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Misunderstanding NFP: Where Catholics and non-Catholics get it wrong

Dr. Janet Smith, a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and a Catholic speaker and author on marriage and family, on what Humanae Vitae said—and didn’t say—about contraception and Natural Family Planning.

A banner referencing "Humanae Vitae," the 1968 encyclical of Blessed Paul VI, is seen in the crowd at the conclusion of the beatification Mass of Blessed Paul celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 19, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Atchison, Kansas, Mar 28, 2018 / 11:06 am (CNA).- The encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI shocked the world when it was published in 1968.

While society was in the midst of the sexual revolution, the pope wrote that couples could not morally use contraception as a means of planning or spacing their children.

“It was an explosion in the Church,” said Dr. Janet Smith, a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and a Catholic speaker and author on marriage and family.

In the 50 years that followed, she said, the Church has worked to explain its teaching to a world that often refused to accept it.

“But we’ve made some great strides,” she noted. “The fact that you can get 60 scholars to come and talk about Humanae Vitae? In Kansas? It’s fantastic!” Dr. Smith was one of four keynote speakers at Benedictine College’s seventh annual Symposium on Advancing the New Evangelization. The theme of this year’s symposium was “Humanae Vitae 50 Years Later: A Call to Self-Gift.”

While Humanae Vitae states that couples may not use contraception, it affirms that they may make use of the natural fertile and infertile times of a woman’s menstrual cycle, measurable through Natural Family Planning (NFP), in order to achieve responsible parenthood.

But there are problems even within the Christian and Catholic community of understanding exactly how NFP works and what it means to use it morally, Smith noted.

For example, there are certain groups within the Church whom Smith called “Providentialists” – they believe that NFP should only be used by couples to limit family size for “grave reasons,” while the original Latin text of Humanae Vitae and the Catechism use the words “serious” and “just” reasons.

“Providentialists hold that unless grave reasons present themselves, such as very serious health or financial ones, spouses should just let the babies come,” Smith said.

“They’re beautiful people who really want to do God’s will in a very radical, self-giving way, though I think they reason falsely about these matters,” she said.

With Natural Family Planning, couples work together with a woman’s cycle to determine – through methods such as body temperature and cervical mucus observation – the fertile and infertile phases of her cycle. Typically, a woman’s menstrual cycle is around 28 days, and she is fertile for just a handful of those days, though the specifics of the number of days of each phase varies woman to woman.

Couples using Natural Family Planning discern through prayer and practical reasons whether to have sex during the fertile or infertile phases of a woman’s cycle, depending on whether or not they believe it is a good idea for them to get pregnant at that time. As long as couples do not impede the possibility of pregnancy through artificial means (contraception) or natural means (withdrawal), they act according to Church teaching, Pope Paul VI notes in Humanae Vitae.

Where Providentialists go wrong, Smith said, is in believing that couples should be required to have sex during every phase of a woman’s cycle, and that NFP should only be used to avoid pregnancy if a woman is on her deathbed, or the family is in financial ruin.

It’s moral to abstain from sex for other, somewhat trivial reasons, Smith noted – a spouse with a headache, someone would like to finish a book, someone wants to catch a sports game, the walls are too thin, etc.

“So I have a simple question for you. Why would it be wrong not to have sex because it’s not a good idea to have a child at that time?” she said.

“I’m certainly going to affirm that children are the primary purpose of marriage and commend the Providentialists for their devotion to that good,” Smith said, “but I’m going to challenge the claim that [just reasons to abstain] only mean the woman’s near death or the family’s financial ruin.”

The culture at large, on the other hand, misunderstands sexuality as something “nasty and naughty,” and sees children as an optional means of personal fulfillment or a hobby, Smith said, rather than as a supreme gift from God resulting from the gift of sexuality within the context of marriage.

“They don’t see [sex] as a huge gift from God that God has given to spouses as a means to let them help him create new human souls,” she said.

“[Children] are a supreme gift of marriage, they give people meaning, purpose, joy, unbelievable laughter…and bills to worry about and all kinds of things,” Smith said. If Christians believe they are raising up souls for God, “why wouldn’t they want to have a lot of children?”

But while the Church recognizes children as a gift and asks couples to be generous in their openness to life, it also allows for couples to abstain from sex during the fertile phase for “serious” and “just” reasons, including “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions,” Humanae Vitae states.

Furthermore, it notes that “responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.”

What counts as serious or just enough reasons? “It’s between you and God,” Smith said. “One thing you have to do [to use NFP] is to learn how to pray, and to learn how to say, ‘What do you think, God?’”

It is possible to use NFP selfishly, Smith noted, but she added that the cure for that selfishness can also be found within the use of NFP, since it facilitates conversations between the couple about their family and relationship. Furthermore, she said, most people want to have sex, meaning that abstaining from sex requires a self-mastery that is not characteristic of selfish people.

“If you believe you’ve got good reasons [to abstain], go ahead and use NFP, but keep praying, and tell God: ‘If we’re being selfish with NFP, let us know,’” she said.

When asked what the biggest hurdles are for Catholics and non-Catholics alike when it comes to accepting Church teaching on this issue, Smith said it is a misunderstanding of both contraception and NFP within both groups.

“They don’t have any idea the damage that the hormonal contraceptives do to a woman’s body, so they don’t even know they should be looking for something else,” Smith told CNA. Furthermore, “they don’t understand the many benefits that abstinence brings to a relationship, and it needs to be acknowledged that it’s difficult. It’s as difficult as dieting, and budgeting and exercising regularly, but everybody knows that those bring great benefits to those who do those things. And if you have a necessity to do them, they’re that much easier, because you have a necessity,” she said.

It’s important that the Church keep teaching the truths of Humanae Vitae even 50 years after its original publication, Smith said, because most people still don’t know the truth, and it has also become “more and more overwhelmingly clear that it was right, that contraception would be devastating to relationships and to cultures.”

Smith added that she was encouraged by the symposium at Benedictine. “It was astonishing, and these were young people for the most part in some way defending Humanae Vitae,” she said. “People who oppose Humanae Vitae seem to think its a dead letter, but we need to show that young people are confirming its truth rather than rejecting it.”

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22 Comments

  1. Where Providentialists go wrong, Smith said, is in believing that couples should be required to have sex during every phase of a woman’s cycle, and that NFP should only be used to avoid pregnancy if a woman is on her deathbed, or the family is in financial ruin.

    I don’t know anybody who thinks like that. Is Janet Smith opposing a straw man of her own making here?

    Don’t misunderstand me. I greatly admire Janet Smith and have often referred others to her works over the years.

    There is such a thing as using NFP with a blatantly contraceptive mentality. It is wrong to do so. That is the simple fact of the matter.

    • It’s not a strawman, I have actually met people who think this way (i.e. provendentialists). If you look at the culture at large it is unusual, but in the Christian culture (the ones that actually take their religion/the Bible seriously) there is a minority that go to this extreme.

      • I assume Janet Smith would agree that NFP can be used with a sinful contraceptive mentality.

        My wife and I raised 10 kids on a single income. We never understood how that was possible but God provided. Another baby always seemed to coincide with a raise or a better paying job. It was truly amazing. I always felt sorry for couples who never let God demonstrate for them His awesome loving kindness and power to provide.

        I fully realize God isn’t calling every Catholic couple to have ten children. He is calling all of them to live by faith in Him. If we only pursue plans that we know can work according to our human understanding, there is no faith in that.

        To me, this is a big problem with contraception and with NFP used with a contraceptive mentality: it is faith-destroying. It is telling Christ to follow us instead of us following Him.

        God does have a plan for each marriage that includes populating Heaven with citizens He intends to bring forth from them. Are we open to His plan for ours or not?

        • To be clear, you cannot practice NFP with “a contraceptive mentality”. That is not possible. You can lack the trust God asks of you – you may believe people to be “untrusting”, or overly prudent. For instance, that prudence may take the form of saving for a better car to haul the kiddos in, or a bigger house to give the kiddos more space to live. Withholding from the marital embrace to space your children may or may not be a sin, but it can NEVER be “contraceptive”, and I vehemently reject any notion that a couple who does use NFP could EVER “contraceptive”. If there is sin in their lack of trust in the Lord, well it CERTAINLY is not “contraceptive”.

  2. Nothing new here! This debate will go on forever. You say “what it means to use it morally, Smith noted”. If a couple enters the act with the idea that they will not procreate, I say that is conscience driven. No “sin”. Last reading that NFP if used as a contraceptive that is a grave sin.

    My wife hade a hard time delivering our two sons. Her doctor insisted that she not get pregnant again. The rest is history.

    NFP requires a couple to become scientists. Also, I was surprised to read that controlling ones family size is a “grave sin”. The planet can’t provide for nearly 8 billion inhabitants and an untold number of animals. Now, that sinful!

    • “NFP requires a couple to become scientists.”

      Proof you don’t know much about NFP.

      “The planet can’t provide for nearly 8 billion inhabitants and an untold number of animals. Now, that sinful!”

      No, that’s more of a non sequitur.

      • Without belaboring this I will describe there Catholic eras dealing with birth control… NFP, the rhythm method and nothing. Your definition for my experience with the Catholic church as non sequitur in nature places you in rarified air, indeed. Without trying to combat the essence of your dogma my wife had failing kidneys and her doctor, a Catholic, ordered her to use birth control. That was before NFP and during the era of the Rhythm Method. RM was defined a Vatican Roulette because it was so unreliable. Don’t you sometimes wonder what Catholics did to manage the size of their families during the largest period when nothing scientific was in the offing?

        In my book anyone who labels a person’s religious experience as non sequitur could be a pompous ass.

        • If “your book” is as confusing and ill-written as your posts, it’s not likely that anybody would read it. I doubt very much that your religious experience includes “The planet can’t provide for nearly 8 billion inhabitants and an untold number of animals. Now, that sinful!” which is what Mr. Olson said, quite rightly, was a non sequitur.

    • Ah, morganB, the infallible and impeccable head of the Church of MorganB, pops up with yet another of his pronouncements about how the Church is wrong and he is right. Gosh, what a surprise!

    • Otherwise known as rationalization for contraception. BTW, the planet can way more humans than 8 bil. Just get on an airplane from any massive city, and look down after ten minutes: you’ll see mostly endless green and brown for hours. I agree we have too many pitbulls.

  3. Here is my take on NFP, as well as this article. The article is well written, however, considering that mankind and the Church got along well for centuries and centuries without NFP, I wonder why some people are so utterly desperate to promote it since it came into being. While it’s not a bad thing to make use of advances in knowledge that can and do truly benefit mankind such treatments and cures for diseases; or technology that makes it easier to produce more food and the like, what is it about NFP that that makes certain people so willing to promote it even though the saints through the centuries would most likely have rejected it?

    What part of God created everything in existence and is Lord of all isn’t understood?

    If God wills that a certain person is to exist, that person WILL exist. And there is NOTHING that will stop that. No form of “birth control” whether artificial or ‘natural’ will stop it. God’s ways are not our ways, and sometimes he permits things to happen that we don’t know about or understand, but when all is said and done, everything ultimately works out according to the will of God.

    For example, Elizabeth, mother of St. John the Baptist, should have never been able to conceive him at her age by all known natural knowledge. But yet we honor him (and her) as saints.

    St. Benedict, if I remember correctly, was living in the midst of a great famine at one point. Even so, he ordered whatever food and oil that his monastery had on hand to be given to the poor, all of it. You could say he was a “providentialist” because he trusted in God, just as Jesus told us to do in the New Testament. God rewarded his faith and trust by providing food and oil in overflowing amounts so he, his monks, and those who depended on him would continue to have what they needed to live. And he is just one example of many.

    That is a lesson that Professor Smith and many other people need to learn.

    While I believe there are probably some occasions where NFP might be morally used, I think they are probably comparatively rare.

  4. I think a lot of the understanding in regards to the contraception mindset comes from observation. Bear with the length please: having just settled in the Archdiocese of Detroit and having gone to dozens of parishes to find a parish that has a Catholic affirming environment (music, crucifix, structure, not standing during the Eucharistic prayer, etc), I have seen several families in the pews. Most of them having two or fewer children with the rare exception that have 3 or more. Our 3rd is due in late May, my wife has pcos and we have used NFP to get pregnant, all 3 with about 2 year spacing. If you know pcos, you know how rare our situation is that we have been this successful, Thank God! I digress, as a statistician I understand several concepts. One of them is the Law of Large Numbers and when applying that to what I have seen (and this is where it comes full circle) is that if more families are open to life then simply put, why don’t we see them? Why do we seem to stick to the secular standpoint of replacement by only having 2 children? Studies time and again show that 4 children is the threshold for ease of parenting and our Catholic Faith prohibits birth control out of love, yet we reflect contraceptive mindset by outcome. In comparison to my family situation, we don’t make a whole bunch of money and we have a health hurtle to get over yet we are looked at as exceptions because we will have more kids when it is harder for us to do so. Don’t get me wrong there are a lot of confounding variables but there are also a lot of studies that show us Catholics assimilating to the world in the US. I think it is that mix that underlies this understanding of using NFP as contraception, granted it is somewhat anecdotal.

    I would be interested in some feedback as well.

    • You’re quite right – I hear people who are otherwise faithful Catholics expressing astonishment, or dismay, or disapproval of people who have “large” families – more than 3 or 4 children. I don’t know, maybe it’s because we’re so spoiled we think that children’s not having rooms of their own, having to wear hand-me-downs, not having the latest and fanciest toys and technology, etc., are viewed with horror, as if those things mean unhappiness?

        • So you are saying that one cannot be happy without having a room of one’s own, new clothes, and the latest and fanciest toys and technology, etc. Explains a lot. Possibly the unhappiness abounded because you were there?

  5. Smith is right that there are some incorrect views but it is strange and revealing that she sees the need to label those with the traditional view, essentially isolating, then “demonizing” them. As a particularly glaring example, she states, “In believing that couples should be required to have sex during every phase of a woman’s cycle and that NFP should only be used to avoid pregnancy if a woman is on her deathbed, or the family is in financial ruin.” Says who? That’s almost a slanderous characterization. It is also non-sequitur to go from recognizing that serious reasons are required to the latter statement. It is also false to state: “As long as couples do not impede the possibility of pregnancy through artificial means (contraception) or natural means (withdrawal), they act according to Church teaching.” NFP is not morally good in itself but neutral. A couple can use it with a contraceptive mentality, thereby making it a moral evil.

    Smith necessarily heeds the need for serious reasons, but then proceeds to characterize this as some rigid, fringe view and/or minimizes, if not dismisses the requirement by watering down or changing the definition of serious to just about anything. There are objective indicators of what serious entails but if it can essentially be whatever the couple wants it to mean, then it is emptied of its content, and is really meaningless; in which case nfp can easily become just the natural alternative form of birth control to contraception, but with the same anti-conception mentality. It’s as though there is suspicion it is too risky to actually leave the matter up to God’s providence and we can’t expect people to actually not use any form of birth control at times, and we must resort to persuasive human argument and judgment, rather than God’s grace and faith. Indeed it is a sign of the times that people seem so intent on convincing couples to use some form of birth control. What did Christians do for the preceding twenty centuries?

    It is very telling that much of nfp promotion centers around how effective it is at preventing conception- just as effective as the contraception people would otherwise use. Again, it seems to be presented more and more as simply the “natural” alternative of birth control. Hence it is easy to see how the same mentality of avoiding conception can creep in.

    • Ok – so perhaps I’m being repetitive, but let me emphasize something very clearly. You are correct in that the PRACTICE of NFP – the observation of natural signs of fertility – is “neutral” in it’s morality. The Church has made this abundantly clear. This practice, AT NO TIME, frustrates the natural processes of fertility for the woman or the man, for that matter. It is ONLY intimacy bookkeeping, if you will.

      It is completely wrong, therefore, to claim those who do not possess a level of Trust in the Lord and await a child with EVERY fertility cycle as having a “contraceptive mentality”. Simply withholding from the marital embrace happens with ALL couples for a variety of reasons. Someone may be ill, you may be at the inlaws, the baby may be lying beside mama. It’s ludicrous to test a couple’s faithfulness based on whether or not they have marital relations when the wife is fertile.

      It’s possible a couple is not generous enough – to concerned with worldly standards for their family, but if they are NOT using contraception, they CANNOT have a “contraceptive mentality”. Why not accuse someone of not having enough children to suit your standard? At least that would be more honest.

      We had a couple come to us and ask why that “other couple” they knew took NFP classes from us had “only had” two children? I said very plainly, how many children ANY couple has is between themselves, God, and their spiritual directors. ANY other judgement of others from the OUTSIDE is a sin against Chariity, and should be confessed. Period. We cannot see or judge the hearts of others, and children are gifts, not “proof” of our trust in God.

  6. “they believe that NFP should only be used by couples to limit family size for “grave reasons,” while the original Latin text of Humanae Vitae and the Catechism use the words “serious” and “just” reasons.”…

    “What counts as serious or just enough reasons? “It’s between you and God,” Smith said. “One thing you have to do [to use NFP] is to learn how to pray, and to learn how to say, ‘What do you think, God?’””

    And yet Dr. Smith condemns what she calls the “Providentialists” because they think that serious or just enough reasons must be grave reasons. Shouldn’t that, by her own account, be considered “between them and God?”

    ““Providentialists hold that unless grave reasons present themselves, such as very serious health or financial ones, spouses should just let the babies come,” Smith said.”

    And why is that wrong? Surely “let the babies come” should be the default, not something that one has to justify.

    “Where Providentialists go wrong, Smith said, is in believing that couples should be required to have sex during every phase of a woman’s cycle, and that NFP should only be used to avoid pregnancy if a woman is on her deathbed, or the family is in financial ruin.”

    What, *required* to have sexual intercourse, no matter what, during every phase? Sickness, exhaustion, not-in-the-mood, lack of privacy – too bad, you just go to your room right now and make a baby? Somehow, I doubt that is an accurate representation of what those people believe. And I doubt that “because the woman is on her deathbed” or “financial ruin” are the only grave reasons that they recognize.

    “It’s moral to abstain from sex for other, somewhat trivial reasons, Smith noted – a spouse with a headache, someone would like to finish a book, someone wants to catch a sports game, the walls are too thin, etc.”

    Surely there’s a difference between abstaining from sexual intercourse because the conditions for it are not right or one simply doesn’t feel amorous, and abstaining because one wishes to avoid conception?

    ““So I have a simple question for you. Why would it be wrong not to have sex because it’s not a good idea to have a child at that time?” she said.”

    It depends on *why* it’s “not a good idea,” doesn’t it? It comes down to defining “serious and just,” and you’ve just said that’s up to the couple to decide; or rather, that the default should be go ahead and abstain, and while abstaining ask God to tell you if you’re wrong. Why wouldn’t the default be *don’t* abstain, and while not abstaining ask God to tell you if you’re wrong? In the former, the attitude seems to me to be that babies are a bad thing unless I’m told otherwise, which seems like a contraceptive mentality no matter what method is used.

    I find this article rather sad, and disappointing.

  7. It seems to me that dubbing people as “providentialists” and then raising a strawman as if traditionally Catholics were “obliged” to have sex whether it was during the woman’s fertile period or not is not correct. Of course, in previous ages, people knew nothing about the fertile and infertile periods. Also, there were many reasons for having all the children that God gave them, as infant mortality was very common. My father was born in 1914 and six of the nine children my grandparents had survived into adulthood. Besides, there were such things as plagues, the so-called Spanish flu and other disasters.
    The Church has traditionally been in favour of large families but never attempted to tell people how many children they should have, as that would have been very imprudent, as some couples cannot have children, others have only been able to have one despite their best efforts. These days were a large percentage of couples, thanks to contraception and marrying late, and having sterilized themselves due to contraception, as well as a reduction of fertility among Western men due to a reduced sperm count, there is a very serious problem for the Church. Christianity is about brotherhood in Christ and his Church. Many children are raised among adults with no brothers or sisters, so how can the understand what brotherhood is? Another factor is the concern about money and attempting to calculate everything. I have seen promotion materials in a bank which tells people how much supposedly it costs to raise a child these days. This only scares them as they are already too interested in money. Another problem is sending the children to college to be brainwashed with leftie ideas and paying as much as $100,00 for it.
    Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes, against all logic, attempted to equate the end the secondary end of marriage, mutual help, with the primary end, the procreation of children. Janet Smith does hold that the primary end is the procreation of children. Mutual help or the communion of personas can be achieved in other ways outside of marriage, such as friendship, religious life etc.
    St. Bridgit of Sweeden and her husband in the 13th century were married at 16 in an arranged marriage. They waited two years before consummating the marriage, went on to have 8 children. When the children were raised, they went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and decided to consecrate themselves to the Lord for the remainder of their lives, and the husband went into a monastery. She, with the help of her daughter, founded an important religious order, and also published her mystical experiences of the Passion of the Lord. Already St. Paul thought it a good thing to abstain from sexual relations for the sake of prayer. Does anyone pay attention to this these days? Maybe we need to learn something from our medieval forefathers and place seeking the Kingdom of God above all else.

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