I have often heard it said that natural family planning (NFP) is good. Both in the sense that practicing NFP is necessarily good for marriages, good for families, or good for growing in virtue. But also in the sense that NFP is good in and of itself. I would disagree with both points. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that NFP is evil. Rather, in and of itself, NFP is a neutral tool, an indifferent method of planning one’s family that can be good, but doesn’t have to be.
That being said, I think that NFP lends itself to good things. If used effectively, it demands self-control and discipline. It also encourages regular communication between spouses about the size of their family. In other words, it lends itself to growing in virtue. Pope Paul VI makes that point in paragraph 21 of his encyclical, Humanae Vitae:
“The right and lawful ordering of birth demands, first of all, that spouses fully recognize and value the true blessings of family life and that they acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions. For if with the aid of reason and of free will they are to control their natural drives, there can be no doubt at all of the need for self-denial. Only then will the expression of love, essential to married life, conform to right order.”
Likewise, as NFP lends itself towards virtue, contraception lends itself towards vice, particularly towards the sin of objectification. Pope Paul also reflects on this in paragraph 17 of the same encyclical:
“Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”
Further, Saint John Paul II comments on this idea in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae when he talks about the relationship between contraception and abortion. He says:
“It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation of abortion. But the negative values inherent in the “contraceptive mentality”-which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act-are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived…[Both contraception and abortion] are rooted in a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfilment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs…” (EV 13).
In other words, John Paul II argues that if a person doesn’t respect procreation and “the full truth of the conjugal act” they are more likely to disrespect any newly conceived life that could arise from their sexual activity, that this life “becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs.”
However, just because NFP lends itself to goodness and virtue doesn’t mean it necessarily *is* good and virtuous. If we go back to Humanae Vitae we will see that responsible parenthood is good, that following the moral law is good, and that self-discipline is good. So it’s easy to see how one could jump to the conclusion that because NFP is a way to plan one’s family responsibly, that it it allowed by the moral law, and that, if used effectively, it demands the exercise of self-discipline that NFP itself is good. But that conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow. NFP, like any other tool, can be misused. Couples can use it to reject their vow to be open to life (which is different from the infamous “contraceptive mentality”). Couples can refuse, or be incapable, of the self mastery demanded by NFP and resort to pornography or masturbation or just close themselves off to their spouse entirely. Spouses can use NFP to manipulate their partners into having sex or not having sex. And the list can go on.
I was talking with a more veteran couple not too long go and when asked if NFP brought them closer together, the husband remarked, “You mean despite how much it brought us apart? Faithfulness to each other and to God is what brought us closer together.” This comment really gets to the heart of the matter. NFP itself isn’t going to divorce-proof a marriage anymore than contraception is going to cause a divorce. NFP won’t necessarily make your marriage great, but rather faithfulness will.