When I was engaged, I remember seeing questions like “Isn’t Natural Family Planning (NFP) just Catholic birth control?” pop up in online Catholic forums. These questions would often cause me to wonder about the same because I didn’t have a very good answer myself. How could a method be healthy, natural, and moral for Catholic couples to use in their marriage for family planning?
The more I learned and had conversations with my spiritual director, I realized that definitions weren’t clear and conversations around NFP were so focused on charting and abstaining, I wasn’t seeing the ways in which it challenged couples in virtue building and deeper spiritual growth.
Let’s clarify definitions:
What is Fertility Awareness (FA)?
Fertility Awareness (FA) is the practice of charting a woman’s cycle to understand the natural hormonal fluctuations of the four phases of the cycle and detect any underlying health concerns that may exist. FA can be practiced by single women (this isn’t just for married couples!).
What is Natural Family Planning (NFP)?
Natural Family Planning (NFP) is the integration of the Catholic Church’s teachings on human sexuality and the scientific knowledge and practice of fertility awareness. Specifically, there are methods scientifically proven and approved that fall under Fertility Awareness Based Methods (FABMs). The Catholic Church supports the use of scientific literature around women tracking their cycles to understand the hormonal fluctuations of the cycle, identify the four phases of the cycle, and use this information to help in discernment of family planning.
What are Fertility Awareness Based Methods (FABMs)?
Fertility Awareness Based Methods (FABMs) involve tracking the woman’s cycle and not using a barrier method during ovulation. If trying to avoid pregnancy, a couple will abstain from sex during the fertile period of the woman’s cycle. Charting a woman’s cycle is rooted in extensive research, data, and advancements in understanding the woman’s reproductive system. The use of a barrier method is not permissible within the context of Catholic marriages. You can find out more about the Catholic Church’s stance on the use of birth control in the incredible encyclical, Humanae Vitae.
With these definitions in hand, my fiance (now, husband!) were able to root our marriage and family planning in the truth of the Catholic Church’s teachings. In our marriage, we have quickly learned that NFP strips away the selfishness of our desires and exposes areas of sin that exist in our hearts. NFP isn’t just about cold, hard facts and data points. NFP requires us to be in constant communication with each other, learning each other in all facets of personhood, and growing in intimacy outside of the bedroom. It also challenges the growth of virtue; primarily, challenging us to grow in love instead of lust. NFP deeply challenges us to see the other as subject – not as an object. It is infused with the teachings of JPII’s Theology of the Body because in its practice, it truly challenges us to expose ourselves fully to each other and live out our vows: a commitment to free, total, faithful, and fruitful love.
The practice of NFP doesn’t celebrate pleasure or babies, but rather both for married couples in their sexual intimacy. The Catholic Church supports and teaches this because it recognizes the profound mystery and beauty of sex in married life (CCC 2362). NFP is meant to help us in our journey to love our spouse with an ordered, flourishing love and this is why the Catholic Church supports its use in the context of Catholic marriages.
NFP allows us to recognize the profound reality that we can co-author life together, while also using my charts to help us discern if God is calling us to welcome another child. At its foundation, it’s refining our love, our desires, and our hearts so we are oriented to surrender our selfishness and flourish in life-giving, selfless love. What could be more beautiful?
Bridget Busacker is the founder of Managing Your Fertility, an online, one-stop-shop of fertility awareness resources for women and couples™. She is on a mission to fuse the science of Fertility Awareness Based Methods (FABMs) and Theology of the Body (TOB) into the everyday practice of Fertility Awareness (FA) and Natural Family Planning (NFP.) Bridget is passionate about women’s health and education that promotes the dignity of the human person by integrating a holistic approach to self-knowledge of the body.