When I was engaged, a friend asked whether I planned to use contraception. I explained that I did not, and that I was learning to use natural family planning. She wished me well, but warned that it had not worked for her. “What they don't tell you in those classes is that you have to abstain at just the times when it’s hardest. That’s how I got pregnant the first time, and the second time. After that I started taking the pill.”
It's a scandal that my friend was not warned of NFP's challenges by her instructors. Had she been, she might have stuck with it. Unfortunately, a lot of NFP promoters preach NFP as a prosperity gospel. When this happens, NFP doesn’t deliver and people abandon it.
Many Catholics talk about the “marriage-building” aspects of NFP. The abstinence involved in NFP can be difficult and painful, this argument goes, but it can also teach the couple self-restraint, greater mutual respect, improved communication, selflessness, and so on. NFP benefits a married couple by teaching them to subordinate their appetites to the demands of charity.
This argument holds true in many cases, but not in all. NFP can be a healthy exercise in asceticism, particularly for people who care too much about sexual gratification. But there are couples who have the opposite problem: They are disinclined to seek sex, either because they are not getting along, or because one of them is unusually indifferent to sex. When we recommend an ascetic discipline to help someone grow in virtue, we need to tailor our recommendation to the vice the person actually has. As Aristotle points out, most virtues have two associated vices: one involving an excess and the other involving a deficiency. This is why we don't encourage anorexics to fast.
The conjugal act is a manifestation of the couple's love, but it is also an action that cultivates a correct conjugal disposition (which is to say, conjugal virtue). When one or both spouses lacks the correct disposition, it will be jarring for them to hear that NFP is serving to check their vices. In fact, it is exacerbating them. The man who finds himself sexually indifferent to his wife might want to become a better husband, and a better lover. This couple's use of NFP to space deprives him of opportunities to develop good habits. In this sort of situation, the first step in the development of virtue is to recognize that the demands of NFP make it particularly difficult.
Of course, any hardship within a marriage can be marriage-building. But this is true only if both spouses persevere in loving one another through the hardship. Many cases of adultery have proved to be marriage-building, when followed by contrition, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Obviously this does not mean we can recommend adultery as a marriage-building practice, nor does it mean we should shame cheated-upon spouses when they don't feel gratitude for their situation.
NFP and adultery are importantly different; adultery is always sinful, and NFP rarely is. But for many couples, NFP is an occasion for a number of sins: resenting your spouse, hating your body, indifference to your spouse's feeling of rejection, indifference to your spouse's feeling of being used, mistreating your spouse by refusing to communicate, masturbating (alone or together), or simply despairing and walking away from the Church's teaching altogether.
When I was engaged, I frequently received sympathy from married Catholics. They remembered that engagement is a difficult time to be chaste. They did not instruct me to be grateful for all the temptations. They just said, “Hang in there!” This is also how we treat couples who have to spend months apart for deployment or other reasons. Nobody congratulates them on the mind-blowing opportunity to deepen their love. And nobody thinks it’s shameful if they say the arrangement strains their marriage rather than visibly enhancing it.
This is the pastorally appropriate attitude to take to NFP. We should not tell people, “NFP causes suffering, suffering causes holiness (or virtue), and that builds your marriage!” We should encourage those who find NFP challenging but character-building, and we should encourage and sympathize with those who find NFP challenging and character-degrading. This is the attitude we take to poverty: We encourage those who are undergoing hardship, but when that hardship leads to vice (say, in the form of substance abuse), we sympathize and try to help them. We don't ask them to be grateful for the vice or the conditions that led to it.
As Christians, we need to develop perfect detachment, which includes detachment from our progress (or regress) in the moral and spiritual life. But this doesn't mean we have to pretend that bad things are good; we just have to do our best to bear them well, and trust that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” When we acknowledge that other people are facing real evils, this does not mean we encourage them to be anxious, peaceless, or whiny. It just means that we free them from the temptation to resent a situation that they experience as a burden, while those around them call it a great blessing.
How, then, can we convince anyone to use NFP? To me, the choice is simple. Contraception is morally evil. Sometimes it is very unwise to get pregnant. In those cases, the wretchedness of NFP is better than getting pregnant.
This is, in fact, the reasoning that motivates the vast majority of couples who use NFP. (I have never met anyone who thought that contraception was fine, but started using NFP because they expected it to improve their marriage.) The most effective way to promote NFP is to remind—or convince—couples that using contraception is not in keeping with their dignity, and then to help them act in a more dignified way. This involves presenting the Church's teaching on contraception in its holistic ethical context; it involves providing resources that help the couple live out the teaching well; it involves communities and families that offer an authentic witness and engage in meaningful accompaniment. And it requires that we treat people like adults, rather than hawking our teaching as the easy way out. What we're presenting is the only way out.
Audrey Pollnow is pursuing her B.Phil. in Philosophy at Oxford University.