Just How Effective is Natural Family Planning, Anyway?

One of the major arguments surrounding natural family planning is on its effectiveness. Critics of NFP claim isn’t all that effective at family planning. In part, this misconception is due to two things:

Charles Auguste Romain Lobbedez, Family Time (1876)

that, despite its name, it

  1. There are a wide variety of practices thrown together under the name “NFP.” If you threw every means of contraception together (from sterilization to withdrawal), you would end up with accurate-but-virtually-meaningless statistics. So it is with NFP: the “Standard Days” method is far less accurate than the sympothermal method. By far less accurate, I mean that even when used perfectly, it results in more than ten times the number of unplanned pregnancies (5% v. 0.4%). So when you hear a generic number about “NFP effectiveness,” realize that it might be including some fairly unreliable methods.
  2. Couples that practice NFP tend to want, or at least be open, to large families. In other words, the overlap between “couples who use NFP” and “couples who don’t think of children as diseases to be prevented” is substantial. So unsurprisingly, NFP-practicing couples tend to have large families. That looks like a bug, but is a feature (after all, many couples use NFP to have more children, not fewer).

Because of reason # 1, there are misleading (and imprecise) statistics on NFP effectiveness. Because of reason # 2, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence leading people to think that NFP means large families, and therefore (the assumption goes), NFP mean lots of unplanned pregnancies.

So what are the real statistics?

Lets turn to two sources. First, “Contraceptive Failure in the United States” by James Trussell of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University. Trussell has a helpful chart (page 398 of this PDF) showing the unplanned pregnancy rate per year of a wide variety of family-planning methods, including all sorts of contraception and NFP.

From this chart, we see that sympto-thermal NFP, when used perfectly, was about as effective as the the Pill (0.4% and 0.3% unplanned pregnancy rate, respectively), and far more effective than either male (2%) or female (5%) condoms.

The only shortcoming to Trussell’s work is that it only lists the “perfect-use” percentages for each specific form of NFP. So while he tells us that typical use for the Pill involves 9% of women getting pregnant within a year, along with 18-21% of women relying on condoms, we don’t have a way to directly compare that with typical use symptothermal.

Fortunately, he cites to a large-scale study examining the topic. This study found that symptothermal NFP, when used perfectly, resulted in an annual 0.4% pregnancy rate. Overall, the typical-use rate was 1.8%. Even for women who had “unprotected” sex during their fertile period, the pregnancy rate was only 7.8% (since these couples tended to avoid the earliest, and most fertile, part of the woman’s fertile period). [Here is the study, and a very-readable summary of it.]

Comparing NFP to the major forms of contraception directly, here’s what we see:

“% of women experiencing an unintended pregnancy
within the first year of use”
“Typical Use”
“Perfect Use”
Combined pill and progestin-only pill
9%
0.3%
Female condoms
21%
5%
Male condoms
18%
2%
Withdrawal
22%
4%
Symptothermal NFP
1.8%
0.4%

Other studies appear to confirm similar effectiveness for the Creighton Method (1.2% perfect use; 2.0% typical use). The statistics paint a clear picture. When it comes to family planning, symptothermal NFP typically is far more reliable than condoms or the Pill.

So even apart from moral justifications, NFP produces the same results or better, without the risk of horrible side effects accompanying many forms of contraception. For example, many contraceptives carry the risk of preventing pregnancy for years after use: in short, they work too well at inhibiting fertility.

To take another case, the European Union has called for a $47 billion clean-up plan to purify the water system in the United Kingdom, after it was revealed that ethinyl estradiol (the primary ingredient used in birth control pills) was leading to intersex fish, and collapsing fish populations. So these drugs are unhealthy and unsafe for a fish to ingest, yet our culture has convinced women to poison their bodies with them. As a result, everyone who drinks the water is at risk. Given that these pills aren’t substantially better at preventing pregnancies than NFP (in theory or in practice), this is all the more tragic.

The Other Implications of NFP Effectiveness

Ary Scheffer,
Faust and Marguerite in the Garden (1846)

So NFP advocates are right: natural family planning really does work at family planning. But that only accentuates the need for NFP not to turn into the “Catholic-friendly contraception” that its critics claim.  Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with being responsibility about your sexuality. On the contrary, all human actions demand prudence, and a life-changing action like sexual intercourse calls for far more prudence than preparing dinner or determining the shortest route to the bank.

There is no virtue in treating your sexuality in an animalistic way. As Pope Paul VI noted in paragraph 10 of Humanae Vitae: “With regard to man’s innate drives and emotions, responsible parenthood means that man’s reason and will must exert control over them.” And Pope Pius XI, back in 1930, acknowledged that this “virtuous continence” was permitted in matrimony, as long as both parties consent. So being responsible about your sexuality is virtuous, and even necessary.

But a virtue is the mean between two extremes: and just as you can be reckless about your sexuality, you can also be obsessively controlling. An over-reliance on NFP to space or prevent the creation of new life can close its practitioners off to life. Worse, it can be symptomatic of an unhealthy approach to life in general: a need for more control than is warranted.

In the discussion of why NFP is okay when contraception is not, in paragraph 16 of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI explained that it was to be used only for good reason:

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.

NFP was never intended to be the normal or ideal way that Catholics engaged in the marital act. It’s not healthy, virtuous or wise to obsess over NFP, particularly when one has the resources to welcome another child.

My concern is that NFP seems to be presented as the normal or ideal way that Catholics should approach their sexuality. And without a doubt, it’s far better than contraception. Back in 1880, the Sacred Penintentiary confirmed that “a confessor may, with due caution, suggest this proposal [avoiding intercourse during fertile periods] to spouses if his other attempts to lead them away from the detestable crime of onanism [that is, the “withdrawal” method] have proved fruitless.” So if the choice is between contraception (which is sinful), and NFP (which isn’t), easy choice.

But if the choice is between NFP and simply being open to new life without trying to make a plan, the latter is even more ideal. NFP has never been the ideal way to approach human sexuality, and if you find that you’re over-reliant on it (particularly if you have the resources to welcome another child), it might be time to take a step out in faith, and trust God not to give you more than you can handle.

Update: The second section above is intended to refer to using NFP to prevent pregnancy. I’ve modified one of the sentences to eliminate ambiguity on this point.

51 Comments

  1. “ethinyl estradiol (the primary ingredient used in birth control pills) was leading to intersex fish, and collapsing fish populations. So these drugs are unhealthy and unsafe for a fish to ingest, yet our culture has convinced women to poison their bodies with them.”

    This is utterly shameless. Birth control pills aren’t poison. Sex determination is different in fish (my friend’s paper on the subject: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0012160613000341). And “unsafe” is a long shot even for fish. It sounds like the pills are working a little too effectively, which is not surprising given that they weren’t designed for or tested in fish.

    Compare that to ethanol found in church wine. If anyone is poisoning women (and everyone else) it’s the church.

    Perpetuating fear uncertainty and doubt about birth control pills in the midst of a fairly informative post is pretty low. Why are you so desperate to convince people to stop using birth control pills and/or condoms?

    I’m not really seeing why NPF is more acceptable to the church. It’s great that you’re advising people on more effective forms of birth control, but to that end, it seems like a combination would be most effective. Condoms and NPF or condoms and BCP. What advantage does NPF have aside from “Theoretically you have less sex?”

    1. Phil,

      Your reaction is surprisingly visceral. You’re assuming bad faith, and there are no grounds for doing so. The piece that I cited is from The Observer, the Sunday version of The Guardian. To the extent that the paper is biased, it’s certainly not in a pro-Catholic direction.

      The contents of that piece answer all of your science-based objections:

      1) You claim that “‘unsafe’ is a long shot even for fish.” But the article explains: “In one recent trial, in a Canadian lake, researchers added EE2 until levels in the water reached five parts per trillion (ppt), a minute concentration. Yet fish populations suffered severe problems with one species, the fathead minnow, collapsing completely.” How is it a “long shot” to describe those effects as unsafe, exactly?

      2) I understand that fish and humans are different, and I’m not suggesting that it’ll lead to intersex humans. As for human effects, we don’t yet know what they are. What we do know is that EE2 is an extremely potent chemical. Again, that’s not me speculating; that’s coming directly from the Observer piece:

      “Ethinyl estradiol (EE2), the main active ingredient of contraceptive pills, can trigger a condition known as intersex in freshwater fish, which has caused significant drops in populations in many species – although no links have yet been made with human health. “That does not mean we will not find impacts in future,” said toxicologist Professor Richard Owen of Exeter University. “But do we want to wait until we see effects in humans, as we did with thalidomide and BSE, or do we act before harm is done?

      Preventing EE2 from having environmental or health effects is difficult, however. “Ethinyl estradiol is a very potent chemical,” said Professor Susan Jobling of Brunel University. “It is designed to have effects in the human body at very low levels. That means it will also have a significant impact in the environment.””

      3) What makes this all the more startling is that the British found noticeable levels of EE2 in their water in 80% of the sites tested. The EU has urged a 0.035ppt level for EE2 in the water, far lower than what the Brits found in their water: hence the need for £30bn in cleanup.

      Do you think that the EU is just scare-mongering because they’re anti-sex? Or do you think we should take seriously the fact that we’re exposing millions of people to a potent drug whose effects we’re not completely sure of yet?

      4) As for the claim that we’re for NFP because “theoretically you have less sex,” it’s a caricature too stupid too answer. I don’t understand how people criticize Catholics for hating sex and for having giant families. Where do you think all those kids come from, exactly? In any case, the entire second half of this post was encouraging marital sex, so your criticism could scarcely be further from the mark.

      Of course, the question isn’t about “more” or “less” sex. It’s about whether we approach sex like animals or men, and I suspect that’s why this issue raises so many hackles.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    2. Phil,

      I forgot about your most important question: why the Church is okay with NFP, if She’s not okay with contraception.

      The long-and-short of it are that there are two purposes of sexuality: unitive and procreative. It should be an act of love between the spouses, and an act of loving acceptance towards any potential children.* There’s an inward direction (two becoming one) and an outward direction (two becoming three). Since this is human sexuality, all of this is governed by reason.

      This is the nature of human sexuality, even apart from Scripture or the Church or religion. This is just what sex is all about for mankind. It’s more dignified then what happens in animals, although in certain animals we see some nascent form of it. Even a person who’s never met a Christian or heard of the Gospel can deduce these ends of sexuality; human behavior (e.g., the revulsion at being cheated on) supported these dual ends.

      Because of this, sexual intercourse carries within itself an implicit promise of permanence. You’re promising to be with the other person for life, a promise that is tied up both with the marital union and with the possibility of family. (In my experience, men tend to have a harder time seeing this dimension, but that statement is by no means universal).

      Given all of this, there are two ways that we can damage and corrupt sex:

      1) You can cut off the two-becoming-one aspect. This is why fornication, adultery, prostitution, etc. are wrong. You’re making a promise with a body that you’re not abiding by.

      2) You can cut off the two-becoming-three aspect, by closing yourself off to the possibility of new life.

      All forms of contraception do the second of these. Condoms arguably do both, because they create a barrier between you and you spouse that further accentuate that you’re not completely giving yourself to her (and vice versa).

      So that explains why we’re against contraception. It’s not because we’re anti-sex. It’s because we view contraception as anti-sex.

      * Significantly, not every sexual act begets children. But every act is potentially begetting, and the couple is signaling their willingness to any children.

    3. Why NFP, then? As I noted above, not every sexual act produces children. And you don’t have to try to have kids: you just have to be open to it (it’s an absurd anti-Catholic trope that we are only for sex to have kids; that’s a heretical view of sex).

      NFP reflects mankind’s ability to act reasonably and prudently, to not be controlled and directed by sexual passions, but to control and direct those passions. If a couple knows how fertile the woman on a given day, they can reasonably decide to engage in sex, or refrain, based on how much they want to have children.

      In other words, NFP works with the woman’s body, and works with nature, including the nature of sexuality (e.g., the fact that intercourse isn’t always equally likely to lead to children is built into the nature of human sexuality). Contraception works against nature, thwarting what occurs naturally. And in the case of chemical contraception, it essentially rewires a woman’s body, chemically.

      Paul VI explains this distinction in Humanae Vitae:

      “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.”

      There’s much that can be said on this topic, but that’s a basic overview. You’ll find that the Internet has more than a few people answering this very question, at greater length and in greater detail than what I just explained.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      P.S. I just noticed that I had an amusing typo, describing your characterization of Catholics as “a caricature too stupid too answer.” I suppose I deserved that: I’ll leave it be as a reminder to be humble.

  2. And without a doubt, it’s far better than contraception.

    There is a lot of good in this article, but that sentence really stopped me. How can something morally licit (and even promoted by holy bishops like my own Bishop Thomas Olmsted) be “far better” (as opposed to only a little better?) than something evil? They are completely different animals — different in kind, not just in degree.

    But thank you for reminding folks that couples who use NFP tend to have very large families! NFP has a graceful (literally) way of working on the hearts of the couples who use it. Good fruit for sure. 🙂

    1. Leila,

      How could something morally licit not be far better than something morally illicit? I’m not positive I understand what you’re driving at.

      St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:9, “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion,” right after saying that it’s better still for them to remain celibate. He’s saying that there’s one morally licit option (marriage) that’s better than another option (lust) that’s a moral evil. But the fact that marriage is morally licit doesn’t make it superior to (or equal to) the other morally licit option, celibacy, which is why he says, “it is well for them to remain single as I do” (1 Cor. 7:8), and why Christ says “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Matthew 19:12).

      That model (bad / good / better) applies in this context as well. Contraception is bad. NFP is good, but it’s not the highest ideal: there’s a still better option. I think that Pope Paul VI makes this much clear in Humanae Vitae, and it’s certainly the consistent way that the Church has approached it.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    2. Joe, maybe it was the modifier (“far”) that threw me. It just didn’t sound right to me, but it could be me. I get weary of (faithful) Catholics fighting over the issue of NFP (I don’t think you’ve been part of that, but there have been tons of posts and articles flying around even in the last two weeks), so this might have hit me at the wrong time. I got a preview of Simcha Fisher’s new book on NFP, which I keep recommending even though it’s not out yet, ha ha. I hope everyone with an opinion on NFP will really read and consider what she has to say. As a mother of nine herself. 😉

      Although I guess I have to ask, what is the “better option” than NFP (which again is simply information)? Is it providentialism? That “ideal” seems a bit Protestant to me, but I am interested in your perspective.

    3. Leila,

      I recognize that couples using NFP are already engaging in a counter-cultural struggle in a contraceptive culture. I know that I seem a bit like the guy who looks at an “A-,” and focuses on the “minus” rather than the “A.” Rather, what I mean to do is to encourage couples who are trying to follow the teachings of the Church by explaining what the teachings of the Church actually are on this issue.

      So hopefully, this post isn’t a source of discouragement to those already on the right track. I share your battle fatigue regarding Catholic infighting, although I’d actually been unaware of any other Catholics pointing out what Humanae Vitae actually said regarding when NFP was (and wasn’t) to be used in limiting pregnancy. Admittedly, I haven’t been following the issue closely.

      I think that we’re using NFP in somewhat different ways here: the term can be used to mean (1) the fertility-awareness techniques themselves (which, as you note, are “simply information”), or (2) the use of those techniques to do “family planning” (the “FP” in NFP). I meant NFP in this second sense.

      As I noted in the original post, NFP can be used to either increase or decrease the likelihood of pregnancy. Both of these call for prudence, but particularly when NFP is used to discourage children.

      As I mentioned to Deltaflute, below, Paul VI spells this out in paragraph 10 of Humanae Vitae: “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.”

      He’s rejecting both extremes, but in a way that is obviously tilted in the pro-kids, pro-bigger family direction. That’s why you don’t need “serious reasons” to have more kids: you just need to make sure you’re capable of caring for them.

      So Humanae Vitae would say that a “providentialism” that behaves imprudently is out of bounds, but so is the use of NFP to restrict children without serious cause. Do you read the document differently?

      I.X.,

      Joe

    4. I think we do agree (and I appreciate the discussion with Deltaflute, below). I am glad about that. 🙂

      It’s probably that you (as you mentioned) haven’t been in all these discussions… some of which get really nasty. There are folks who harp and harp and harp on the issue, going to great lengths to imply (or outright state) that most folks using NFP definitely do not have a “serious” reason to do so (as if they can know?). It seems to me that it’s usually (not always) folks who may have come into the faith later in life, or who have smaller families due to prior contraceptive use and have regrets. It’s ironic that the ones arguing the other side (me, Simcha, Danya, etc.) have more children than they do!

      I found this article by Thomas Storck to be right on, and I even did some time in the combox:

      http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/the-curious-controversy-over-natural-family-planning

      Thanks for the great discussion, Joe!

    5. Also, this article I wrote a while back may explain why this issue is so important to me:

      http://littlecatholicbubble.blogspot.com/2013/01/my-nfp-plea-stop-giving-warnings-and.html

      Take it for what it’s worth. 🙂

    6. Leila,

      Interesting read. I am concerned that the debate on this issue seems to be between two camps: those who want to raise the bar for when it’s acceptable to use NFP to space births (and more specifically, who want to raise the bar for other people), and those who don’t seem to acknowledge that any such bar exists at all.

      The plain truth is that the Church does set a standard, but that She does so in a very general way, since a great number of factors come into play. For example, a couple could be financially secure, and psychologically unprepared for another child – and both financial security and psychological preparation are qualities not easily quantified. One of the other factors, alluded to in the above post, is that it’s acceptable to use NFP to avoid sin: that is, if a couple is struggling with the temptation to contracept, then by all means use NFP instead (even if you’re financially secure, etc.).

      So I think it’s important that couples using NFP know about the need for a serious reason, but I don’t think it’s helpful to second-guess the couple’s determination of what constitutes a serious reason.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      P.S. Congrats on having on your posts linked to by the Archdiocese of Omaha. Great things are happening in that place: their seminarians are fantastic.

    7. Joe,

      Reminder and request: Please quit citing Matthew 19 deceptively: a Catholic priest cannot be a “eunuch for the kingdom of heaven” unless his testicles have been removed.

      Mack

    8. Mack,

      1) So your claim is that Jesus Christ is literally calling on Christians to castrate themselves? Do you not realize how blasphemous that is? The spirit of self-mutilation is satanic (cf. 1 Kings 18:28; Mark 5:5).

      2) Christ describes being a eunuch for the Kingdom as the ideal, and says that “The one who can accept this should accept it.” (Mt. 19:17). Being perfect, He was obviously in this category of those who could accept it. By your logic, this means that Christ castrated Himself. Obviously, accusing Christ of being a self-mutilator (or promoting self-mutilation) is blasphemy.

      3) Matthew 19:17 is obviously a figure of speech, as is Matthew 5:30 (which is why the church isn’t full of Christian amputees). Both Catholic and Protestant commentators acknowledge this, because it’s obvious to anyone vaguely familiar with the speaking style of the New Testament. Can you point to any commentators (besides yourself) who take this passage hyper-literally?

      4) Besides being blasphemous, your interpretation is ridiculous. Where are all of these Christian castrati that Jesus is supposedly praising? Are there some mutilated Protestants that I don’t know about somewhere?

      5) As a teenager, Origen of Alexandria (185-254 A.D.) allegedly took this passage literally and castrated himself (there’s some dispute as to whether or not this occurred). He was condemned for this, and his bishop is said to have refused to ordain him a priest, because he wasn’t a whole man. The early Christians recognized what you failed to understand: that taking this literally is contrary to the spirit of the Scripture, and contrary to nature. This is supported by Canon 1 of the First Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), which excludes the self-castrated from clerical ministry.

      So your private interpretation of Scripture is blasphemous, absurd, unsupported by either Catholic or Protestant exegesis, rejected in practice by all Christians, and contrary to First Nicaea and the teachings of the earliest Christians

      Any reasonable reader of Scripture should be able to see that this is a figure of speech about celibacy. If you can’t see that, that’s a pretty good demonstration of why the individual isn’t the final exegetical authority of Sacred Scripture.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    9. Joe:

      #1 – Mutilation is satanic? Like circumcision? which Christ underwent (Luke 2:21 KJV)? And Deuteronomy 15:17 KJV, also satanic? Was the Ethiopian eunuch satanic (Acts 8:36-37 KJV)?

      #2 Jesus didn’t say it was ideal, he said, “there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” Matt. 19:12 KJV. Catholic priests reject castration, then act like they recieve the teaching.

      #3 Anybody unfortunate enough to have the mark of the beast forced into his hand (Rev. 13:16 KJV; Rev. 14:9-11 KJV) ought to cut the hand off rather than lose eternal life. So don’t rush to spiritualize away Matt. 5:30 KJV or Matt. 19:12 KJV.

      # 4 Eunuchs is literal, but it applies when the kingdom of heaven arrives, not to today (cf. Isaiah 56:4-5 KJV). But requiring oaths of celibacy is explicitly satanic (1 Timothy 4:3 KJV).

      # 5 Origen allegedly castrated himself and repented later. Shows you ought not to trust “commentators” – trust what you read.

      A “private interpretation” is ignoring the actual meaning of the word “eunuch” and rewritting it to say “a eunuch really means a celibate under an oath of chastity.” There is no manuscript in existence that says such a thing – it is a private interpretation.

      Eunuch means eunuch (“EU’NUCH, n. A male of the human species castrated.” Webster’s Dictionary, 1828).

      Please refrain from citing a passage about castrated eunuchs to support your Church’s private interpretation about celibates.

      Mack

      ps. – David, I’m not interpreting, I’m just reading what it says.

    10. Mack,

      You’re advancing a hyper-literal interpretation of Scripture that relies upon your personal interpretation of what “the Kingdom of Heaven” refers to. Neither your interpretation of Matthew 19:12, nor your interpretation of Matthew 5:30, nor your interpretation of the “Kingdom of Heaven” are well-supported. Frankly, these are absurd conclusions that you’re coming to: that in the Kingdom to come, the men will castrate themselves for some reason? That Christ calls upon he who can to do so, but then doesn’t do so Himself?

      Underlying all of this is what you say in your post-script. You think that you’re not interpreting, because you’re taking everything literally, and ignoring culture, context and connotation. That’s just wrong: saying that something should be taken literally, rather than figuratively, is an interpretation.

      If I read Matthew 18:22 to say that there was a “490 strikes, and you’re out” policy on sin, that would be an interpretation (and an obviously-wrong one, as a result of hyper-literalism). When the Jews thought that the Temple Christ was referring to in John 2:19 was the Temple of Jerusalem, that was an overly-literal interpretation.

      Those interpretations might be right or wrong (in this case, they’re all wrong), but either way, they’re still interpretations.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    11. Joe,

      It’s absurd and blasphemous to CHANGE what Jesus said from “eunuch” to “celibate” when the motivation is to evade what St Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 4:3 KJV and 1 Corinthians 9:5 KJV.

      Notice the King James Bible doesn’t turn castration into a crude joke the way the bogus ones do in Galatians 5:12 (cf. Gal. 5:12 KJV). Is it seemly for St Paul disregard Isaiah 56:4-5 KJV and to ridicule the Ethiopian Eunuch of Acts 8:36-37 KJV that way?

      Only pantheists think “God” is “heaven.” God’s kingdom is spiritual (Luke 17:21 KJK; Romans 14:17 KJV) while heaven’s kingdom is physical – but where Christ reigns both are present and overlap.

      In John 2:19 KJV Christ was talking about “this temple” – a literal physical temple, the temple of his body (and notice he uses the same wording to refer to himself as “this rock” in Matthew 16:18). There is an ambiguity as to what “this” refers to, but the verse is still straightforward.

      In Matthew 18:22 KJV Christ said “until” so that’s exactly what he means. If your brother offends you 490 separate times in one day (that’s every minute for over 8 hours straight) and each time you freely forgave him – then when he does it again the 491st time [!!], the Lord is not going to demand that you forgive him any longer – the Lord will know that you’ve reached the human breaking point and cut you some slack. But God never reaches the breaking point.

      You need to stop being cavalier in your approach to the Bible – you need to respect those words more. Right now you are changing words, pretending things you don’t understand are absurd, looking for any excuse to deny what is being said, and in every way try to keep the words themselves from having independent literal authority.

      You need to judge your traditions by the Book, not vice versa.

      Mack.

    12. Mack,

      To clarify: are you claiming that only a pantheist would believe that the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven are the same thing (just because God and Heaven are separate)?

      By that reasoning, wouldn’t you have to claim that the Son of Man and the Son of God are different people, since “God” and “man” aren’t synonyms?

      I.X.,

      Joe

    13. Joe,

      You think that God is both ‘God and heaven’, as Christ is both ‘God and man’? When did the incarnation of God to heaven occur?!?

      No, obviously God is a spirit (John 4:24 KJV), while heaven is a place (Genesis 1:1 KJV) – thus it includes the physical universe.

      This is just straightforward reading.

      The reason why it is difficult to distinguish “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” in the gospels is because when Christ is present, both are going to be present.

      Christ has since left and today we have only the spiritual kingdom of God now present in the lives of saved believers in Jesus Christ. Are you one of them?

      It’s is not until Revelation 11:15 KJV that the kingdom of heaven is established when Christ returns in glory (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1,18 KJV – future kingdom of heaven; 2 Thessalonians 1:5 – current kingdom of God).

      “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” John 18:36 KJV.

      Presently Christians preach the kingdom of God (John 3:3 KJV; Acts 28:31 KJV), and it is a mistake to teach a dominionism theology that belongs to the kingdom of heaven.

      Mack

    14. Mack,

      1) You think that God is both ‘God and heaven’, as Christ is both ‘God and man’?

      No.

      I was pointing out that your logic is flawed.

      As you note, God and Heaven aren’t synonymous. That doesn’t prove that the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven aren’t synonymous. Likewise, Abraham and Sarah aren’t synonymous, but that doesn’t prove that the son of Abraham and the son of Sarah are different people.

      You’re committing a logical fallacy: accusing me of a position you just made up doesn’t get you out of that problem.

      2) As for your claim that the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven are different places, that’s disproven by one of the very passages you cite – John 18:36, in which Jesus refers to His Kingdom in the singular.

      The phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” is found only in St. Matthew’s Gospel, and occurs in places where the other Synoptics have “Kingdom of God.” The meaning is the same, as can be readily seen from several examples:

      a) Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15 both describe Jesus’ initial message after the arrest of John the Baptist: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15); “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).

      b) Christ’s comment after His encounter with the rich young man: “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23); “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23).

      c) And again: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25); “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).

      d) In the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3); “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).

      You get the point. This bit about the Kingdom of God being a second Kingdom apart from the Kingdom of Heaven is contrary to John 18:36, and unsupported by the Scriptural text.

      It’s worth pointing out that, once again, you’ve failed to show anyone else who reads Scripture in the way that you do. You assume (falsely, as should be apparent by now) that everyone reads Scripture the way that seems obvious to you. Do you not realize that innumerable heretics think the same way about their own perversions of the Sacred text?

      I.X.,

      Joe

    15. Joe,

      A “son of God” obviously is not the same thing as a “son of man” because they are different words with different meanings. It’s only a synonym in Christ because he has two natures.

      And likewise, “kingdom of God” is spiritual – ruled by God’s Spirit (thus “Son of God”); and “kingdom of heaven” is physical – to be ruled by God’s man, i.e., Christ, and his saints (thus “Son of man”).

      This is just reading what the text says.

      Did you read my comment? I pointed out that the heavenly kingdom isn’t just in the gospels, it is also mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:18 KJV and Revelation 11:15 KJV.

      It can also be found in 1 Chronicles 29:11 KJV, 2 Chronicles 20:6 KJV, Isaiah 37:16 KJV, and Daniel 7:27 KJV. Notice how singular and plural both apply – why do you think Christ is called “king of kings” (1 Timothy 6:15 KJV) – he rules a kingdom over all other kingdoms.

      Christ’s preached both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven because he offered both to the Jews. The Jews rejected them allowing the kingdom of God to go to gentiles during this church age. But the kingdom of heaven does not show up again until Revelation 12:10 KJV.

      The Old Testament is all about the kingdom of heaven: “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” Matthew 11:12 KJV. It is God’s domination in the physical realm by the Jewish nation. That has been in abeyance now for the last 2,000 years.

      Many similarities (your examples a, b, c, d) don’t make these the same thing. Christ offered both a physical kingdom (Luke 1:71-75 KJV, Acts 1:6 KJV) and a spiritual one to the Jews and these examples have both applications.

      The Bible says the “kingdom of God” is within (Luke 17:20-21 KJV; John 3:3 KJV) and does not involve food or drink (Romans 14:17 KJV). Yet the kingdom of heaven comes with an army from heaven (Revelation 19:11 KJV) and will be a time when the earth brings forth vast amounts of food (Isaiah 30:23 KJV).

      So getting back to the “eunuchs” – you have taken a physical application that will apply to certain people when Christ returns to set up his physical kingdom, and tried to apply it spiritually to the current time-frame, despite what Paul taught in 1 Timothy 4:3 KJV.

      And whoever “reads” Scripture has to read it exactly as I do because words are not subjective, yet interpretations often are. Thus when you say “eunuch does not mean eunuch”, you read exactly what I read, you simply changed what you read by a private interpretation.

      – Mack.

    16. > And likewise, “kingdom of God” is spiritual – ruled by God’s Spirit (thus “Son of God”); and “kingdom of heaven” is physical – to be ruled by God’s man, i.e., Christ, and his saints (thus “Son of man”).
      >This is just reading what the text says.

      It’s not though, is it? You’ve inserted your own explanations as to what those phrases mean, ignoring the parallels that Joe provided in the previous comment.

      > And whoever “reads” Scripture has to read it exactly as I do because words are not subjective, yet interpretations often are.

      The problem is that your interpretations are unique, to say the least. Do any of these interpretations have any historical pedigree? Even today, how many people would hold to your interpretations? Now, I will willingly admit that popular opinion doesn’t equal truth…but surely there has to be a point at which theological novum is to be recognized as such?

      > Thus when you say “eunuch does not mean eunuch”, you read exactly what I read, you simply changed what you read by a private interpretation.

      I have four words: “This is my Body”.

  3. I think the basic point is that you can’t make an idol out of NFP. It should be used for only serious reasons. Theoretically, you could use it to just limit your family to having three kids just because you want a bigger house and two vacations a year. That’s not a good reason to use it.

  4. The problem that I see is that NFP isn’t just to avoid pregnancy but also achieve it. And people often forget to include that in the discussion. As Leila said its sounding a bit like providentalism to say simply NFP is not as good as indescriminate sex. NFP is more about understanding your health. So are your concerns more about discernment or the use of NFP?

    1. Deltaflute,

      Good distinctions. I have in mind what Paul VI was talking about taking advantage “of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile.” In other words, using NFP to limit the number of children. NFP should only be used in that context if “there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances.”

      Using NFP to encourage procreation, or simply using the methods to better understand your body, doesn’t run into the same moral problems at all, because you’re heartily embracing both of the purposes of sexual intercourse.

      I should emphasize that this isn’t my own speculation. Paul VI draws this distinction in paragraph 10 of Humanae Vitae says: “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.”

      He also notes that couples “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.” It’s this last part that I think is particularly at risk: given how effective modern NFP is, it’s easy for couples to forget that it’s not wholly up to them to decide when and how life is transmitted.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    2. Thanks for the clarification. A word of caution: Leila pointed out that Catholics use NFP to start a whole lot of infighting. I’ll refer to Simcha Fisher’s article about discernment. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher/2011/03/23/why-doesnt-the-church-just-make-a-list/

      As with any sin we have to be careful not to assume couples are committing sin. If there does exist couples who dont discern well, one can hope that aren’t trying to sin. Poor discernment owing to either ignorance of what’s grave in the generic sense or what’s grave for the particular couple. Not every person is sure they are hearing the Holy Spirit. Doesn’t culpability hold that you are willfully sinning?

    3. Deltaflute,

      I agree with you, and with Simcha Fischer. There are several areas where the Church’s guidance is general: for example, She encourages Her children to give, but She doesn’t specify a certain amount or percentage. The same is true here. Married people are called to generosity with their fertility as well as with their wallets. As with financial giving, the general sense is that more is better, but there may be times in which it would imprudent and irresponsible.

      So the Church’s instructions use general, subjective language (“serious reasons,” “well-grounded reasons,” “acceptable reasons,” etc.) for a reason. The question of whether or not a couple feels ready for another child will likely depend on several factors, including the “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions” in which the couple finds themselves.

      I’m not trying to take a side in whatever debates have been going on throughout the blogosphere. I’m only saying what the Church actually says: using NFP to space births should be done only if a married couple has serious reasons.

      What constitutes “serious reasons” is largely a matter of conscience (and here, I mean the conscience of the couple, not third parties seconding guessing them), and a question that I’m not even attempting to answer (other than pointing out, in this comment, the broad guidelines the Church sketches out).

      Does any of this disagree with what you, or Simcha, or Leila are advocating?

      I.X.,

      Joe

    4. No it doesn’t. As I said its a word of caution. Lately I’ve seen the most ridiculous extremes for what constitutes grave. Some people have basically said things like you have to be devistatingly poor or on your death bed before you should not have a child. The Church doesn’t give specifics other than to sincerely consider. I myself have stopped blogging about it. For one thing I detest infighting and another I shouldn’t have to publically explain my reasons for only having two children. Some things should remain private.

  5. If Catholics want to use NFP, please, knock yourselves out. What you may NOT do is try to insist that the rest of us use it. I didn’t want more than two kids, so I used an effective method to make certain of that. My religion doesn’t demand anything different, my husband would never have cooperated with NFP anyway, so everything worked out. As long as you keep this to yourselves, go ahead. I object very strongly when you suggest that the rest of need to do so.

    1. Karen,

      1) Do you not see the irony in ordering Catholics not to “ insist that the rest of us use” NFP?

      As far as I can tell from your comment, you seem to think that the morally correct course of action is for everyone to mind their own business. I happen to think that this is a shallow and naïve moral code, but it’s apparently the one you subscribe to. But you immediately violate your own moral code by trying to force it on all Catholics, by telling us what we can and cannot insist on. You even word it as an order: what we may NOT do!

      That’s far more authoritarian than anything I said or hinted at anywhere in the post that you’re complaining about.

      2) All of the arguments above are based on the idea that contraception is contrary to the nature of human sexuality (I spell these out at greater in my response to Phil, above). Absolutely none of this turns on whether or not you believe in Christian revelation.

      Contraception is contrary to natural law. Both Scripture and Church teaching support a rejection of contraception. But even if there were no Scripture and no Church, contraception would still be wrong. We can know this simply by looking to what sex is meant to do.

      3) You don’t actually provide any arguments why contraception is okay: you only say that you’re okay with it, that you didn’t want more than two kids, that your husband never would have agreed to NFP, and that your religion doesn’t require anything more. But if a thing is contrary to nature, it’s immoral. The fact that you or your husband or your personal religion are silent on the question doesn’t change this fact.

      For example, murder is contrary to the natural law (I’m choosing this extreme example, because I don’t yet know of any moral issues that you and I agree upon, but this one seems like a safe bet). If you and your husband happened to think it was okay to kill innocent people, and your religion was okay with it, would that make the action morally acceptable? Of course not. It would just mean that you, your husband, and your religion were wrong.

      Obviously, I’m not trying to suggest that murder and contraception are equally grave (although chemical contraception is an abortifacient). I’m just trying to show you why your arguments aren’t actually arguments in favor of the okayness of contraception.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    2. Eyeglasses, antibiotics, chemotherapy, irrigation, and soap are all contrary to nature. They are not, however, immoral. When you come up with an argument for banning contraception that doesn’t also apply to eyeglasses and such, I’ll listen.

    3. Karen,

      No, they’re not. For example, it doesn’t violate the nature of sight to enhance it with eyeglasses (gouging your eyes out, on the other hand, would be unnatural).

      We’re using the word “natural” in different ways. When we talk about the natural law, we don’t mean the word in the way that “The Nature Channel” means nature.

      We mean it in terms of the nature of various things. To take one example, man is by nature a “rational animal” (Aristotle’s term), which is why intentionally impeding your ability to be rational (e.g, through mind-altering drugs) is contrary to natural law.

      In this context, we’re asking about the nature of human sexuality… not about the way animals have sex on the nature channel.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    1. Bill,

      That’s not the same study I’m talking about, but in any case, I don’t think that’s a distortion. You’ll find a similar skew of unintended pregnancy rates for virtually any contraception, just because young women are a lot more fertile.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    1. Daniel,

      I don’t want profanity and name-calling on my blog. I’ve deleted your original comment, but kept the relevant portion for reference purposes.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      P.S. You had said:

      “Birth control pills aren’t poison?

      The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer places estrogen and progestogen contraceptives (combined form and sequential forms) in the same IARC catagory (Group 1) as plutonium, mustard gas, and gamma rays.”

  6. “Chance”

    For probable cancer see IARC Group 2A. For possible cancer see Group 2B.

    Anyway, I pulled up Agents Classified by the IARC Monographs, Volumes 1–108 and only found a reference to Sunset Yellow FCF (a dye that is IARC Group 3) and sunlamps/sunbeds–which redirects to their entry for ultraviolet emitting tanning devices, which they list as IARC Group 1.

  7. What does it mean for NFP to be the norm when approaching sexuality?

    Does it mean approaching it with knowledge?

    Does it mean approaching it with responsibility?

    Does it mean *not* approaching it?

    If the latter, I deny that it is promoted as a norm. And why would a diocese or parish promote family avoidance, just for the sake of family avoidance as a norm anyway?

    And if the former, why *wouldn’t* it be the norm?

  8. Joe,
    I am very impressed by your writings, and being a close to married Catholic, am very excited about NFP.

    I think one major distortion in the world is this idea of our freedom to choose,and how it affects decisions we make. We think decisions we make that allow for ease in our life is a representation of our superior intellect, but really accumulate into a sedimentary lifestyle devoid of change and growth. It is not “enlightened” to think that we can manipulate our bodies into unnatural occurrences. When most BC pills will change a menstrual cycle to only allow for w few periods a year, which is entirely unnatural, the world wants to think that our choice, which makes life more comfortable and easy, is our expression of freedom.

    The contrary is true. Our freedom comes from our ability to reason and not rely on conditions to satisfy a goal. I feel like it is an understanding that it is not only outcomes that matter, but also the growth of the journey. Passing a test you cheated on gets results, without any intellectual growth. The goal is reached, but the journey is lost.

    The fear I have is that this pursuit of enlightened freedom in the world becomes a quest for convenience disguised as “empowered decision making”. When we become slaves to what makes life easy, our actual relevant freedom is lost.

    Love the blog Joe.

  9. As an NFP instructor (Billings Ovulation Method), I sometimes feel odd that I don’t actually use NFP. Well, I suppose I do in that I practice ecological breastfeeding, but I do that purely because it is best for my child; the fact that it also suppresses my fertility is a side effect.

    In my diocese, NFP is required in marriage prep. I sometimes have mixed feelings about it, since the Church doesn’t require using NFP, but I do think the knowledge given can be invaluable. I’ve also seen many who were on the pill go off because of this requirement, which makes it worth it, I think. And of course, at its

  10. Thank you for this post! I’m an NFP instructor for the SymptoPro method (an ST method) and it is always great to hear people explaining the efficacy of NFP. My clients are about half marriage prep requirement couples and half actively practicing. I can tell you it is alarming how many misconceptions there are about the side effects and risks associated with hormonal contraception.

    It is a pet peeve of mine when couples complain that NFP supporters are using scare tactitcs to promote or method. It’s not just anti contraception scare tactics when we talk about the harmful effects of the pill, it is about equipping couples with ALL the information before they make their family planning decisions. Too often I hear women say things like they are on “hormone free” birth control. That doesn’t exist. Or that they are on the pill because “breast cancer runs in their family and they want to reduce the risk.” Here are some facts that I think all women should be aware of before determining how to manage their fertility:

    1) hormonal contraception is a class I carcinogen. That means it is as cancer causing as smoking and tanning beds.
    2) Many forms of hormonal contraception are abortifacient
    3) Women taking hormonal contraception for 7 years or longer are significantly more likely to have infertility issues.

    Most people taking the pill are not aware of those facts. Until all doctors accurately represent all of the fertility management options, including the risks, benefits and draw backs I think we should shout it from the mountain tops because we deserve to know!

    1. Jessica,

      Thanks for the comment – I liked it. The only quibble I would have is with 1) on your list. The fact that hormonal contraception is a class I carcinogen doesn’t mean that it’s as carcinogenic as smoking or tanning beds: just that it’s more dangerous than all of the other classes of carcinogens. (Just like not all Class A felonies are equally bad). Your general point stands, nevertheless.

      I.X.,

      Joe

  11. “But if the choice is between NFP and simply being open to new life without trying to make a plan, the latter is even more ideal. NFP has never been the ideal way to approach human sexuality, and if you find that you’re over-reliant on it (particularly if you have the resources to welcome another child), it might be time to take a step out in faith, and trust God not to give you more than you can handle.”
    Why must the default be random acts of intercourse? If a couple has discerned that they can welcome a new baby, are they not ‘allowed’ to target days of maximum fertility unless they are struggling to conceive? If they have discerned that they ought to postpone pregnancy, then they have a just reason to use the infertile periods only. Yes, couples certainly have the choice to be random about intercourse, but why are you saying that must necessarily be the ideal? If HV states that reason and will must be exercised over this domain, what is your basis for saying random ought to be the default?

    I understand your point about some people obsessing about NFP and being controlling in the extreme (although as a Billings Method instructor, I’ve noticed that these people tend to be few and far between, due to the demands that abstinence places on a couple… usually they only abstain if they have a serious reason!)

    Other than that I thought your post was great, and thank-you for addressing this topic!

    1. Keeley,

      I actually added an update after there was initial confusion about this point:

      “Update: The second section above is intended to refer to using NFP to prevent pregnancy. I’ve modified one of the sentences to eliminate ambiguity on this point.”

      “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.” (Humanae Vitae 10).

      I.X.,

      Joe

  12. Joe,

    I have some topic that I would appreciate your help with, if you do not mind. It does not relate to this post or the comments above. A member of this congregation is fascinated by the show “Ancient Aliens” and the idea that we are visited by life forms from another planet. Every once in a while he will latch onto some “news story” about another event that proves alien life has visited earth. Last week, he made a comment about alien skulls being found in the Vatican Library. There are a few conspiracy theory web pages that back up this story, but I doubt them for obvious reasons. These stories keep dropping the name of Monsignor Corrado Balducci, who apparently was a real priest and member of the Vatican Curia.

    I understand that the Vatican has an observatory, which is great. But having an observatory and looking at the created order is far different than saying that we have alien skulls in the Vatican Library. I told this member that the Vatican would not admit something like this even if it was true. Can you help a brother out with this red herring? Thank you for your posts and great work here!

  13. Joe,

    I have heard that NFP methods actually increase the failure rate of implantation, resulting in the loss of the fertilized egg. What have you heard about this? Pro-abortionists and anti-NFPers use this argument to accuse Catholics of “negligent homicide.” So what’s the truth?

    Thanks,
    Brian

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