Are couples who use systematic “natural family planning” following the chaste-marriage teaching of the Catholic Church? From the available evidence, some are and many are not. The “method” of true systematic NFP is chaste abstinence during the fertile time of the cycle. That is, not only do the couple abstain from full sexual intercourse but they also refrain from masturbation, whether mutual or solitary, and other immoral activities such as oral and anal copulation. In short, they abstain from all orgasmic activity.
It has long been agreed by moral theologians that abstaining married couples can morally engage in romantic activities that do not conclude with orgasm. That, however, is not what is practiced by some or many couples who do “NFP” without chaste abstinence. In a recent discussion about these matters on an NFP email list, several studies were referenced. A 1970 study of temperature-only couples found that almost 90% of the couples had some sexual activity and that in most cases this led to climax. A 1978 study of mucus-only couples found that 70% reached climax during the fertile time. A 1993 study of mucus-plus-temperature couples found that 84% engaged in romantic activity during the fertile time and that 62% reached climax via mutual stimulation, 10% by self-stimulation, and 40% used barrier methods. This is obviously not the chaste abstinence called for by Catholic teaching.
Those studies were of non-American users. Are things different in the United States where only a very small fraction of Catholics are practicing any kind of “NFP”? I have no reason to think American NFP Catholics are more chaste than our international friends. Some years ago I had a phone call from a repentant woman. She and her spouse had been practicing mutual masturbation during the fertile time for eight years, having taken an NFP course that did not teach chaste abstinence. Last fall a woman wrote in a similar fashion, “Sadly we were trained 23 years ago – that is why I was so shocked to know that we had been doing something wrong for all these years.” As we dialogued, she noted that she thought everyone was acting as they had been doing. Within the last month I have heard from another woman who has been discussing the problem of marital chaste abstinence and is appalled at the lack of support. She listed seven types of responses she had received including “I have sought priests who think I’m crazy for not giving in to contraception.” In context, she was looking for priests who could give her and her spouse some helpful counseling about marital chastity.
How can this happen? How can couples who are of sufficient good faith to attend NFP courses because they want to follow Catholic teaching still think that mutual masturbation and so forth is morally acceptable? Well, I am not going to ignore the strong tendency to rationalization, but in the above cases, these couples were never informed by their NFP course and/or instructor and materials about the demands of chaste married love. Providentially, they had stumbled upon an NFP manual written by my wife and me. Further, some previously unchaste couples have reported that our books helped them to make the decision to become chaste and eventually to promote or teach natural family planning. See Chapter 7 of our current manual, Natural Family Planning: The Complete Approach. The current problem is that there are widely used NFP books that do not teach morality. They might teach to avoid genital contact, but that can be interpreted in a strictly pragmatic way and says nothing about some of the various activities told to me.
Ultimately, of course, the problem lies with the bishops. Collectively or individually, they could stipulate that any program in any way affiliated with the diocese or a parish simply must teach explicitly against these common sins to which NFP-using couples are tempted. That would have to apply to all teaching manuals as well as to the verbal instruction. It only takes a few lines and a couple minutes. Why don’t they take this simple step?
Can there be anything resembling a New Evangelization without teaching the demands of marital love and chastity and generosity?
I suggest that this is worthy of our prayers as we celebrate Divine Mercy on the Sunday after Easter.
John F. Kippley, also at http://www.nfpandmore.org where Sheila blogs weekly