Talkin’ NFP

I just finished an interview on Relevant Radio. During the interview, a fellow called and said that he and his wife were, it seemed to him, some of the only Catholics he knew who practiced NFP. He wanted to know how to put it out there, how to present it, how to explain it. My answer wasn’t too stellar. Mostly, it was this: admit it’s a hard teaching. Admit it’s diffficult to understand. Suggest that understanding is not essential to obedience – “trust the Church implicitly,” as Cardinal Newman advises, especially if you believe that She is on the side of love. Suggest also that God will surely not be unhappy with the sacrifice you have made in obeying His Church – even if you didn’t understand exactly why you had to do so.

But I’d love to hear how y’all would have answered.


  1. Father Stephanos, O.S.B. says

    “We preach Christ crucified.” It was honest, wise and good of you, Matthew, to admit the cross right up front.

    The cross is a sacrifice. “I give you my all.”

    If we understand that sexual intercourse is a “body language” statement that also says, “I give you my all,” then wholehearted HONESTY in making that statement requires several conditions (even without citing God, the Bible or the Church).

    “I give you my all .. honestly:

    all of me entirely for you alone, not for another— monogamy;

    all my years— lifelong monogamy;

    all my body— without latex, pills or surgery to shield or impede my body.”

    Honesty in giving one’s all— that is what opens sexual intercourse to the horizonless Self-Gift— Agàpe— that is God.

  2. Father Stephanos, O.S.B. says

    P.S. Ooh! I didn’t want my picture to appear. I didn’t WANT to give my all.

  3. Notrelatedtoted says

    I’m not clear – what exactly is the question? How to teach NFP to a pro-contraception crowd? Or how to teach NFP to Catholics who are anti-NFP?

  4. Mark Lickona says

    Uh-oh, here comes the brother who is famously not understood on this point…but since it’s an open invite…

    There’s no short defense of the Church’s teaching, unfortunately, because the act of contraception strikes at the heart of the order of marital love, and so requires a rehearsal of that order. (Also adding to the length of the exposition of that order are the many different ways beyond contraception that this order can be “dissented from.”)

    The short answer, though, is that it’s about observing, not deforming, the form of marital love.

    Essential to a sexual act being an act of marital love is that it be pro-creative; this is Pope Paul VI’s “unity” of the unitive and procreative ends of marital intercourse. (This is where most people get off, so to speak.)

    Contra-ception (as the term indicates) inhibits conception, thus choosing to use contraception is choosing to render what would have been fertile, that is, pro-creative, not. This de-forms the act of marital love.

    (Some people get off here too, claiming that simply choosing to use contraception doesn’t necessarily mean your choice is contra-ceptive; you might simply be choosing to save the woman from a life-threatening pregnancy. This is a debate about ends and means which is in fact a loser for the contraception-user.)

    NFP never deforms acts of marital love by rendering them infertile/non-procreative.

    (Some people get off here by saying that infertile acts of intercourse are indeed “non-procreative,” as much as, say, fellatio–so both are either equally bad or equally permissible.

    The answer here is: It’s about the form. The form of marital love is intercourse, because this is the form of action in which body joins body, seed joins seed; not so fellatio, sodomy, etc. (seed never meets seed here). Fellatio is not the same sort of act as intercourse, except accidentally (man enters hole). Is non-fertile intercourse the same sort of act as fertile intercourse? Yes. That’s why even non-fertile acts of intercourse are “pro-creative,” by virtue of their pro-creative form.

    [For the Thomists out there: Acts of sodomy, etc., are essentially, necessarily, formally infertile, while acts of intercourse are not necessarily, not essentially infertile, meaning that when they are, they are merely materially, merely accidentally infertile.]).

    OK, I’m done talkin’ NFP.

  5. Mark Lickona says

    BTW, I certainly don’t think this would have played on radio. Maybe the short answer. But even that cries out for more.

  6. Adam DeVille says

    I think your prolegomenon was just that–a good first step, admitting the difficulty up front, and also counseling that one should always *sentire cum Ecclesiae*. Beyond that, I try to advance two broad sets of arguments depending on audience: to the ‘environmentalist’ crowd, one can play on the fact that one is not putting chemicals into one’s body (nor, thereafter, excreting them into the water supply) and one is not ‘medicalizing’ a perfectly natural phemonenon. This may be called the argument from ‘free love,’ both literally (no $ needed for prophylactics of any kind) and otherwise: one is free to engage in the act unhindered physically by any artificial contraptions.
    The second set of arguments I use, and their use presupposes a theologically literate audience, is–to state it briefly and baldly here–to say that family life, as with everything, is called upon to embody the unhindered life of the Trinity, whose love flows without interruption or barrier, just as our love is to do.

  7. I think you did well.

    A Catholic who is not “into NFP” doesn’t want to hear about Church teaching from us, not yet…they want to hear from us why it’s good for our marriages and that it’s easy and won’t change their sex life.
    I mean, it’s definitely good for our marriages but it’s not easy and it does change things. If you say it’s easy, you aren’t being honest.

    I don’t think anyone wants a Kippley book shoved down their throat and our job is not to tell anyone to get off the Pill. We are to live out our marriages with trust in the Church who guides us, like you said. Hopefully, someone will see something and say, “They have the secret to a great marriage.”

    Anyway, not one person on their deathbed ever said, “Honey, I wished we had had fewer children.”

  8. Mark Lickona says

    Lindsay’s observation that most people don’t want to hear the bad news about NFP reminds me of the fact that most people aren’t really interested in arguments for NFP either. So even if the caller was interested in laying out the rationale of the Church’s teaching to interrogators/objectors, maybe the real “answer,” to Lindsay’s point, is the example of one’s own life of marital love; after all, most people who object do so because they want to do what they want to do, not because they are after the truth. That being said, it’s still important for Catholics to understand the rationale. (Paul VI certainly thought so.)

  9. 5xBlessed says

    There are some great comments here. The thing that strikes me is that many people just aren’t open to obedience at all. The teachings of the church that they are following, they are following simply because they, themselves in their infinite wisdom, have decided that those teachings make sense to them. The ones that don’t, usually the tough ones regarding contraception, annulments, etc., well, they decide that they either just don’t make sense, or they flat out admit they are too hard.

    It just seems if at the base of things, the person has no desire to be obedient or to submit to anything, then they will never understand NFP.

    I get frustrated sometimes. It seems that I constantly hear about how happy people are with their sterilizations, gleeful about not having any more children, smug about ‘using the brain God gave me’ to decide how many kids they want…. Sigh…

  10. 5xBlessed says

    I should add that the reason why I am particularly depressed is that these comments are from weekly Mass going, in other ways devout, people who claim to be serious about their faith. I’m not saying they aren’t but that they do have a big blind spot regarding the way the Catholic Church works.

  11. Mark Lickona says

    Concluding note: Adam’s “Trinitarian love” argument is like Fr. Stephanos’ “total self-gift” argument in that they both express why pro-creative intercourse is the form of marital love: Because that’s the sort of (the form of) act in which body joins body, even unto seed joining seed, through mutual, total self-gift.

  12. AnotherCoward says

    I’ve nodded my head so far.

    But beyond, “it’s hard”, and, “trust the Church,” (all of which I firmly believe should be communicated), it’s difficult to communicate to someone that God has put in place an order for how people copulate as much as He has ordered other “love thy neighbor” interaction. The only reason people have such problems with homosexuality is because it is spelled out in Scripture time and again that homosexuality is wrong. And even so, the arguments folks make for contraception are easily turned into arguments for homosexuality – it’s just the provision that homosexuality is wrong that makes homosexuality wrong.

    Sex is a s/he and me activity. People don’t find God in sex (I’ll refrain from the jokes begging to be made at this point). People don’t see the offense God would take between two consenting adults doing whatever they want with the other. What’s He got to do with it anyways?

    Of course, we know the answer – He created us; He ordered us; and we are aware of all of that. We are also aware of our self-ish nature. And so we are tasked with questioning our motives in engaging in sexual activity – am I doing this for me, for her, for us, for our benefit, for the benefit of my neighbor, for the glory of God? I think this last question is the hardest to answer in a way for people to grasp on to.

    I really do think our choice of NFP glorifies God because it realizes copulation as God intended it, as well as mirrors Christ for us in the Eucharist. It doesn’t just unite us as man and woman; it strengthens us in our understanding of our love of Christ – that Christ joins us with nothing in the way, and we, too, should join Him with nothing in the way.

    But when people view the Eucharist as a secondary belief (or not necessary at all), that beautiful picture doesn’t make much sense.

  13. I like the upfront admission of the difficulty of the teaching. When I went through the diocesan explanation of it for marriage preparation, that aspect was not addressed with full candor.

    On the other hand, I find loving my enemy, turning the other cheeck, and controlling my materialism (“sell all that you have and give it to the poor”) a whole lot harder than postponing a pregnancy through abstinence.

    NFP is hard. Following the direct commandments of the Lord in the gospels is…almost impossible. It makes NFP seem easy.

  14. Anonymous says

    honestly? i think we have to do better than this. these theological arguements are beautiful and may be true but if it just doesn’t make any sense to the average catholic, what have we accomplished? i believe the best answer can come from a priest, in understanding what a great gift abstenance is…that this is also unitive in so far as it puts the greater good of the spouse, the marriage or the children above the self…i thinks it is very important to understand the nature of celibacy and abstinance as beautiful and loving gifts to our spouse who is either a human person (of the other sex) or God himself if one is a religious. it seems to me rather than say wow, it’s just tough, we need to be making the arguement that periods of abstinance/celibacy in marriage may be necessary and can be done in such a way that they are presented as a tremendously generous gift of oneself to their spouse. to me this is the fundamental thing missing-we need to help people understanding that abstinance is a beautiful way to express ones love and respect for ones spouse.

  15. Father Stephanos, O.S.B. says


    Dear Anonymous,

    First of all, a married couple never practices celibacy, since celibacy is a state in life. The couple might practice abstinence from time to time, but celibacy is not something one practices from time to time.

    I professsed vows as a monk in 1983. I’ll hold forth here as “The Professional Celibate” among the commentators.

    Consider what I now offer as “tacked on” to my earlier comment.

    If a husband and wife give themselves to each other with the kind of honesty I described, there can be at least three results: joy, communion, life. These are also qualities of God.

    Sexual honesty and those three fruits of it do not happen without an exchange of vulnerability.

    A professed Christian celibate (a monk, a nun, a priest…) has received an invitation from God to live without a spouse, and to do so “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”, as Jesus teaches. I HATE to hear people say that priests are celibate in order to have time and energy for work in the Church. That motive does not turn me on, and it’s not the one Jesus gave. Even an atheist can live the celibate state for such a merely practical motive.

    One who is a celibate for sake of the kingdom of heaven is celibate for God. (Pious tradition gets it exactly right in speaking of nuns as “Brides of Christ”.) Celibacy, then, aims for communion, life and joy, just as honest sexual intercourse does. A “professional celibate” who just crusts over to protect himself from his own human feelings, or numbs himself with any form of addiction, or “plays around” is not receiving or living his celibacy “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

    A Christian celibate must also say–not to a human spouse, but to God–“I honestly give you my all”. For the sake of the kingdom of heaven!

    Remaining faithful to vowed Christian celibacy requires the constant rehearsal of vulnerability by way of very personal prayer–together with worship and all the virtues. The same is true of honest marital sexuality.

    Celibate monks, nuns and priests have the same ultimate goal as married folk. Its just that celibates do without the support and challenge of spouses and children.

    Since celibacy and marriage share the same ultimate goal, I, a celibate, have felt the closest personal kinship with married couples who live authentic sexual honesty.

    To ALL his followers–celibates and spouses alike–Jesus promises communion, joy and life. However, the Way of Resurrection and the Way of Cross have the same footsteps.

    NFP classes do propose to people that periodic abstinence from sexual intercourse in marriage can be, as you say, “a beautiful way to express … love and respect.” So is the Cross.

    The NFP “Gospel” must frankly propose to spouses the whole Gospel: its rewards, its beauties, its passion and its Passion.

  16. Matthew et al:

    Here’s my two cents on the matter – my only authority on the matter is the five children my wife and I have had through the rudiments of NFP (my clockwork wife needs nothing more…) and the fact that my in-laws were instrumental (and, I would add, boastingly, pioneers) in getting our Diocese to formally establish an NFP program in its family life office…).

    Two points, neither of them strictly theological, although they come with their own set of assumptions – points first, then assumptions:

    1) NFP does a good job (though not failsafe, by any means) of preventing a husband from turning his wife into an object – and viceversa, for that matter. There is an intensity to the sexual act which, given man’s selfish and fallen state, will inevitably make the act selfish if it has no end beyond the latex tip, so to speak. In other words, if children or even the possiblitiy of children are not part of the equeation, a husband can easily turn sex into self-centered act. The woman, meanwhile, is left embittered, and well – that’s where marriages begin to fail. Lack of love, lack of trust, lack of fidelity…

    The assumption here of course is that the woman must recognize that pleasuring her husband is not the ultimate end of marriage as much as her “honeymoon glow” would want to take her there. (“I’ll do anything for him – even make myself available anytime he wants me. If that means going on the pill, the patch, the shot, whatever, – so be it!”) It turns the whole feminist experiment on its head, of course – because the pill was supposed to make the woman “free” – but it does just the opposite, at least in the marriage context.

    2) My in-laws would often say that even letting people know that this option is out there could prove to be as important as trying to explain it to people – Perhaps married couples will get to the point where they realize they’ve taken the wrong path – and want another option. They could very well recall what the priest, the NFP couple, – the geek on that Catholic radio program – was going on about. This NFP nonsense…

    This assumes, of course, that the couple has the wherewithal to pursue this option after they’ve frustrated themselves with contraception. But there are more unhappy people out there than you might expect – I recall my in-laws relating how many non-Catholics and even non-believers would take their classes – not an overwhelming majority, but certainly a suprising number.

    Well, maybe that was more than two cents…


  17. Father Stephanos, O.S.B. says

    JOB, you’ve offered a few cents in a good way. In your first cent, you have implicitly told the “how and why” artificial contraception can wreck sexuality and marriage. That’s the other side of the coin that reads something like, “The divorce rate among those who practice NFP is below 5%.”

  18. Anonymous says

    what i was trying to say in comparing abstinence and celibacy was this: it’s not enough to just say well, embrace the cross, it’s hard etc. i feel we have to actually say that there is a tremendous good one does for their marriage in practicing times of abstinence for whatever reason, i was trying to compare this to celibacy in so far as a priest gives up any kind of sexual relationship for the love of God…i am not exactly sure why i struck a nerve here…i would like people to see that abstinance is not necessarily a deprivation but a gift…and maybe nfp classes do actually do this, but i did not see anyone on this blog mention that-rather every one just seemed to keep saying well, it’s very difficult but just deal with it….but i do not like that approach even though, father, you argue that the embracing the cross is a beautiful gift, indeed it is, so is obedience, but both you and i have the benefit of theological education and can understand (as much as humanly possible) what that means…what about people who just don’t understand that? i just think they need more.

  19. Anonymous says

    i wanted to add, too, father, that i also tremendously value your detailed description of celibacy and my original point was that if we were to go into more depth as to the similarities in married sexual honesty as you called it and celibacy we may come up with a better answer for people…or should i say a more thorough answer…which can better explain how nfp brings the joy, communion and life into a marriage. i just really believe we have to do more than say it’s hard. sorry.

  20. Anonymous says

    as someone recovering from sterilization surgery, furiously thumbing through my kippley book, i want to ask, what’s the big freakin’ deal about abstinence? my husband and i practiced periodic abs. as penance for the sin of the sterilization. I think this is all about controlling ourselves. that’s why a celibate priest is perfect for talking about this subject-he can look at the guy and say “you think you got it rough, no sex for 2weeks? boo hoo poor thing” (maybe he shouldn’t put it that way exactly.)

  21. Father Stephanos, O.S.B. says

    My blogs are showing a fair amount of traffic between them and this particular GodsBody post, so here, with “imp-erfect” charity, is one URL to some feedback in my blogs.

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