If you start talking about NFP in a group of active young Catholic couples, it won't be long before the discussion starts getting heated. Even spouses seem to get worked up defending their particular take on how and when to use NFP. Sex is a pretty controversial area that goes to the core of the human experience in a way that nothing else can. It's OK to disagree with your friends about pizza toppings and sports teams, but when you start talking sex - things can get uncomfortable.
My wife and I used NFP to avoid pregnancy for the first 3 years of our marriage. At the time, our reasoning was really rather secular. I'm not sure we would have made the same decisions if we knew then what we know now. Our predominant reason was simply that we thought it would be better to have a couple years of marriage to enjoy before we had kids. Really not a very compelling reason in hindsight. A host of smaller reasons were financial, living situation etc.. It's easy for me to see now that most of those reasons are smaller that I thought at the time. I think our secular culture encourages to think that we should wait on marriage and family until we have our lives all worked out, and are financially successful. I think today's economic hard-times might be putting the lie to that philosophy.
After having taken the plunge of marriage and having a family and all the uncertainty, insecurity, responsibility and JOY that came with it I have a different perspective. I say go for it. Don't wait, life is short. Don't count on ever having enough order, money and security in your life to make everything easy. Even if it is easy, it won't necessarily make you happier than struggling.
Anyway, I sometimes feel a little guilty about the time my wife and I spent avoiding pregnancy. There are many who toss out the term "contraceptive mentality" about other couples who use NFP to avoid pregnancy for reasons that are perceived as not really all that serious. The idea being that a couple can use NFP improperly or sinfully. That marriage is to be "open to life" (CCC 1652, 2366-7) and NFP is only to be used to space children for "serious reasons"(CCC 2368) The Catechism of the Catholic Church wisely leaves the discernment of "serious reasons" up to the couple but states in section 2368 that it must not be "motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generiosity appropriate to responsible parenthood."
However, I've found not shortage of fine Catholic folks that will readily share their opinion that many or even almost all couples using NFP to avoid pregnancy do not have a serious enough reason. There is the specter of the 'contraceptive mentality.'
I must admit, that in recent years, as I've begun to see that our reasons for avoiding pregnancy weren't really all that well thought out, and were mainly the secular culture norms of our day, I've felt maybe my wife and I had used NFP inappropriately and committed the sin of having a 'contraceptive mentality.'
Actually, writing Part 3 of this series has changed my thinking significantly. I'm not saying that maybe my wife and I couldn't have made different decisions. However, when I wrote Part 3 I realized that had we taken the approach of planning children immediately and not using NFP to space or avoid pregnancy in anything but the direst of circumstances, I probably wouldn't have learned to be a real Catholic husband and that frequent sex wasn't my right, or necessary for me male ego.
That got me thinking. I know quite a few couples non-Catholic and Catholic who are on the 'whatever God gives us' program. I started thinking abut the men, several of whom I know very well. I realized that sexual problems and attitudes similar to my own distorted sexuality show up in some of these men too and you can see the effects in their marriages. In fact, at least a few of them have had serious marriage problems - separations and a divorce. I don't know enough details, but I have enough clues to speculate. Broadening out beyond families I actually know well, I realize I know, or know of, quite a few Christian families with 6 or more kids that have ended in tragic divorces. Mel Gibson comes to mind also.
This is a tentative thought, but one I think worth considering carefully. Perhaps there are actually dangers to the absolute 'place everything in God's providence' approach to family planning. Maybe that isn't inherently most sanctifying approach.
I'm leaning toward the view that NFP and self-control can be good in and of themselves. And it isn't just for me individually. It is also in the decisions my wife and I made together. We had to learn to listen to each other, and understand each other, and most importantly consider the needs of the other person. I had to learn to accept that my wife was more committed to avoiding pregnancy at that time than I was. Truthfully she always is more committed to avoiding than I am. In fact, early in our marriage my commitment to avoiding evaporated at about 10:00 every evening and didn't return until 8 or 9 hours later. Learning to really respect, and not just grudgingly tolerate my wife's desire to avoid was extremely beneficial to me. The fact that we were in a more challenging than average NFP situation, having to use special rules and not getting many green non-fertile days was actually a blessing (I'll get in to more ways - probably in the next post).
In fact I will say unequivocally that for men who have been severely affected by pornography, promiscuity and related issues, practicing NFP to avoid is more than just practical, it is a highly beneficial if not essential experience for such men growing up and breaking free from the bondage of sexual selfishness.
The Contraceptive Mentality
Now I'm not sure that a 'contraceptive mentality' is really an issue for a couple actually practicing NFP. I think it's easy to speculate about a theoretical couple that is using NFP but is somehow sinfully rejecting God's intended gifts of a child, or another child in their family. In reality, I don't see how that is going to happen. The fact is that practicing NFP to avoid pregnancy is fairly challenging for a fertile couple. NFP promotes communication, trust and understanding between the spouses. The fact that every month the couple has to decide to have intercourse on fertile days or not I think makes it pretty hard to have a contraceptive mentality. When every conjugal act is open to life, even if the couple is somewhat closed, I think the openness of the acts will lead to openness in the couple. When the reasons for avoiding pregnancy are something short of grave necessity, I think the attitude of opposition will soon be overcome by the openness of the acts.
In my own case, my wife used NFP to avoid for almost 3 years. At that point, if anything we were further away from feeling ready for children than we were when we got married. Our economic circumstances were more uncertain, we were living in a smaller apartment, our bank account was smaller. Yet, we had grown together as a couple, and we had grown spiritually. We had gone through some very uncertain and difficult changes in life and learned that we probably weren't ever going to get to the point where we could be certain of providing the ideal life for children. We decided to take the plunge and trust. And it really required trust. Our combined income was less than half what it had been when we got married. We were living in a one bedroom apartment, and we had one working car. 6 weeks pregnant my wife had complications and had to take leave from work so we lost even more of our income. Yet, we didn't have any problem at that point joyfully welcoming a child into our family.
You know, it all just works out. It isn't always easy. Expect the unexpected. Trust in God, open your heart to Jesus, say a Rosary and live. Life is precious life is sweet. And Babies are the best gifts of all.