Catholics, and non-Catholics, often have extreme views about both natural family planning, and fertility awareness for contraception. It is either claimed as a panacea - the only contraception anyone will ever need - or dismissed out of hand.
My hero promoted a more balanced view. His name was Professor John Marshall and he's my hero for the work he did in his spare time as a natural family planning (NFP)* teacher for 40 years from the 1950s to the 1990s, and for the book he wrote about this work. [He also did amazing work on stroke in his day job as a neurologist, but that's another story.]
Strictly speaking, natural family planning is the Catholic cousin (or grandmother?) of fertility awareness based
John Marshall not only taught natural family planning to thousands of people, he also recorded and published the stories of those using the method, and worked as an advocate for them, challenging the position of the Catholic Church on contraception.
John Marshall knew that NFP suited some couples very well but he was not evangelical about it. He reports heart-breaking stories of the negative impact of NFP on relationships and mental health:
“this method has put a great strain on our otherwise ideally happy marriage”
“I found this a very unnatural way of life and the strain made me constantly edgy. This of course affected the whole family, who in turn suffered too. This stress, coupled with other problems resulted in me having a breakdown”.
"if God has given us such a wonderfully satisfying way of expressing love for one’s partner is it very wrong to want to do this more often?”
“I have regained my confidence in myself as a person and enjoy my children whereas before I came very near to hating them.”
“The effect on our relationship using this method has I believe kept the sexual side of our marriage fresh and interesting due to abstinence.”
"At the start it looked awkward to me but as time went on, I discovered it was very easy and reliable"
"I am one of the many women who have irregular periods, sometimes 29 days sometimes 45 or 48 days, and I have no difficulty in calculating my ovulation days."
“a change would be an admission that the Holy Spirit had enlightened the Anglican Church long before the Catholic Church”. [The Anglican Church approved contraception in 1930].
Unfortunately, the Pope did not agree, and of course the Catholic Church is not a democracy. In 1968, four years after the panel had been appointed, Pope Paul VI decided to uphold in Humanae Vitae the existing view that contraception is "intrinsically evil". Natural family planning would be the only acceptable method of contraception for Catholics - even withdrawal is not officially permitted, though it is often referred to as “the Catholic Method”, and has been associated with some of the lowest birth rates in history (e.g. Eastern Europe, after World War II).
Pope Paul VI had called for responses to Humanae Vitae from "men of science", so many years later, in 1995, John Marshall published his book about the people he had worked with "Love one another: psychological aspects of natural family planning". John Marshall might not have succeeded in changing the Vatican’s position, but his book remains an important reminder to everyone about both the positive and negative psychological impacts of natural family planning.
The reality today is that most Catholics do not use natural family planning, but it's worth remembering that natural family planning, or fertility awareness can be a highly effective option (as good as the pill), so long as it's done properly. I’d never want it to be the only option, but it would be a shame for anyone to dismiss natural family planning because it’s the pope’s favourite. As one of John Marshall’s NFP users said:
"I feel it is a pity that more people are not aware of the happiness and peace of mind to be obtained from this method”.
- Catholics for Choice. Truth and Consequence. A look behind the Vatican’s ban on contraception (2008).
- Daly, Mary. Rhythm and Blues - Natural Family Planning in Ireland. 1930s to 1980s. UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland (podcast #38).
- Fisher, Simcha. The Sinners Guide to Natural Family Planning.
- Marshall, John. Love one another: psychological aspects of natural family planning. 1995.