NFP in real life: Hard, but worth it

Therese Bussen

In honor of NFP Awareness Week, which begins July 23, let’s talk about sex.

Natural Family Planning (NFP) is offered as an option to help Catholic families either achieve or avoid pregnancy, including spacing children. Training in NFP is required for marriage preparation in the Archdiocese of Denver, but after that, it’s not much talked about outside of certain circles, either in everyday conversation or from the pulpit. It’s nearly foreign to mainstream healthcare, although more NFP-trained doctors are now available. But it’s a very important part of family life for many Catholics — and, like family, it is both beautiful as well as hard and messy.

And it is worth it.

Life after marriage prep

Jenny Uebbing, who writes at Mama Needs Coffee, a blog connected to Catholic News Agency, recently wrote, “What do you want/need from the Church in order to live NFP?” and the resulting comments from readers were eye-opening.

Many people are seriously struggling with living it out.

The difficulties are as varied as the people themselves: Crosses in all shapes and sizes, including infertility on one end of the spectrum and super-abundant fertility on the other, making it hard to space children apart. Long periods of abstinence, medical problems, feeling isolated from instructors, finding trained doctors or other like-minded people are just some of the other common hardships.

“People are so hungry for support from the Church, who they’re trying to be faithful to,” Uebbing said. “And a lot of people are feeling that the Church doesn’t see them in this particular struggle, or have anything to offer past marriage prep short of an emergency intervention when they’re on the brink of divorce. There’s no middle ground.”

But most NFP users are walking the “middle ground” of every day family life with very little help, and many find themselves disillusioned as they encounter these difficulties.

“One big [realization from the many comments and emails] is that so much of our expectations of what marriage should look like are very rooted in a Protestant understanding of love, which is white-knuckle chastity until marriage, and then once the rings are on, all bets are off,” Uebbing said. “There wasn’t really a category mentally for chastity within marriage. There’s this disconnect that there’s an ongoing training in chastity as a couple, that you don’t actually have complete 24-7 access to each other’s bodies, unless you want to end up with 25 kids.”

That expectation only works with the assumption of using contraception, which is true for most of the world. But for couples who practice NFP, marital intimacy doesn’t work that way, said Uebbing. Even so, in her experience, it’s still easy to fall into the trap of practicing with a contraceptive mentality.

“That’s always a temptation, slipping into playing God with it, that trying to avoid should be the default setting. I don’t think that’s normal or healthy but that is the normal in our culture,” Uebbing said. “That’s such a bummer to me that that’s always our default setting, even as practicing Catholics. That it’s remarkable when a baby is conceived.”

People are so hungry for support from the Church, who they’re trying to be faithful to. And a lot of people are feeling that the Church doesn’t see them in this particular struggle, or have anything to offer past marriage prep short of an emergency intervention when they’re on the brink of divorce. There’s no middle ground.”

But trying to avoid a pregnancy or space children for “just reasons” as the Cathechism of the Catholic Church (#2368) notes shouldn’t be looked down upon, either, and is, in fact, a responsibility of the parents that’s based on their discernment of God’s plan for their family.

“I’m so grateful the Church doesn’t have a list of [what just reasons are]. And she never will, because she is our wise mother who is raising adults, not a preschool teacher with a list of classroom rules,” Uebbing said. “So it is up to them, but also depends on each couple working continuously to form their own conscience and be submitting their will for the marriage over and over again to the Lord and asking, ‘What do you want?’”

Common, and uncommon struggles

The journey to holiness in marriage is not without suffering. But it’s always an opportunity to trust God more deeply and receive his gifts in ways we could never have imagined for ourselves. Some of those crosses come as people practice NFP.

“The biggest struggle I’ve seen with people is just that we live in a contraceptive culture. So no matter how you slice it, you’re going to get pushback,” Uebbing said. “It’s not normal to have children anymore. So just that positions you in a place of complete defiance of what the world says is normal and expected and typical.”

Medical issues are a common struggle. Uebbing knows couples who have to abstain for extensive periods of time due to serious underlying medical issues.

“If they don’t want a baby, they’re looking at years of abstinence. And it’s heroic, and it’s something that God has called them to particularly in their marriage,” Uebbing said. “It’s not something that any of us would plan for in our marriage, just like we wouldn’t plan for a spouse to get cancer, or for a child to struggle with mental illness.”

Mental illness has been a struggle in Uebbing’s personal experience: After each birth, she suffers from severe post-partum depression, which is one of the reasons their family spaces their children, simply so her mind and body can heal after delivering.

“A super-abundance of fertility is it’s own kind of cross, and it’s easy to look at a family with six or seven kids and think, ‘Well, they must have been made to have a really big family,’” Uebbing said. “I do love my children, but there’s not great material support, or even psychological support for families who are in that situation.”

How the Church can help

Following conversations with readers after her NFP blog post, Uebbing spoke to friends who are priests about ways the Church can better support couples who practice NFP.

“One piece that was really clear was that we need better formation for our priests on a seminary level. I have some really interesting conversations with priest friends…who had no idea that there were different methods, that it wasn’t cut and dry and that not every couple used it the same way,” Uebbing said. “One said, ‘This would be helpful information to have in the confessional when I’m counseling people pastorally.’ If we’re asking our priests to accompany married couples, they need to know the nitty-gritty.”

“Few people take advantage of talking to their priest. There is no question that can’t be asked,” said Father Timothy Hjelstrom, pastor of St. Louis Parish in Louisville, Colo.

The biggest struggle I’ve seen with people is just that we live in a contraceptive culture. So no matter how you slice it, you’re going to get pushback. It’s not normal to have children anymore.”

“Priests should become familiar with it beyond the technical aspect of it. And couples should be willing to talk to their priest if they have questions or struggles. We’re not here to be condemning,” he added.

Uebbing said that there should be “real material support” for people who practice NFP, and one way to help could be creating a slush-fund for people who can’t afford to pay for meetings with instructors or classes and are desperately needing help.

“This is an aspect of women’s healthcare that’s a really critical piece of knowledge [for women’s overall health], and it shouldn’t be this weird add-on that you learned about during your marriage prep, but that it’s an ongoing, essential part of what it means to be human and what it means to be living out a married vocation,” Uebbing added.

Where to go for help

If you’re struggling in using NFP, first know that you’re not alone. Second, reach out.

One great help to those seeking support in NFP is other married couples, said Uebbing.

“I think every couple [should find] one other married couple, even if it’s not locally, and really come into an honest exchange [with them]. Find at least one other person or couple to talk frankly with,” Uebbing said. “I think people are afraid to be too real, but it doesn’t do anybody any favors to pretend that it’s super easy and super beautiful. They need to know people struggle with this and make huge sacrifices for it, and it’s worth it.”

If you’re struggling with the ins and outs of your fertility, Uebbing said make the investment and get an instructor or doctor you can work with regularly.

“I think because the internet exists, there’s no reason you can’t find an instructor. You don’t need someone to sit down with you in person, you can do everything over Skype or over the phone,” Uebbing said. “There are increasingly more NFP-trained physicians, so for people with harder cases, I just can’t underestimate finding a doctor who can do those blood draws. Even if it’s long distance and you go to the lab and they’re analyzing your stuff once a year — what’s more important than your health and the health of your marriage?”

For more resources on what the Church teaches about NFP, visit Jenny’s blog at catholicnewsagency.com/mamaneedscoffee. For resources on NFP in the Archdiocese of Denver, visit archden.org/eflm/nfp.

The office of Evangelization and Family Ministries is also hosting an event for NFP families on Saturday, August 5 with a vigil Mass at 4 p.m., followed by a picnic and lawn games at the John Paul II Center. Call 303-715-3252 to RSVP.

COMING UP: 500 years later, who was Luther?

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Hero, villain, heretic, saint, reformer, corrupter, man of integrity, bombastic glutton. Which image of Luther should we believe? Because Luther primarily sought not to reform abuses in the Church but to reform the Church’s beliefs, Catholics cannot recognize him as a true reformer or a holy man. Nonetheless, it is widely agreed that Luther played a major role in shaping the modern world. With the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement he initiated approaching on October 31st, we have been given a number of new books to assess his legacy.

Paul Hacker, Luther’s Faith: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion, preface by Pope Benedict XVI (Emmaus, 2017).

Hacker’s book provides an in-depth, theological analysis of the issue that stands at the heart of the Reformation: Luther’s teaching on salvation by faith alone. Pope Benedict’s preface tells us that the Reformation dispute fundamentally concerned Luther’s “turning away from the center of the Gospel” (xxii). Emmaus released a new edition of Hacker’s book for the anniversary this year. It was published originally in 1970 (in English translation), the fruit of Hacker’s own intense study of Luther’s teaching on faith that led him into the Catholic Church from German Lutheranism.

Catholics agree with Protestants that salvation comes only through faith. The key issue of dispute, which Hacker reveals, is Luther’s subjective emphasis of absolute, personal certainty, which cannot be undermined even by serious sin. Hacker describes Luther’s faith as reflexive, that is turned back on oneself, by emphasizing subjective experience and personal surety more than anything else. He describes how Luther differs from the Catholic position: “Faith is the way to, or the perquisite of, salvation, but Luther makes it coincide with salvation itself. This becomes possible because he has first identified salvation with the consciousness of being saved or the certitude of salvation, and then he equates this consciousness with faith” (71). Hacker shows us how this view of faith negated the Church’s authority, the sacraments, and even the need to love God.

Brad Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World (HarperOne, 2017).

For those looking for a more general and accessible book, Brad Gregory gives us a broader narrative of how Luther’s troubled conscience exploded into the crisis that tore Christendom in two. The first section looks at Luther’s own story, tracing step by step his conflict with Church authority. The second section explains how Luther’s teaching spawned a multitude of new sects and divisions, all interpreting the Bible in their own fashion. Greggory explains: “What the early Reformation shows so clearly is that scripture and the Spirt can be interpreted and applied in radically divergent ways. Once the papacy and the Catholic Church are thrown off, there are no shared authorities to adjudicate disagreements” (137). The final section looks at how the Reformation set the tone for the development of a secular culture. Though not intending these consequences, Gregory argues that the Protestant Reformers “led indirectly to a profound diminishing of Christianity’s public influence in Western societies. The religious disagreements and conflicts that followed the Reformation set the stage for religion’s eventual separation from the rest of life” (2).

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017).

Metaxas, who wrote a monumental biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, provides us with a different perspective on Luther. His book seems poised to capture the largest audience for the anniversary this year. While I can’t agree with his view of Luther as a hero of faith, I can appreciate his presentation of a more sympathetic and thorough look at a man who has inspired many Protestant Christians. It is helpful to recognize why Luther is such an important figure for so many people. This book definitely provides many more details on the life of Luther (with over 450 pages). However, I would exercise caution, because it unfortunately also contains many gross misrepresentations of the state of the Church at the time of the Reformation.

For instance, even though Metaxas shows us many ways that Luther encountered the Bible in his early life, he still claims that the Bible and Church had no connection in the early 1500s and that “the study of the Bible per se was simply unheard of” (52). Luther himself was a theology professor and throughout the Middle Ages the Bible was the primary text for teaching theology. Brad Gregory makes clear in his book on Luther that there were even “twenty-two editions of the complete vernacular Bible . . . published in German . . . by 1518” (29). Metaxas presents a false picture of Catholics as ignorant, afraid to pray to Christ, and thinking they must earn their salvation through works. Good historical research could easily dispel these myths, such as the books of Eamon Duffy, but we see Protestants continue to project Luther’s own scruples (hating God and spending six hours in Confession, 47) onto the Church of his time.

Jerome K. Williams, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (Augustine Institute, 2017).

What could have Luther been if he had chosen faithful reform? The answer is a saint. There is no doubt that the Church was in need of serious reform in the 1500s. We have a number of great saints who show us that fidelity to God does not contradict fidelity to His Church. They stood against corruption and initiated deep and abiding reform. The Augustine Institute has release both a book and video series on true reformers, who boldly spoke out against abuses and led to a deeper realization of the truth found in the Bible, read in harmony with the Church. These figures—Teresa of Avila, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, and Charles Borromeo, for instance—continue to inspire us to take up the task of genuine reform today.