Contraception and NFP Part Two


We continue our discussion with Dr Emma Vieira. For the preceding article find the link here.


Natural family planning – what is it?

Natural family planning (NFP) is the avoidance of intercourse during known fertile times, in order to avoid pregnancy.

There are several methods:

  • Billings method – cervical mucus pattern
  • Sympto-thermal method – basal body temperature in combination with mucus pattern
  • Lactational amenorrhoea – that is, delayed fertility whilst breastfeeding. Statistically, 98% of women will not return to fertility within 6 months of regularly breastfeeding a newborn; in real life it is highly variable in terms of efficacy, but breastfeeding may be prolonged intentionally to delay return of fertility – and after 12 months of age, when breastmilk remains beneficial but is no longer a nutritional requirement, it may be considered a form of natural family planning if this is the primary motive


What is it NOT?

NFP is NOT “Catholic contraception”.

It is not possible for NFP to be “contraceptive”. In order for contraception to occur, there must be a conjugal act to be “contracepted”. Certainly it is possible to use NFP with a selfish and ungenerous motive, but the method itself is not at fault here, it is the motives of the spouse/s.



Under what circumstances may natural family planning be morally used by spouses?

For this question I will be quoting extensively, and it will be easier to discuss the issue in its entirety.

The Catechism gives this statement:

CCC 2368 – “For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness, but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behaviour to the objective criteria of morality” – that is, they may use only morally licit means to regulate births, i.e. NFP. However, the Catechism does not give further detail on sufficient motive, or what constitutes a “just reason”.

Humanae Vitae (HV) discusses motives in sections 10 and 16:

(This is the official translation from the Latin which appears on the Vatican website.)

Section 10

With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.

Responsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.

From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out.

Section 16

If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.

Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love.

Other documents which refer to NFP:

  1. Casti Connubii (Pope Pius XI, 1931) – lacks detail on motives
  2. Address to the Midwives (Pope Pius XII, 1951) – refers to “grave reasons” and “serious motives” “Serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise from medical, eugenic, economic and social so-called “indications,” may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life. From this it follows that the observance of the natural sterile periods may be lawful, from the moral viewpoint: and it is lawful in the conditions mentioned. If, however, according to a reasonable and equitable judgment, there are no such grave reasons either personal or deriving from exterior circumstances, the will to avoid the fecundity of their union, while continuing to satisfy to the full their sensuality, can only be the result of a false appreciation of life and of motives foreign to sound ethical principles.”
  3. Familiaris Consortio (St JP II, 1981) – insufficient detail on motives
  4. Theology of the Body (St JP II) section 124: in discussing HV, quotes section citing “serious reasons that stem either from the physical or psychological condition of the couple or from external circumstances”; section 125: states “the use of ‘infertile periods’ in conjugal shared life can become a source of abuses if the couple thereby attempt to evade procreation without just reasons, lowering it below the morally just level of births in their family. This just level needs to be set by taking into account not only the good of one’s family and the state of one’s health as well as the means of the spouses themselves, but also the good of the society to which they belong, the good of the Church, and even of humanity as a whole”.

For those who are trying to live in fidelity to the Church’s teaching, it can be tempting to be frustrated by the conflicting terms used to describe morally sufficient motives – between the catechism, an encyclical, and two addresses, or series of addresses, there are no fewer than six different terms employed for this purpose – just, well-grounded, grave, serious, acceptable, and reasonable. Holy Mother Church does not give concrete examples, perhaps because it is impossible to cover the infinite number of possible scenarios faced by couples in their individual circumstances.

Both ends of the spectrum are clear (and I have deliberately used extreme examples here):

One may not use NFP for trivial reasons – for example, I want to look good in the bridesmaid’s dress for my sister’s wedding…

One may use NFP for serious reasons – for example, my wife has a serious heart condition and is likely to die if she falls pregnant. And in fact, in this case, the couple has a positive moral obligation to either use NFP or abstain altogether – a situation which Pope Pius XII discusses in his Address to the Midwives.



What advice would you give to couples considering using NFP?

My advice for situations between these extremes is that the couple inform themselves about the Church’s teaching by a prayerful reading of the relevant writings of the Pontiffs, and seek the advice of a good priest in their individual circumstances. Now, while not all clergy are as well-formed on this issue as they could be, and we need to be careful about the advice we seek, neither can we always trust ourselves, which is why it is so important to have objective guidance in this matter, although the responsibility for the ultimate decision rests with the spouses.

The flip side of this discussion, and a point which bears remarking, is that marriage, despite the fundamental call to procreation, does not excuse the individual or the couple from the obligation to practice the virtue of self-control. In the words of St John Paul II, “chastity is an apprenticeship in self-mastery”, and whether NFP is used or not, the couple has a responsibility to live their marriage chastely, never using the other spouse as an object of sexual gratification.


Any final comments?

The bottom line is that there are some clear basic principles:

  1. We are called to generosity – “marriage exists to populate heaven with saints”, and as Pope Pius XII noted, “children are the first blessing of marriage”. And as I’m sure those of you who are blessed with children would agree, why would you not have as many children as you were able to within your capability? They are such a tremendous gift!
  2. Every conjugal act must be open to life.
  3. There may be morally acceptable reasons why spouses may use licit means to avoid a pregnancy.
  4. At the Judgment, we will have to give an account of our stewardship of the gift of sexuality, and while we may be able to fool ourselves, or even our spouses, when it comes to motive, we cannot fool Him Who knows our inmost thoughts.


Dr Emma Vieira is a General Practice registrar who works part-time in family medicine. She graduated from the University of Newcastle in 2007, and has worked in Tamworth, Sydney, and Wagga Wagga. She and her husband, a high-school teacher, have three beautiful little girls. They live and work in rural New South Wales.

This series of articles has also been approved by Rev Dr Peter Murphy – Ph.B., S.T.L., S.T.D. (Philosophy & Moral Theology), and is ‘true blue Catholic’.


Filed Under: Family LifeFeaturedHealth & FitnessJust For MumPregnancy

About the Author: Emily is a former ACPA award winning editor and journalist turned stay at home mum and blogger. She lives on a farm in regional NSW with her husband and their five children where she spends the time she should be doing housework reading books and writing posts.

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  1. Sarah says:

    This is a good general cover of NFP. I think, though, we need to be careful when using the term ‘using NFP’ as it very quickly gets associated with not having/spacing children. Hence why people often find it difficult to understand why it’s different from contraception. NFP methods are really just tools with which women can identify the fertile/non fertile periods in their cycle. I’ve used NFP to both conceive and space pregnancies. I’ve used NFP methods since I was 19 to help identify health issues and everyday since I was married for both health and fertility tracking.
    Maybe a 3rd instalment on all the ways NFP can be used? :)

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