The Symbolism of Natural Family Planning
Now that almost everyone embraces contraception, the continued opposition of the Catholic Church can seem stubborn. And since lots of debates around the issue take place in a highly theological language that escapes many modern people, the whole affair often seems simply backwards. That is why, in this article I want to explain how contraception impoverishes one’s life. I will do so without relying on overly theological language and without repeating facts that you’ve probably already heard about the harmful health effects of certain contraceptives. There’s already plenty of people doing that elsewhere. Here, I will rather attempt to speak symbolically.
The crux of it is that contraception not only disconnects you from your spouse at the biological and psychological levels, it also disconnects both of you from higher-level narrative, social, and cosmic patterns. I will particularly argue that sexual union can be a vehicle for shared powerful spiritual experience and bonding, which has been severely impoverished by the widespread use of contraception.
The Catholic Church endorses something called natural family planning (NFP) as opposed to contraception. It’s useful to use NFP as a contrast to shine light on the problems of contraception. NFP is about using various biological measurements (temperature, viscosity, etc.) to identify the fertile and infertile periods of the woman. This observation acts as an indicator for the couple to either have intercourse or abstain. No contraceptive method such as pills, condoms, or withdrawal is allowed. It's either complete relations, or abstinence.
When strictly followed, NFP is about as effective as other methods at regulating pregnancy, but it makes an enormous symbolic difference at the narrative, social and cosmic levels. Even if your mind knows, in the abstract, that sexual union during an infertile period will most likely not result in pregnancy, your body and whole being are still very aware of the possibility that remains. Even in infertile periods, sexual union thus retains all of its depth, seriousness, and even scariness. This allows your built-in biology to experience in an embodied way the several layers of very real significance of the event.
For one thing, engaging in intercourse this way means that the spouses are making a very serious commitment to one another. With their bodies, they are telling each other some of the deepest things people can communicate. The wife especially is telling her husband that she’s willing to carry the possible child for nine months, give birth through great pain, and then devote lots of time over the course of several years to raise the child. She is also telling her husband that she trusts him to stay and help her raise the child. She trusts that he is a valuable partner who can not only handle himself but also take care of a mother and a child. And conversely, the husband is promising to indeed live up to the expectations of the mother. Should a child result from the union, he promises he will stay and sacrifice himself for the good of his wife and child — in other words, to take responsibility as a man. He is telling his wife that she is a valuable partner and that he trusts her to bring life into the world.
Contrast that with a couple who uses contraception. While sexual union under those circumstances can still be a show of reciprocal affection between the spouses, it never reaches as high as that of the spouses who, free from contraceptives, are, in their very flesh, committing themselves to one another and their potential offspring.
In the worst case of a casual hookup relying on contraception, the sexual union becomes confusing and potentially dangerous because the participant’s biology simply does not know how to react. What does it mean to a man that a woman gives herself to him while she’s taking a pill? Human beings did not evolve for this scenario. As explained earlier, for a man, having a sexual relation with a woman biologically means a deep approval from that woman. But if she’s on a pill and using that man for mere pleasure, how is the man supposed to react? We’re messing with very fundamental features of human beings here. And messing with things that deep carries deep risks. As we’ll see in the following sections, there are more layers to sexuality than we may realize at first.
Certain events in our lives allow us to jump up one level of being. Those are events that are not only significant at the level of our immediate psychology, but also at the level of our stories. The first day at a new job, the day of our wedding, the day of an accident, etc. Those kinds of events mark important points in our stories, and those stories in turn shape our daily lives. Jordan Peterson is excellent at showing this psychologically. We need an aim to perceive anything at all. There are simply too many details in the world and we need to constrain that multiplicity down to something manageable to actually see. Our purposes, i.e., the goals of our stories, serve as such constraints on the multiplicity standing before our eyes.
As a consequence, the better and clearer our stories, the clearer we see and the better our daily lives go. For the couple practicing NFP, the powerful experience at the psychological level of the sexual union has important repercussions at this narrative level. Because sexual union without contraceptives carries with it the seriousness we discussed above, it makes you jump into a narrative. It reinforces your narrative as a responsible and dedicated spouse and parent. It also creates a strong narrative for the whole couple itself. Sexual union for the couple practicing NFP is not just about instant pleasure, it’s about long-term commitment. It makes you jump from your daily affairs into your life-long story.
Let me stress this, because the idea of jumping layers of being may not be obvious to people not already familiar with symbolic thinking. It’s not just that, before every sexual union, the couple has to consider the whole narrative of the family, since you cannot simply rely on contraception to avoid pregnancies. It’s also that this very narrative echoes and is reinforced during the sexual act itself. Through sexual union, your spouse and you participate in and invigorate your family narrative. Is the home large enough for another potential child? Plans to move? Do I trust my wife enough to raise a child with her? Am I willing to sacrifice myself to my spouse and offspring? Etc. All of those questions are in the minds of the spouses during sexual union, reinforcing their shared narrative. Accordingly, NFP really prevents you from remaining in a contraceptive induced idleness.
This also means that serious couples practicing NFP typically don’t wait too long before getting married and embarking on a thoroughly considered narrative. If sexual union is such a serious business for a married couple, it’s of course unthinkable for an unmarried couple. This has a very powerful impact on men especially, who have to make themselves attractive to a spouse and commit to married life with her. Indeed, without contraceptives, a woman won’t give herself to a man without being sure that this man is virtuous, dedicated and can handle having a family. Thus, men can’t remain in their basement. They really have to try and become men worth marrying, and then men worth staying married to, or it’s continued abstinence for them.
Another way to put it is that NFP allows women to demand a lot from men, and that’s good news for men. We all too often need very concrete motivators, such as the possibility for sexual relations, to motivate ourselves. The impact of this factor cannot be underestimated. Young men used to have direct incentive through the possibility of sexual union to apply themselves in learning real contributory skills in business, community, etc. Now, they flock to so-called pick-up artists, where they learn the art of seduction without consequence, of pleasure without narrative, made possible by women willing to use contraceptives. If the pill allows women to be superficial, it means that men can become attractive only superficially; become a playboy, not a real productive member of society.
Another thing is that, in practice, divorce rates are lower for couples who practice NFP than for those who use contraceptive methods. Now, we should not confuse causation with correlation, and there is definitely disagreement in the (fairly sparse) literature on the subject, but after what we said above, I think we can certainly expect that NFP decreases divorce rates. If every sexual union becomes imbued with deep psychological and narrative significance, the couple who practices NFP has bonded far more closely than the one that did not, and their narrative as a couple is far stronger. And stronger narratives survive longer.
Let me now jump to a social problem, namely the meaning crisis we are going through in the West. While it would be unreasonable to try to reduce our current meaning crisis to contraception, it has obviously had a powerful impact. Removing the immediate psychological and narrative significance of sexual union, as explained in the previous sections of this article, of course takes away a lot of meaning from one’s life.
But I think there is a deeper and more dangerous issue here. When we use contraception, we separate pleasure from purpose, meaning from fact. We in fact separate the highest human pleasure, namely orgasm, from the highest human responsibility, namely parenthood. That’s a really dangerous game to play. Separating pleasure from responsibility is a recipe to destroy both.
Another way to see it is that contraception separates the fact of sexual union from its purpose of reproduction. Everytime we do this, we undermine the relationship between fact and purpose, between the world of objects and the world of value. Every time we do this, we become a little bit more dualistic and nihilistic.
And you can also see the relationship between nihilism and contraception in their shared denial of life. We use contraception because we want to avoid bringing life into the world. This is very common in the West, where you can almost feel how uneasy people are about having children, especially many of them. Our entire culture is contraceptive. We’re not sure life is really worth the difficulties and sacrifices. This of course translates into skepticism about the value of our own individual lives. We try to avoid discomfort and to seek pleasure because we’re not sure that meaning is worth more. We’re not sure that life is worth the suffering.
But it’s really the opposite of nihilism for the dedicated Christian couple practicing NFP. For this couple, sexual union is an image of the cosmic creation and redemption of the world. In sexual union, the couple is willing to participate in the creation of life, and in vouching to sacrifice themselves for one another and their offspring, they participate in Christ’s sacrifice for the sake of the world. It’s an affirmation of life and meaning against death and nihilism. By symbolically partaking in this, every sexual union can thus become a very powerful spiritual experience for the couple.
Let me conclude by saying that NFP or course carries with it demanding periods of abstinence. During several days each month, the couple has to abstain if they do not judge themselves able to welcome a new child into the world. Thankfully, this opportunity for asceticism and prayer can also be very spiritually powerful for the couple. We live in a world where immediate gratification is king and where long-term purpose is hard to discern. In that context, periods of voluntary abstinence become an extremely useful practice. They help the couple focus on the spiritual and the long-term over the physical and the immediate. They remind the spouses that that sexual union is not an end in itself, but a ladder up the layers of being. It reminds the couple that sexual union is ultimately supposed to bring them to God. And somewhat paradoxically, this increased focus on God and spiritual growth can then feed back down to enrich the moments of sexual union. Indeed, spiritual growth allows the spouses to better experience the deep psychological, narrative, social and spiritual significance of becoming one flesh.