Catholic Spirituality,  Catholics Do What?,  Contraception,  Culture of Death,  Evangelization,  Marriage,  NFP,  planned parenthood,  pregnancy,  Pro Life,  scandal,  Sex,  sin

NFP for clergy

That title, right? I know. But, yes. Seriously.

After one of the talks I gave in Nashville last month, a group of nice young Catholic guys who were, I surmised, discerning the priesthood, came up to chat afterwards and to say thanks for being on campus. We got to talking and one of them in particular was a little taken aback when I enthusiastically expressed my hope for every priest and seminarian in formation to get a basic education from a trained professional (or an experienced married couple) in at least one method of Natural Family Planning.

“But why,” he wondered (sincerely and earnestly, I must say) “would a priest need to know about that…stuff?”

I smiled and started to tick off the reasons one one hand. “Well, for instructing engaged couples, for assistance when giving spiritual direction, for time in the confessional, of course, so that their homilies will be challenging and well informed, so they can walk alongside couples in their suffering and in their joy. Just to name a couple off the top of my head.”

His eyes widened as he nodded his head, “I guess I hadn’t thought about all the ways it could be helpful.”

For parish priests especially, the bulk of their flock will likely be made up of people who are married or will be eventually, so it would serve them well to be prepared to speak on something that is as foundational to marriage as sex and procreation.

Many, many priests with whom I have corresponded or spoken with over the years have reported having little to no formation or formal instruction, if any, on NFP. Is it any wonder that so few Catholics practice NFP when so few pastors have ever spoken of it from the pulpit, let alone in the confessional?

I don’t mean to imply that there are no good priests striving to teach and preach what the Church does on love and marriage. There are! But we need more of them.

Tomorrow morning I will have the privilege of speaking to a classroom full of seminarians, future priests all, God willing. I’ve been invited by their sexual ethics professor to talk about the “lived experience” of NFP, specifically:

“It would be great if you could:

– Offer your testimony.

– Show the different sufferings and difficulties of periodical abstinence/ with the Fertility Awareness Based Methods (NFP) for a couple. Don’t be afraid of making it real. That will be a great preparation for the seminarians.

– Touch on the just causes (psychological, physiological, financial, social) that may make NFP necessary. Why it is good that we (the Church) don’t have a concrete list of situations.

– The blessings of NFP – Even if it is very difficult, it is the only way of living with true love… How NFP has helped you or other couples in their communication… And therefore, why NFP is not “Catholic” contraception.

– Different methods of NFP and contraception.

– Of course your personal experience with couples opposed to NFP

– Experience about how contraception is different…”

So, you know, just the basics. Gulp. I figure I’ll at least have time to touch on what our own experience with NFP has been.

The elevator pitch version goes something like this: get engaged, sit inattentively through CCL (sympto thermal method) classes as part of marriage prep, disregard all charting with joyful abandon and conceive honeymoon-ish baby. Welcome another baby 18 months after that. Nervously learn Creighton (mucus based method) bc postpartum NFP is hell on wheels. Move overseas, change diet and lifestyle radically, conceive “method failure*” Creighton baby. Move back home. Conceive second Creighton baby, this one with some intentionality.  Learn Marquette (monitor based method). Successfully postpone for 18 months. Conceive “operator error” Marquette baby. And here we are now, almost 9 years into marriage and coming up on baby number five’s 1st birthday next month.

In sum? We’ve learned – and trial and errored – our way through 3 different NFP methods at this point. Marquette is the clear winner for us, for my physiological makeup, for our circumstances, etc. etc. etc. But we had to keep trying, keep making adjustments, and most of all, keep seeking out help and additional education.

(*None of our children were “unplanned,” or “mistakes.” We are fully aware that the nature of sex is ordered to procreation. That even if all the signs and symptoms point to infertility during a particular time in my cycle, each time we enter into the marital act we do so prepared to welcome new life.)

Fertility awareness based methods of family planning are not for the faint of heart. They aren’t “Catholic contraception,” though as with any human endeavor in this earthly life, they can be used in selfishness.

But they are inherently morally sound.

They require communication, selflessness, patience, sacrifice, continuing education and, yes, chastity. Chastity which is the universal call of every Christian. Chastity which our Church so desperately needs a remedial course in. Chastity which frees us rather than oppressing us, opening up the cramped enclosures of our naturally selfish hearts to be more receptive to the other, to be able to see more clearly the value and dignity of the beloved.

It ain’t easy, that’s for sure. And if you grew up in a family where contraception was the norm, went to public school where the Planned Parenthood sponsored health curriculum was taught from 5th grade on, started taking hormonal birth control yourself as a young teen with “skin problems,” it can sometimes feel like living in an actual alternate reality.

I always like to point out when discussing the current situation of the Catholic Church in America that our pastors were raised in the same cultural milieu we were. If you’ve never heard of NFP until you’re a twenty-something doing mandatory engagement courses in one of the dioceses that actually require NFP instruction, what makes you think that your 60-something pastor who went to Holy Mountain of Mediocrity for seminary in the seventies has ever learned anything about it himself?

We may be starting from a broad baseline of ignorance, in many ways. And it’s good to acknowledge that, yes, the Church has largely failed to transmit this teaching. The Church in the sense of we, the laity, have largely failed to receive this teaching. And the ambient culture has certainly rejected this teaching.

So we have work to do. Let us begin to make progress in supporting the couples who take up the cross of monitoring and consenting to the reality which is their actual fertility, whether it be high, low, or non-existent.

Let us ask more from our pastors, from our bishops, and from the men in formation to become our future priests. Let us take it upon ourselves, as laywomen and men, to continue to delve into the teachings of the rich Christian tradition of marriage and to pray for greater understanding and greater unity with our spouses and with our Lord.

Fathers, we need to hear from the pulpit, in the confessional, and in passing conversation that you understand what the Church teaches about married love, and why.

That you have yourself a basic working knowledge of NFP. That you have resources for your flock, and if you don’t, that you are working to provide them: things like subsidized instruction, free meeting space on church grounds, regular invitations to certified method instructors (multiple methods, please!) to come in and give weekend seminars and postpartum refresher courses for your parishioners. Qualified and orthodox teachers to share the wisdom of Theology of the Body and a basic knowledge of Fertility Awareness with your teens and young adults. Low or no cost babysitting (safe environment certified care providers, of course) for couples who need to learn a new method, or who never learned any kind of NFP at all.

Being a priest in 2018 is, I imagine, no easy row to hoe. We know you’re overworked and underpaid and stretched too thin, and we are profoundly grateful for your yes to Jesus.

We also wish there were more of you.

Teaching Catholic parents about openness to life and the ongoing art of discernment of family size could be a real, practical way to address the vocations shortage in the long haul. It’s no panacea, but it would certainly help.

And hey, fathers? We’re rooting for you.


  • Sophia

    I have been looking forward to this for so long, thank you. God bless you for your wonderful ministry. I would like to make it clear that this comment in no way disagrees with anything you have said in your post, but merely to add to what you have said. I pray that our holy priests make the extra mile to remind parishioners of the procreative end of marriage. I myself am former CCL member, Family Foundations magazine subscriber, and NFP user. But as you rightly point out, in the past few years I’ve been precisely that person who used NFP selfishly, with what they call a “contraceptive mentality,” namely, going out of my way using several methods to nail down the most infertile period. My most recent child was conceived right in the smack of that period! She is a piece of heaven, but my sinful mentality brought on months of extreme anxiety, unnecessary pain and prenatal depression. The most difficult part of the pregnancy was the unexpected timing of it and the false reality that we somehow could perfect NFP to serve certain human goals, which is sad because if I sincerely believed in Church teaching, then there should have been really be no resentment (ok, maybe a little shock, but gratitude nonetheless).

    I now have come to believe that the only way NFP is not Catholic contraception, is if the emphasis is removed from “it works just as well as, if not better than, artificial contraception,” “it can be used to avoid pregnancy/space children“ and the worst, “responsible parenthood,” because all this implies that we have some control over our fertility. We exercise control over our passions, but not over our fertility. Thus I think priests should not only learn about NFP but also place more emphasis on what you said above so perfectly, that “even if all the signs and symptoms point to infertility during a particular time in my cycle, each time we enter into the marital act we do so prepared to welcome new life.” That there should be more emphasis on the fact that at the end of the day, for us Catholics artificial contraception is immoral, NFP at best is only licit, but it is only openness to God’s gift of life in all circumstance that deserves our unqualified praise and celebration. I used to shudder at such a notion, thinking it would only drive my hard-earned NFP friends away, and let’s be honest, there are so few NFP users anyway, and with artificial contraception the big evil we’re fighting most of the time, sometimes we’d like to think that NFP is a virtue of itself. But as I am still livid over the scandals of this past summer, I think the priest should preach the Truth even if it means it makes us a little (or a lot) more uncomfortable in our pews.

    If I may, I would like to end with a quote from a beautiful homily of Fr. Anthony Uy a few years back, entitled “NFP and the Ends of Marriage”:
    “NFP should be seen as a burden, and not the child. It should be seen as a burden in such a way, that it pains us, that there are serious reasons why we cannot have another child right now. Not, oh great, we can postpone because we have these reasons. It’s the same as when a devout Catholic who loves Christ, loves the church, cannot go to mass, and it pains him that he cannot go to mass and receive Our Lord in Holy Communion because he is sick. You see here a difference in mentality. Is a child a burden or a blessing? Is going to mass a burden or a blessing?” (excerpted transcription from homily recording)

    • M

      What a great comment! I agree we need to hear this truth from our priests. I was having a conversation about NFP with the deacon at our parish and he said it was so great that NFP was an option because “like pope Francis says, we don’t have to breed like rabbits!” I was pregnant with our fourth baby at the time and I remember thinking, I wish more people would talk about the goodness of the children and helping parents really embrace their goodness, with less emphasis on how should feel obliged to have more. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for NFP and I think more people need to know about it and understand the theology behind it, but I think the goodness of children and the “ends of marriage” are probably even more important. It’s so easy even as a Catholic who LOVES the teachings on sexuality and family to fall into the cultural trap of thinking “it’s selfish for me to have more than x number of children” or “you should quit while you’re ahead and not tempt fate” or any other number of thoughts that really mean that only a certain amount of children is acceptable. And I really felt like that’s what my deacon was saying: yay for families, but let’s not go overboard. I don’t think that’s at all the right message

    • Mary Julia

      Sophia, Thank you, thank you, thank you! This is what my heart feels and yet I haven’t been able to express. My last child was conceived just as you described and just as you stated I too had a trying, anxiety filled pregnancy.
      And Father Anthony Uy quote, that is so very true. Thank you for sharing.

    • Renee

      Sophia I hear what you are saying and agree with most of it. I would challenge your use of the phrase “contraceptive mentality” though. I know a lot of Catholics use this phrase to refer to people using NFP selfishly, however whenever the Church uses this phrase, she refers to people actually using contraception, never to refer to people using NFP selfishly. Some theologians believe it is impossible to use NFP with a contraceptive mentality because it’s nature is entirely different from that of contraception.

      I would also like to share an experience. For me, I would like to be able to see a child as a blessing, as the quote with which you so beautifully ended your comment describes. However, due to life circumstances, medical issues, financial issues, and mental health issues (severe PTSD) the idea of having a child right now seems like an incredible burden. I don’t want to feel this way! I want the joy that you describe, and part of me envies you for it! I have a degree in Theology from a conservative Catholic college, teach Theology, and have been a faithful Catholic all my life. I have never used contraception. However I still see a new child as a burden now. What I’m trying to say is it is hard. It’s hard to change your feelings. I want to see a child as a blessing. I pray and pray that God will release me from the fear I feel. But he doesn’t. So I just have to trust that he has me where he wants me for now. I want to share that because I never thought I would struggle with NFP or the idea of more children, but I do! I don’t want to but I do! Just wanted to share because sometimes it’s harder than it seems. I think what people could do to truly support an openness to life in the Church would be to support mothers. I don’t live near family and am doing it on my own, and I think it would make a world of difference to know there was someone who would walk with me next pregnancy and help me in practical ways (I will have to drive an hour and a half for appts because I am high risk after the premature birth of my last child, and I still have small children at home).

  • Mitchel

    What a great and long awaited article. We live in such overtly sexual world that the idea of abstinence is not discussed. It’s certainly not discussed by guys. If I am at the pub with mates, any sexual conversation is likely to be along the lines of other boasting about exploits and I am hardly likely to chip in and say well I don’t get sex.

    This has turend out quite long. My wife and I met in the church and helped with Sunday school and youth groups and attended bible studies and fell in love. We got married and as a part of this we discussed birth control and moral aspects and duties of each partner. We even planned the wedding date so we could have first time sex in a safe time.

    We tried NFP and the whole process was very stressful. Every time we had sex there was worries about would this lead to an unwanted pregnancy and then afterwards more worried had she gotten pregnant. We then actually gave up on it for a couple of years and used contraception. This meant there was a new different stress of the feeling of moral compromise.

    Maybe we were a bit more mature by then and we did a lot more reading and talking and praying between our selves and so even though when I look back we were still very naïve we were way better prepared than we were when we got married.

    So while we were still using contraception we started to reduce the amount of sex with the objective of getting it under control. We would plan for sex using the NFP rules but still use the condom if that makes sense. So that way we avoided the stress of worrying about getting pregnant with intention of then stopping the use of the condom.

    The first thing I found was that about a week after having had sex I would start to get really irritable. Short tempered. I was on edge. I would snap at her. We would argue. This feeling would start to go away after about a week but sometimes it was as short as only one or two days and sometimes this angry period would last as long as two weeks.

    Then later usually three but often closer to the 4 week mark I would start to get this real feeling of inadequacy. Like a mild depression. There was this pervasive worry in my mind that I would never be able to do ‘it’ again. Would the manly sexual part of me cease to function. Would I still be a man? It was quite all pervasive and at times I was begging her for sex. When I think back it was quite immature almost pathetic in a way but it shows the great power these hormones have over us.

    I should digress a bit here and confess to have been a compulsive masturbator as a teen before marriage but that my wife had been very forthright in expressing her feelings that that was wrong and our prayer and study together had brought me to the same conclusion.

    So until this time, I had believed that men needed physical release and that before marriage I had gotten this through masturbation and after marriage through sex with my wife.

    Now we were in this monthly cycle of sex then a week later moody edgy anger then a few weeks later mild depression and a feeling of inadequacy. These feelings of mine and her own up and down feelings seemed to be pushing us apart.

    We then started to experiment with how to deal with these feeling and found that being physical and intimate. By that I mean that before marriage when sex was totally not going to happen, we were very much in love and in lust. Now we were having sex and getting moody and pushing each other away.

    We talked and tried things like were we better to try an be non sexual. By that I mean don’t see each other naked. Try and not get aroused and then deal with the consequential let down of not being able to do sex. We found that actually did not help and if anything made for more feelings of isolation and ‘why are we even married’ if there is nothing special between us.

    So we decided to try to pretend for a better word to do the behaviours we did before marriage. We had a real conscious effort to hold hands, hug and kiss. We then kind of extended this to be more physical. Hands all over each others body for example. A lot of teasing too. Strip tease look but don’t touch and at other times lots of touching everywhere. With the knowledge that we were not going to continue this onto sexual intercourse. When it did come to the planned time to do sex, we would deliberately not engage in any of the very flirtatious behaviours we had been doing previously. Normally she would lie passively and I would just do ‘it’.

    For me this very physical approach was hugely refreshing and while I still did at times pester her for sex I felt much better in myself.

    We then decided to have a child and boy was that an exciting time for me sexually. Like we were able to do it whenever. Yes there was a time after she gave birth that was hard but then we were back into it again and eventually had a second child. Then reality hit.

    We went through quite a rocky time. maybe some post natal depression on her part and the need for abstinance and sensitivity on my part. We were not being physical with each other. She was breastfeeding and was feeling quite depressed about her body being used by others. I have to confess I was feeling neglected and started to masturbate again and that lead to more feelings of inadequacy. We seemed to have arguments over all sorts of things and I ended up moving into a spare room for a time.

    We went and saw a consellor and I think they were great. Maybe some time had passed and my wife was feeling less like a baby feeding machine. We refocussed on doing things together. The holding hands, saying positive things to each other, massaging shoulders. Way less physical than before babies. More akin to the dating phase. Kissing and touching on legs but not inside panties or breasts for example. We also talked a lot about the cycle of feelings and recognised that doing it once a month was almost the worst thing because of the emotional cycle and so now the focus was on me stopping masturbating. Luckilly we started to talk and pray together more and talk about feelings and desires and was I feeling depressed and was she feeling depressed. This introduced a degree of accountability into the relationahip. We ended up deciding that the worry about unwanted pregnancy was for us too great and that we could have a very physical and intimate lifestye with complete abstinance being easier than the monthly sex release if that makes sense. And thats where we are at. We are very physical but we very rarely have sex and when we do it is very carefully planned.

  • anon this one

    Thanks Sophia, that’s an interesting perspective. We are mostly NFp supporters (and users) but we had to delay beyond the year mark for this last baby for a few reasons. It really was painful. We’d look at other newborns and small babies and want that. We questioned a lot if we really should wait, and we kept concluding, sadly, yes.

    (That may make me sound super virtuous. I certainly don’t mean it that way. We only had two when this happened- and in those last months of pregnancy with number 3, when the two year old had been potty trained for months and developed a bigger vocabulary and was playing so well with the oldest- I thought, man, there is a reason people only have two. This is so much easier than it will be in a few weeks.)

  • Ruth

    Fantastic post. I wish there were more support and understanding about this from the Church in general. Please keep proclaiming this message (remember, St Mary Magdalen is called the apostle to the Apostles, there is a place for female ‘preaching’ in the Church!)

  • MM

    Thank you for this! If any priest or future priest is concerned about learning NFP, I’d recommend reading Love and Responsibility written by Karol Wojtyla (St. John Paul II). He was so attentive to the family and so wise and provident in giving us his teaching on the theology of the body. I feel he has walked with me throughout my married life (25 years next summer and 5 lovely children here and one with the Lord).

  • AnneMarie

    Thank you so much for this post!!!!!!! I have personally witnessed some level of awkwardness by some priests regarding NFP and/or sex in general, and I usually excuse that with “Well, they’re celibate, so it’s probably natural for them to feel awkward.” But, as my dear husband and I have discussed before, St. John Paul II wrote at length about love and sexuality and he was celibate. I hope and pray that more priests can follow in the footsteps of St. John Paul in that regard and become knowledgeable about NFP, so they can truly support and encourage their flock.

  • Renee

    Fantastic idea Jenny. I’ve heard too many Catholics on the radio etc saying NFP is “just a week of abstinence a month people” or “just a few days”…. I’m sorry but I have a picture perfect cycle and we STILL abstain almost 2 weeks per month because SPERM LIFE. NFP is so important and good and HARD. Priests need to know the facts as they shepherd the faithful, especially so they can avoid dismissing an often very heavy cross.

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