Question: My husband and I use Natural Family Planning but friends are making us feel guilty about it because they say we are pre-occupied with rules rather than just loving each other. What can we tell our friends to help them understand that we do love each other and that is precisely why we use NFP?
Answer: To the uninitiated observer, NFP can certainly seem like a bunch of silly rules. In fact, if a couple doesn’t approach NFP in the right spirit and from the right moral perspective, then they could end up using it in a slavish and rigid way that seems less about loving and more about “dotting the i’s” and “crossing the t’s.” Seen from this view, lovemaking could seem even less exciting than a lesson in remedial grammar.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way, because NFP isn’t really about “the rules” or at least, it’s not supposed to be. So what is it really about? It’s about love.
In his Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II spoke of two different approaches to the moral life: one based on a moral “ethic” and the other based on a moral “ethos.” A moral ethic is a rule-based morality. It springs, not from love, nor from understanding, but from fear of condemnation and/or a need to slavishly follow the rules to the letter — and no more. It is consumed with questions such as, “how far can I go?” and “how much can we do?” before a sin is committed and I “get in trouble.” It wants the moral life to be defined by neat, black and white boundaries that, instead of calling me into a deeper relationship with God and others, simply tells me the least I must do to be judged “upright” in the eyes of God and my peers.
By contrast, a moral ethos is a moral sense born of prayerful discernment and godly love. It springs up from inside us. When our first desire is to live a holy life, when we truly desire to love God and others more than anything, our love compels us to never treat others, or allow others to treat us, as objects. We become like children who love their parents so much that it would break our hearts to disappoint them, so we don’t just clean our room, we really clean our room. (As contrasted with the merely “ethical” child who cleans his room just enough to be allowed to go out to play). Or, more to the point, we become like the husband who loves his mate so much that he doesn’t just avoid sexual relations with other women so he can say that he has kept the commandment against adultery. Rather, he works tirelessly to learn better ways to deepen the love in his marriage so that his actions show his wife how precious she is both to him and to God.
The Church tells us that families are to be “schools of love” which help each member learn to live all the virtues that love requires, especially those virtues of sacrifice and selflessness. NFP is a tool that, used prudently and wisely, empowers a couple to take time to ask the important questions that other couples too easily forget. It is not uncommon for me to talk to couples in counseling who have sex several times a week, but couldn’t communicate their way out of a paper bag, much less solve their problems, pray together, or even list the things that made their partner feel most loved. The couple that is using NFP as part of a lived, moral ethos (instead of a slavish devotion to mere rules) rarely falls into this trap. Why? Because, for them, following the “rules” of NFP isn’t about following the rules. It’s about making use of a powerful tool that helps them confront unknown weaknesses in their marital and spiritual life, and overcome those weaknesses by entering into a deeper prayer life and a deeper level of communication and vulnerability.
(This article is courtesy of Gregory K. Popcak, MSW, who is a Catholic psychotherapist and director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute. From Family Foundations, November-December 2005, the magazine of the Couple-to-Couple League.)