This is the first part of a two part post on comments made by Dr. Popcak concerning Natural Family Planning.
As part of National NFP Awareness Week, Dr. Gregory Popcak had written a series of posts “to increase awareness of the Catholic vision of love.” Considering how little NFP and the Catholic vision of love is practiced we really can’t promote and teach about them enough. Dr. Popcak provocatively titled one of his posts: “There is No Such Thing as Natural Family Planning.” In it he does a good job of challenging the post-modern way of thinking. He shows how important it is to practice NFP in marriages as well as how important it is to learn NFP during marriage prep. I especially like the reasons he identifies for why NFP can be hard. However, there is one big mistake that he makes and a minor annoyance.
First, the minor annoyance: He states “that there is really no such thing as ‘NFP.’” He goes on to say that “NFP is not a thing,” followed by an explanation of how it isn’t a thing. This eventually leads him to define Natural Family Planning as “simply information that allows couples to communicate and pray about how marital intimacy can help them grow in holiness and receptivity to God’s will.” To be honest, this just strikes me as trying to be clever and it actually is more than just a minor annoyance to me. It’s more than a minor annoyance because unless there is a legitimate reason to the contrary one should just speak plainly. There are times when something said may be confusing (whether the speaker intends it to be or not) and it is good that it is confusing; it makes the listener grapple with what is being said and seek to better understand it. Saying NFP is not a thing, however, is needlessly confusing. I’m assuming that Dr. Popcak’s intention was to get his audience to move from the basic understanding of NFP to a deeper understanding, namely, an understanding that includes communication, prayer, and marital intimacy as a part of holiness and receptivity to God’s will. This is very laudable and something that should be an essential part of any NFP training. The problem though is that any way you slice it NFP is a thing. If we go by Dr. Popcak’s definition it is information which is a thing. If we go by the basic understanding of NFP, it is a method for achieving or avoiding pregnancy, and a method is a thing. There is just no reason for the semantic philosophical juggling.
There is a problem, however, that is much bigger than an annoyance. His confusion continues by way of his definition of NFP – “information that allows couples to communicate and pray about how marital intimacy can help them grow in holiness and receptivity to God’s will.” This definition leads to some positions that I think are a little extreme. It is as a catechist that I now present why I think these positions extreme and from a catechetical point of view problematic.
As a preliminary, NFP is a method for achieving or avoiding pregnancy. It does greatly foster communication and within religious circles prayer, but these things are not inherent to NFP as a method. I am a huge advocate of NFP and actively promote it. I am also quite familiar with its benefits beyond just being a method of achieving or avoiding pregnancy – benefits which are medical, emotional, relational, and spiritual. These benefits, however, are not inherent to the method itself. Dr. Popcak raises some of these ad extra benefits to the level of an essential part of the definition of NFP. The purpose of these preliminary remarks is to indicate that my problem is not with NFP and it is most certainly not with communication, prayer, or an awareness of how marital intimacy helps us grow in holiness and receptivity to God’s will. My problem is that Dr. Popcak has made NFP synonymous with these things when it is not. This is a catechetically weak position which in the end would not have the desired effect (a very good effect to aim for) that Dr. Popcak thinks it will have. Unfortunately, because Dr. Popcak has made this equivocation it may sound within his framework like I am attacking one or both when I am attacking neither.
First, I do not think Dr. Popcak’s positions properly take into account the history, faith, and practice of the Church. He seems to forget that there were many couples before the coming of NFP (more than today I’m willing to bet) who communicated well, prayed together, grew in great holiness, were very receptive to God’s will, and had a healthy understanding of marital intimacy and its role in their lives as Christians. He says that a pastor saying, “We don’t insist on NFP training,” is the same as a pastor saying, “We don’t require [my emphasis] our couples to learn to communicate and pray together about how their marital intimacy can help them grow in holiness.” Um, what did pastors and couples do before NFP? A couple paragraphs after this he says that couples who say they don’t have reasons to use NFP are really saying “that they believe they are exempt from communicating and praying about how their marital intimacy can help them grow in holiness or receptivity to God’s will.” Once again, what did couples do before NFP? Again, let me not be misunderstood. I am not taking issue with NFP nor am I questioning its use or magnificent fruits. I am taking issue with the thought that NFP is a necessary requirement for couples to communicate well, pray, and have a healthy understanding of how marital intimacy helps them grow in holiness and in receptivity to God’s will. This brings us to the second problem.
Dr. Popcak gives a strong impression that if NFP is not being taught then couples necessarily have a great deficiency in communication and prayer concerning marital intimacy in the growth of holiness. He does this because it is those things by which he defines NFP. Ergo, if one is missing so is the other. The solution seems obvious enough: if a great many couples do not communicate well, pray together about marital intimacy and holiness, and these come with NFP which is also not practiced by a great many couples then require couples to learn NFP. If couples are required to learn Natural Family Planning during their marriage preparation in the Catholic Church then they will also learn how to communicate and pray about marital intimacy connected to holiness. The problem here is that Dr. Popcak has put the cart before the horse. Practically speaking he is making Natural Family Planning the context for what God has revealed concerning marriage and human sexuality when in actuality it is God’s revelation that is the proper context of NFP. NFP is not the solution (though it is definitely part of the solution) because the fundamental problem isn’t the lack of practice of NFP. Remember if this was the fundamental problem every couple who lived before the coming of NFP would have been screwed.
So what is the fundamental problem? The fundamental problem is one of faith in both its aspects: content and adherence. Most couples either do not know the Catholic faith, especially pertaining to the human person and sexuality, and/or they do not adhere to it. It is a problem of the roots, which affects the trunk, branches, stems, and leaves. Using NFP as the solution to this problem is like treating the branches, but not the roots. We need to treat the roots, and this is done through catechesis. In my next post on this topic we’ll go into how catechesis is the solution to this problem as well as the important part that NFP training plays in the solution.