The Right Thing for the Wrong Reasons

The week of 23-29 July was National Natural Family Planning Awareness Week, an event promoted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website, and commented upon by several Catholic bloggers. Though many Catholics offer unabashed praise for NFP, others present a more honest, vulnerable account of the challenges associated with seeking faithfulness to Catholic teaching. One of the reasons why NFP remains a controversial and difficult subject – even within devout Catholic circles – is because the way it’s popularly presented often succumbs to a strand of the Americanist heresy, which believes that faithfulness to Christ can be easily wedded to the pursuit of material success and personal fulfillment.

The Americanist heresy was a set of theological beliefs and practices, popular in the 1890s, but condemned by Pope Leo XIII. Most fall within the broader trend of modernism, and included endorsement of a clear divide between Church and state, though Americanism also stressed the uniqueness and exceptionalism of the American people, the American nation, and the American Church.

Pope Leo XIII in the 1899 encyclical Testem benevolentiae nostrae condemned American particularism, and rejected the idea of “some who conceive and would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world.” Debates over whether Leo’s description reflected the reality in the United States largely subsided in the years that followed, though the underlying premise of American exceptionalism still seeps into some aspects of American Catholicism.

We see the subtle influence of this attitude in Catholic writing or teaching that emphasizes how obeying Catholic teaching will “make everything better.” Such thinking supposes that whatever is right and good must necessarily mean “easier,” “happier,” or “more fulfilling.” The Catholic life, so the reasoning goes, can be the quintessential American life, with the nice middle-class job, suburban home, and white picket fence – except instead of two kids, the family has three or four.

Some NFP and Catholic sexual literature falls precisely into this trap. For example, Holy Sex!: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving by Dr. Gregory Popcak (a basically orthodox thinker) argues, as the title suggests, that following Catholic teaching on sexuality will give couples a happier, more exciting bedroom experience. Other NFP organizations argue that the methodology will improve not only one’s sex life, but practically everything else about married life. The Couple to Couple League’s website asserts: “Modern methods of NFP are as or more effective than all contraception options except sterilization.”

Anyone who has sought to practice NFP – especially with other like-minded individuals seeking to obey Church teaching – knows this is rubbish. NFP works at preventing a pregnancy if the woman has a clear, consistent cycle. Many women do not. Following NFP “effectively” under such circumstances means in practice abstaining from sex for weeks, months, and possibly in rare scenarios even years.

Micer Marsilio Cassotti and His Wife, Faustina by Lorenzo Lotto, 1523 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]

More fundamentally, this idea that following Christ and His Church should be “better,” “happier,” or “easier” is not Gospel teaching. It is materialist, utilitarian ideology draped in Catholic vestments. Did St. Paul seek to persuade the wayward Corinthian Church about their sexual misconduct by appealing to their desire to live “more fulfilled,” romantic, sexually-gratified lives?

No, rather, he declared, “Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20)

It’s a Catholicism in bed with Americanism that would seek to unite Church teaching with worldly success. Catholics in places like Pakistan, Iraq, Congo, and China, where poverty and persecution are the daily lot of believers, know better than to be deceived by such silliness.

This is of course not to say that NFP doesn’t indeed have significant benefits for marriage. The USCCB website offers a number of them, including building stronger trust and cooperation between spouses, inculcating virtue and self-restraint, and better understanding a woman’s body and cycle. Yet only the last one of the USCCB’s points really matters: “[NFP] honors God’s design for married love!” As Catholics, we practice NFP because we seek to obey Christ and His Church – not because we think it will give us happier lifestyles on the way to self-actualization.

I’ll celebrate five years of marriage – and five years of muddling through NFP – this month. I can attest to the real benefits of NFP on both my relationship with my wife and my own spiritual growth. But as a former Protestant who thought he’d be contracepting for life, I never believed the NFP propaganda pushed on us as we prepared for our vows. Our marriage has borne that out: in 2016, the Zika virus spread into Thailand, where we live. We were recently pregnant with our third. Everyone, including some dear Protestant friends, urged us to contracept rather than abstain. We chose the latter, and it was hard. No silver lining there.

The vast majority of Americans know that life without contraception makes life messy, difficult, and an obstacle to fulfilling one’s personal and professional goals. No amount of “improve your sex life” rationalizing will persuade them otherwise. To set one’s standard on that hill – as many NFP advocates have done – is to cheapen not only NFP but the Church and ultimately Christ.

We obey because we love. In that obedience, we find a truer, greater joy that transcends this world and unites us with our truest love, Jesus, the living God. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my life, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:10-11). Christ didn’t mean the joy of a more thrilling bedroom experience.

Casey Chalk is the author of The Obscurity of Scripture and The Persecuted. He is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.