Misconceptions About NFP

When I heard the election results in 2012, my very first thought was that if Catholics had reacted appropriately to the invention of the pill, instead of the way they did, we would have won this election.

It is a subject which has bothered me for years—because I believe that it grieves our Lord. Then that November, I saw how it was hurting us all.

God is the Creator. Satan is the anti-creator. God wants to fill Heaven—that the tables at the wedding banquet may be filled. Satan doesn’t want anyone else born; good Catholics least of all. His weapons are lies, half-truths, misunderstandings, confusions.

Catholics have the confused idea that NFP is part of a venerable, even virtuous, long-standing Catholic tradition—the way we have always handled the question. No way! From all time, God had planned families. NFP is a tool derived from a scientific discovery of modern times—a third of the way through the 20th century. Children had always been highly valued, and gifts from God. Their coming to be was a mystery.

Aristotle said it was all form and matter. The man provided the form, and the woman formed the matter. The sperm just grabbed up part of the menstrual matter as it flowed by, and conception happened during the period. St. Thomas Aquinas believed him, and this became the understanding in the West. I own a book, published by a New York doctor in 1922, for the Eugenics Society—the effectively Godless society which was pedaling the new idea that children weren’t so valuable after all. The doctor wrote that if you really wanted to avoid conception, you had to abstain from intercourse from three days before the period began, until 15 days after it had begun!

But by 1930, the western world had figured out ovulation. Japan had done so a few years earlier. At the end of that year, Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii approved of Catholics making use of this new knowledge, but cited “the sufferings of those parents who, in extreme want, experience great difficulty in rearing their children.” Pope Pius XII spoke of it in his 1952 “Address to Midwives,” for the sake of couples in “grave circumstances.”

They called it “rhythm”. Rhythm was not overused. I remember that couples were directed to have their confessor’s permission before using it. When I was growing up, you could tell the Catholic families in the neighborhood because they had more children. And Catholics had a sense of identity—we were different from the rest.

Another confusion came along. Margaret Sanger had dismissed breastfeeding as “enslaving the woman.” So new companies making baby bottles and formula began to flourish. Science knew best. I know of a woman in her 30s, and another in her 40s, who were both told by their doctors that they shouldn’t nurse—it wouldn’t be the best way to feed their babies. In the United States during 1940s and the 1950s, nursing virtually died out. In my growing up years, I did not know of a single woman, among all my relatives and my friends’ families, who nursed. As late as 1968, when I was having my first child, and I told the doctor that I planned to nurse, he said, “That’s odd!”

But Satan was building the market for the invention he saw scientists working on then. When one nurses a baby to the extent, and for the length of time, that is best for the baby—God’s plan—the next baby will come at least two, to two and a half years later. If one doesn’t nurse, the babies could come less than a year apart! This is understandably hard.

In 1960, the new invention, the “pill,” was finally introduced. It was the most evil invention ever. It brought into question one of the first truths God had given us about human beings: “Male and female He created them.” Now a woman could be just like a man! The pill kills babies. The pill brought about the “sexual revolution,” an increase in divorces, and the homosexual culture of today.

The Church didn’t foresee all of this. Pope Paul VI handpicked a commission to study it…which came back and said it was fine! With the Holy Spirit on his side, though, he rejected their report, and bravely wrote Humanae Vitae: no pill, nor periodic abstinence, was permitted when there were serious health or economic problems. But this was in 1968, and many Catholics had already begun using the pill.

With great zeal, and the very best of intentions, a group of American lay Catholics rose to the occasion. They wanted to remind fellow Catholic couples that, when they had serious reasons, they didn’t need the pill; the old rhythm method really did work. But they made the tremendously tragic mistake, in an attempt to sound “with the times,” of renaming it “Natural Family Planning.” Its promotion was also problematic.

“Family Planning” was the eugenecists’ more positive term for “birth control,” but it means the same thing—and that had always been consistently opposed by the Church. Children do not come about by chance, but each by the act of the Creator Himself.

The new name sent out two false messages. First, “planning” is Planned Parenthood’s term, and “planning,” which is done ahead of time, has a much broader, and more comprehensive scope than simply reacting to a problem that has arisen. NFP really isn’t “family planning” after all. According to Rev. Frances J. Rippley in his book, This is the Faith, a Catholic couple “does not have the right to plan their family, even though the means used are those of NFP.” Cardinal Ottaviani, then the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said, “Never has this been heard of in the Church!”

The other confusion the name, Natural Family Planning, causes is that the only thing wrong with the pill is that it is artificial. So what? So is aspirin!

More misunderstandings. NFP was promoted as being “chaste.” Well, the alternative pill certainly is unchaste. But consider: outside of marriage, chastity is abstinence. However, inside of marriage, you are not more chaste if you express your love less often. Within marriage, chastity is rightly-ordered sex. If you are using NFP for less than the requisite reasons, it is not chastity. It may seem to be a virtue in itself, but it is not. It is an amoral action, as well, which can be poorly applied.

Yet, when a priest promoting NFP heard that I had ten children, he said, “Haven’t you ever heard of chastity?” And when another priest heard that a friend of mine had eight children, he told her, “Life isn’t supposed to be a sexual orgy!”

NFP was billed as being “just as effective as the pill.” In that case, we are apparently trying to affect the same goals! Married couples became “like the nations,” and ended up with the same requisite two children and two careers, as does the whole culture around us.

Just the fact that the Church was endorsing something called “planning” seemed to say that we were not being responsible if we didn’t “plan.” Accordingly, my husband and I were told this by two different Catholic lay leaders. One even waved his finger in front of our faces and said, “You are being irresponsible not to plan your family!” I met a woman many years later who had known this same man and had been very influenced by him. And she had nine children. But she was very apologetic about it! “We really did use NFP! We really did plan them all!

So now there are very few Catholic couples willing to just let God do the planning.

And Catholics willing to use NFP think, “If we are the responsible ones, the ones whose job it is to plan, then we will do it for whatever reasons we are serious about.” They are often completely unaware of Humanae Vitae’s objective criteria.

“Besides, it is virtuous, so it can’t ever be wrong to use it, for whatever the reason. And if we are going to do a good job of planning, we aren’t just going to avoid a child in the worst of circumstances, we are going to aim for the best possible circumstances.”

This will mean a lot less children, of course.

Much worse, other Catholics think that the Church says we need to plan pregnancies and be responsible, and they decide that they are not the type to be able to master NFP—that they need a more reliable method to work for them. The pill is reliable. So what if it is artificial? All pills are! They are at least being responsible, they think, just as the Church tells us to be!

The Kippleys tell us that of married Catholics of child-bearing age, less than two percent use NFP. A few just accept children, but the overwhelming majority are using the pill!

In 1994, the Catechism of the Catholic Church came out. It speaks of periodic continence, and it talks of the two purposes of marriage. Before the 1960s, the Church had generally spoken of only one purpose of marriage: procreation. But during Vatican II, there was more talk of a “unitive” purpose. Even if God didn’t give a couple children, there was value in their union—for each other, for those around them, and as a sign for all of Christ’s love for His Church. So, the Catechism acknowledges the two purposes…but says they are inseparable. They are both constantly true, and never to be separated. We can’t just say we are going to temporarily set aside one purpose, and pursue only the other!

Then how could the Church have ever allowed periodic abstinence? Simple! Because of another inseparability principle! Procreation is a two-part reality. Vatican II documents talk about “procreation-education” almost as a single subject. We never just have a child. We need to raise that child, and raise that child for the Lord.

So if problems arise in our married life which we fear would jeopardize our ability to properly raise either the children we already have, or the child who yet may come to be, we may use periodic abstinence to avoid conception—not to avoid procreation, but to fulfill it—the second half of it!

I found a priest who agreed with me. Now “Servant of God,” Fr. John A. Hardon agreed completely. He said, “NFP was to be promoted to counter contraception, never to counter just accepting children from the Lord;” and, “The only truly Catholic family planning is Supernatural Family Planning.”

I met attorney Robert Muise who gave me the book, Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence by two Jesuits: Blessed Claude de la Columbiere and Fr. Jean Baptiste Saint-Jure. The book includes trusting God to plan the family—”whatever the number”—as just part of the “trustful surrender,” which is of the essence of Christian life.

I had one unanswered question. The Bible says, according to St. Paul, that a married couple is to “separate only for prayer.” How would that allow for NFP? But Dr. Gregory Popcek states that when we hit a seriously problematic time in our life, we separate during the few fertile days, and use that time for days of prayer over the problem.

“Lord, what can we do? Do we have (or do we still have) appropriate reason to avoid conception? Please take care of our problem. If it is one of health, please heal us. If it is an economic question, could You please resolve it? Maybe a new job? Take care of our problem, Lord, so that we can again be open to accepting a child from you!”

We need to clear up those misunderstandings. We need to start by getting rid of that extremely misleading name: “NFP.”

There can be a new sense of Catholic identity…with lots more good Catholic voters!

Anne Cherney About Anne Cherney

Anne Cherney, mother of ten (and grandmother of 38, so far!), went back to school after her children were grown, getting her M.A. in Theological Studies from the John Paul II Institute, in Washington D.C., in 2009. One More Soul recently published her book, Supernatural Family Planning.


  1. Avatar Ed Hummel says:

    In defense of Natural Family Planning, which probably could be better named, Mrs. Cherney is implicitly denying the totality of our human nature, our God given gifts of intellect and will and freedom to act in a morally responsibly way. Secondly, there can be a sin of presumption involved in simply leaving it up to God. With the Church’s guidance, God is leaving it up to us. John Kippley also told me only 2% of Catholic couples of child-bearing age are using NFP. The great problem here is the need to convert the 98% to also use NFP out of reverence and respect for the gift of fertility as God has given it to us. NFP is not just for spacing or avoiding pregnancy, but can be useful for couples in all circumstances trying to achieve. It becomes a monthly decision. From 30 years of co-teaching the Billings method of NFP, those so practicing are the couples having children. Respectfully submitted with an M.A. in Christian Counseling.

    • Well said Ed Hummel, thank you!

      To the editors of HPR, I would like to ask: Do you not fact check your articles before printing?
      This is an embarrassment of errors regarding Catholic theology, spiritually, and Natural Family Planning and how its leaders currently promote it. Today, NFP leaders understand and teach that NFP methods are a “skill-set” that support God’s design for married love. As NFP leaders well know, the majority of Catholics do not know what gifts God has given in marriage and they do not know how contraception harms those gifts. So, while the majority of the faithful unknowingly suffer from using contraception, the heroic NFP leaders are struggling to help awaken them by providing education in both Church teaching and a moral means to work with the Lord God to plan their families. Why doesn’t HPR feature that kind of useful article?

  2. I agree with Cherney’s main point that couples need to be generous in having children. However, the idea of periodic abstinence to avoid pregnancy is not recent. In response to scientific speculation about a possible infertile time in women, the Sacred Paenitentiary in 1853 and again in 1880 approved the idea of restricting marital relations to the infertile time of the cycle to seek to avoid pregnancy, assuming the couple had sufficient cause and did not engage in immoral practices.

    • anne cherney anne cherney says:

      That is very interesting, John, that the Church had twice approved of periodic abstinence to avoid conception…for appropriate reasons…before the time of ovulation was even determined! A Church teaching consistent for one hundred and sixty-five years should certainly satisfy the few who question the righteousness of ever trying to avoid pregnancy.