The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning
by simcha fisher
our sunday visitor, 128 pages, $9.95

As the debates surrounding contraception have pressed further into the public view, so has a curiosity about natural family planning. Roman roulette played according to the calendar-based “rhythm method” used to be the only game in town, but medical ­advances have brought new, more-reliable methods for those seeking to plan pregnancy without the usual barriers, pills, and rings. With new methods has come new interest, not just from the rare Catholic couple attentive to the Church’s teaching but from organically minded couples looking to further “green” their lifestyle, and from Protestant Christians reconsidering their faith or family size.

Safer than chemical means, ­natural family planning is rumored to shower married life with blessings. It is approved by the Catholic Church. It is not hard to understand why interest in NFP has grown, but questions still persist—about its practice, its benefits, and why, in fact, a Church that rejects contraception allows it at all.

Into the breach steps Simcha ­Fisher: Catholic blogger, humorist, and mother of nine. Her first book, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, is a collection of old and new personal essays on the topics of marriage, sex, and love, divided into three sections: “NFP and Your Spiritual Life,” “NFP and the Rest of the World,” and “NFP in the Trenches.” Each delivers an honest, encouraging, and witty viewpoint on the joys and obstacles that arise when living out natural family planning in private and public life.

Despite its title, The Sinner’s Guide is not a primer on NFP’s many different varieties, nor is it a technical how-to guide. Rather, the slim volume dispenses practical wisdom with a generous helping of humor. An “examination of conscience for those using NFP” asks: “Have I ever gone to a seminar about NFP and actually strangled the first teaching couple to use the phrase ‘honeymoon effect’? How many times? Were they super smug and annoying?”

What especially recommends The Sinner’s Guide to a broader ­audience is Fisher’s ability to use NFP as a starting point to engage with the larger and more universal questions facing anyone attempting to live out a Christian life day to day. What is prudence? How does one persevere in adversity? What does charity actually look like in relationships, and in daily life? As Fisher asks, “Does God just hate women, or what?” The question “Is it the right time to conceive” gives way to a plainspoken yet illuminating discourse on the phrase “God’s will.” A chapter entitled “Groping Toward Chastity” helps define the oft-misunderstood word in terms relevant to any reader—single or married. And although the book is aimed at women, both genders would find it enlightening.

In the end, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning is as much spiritual reading as it is handbook. “The benefits of remaining faithful to Church teaching are real,” Fisher writes in the introduction. “They are attainable. It’s just that you have to work hard to get them.” She paints an engaging picture of how to do so, and why.

Christine Emba is the Hilton Kramer fellow in criticism at The New Criterion.

Originally published in the December 2014 issue of First Things.

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