What is Natural Family Planning (NFP)? This series on the 50th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae has and will continue to explore what NFP is. It may be helpful to consider at first what NFP is not. NFP is not an identity or a lifestyle. Using NFP, or "being a natural family planner" is not like being Italian or a vegetarian or a millennial. It is not a part of who you are or what defines the couple's collective marital identity. It is not a trendy way of life.
NFP is a tool. A very useful tool, at times. At other times, it may be a tool that collects dust in the garage. But at all times, through the varied circumstances of married life, and the many unforeseen turns life can take, NFP is a really good tool to have around in your back pocket. The Church, in her wisdom, has provided for married couples a precept of reason and an instruction on how to exercise the will. Like any other moral act, NFP as a tool and as a precept of reason, calls on the individual to discern what is good and to use good means to achieve that end. NFP is nothing else than a practical application of the Church's moral teaching in the context of married life and family size.
Blessed Pope Paul VI, in Humanae Vitae , reaffirms what has always been the understanding of the nature of the human person in Catholic tradition, namely that our ultimate end is happiness with God and that we have the ability to use reason and will to choose what is good. However, Blessed Pope Paul VI does not give a detached discourse on making difficult moral choices in a vacuum. Holy Father presents a very honest acknowledgment that modern life presents a set of challenges to husband and wife that necessitates a discernment of family size that previous generations did not have to consider. With increased isolation from the intergenerational family, detachment from a wider supporting community, as well as medical and practical realities, Humanae Vitae is a guidebook and consolation to the spouses of today who try to navigate the sometimes tumultuous waters of our time. Yet in the face of modern problems, the answer is not a modern solution. It is the original solution, the exercise of reason and will. In all things, and in this particular thing (the regulation of the number of children) you cannot do evil so that a good may come of it. You may only ever, in this and all things, use good means to achieve a good end for family life. That is all NFP really is. It asks the couple to use its reason to discern the good for the family. Once reason is set firm on a good end, the exercise of the will helps the couple to achieve self-mastery and achieve the good end.
NFP is a method of observing the woman's biological signs to determine fertile and non-fertile phases throughout a monthly cycle. Taking one's basal body temperature, charting physical signs, and using reason to understand what the woman's body is doing throughout the month allows a couple to discern how best to achieve or avoid pregnancy based on intentional discernment.
The Church neither asks or expects us to be in the direst of circumstances before using the tool of NFP to help one's family stay afloat, nor does the Church expect NFP to be used for trivial reasons to avoid pregnancy when the family's stability, both bodily and spiritually, is in a good place. When a couple has NFP as a tool, there is a way forward for the couple to take a collective breath, to discern the future, and to discern how more children, or less, could affect the family for good or ill.
The couple's cooperation is essential in God's plan for vocation and family life. The Lord does not want to achieve these ends by Himself, He wants the couple's free and active participation. Openness to God's plan for family life is neither domineering control over all aspects of marital love nor total absence of discernment for how each marital act affects the spouses, the children, the community, and the entire society. The Church's vision is neither stinginess nor providentialism. The Church encourages and expects couples to use their capacities to reason what is good and true for the family and exercise the collective spousal will to achieve what is good and true for the family.
"The question of human procreation, like every other question which touches human life, involves more than the limited aspects specific to such disciplines as biology, psychology, demography or sociology. It is the whole man and the whole mission to which he is called that must be considered: both its natural, earthly aspects and its supernatural, eternal aspects. And since in the attempt to justify artificial methods of birth control many appeal to the demands of married love or of responsible parenthood, these two important realities of married life must be accurately defined and analyzed." (Humanae Vitae, 7)
Married love is fully human, total, faithful, and fruitful. These are the major aspects defined throughout the learning process of NFP as engaged couples prepare for marriage. Holy Father continues to his next definition of "responsible parenthood" which has been less addressed, but not less important in understanding NFP as a tool that works towards the benefit of married love.
"Married love, therefore, requires of husband and wife the full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood, which today, rightly enough, is much insisted upon, but which at the same time should be rightly understood… With regard to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means an awareness of, and respect for, their proper functions. In the procreative faculty the human mind discerns biological laws that apply to the human person.
With regard to man's innate drives and emotions, responsible parenthood means that man's reason and will must exert control over them.
With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, 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.
Responsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance… the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society." (Humanae Vitae, 10)
Every marital act is a decision. A decision, well-reasoned and chosen, to be open to having more children, or a decision, well-reasoned and chosen, to postpone having more children. Either decision, to be open to welcome a child or to withhold, requires a thoughtful, intentional discernment by the husband and wife of their relationship to God foremost, to each other as spouses, to their existing children, and to their greater community. The couple must consider the good of all in this hierarchy of priorities to wield the power of procreation with due reverence and responsibility. It is no light and easy task to welcome and raise a child. It is no light and easy task to have to forbear children for good reasons.
What, then, are the guiding principles for couples discerning their family size? Humanae Vitae provides two principles to guide couples: prudence and generosity.
"Prudence is right reason with respect to what can be done… Prudence effects good deliberation about what pertains to a man's whole life and to the ultimate end of human life… in order for someone to act well, what is important is not only what he does but also how he does it " (Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. 56, art. 4)
Generosity regards using well "the things of this world that are granted us for our livelihood." (Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 117, art. 1). Generosity counters the desire to hold back when the Lord has put us in a good position to give more abundantly.
So how does contraception work against the vision of Humanae Vitae ? Aside from the many biological and relational harms that have been addressed in this bulletin series and in Catholic circles, contraception works against the principles of Humanae Vitae by removing from the married couple any opportunity to reason well and exercise the will freely. It removes the conversation from the spouses, it closes off discernment of often difficult choices, it removes the opportunities to exercise self-restraint and grow together in marital virtue. Namely, it makes the husband and wife less human, less participative in God's gifts of reason and will, and less able to achieve their end of happiness with Him. Contraception removes any need to be guided by the principles of prudence or generosity.
To end, I'd like to include a passage from Pope Francis's most recent Apostolic Exhortation which reiterates the importance of family life and the role of the family in the wider community and as a witness to the world:
"In salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community. God wanted to enter into the life and history of a people." (Gaudete et Exsultate, 6)
For more information about Natural Family Planning, visit ccli.org, phxnfp.org, or usccb.org/issues-and-action/ marriage-and-family/natural-family-planning/what-is-nfp/index.cfm