Natural family planning (NFP) needs a slogan, because as a “product”—if I might adopt business-speak—it’s not selling too well. According to some surveys, about 90 percent of professed Catholics reject the Church’s teaching on birth control. Even among priests, fewer than one in three considers artificial contraception to be “always” sinful.
So let me propose a new rallying cry: “Use NFP: It Doesn’t Work!”
You think I jest.
The case for NFP should, by rights, be the case for more babies. To have them is good. Not to have them is to be deprived. Every wife deserves to be a mother, and every mother’s son deserves a brother and a sister. And since a cat-o’-nine-tails has nine tails, surely having nine children is the proper way to scourge selfishness right out of one’s family.
As a slogan, “Use NFP: It Doesn’t Work!” has many strong arguments in its favor. First, it is true. NFP proponents tout its 99 percent effectiveness rate, but they neglect to mention that this is true only if the husband is in the Navy and assigned to extended, uninterrupted sea duty of three-year tours or longer. Otherwise, for most Catholics I know, NFP means a baby every two years or so, though the rate can slow with age, as the couples learn a proper respect—that is, fear—for each other and are too tired in any event for what Catholics call “the conjugal act.”
Now I know there will be inevitable protests and testimonials by those who swear by NFP. And who am I to say that my own experience is not colored by the fact that I am excessively virile? Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that this is the case.
But another reason for NFP’s allegedly high success rate is that couples who use it are prepared to welcome children and so don’t blame NFP for unexpected pregnancies. Four of my own children came the NFP way—that is, totally unexpectedly—and that’s a good thing, because without them bouncing in as surprises, excuses to delay (the sort of excuses one might hear from a recruit in parachute training) might have gone on for a very long time. As it is, in a mere matter of ten years, my wife and I assembled a complete basketball team. And if menopause doesn’t strike my wife soon,, who knows what sort of team we might assemble.
Rather than bite one’s nails to the quick at the prospect of baby number ten—which, if one marries in one’s early 20s and practices NFP, is a definite possibility—we should encourage the attitude of “the more the merrier,” which is a far more attractive case to make than all the goo-goo language about how NFP helps couples “communicate” and about the joy of charting temperatures and discharges and plotting one’s conjugal acts as a captain might chart a course for his ship.
Frankly, as far as I’m concerned, the charts can be thrown away (what’s so “natural” about them?). And to hell with improving “communication” as a dogmatic defense of NFP. For men, the whole point of marriage is to avoid communicating; all that dating conversation stuff can finally be foregone. Married communication, as successful husbands know, is best limited to grunts and hand signals—one upraised finger meaning, “I need a beer”; two upraised fingers meaning, “You need to change the brat’s diapers”; three upraised fingers meaning, “Honey, why don’t you mow the lawn while I watch football?,” and so on. No words are more doom-laden than a wife’s sitting down and saying, “Let’s talk.” Communication is, of course, the first step toward divorce.
[It has been pointed out] that there are no apparent data to support the widely touted statistic that only 2 percent of NFP couples divorce. If there is any validity to this number, I suspect it lies in the fact that NFP couples have no time to communicate. The husband has to hold down several jobs to pay the family’s bills, and a wife with little ones barely has time to shower, let alone talk to her husband, save to pass a pregnancy test result across the breakfast table through splodges of spilt porridge as she sighs, “Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”
I grant you, there is one form of communication that NFP certainly does advance—it makes a public statement. Not so very long ago, I was invited to speak at a Confederate Memorial Service. There I was with my Robert E. Lee tie, my wife (a blond California beach babe) wearing a Confederate battle flag scarf, and the five little members of our own Critter Company lined up in a row. A friendly chap meandered over and told us, apropos of nothing, “My daughter’s a Catholic, too. Three kids.”
As a slogan, “Use NFP: It Doesn’t Work!” puts the focus where it belongs—on babies—and away from a technique, a technique that wrongly strikes most lay Catholics as medieval. If only it were medieval, then it would be effective: a sturdy, padlocked, handsomely designed, pewter chastity belt.
Instead, NFP is shiny, modern, and scientific, as its advocates are always quick to emphasize. In his book The Truth of Catholicism, George Weigel approvingly quotes several paragraphs from a woman in love with NFP. She reminds us that:
Natural Family Planning is not the justly ridiculed rhythm method, which involves vaguely guessing when the woman expects to ovulate and abstaining for a few days around day fourteen of her cycle. The full method involves charting a woman’s waking temperatures, changes in cervical fluid, and the position of the cervix.
Nothing unnatural or artificial about that, is there? Her raptures climax with NFP apparently transformed into “Narcissism For Pleasure”:
But the turning point came for me as I watched, month after month, as my temperature rose and fell and my hormones marched in perfect harmony. I had no idea I was beautiful. I found myself near tears one day looking at my chart and thinking, “Truly, I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” My fertility is not a disease to be treated. It is a wonderful gift. I am a wonderful gift.
Er, if you say so, missy. If my wife talked like this, I’d have her committed. Happily, my wife, bless her heart, takes a more robust line: “Barefoot and pregnant is better than high-heeled and professional!” That’s the spirit!
There is no shortage of people wandering around these days thinking they are wonderful gifts. In fact, there are rather too many of them—and they shouldn’t be encouraged. What’s lacking are married couples who think that having a family big enough to fill up a minivan (or for the younger, stronger, and more ambitious, a small bus or modified hearse) is a wonderful gift.
A neighboring priest has noted how many young married women these days are without children but doting over dogs. One suspects that such women are less in need of NFP training than they are of a push into motherhood (and thereby full-fledged adulthood) with a reminder that children are what marriage and life are all about.
So, rather than focusing on NFP, premarital preparation should go like this:
Father O’Counselor: “Now I want you two to understand that the primary and fundamental purpose of marriage is not companionship, not romantic love, not moonlit strolls on the beach, or any other balderdash but the begetting and raising of children—lots of ‘em, and starting soon. The optimum number is enough so that you can lose a few at the grocery store and not notice. That’s giving without counting the cost, and at that point, you won’t care anyway. As a priest, my sacrifice for the good of the Church is celibacy. As a married couple, yours is to propagate children—who will incidentally annually propagate fierce storms of influenza in your house. If you haven’t already studied up on communicable diseases and basic first aid for children jumping off sofas, I’d do it now. But you will find children and their challenges to be the great tutor of not only the medical but the moral virtues.”
Potential Husband: “You mean, I’m screwed?”
Father O’Counselor: “In a manner of speaking, yes.”
Potential Husband: “Is it too late to enroll in the seminary?”
We can thus improve Catholic marriages and alleviate the priest shortage at the same time.
In fact, we forget how inspiring parents’ confessions are to priests:
Penitent: “Forgive me, Father, but I lost patience when my children used my wedding china as Frisbees, took my necklace and used it as a line and fishhook in the toilet, and took my toothpaste to give the cat a bath.”
Priest (sotto voce): “Thank God I’m celibate.”
Penitent: “What did you say, Father?”
Priest: “I mean to say, why not just laugh about it? These years will pass all too quickly. And when they’re over, you’ll know why you have gray hair and high blood pressure. Now, a Hail Mary and an Act of Contrition, if you please.”
So, let us step boldly and fly the banner high. Say it proudly—“Use NFP: It Doesn’t Work!” But babies sure as heck do.