what place self-denial and penitential practices should have in their lives. Reasons why these practices may be beneficial for the Christian would require much further discussion. The issue here is whether church teaching can hold up in light of the reality that surrounds our lives. Is the teaching reasonable and correct, and should it be binding on all Catholics? It seems that a significant majority of Catholics don't think so.

If church teaching can't be seen as authentic, the need for self-denial is not a reason to practice NFP. The truth is we don't need to create artificial practices to introduce pain and suffering into our lives. Without seeking it, we all find the need to bear with the crosses of daily living. In the area of sexuality itself, all of us at different times meet someone we are attracted to but who we avoid because of our commitment to our spouse or to the bounds of propriety. All must abstain from sex during the latter stages of pregnancy. We don't need to create reasons to suffer.

The bottom line is that those like Roberts have dutifully explored the depths of Catholic teaching to see if there is something positive about it that can be valued. They have found some positive elements. The problem is they have not really gotten to the heart of the issue. Does the teaching itself represent a point of view that can and should be binding on all Catholics? Can it still be considered valid with our 21st-century understanding of science and human behavior? Hopefully we can explore these issues more fully through the last two Commonweal articles. 

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