NFP: Graphic Sex Version

January 30, 2007 § 23 Comments

(Update: see this post also).

It occurred to me after our discussion a few days ago that when it comes to NFP, people appreciate graphical charts. So I’ve tried to summarize my view graphically in this post.

I am assuming that the reason for using NFP is a mutually agreed reason and that the couple intends to avoid pregnancy. I’ve also tried to clarify the difference between periodic abstinence and temporary abstinence in the lower graph. (It should be noted that – except in cases where a person has taken a vow of perpetual continence – all intentional abstinences from sex, including priestly celibacy and the continence of the unmarried, are temporary in the sense meant here).

You can see from the chart that NFP as a means to avoid pregnancy is superfluous in the sense that it is never morally obligatory. There is always a different licit option – temporary abstinence – available to the couple. If the reasons for using NFP are not grave enough then it shouldn’t be used. If the reasons are too grave then using it would be imprudent and thus morally wrong. Temporary abstinence doesn’t suffer from any of these weaknesses, and in fact is the better way in all cases if the couple can bring themselves to accept it willingly and lovingly.

Another thing you can see from the chart – and perhaps the most controversial bit – is the issue of just how wide the “bump” in which NFP is justified happens to be, and even the extent to which and precise manner in which it exists at all.

In my view NFP is a mercy, provided in response to human weakness. It is not “the best way” to carry out God’s plan for marriage. It is medicine, not food. And it is dysfunctional to treat medicine as food.

There is a caveat in here about temporary abstinence as well. Married couples have a positive obligation to bring children into the world. It isn’t an absolute obligation: indeed, Josephite marriage can be a very holy state in its own right. But frivolously failing to fulfill the obligation to be fruitful would be wrong, even if the means used were temporary abstinence (as opposed to periodic abstinence). The point though is that there is no positive obligation to engage in sex with some particular frequency.

All, of course, in my own view. My own view isn’t ex cathedra, but it is consistent with what the Magisterium has taught about NFP as far as I can tell; and more triumphalist views of NFP do not seem to be consistent with what the Magisterium has taught about NFP.

Note: Simply put, periodic abstinence is abstinence during the fertile periods. Temporary abstinence is abstinence until the reason for avoiding pregnancy comes to an end.

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§ 23 Responses to NFP: Graphic Sex Version

  • brandon field says:

    Still formulating my views on your premises, but I’ve got a quick question: How do you make define the spectrum between “Nookie” and “Abstinence”? Isn’t that sort of like saying someone is a “little pregnant”?

  • brandon field says:

    “make define” => “define”Also, I do agree with your top graph; there’s a region of gravity within which NFP is “appropriate”. I haven’t been sure that you have been arguing this point. Within NFP, there is also degrees of seriousness that you can take it (because I maintain that thermometers are not necessary to get a pretty good idea of fertility cycles, but that might just be my experience), and that might be incorporated into the ordinate axis somehow.

  • brandon field says:

    Ok, how about a clarification. Is it your view that an act of sexual intercourse [with your spouse] during a fertile time is <>fundamentally different<> than an act of sexual intercourse during an infertile time?

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Zippy,A yes. . . but moment. Because this statement needs to be qualified:<>Married couples have a positive obligation to bring children into the world.<>Yes, they must cooperate with God’s will in this matter. However, their positive obligation does NOT entail extraordinary measures which the Church teaches against (in vitro fertilization etc.). I know that you did not mean or even imply the message above, I just think it wise to point it out once again.A married couple has a positive obligation to cooperate with God in the matter of children regardless of whether that means 16 or 0. Either end of that spectrum can be very, very difficult–but it is not negotiable. Our wills must be surrendered before His. And His mercy will be made known. I speak as one who has been privileged to experience it and thankful for it.shalom,Steven

  • zippy says:

    Steven:<>A married couple has a positive obligation to cooperate with God in the matter of children …<>Yes, that is a much better way to say it. Because I have an overactive imagination I am thinking of odd cases: say a licitly** married pagan couple joins the Church and decides not to have any kids because kids are a pain, and they decide to have a sterile marriage. Even if they choose straight-out abstinence (because they are now Catholic) as the means for achieving a sterile marriage they have pretty clearly done wrong, though obviously not as much wrong as a contracepting couple.So anyway, I was trying to make what I was saying encompass the odd cases, and at the same time trying not to use too many words. That doesn’t always work out so well :-). But I think the way you restated it covers the matter well.** It is a particularly odd scenario because some degree of openness to children would have been necessary for a valid marriage in the first place. So this closedness to children has to be a new development, if you will, for this scenario to apply.

  • zippy says:

    <>How do you make define the spectrum between “Nookie” and “Abstinence”?<>You are quite right that it is a binary proposition: that the Y axis is a discrete parameter not a continuous parameter. There is a third logic value here, though: wherein for reasons unrelated to family planning the couple abstains during the infertile period.<>…because I maintain that thermometers are not necessary to get a pretty good idea of fertility cycles…<>That in fact depends a great deal upon individuals, I believe.<>Is it your view that an act of sexual intercourse [with your spouse] during a fertile time is fundamentally different than an act of sexual intercourse during an infertile time?<>It depends on what one means by <>fundamentally<>. I don’t think the act has a categorically different moral object; but different accidents, intentions, and circumstances do obtain.

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy:I would agree that temporary as distinct from periodic abstinence can be preferable in certan circumstances. I do not, however, agree that it is better <>ceteris paribus<>.The point of NFP, assuming it is licitly adopted to begin with, is to facilitate the unitive good <>of conjugal intercourse<> without suppressing the procreative. One cannot faciliate said good if there is no such intercourse. To suppose that that doesn’t matter, because the couple love each other and are one body anyway, is to deny that conjugal intercourse enhances by expressing the unitive good in a way special to itself. I don’t think that would be right. Something is lost in “temporary” abstinence that is preserved in periodic abstinence.To be sure, there is no general principle according to which periodic as distinct from temporary abstinence is better <>simpliciter<>. There may well be circumstances in which it would be better to make the sacrifice involved in temporary as distinct from periodic abstinence. All I’m suggesting is that the opposite can sometimes be true.What most concerns me about the line of thought you’ve been developing is that it assumes, without arguing, that contraception is intrinsically wrong in a way that NFP is not. While I share that assumption, I find that it is the biggest obstacle for most people to accepting the teaching of the Church. I’ve defended that teaching before; but since that article is in another Pontifications archive, you probably wouldn’t want to read it. 😉Best,Mike

  • zippy says:

    <>There may well be circumstances in which it would be better to make the sacrifice involved in temporary as distinct from periodic abstinence. All I’m suggesting is that the opposite can sometimes be true.<>What I am suggesting is that the opposite is true only when the couple involved is weaker in terms of capacity for self-denial than they ideally should be; and that the sort of NFP triumphalism I am criticising inverts this in claiming that NFP is literally the <>best<> way for married couples to cooperate with God’s plan.<>While I share that assumption, I find that it is the biggest obstacle for most people to accepting the teaching of the Church.<>Well, I am not much of an apologist, nor do I particularly see it as my calling to be one. Some may think that I discount the value of putting the right gloss on what I say, to insure that it is not merely true but more optimally palatable to certain audiences. But my own view is that the truth is difficult enough to attend to accurately without burdening my own blogging activities with what amounts to marketing concerns. Some people even seem to think I am rather blunt.

  • LL says:

    <>thermometers are not necessary to get a pretty good idea of fertility cycles<>In many cases, though probably not all, yes. But I suppose there should be better way of taking into account that “degree of seriousness” Brandon speaks about.Let’s put aside for a while the moral aspect of NFP and concentrate on medical knowledge. NFP is often (and quite wrongly) taught as if it provided a way of clearly dividing menstrual cycle into fertile and infertile periods. This is certainly not the case. At best we can say this: observing fertility symptoms in woman’s body allows to estimate – at any given moment t – the probability P(t) that an intercourse at this very moment would produce offspring. P(t) depends on the phase of the cycle, on the general fertility level of the couple (which in turn is influenced by their age, health and so on), on their familiarity with the symptoms to be observed and many other factors. It is never precisely 0, but may be actually quite low; it is also never 1 (or even very close to 1). The algorithm for estimation of P(t), however, is but part of what is usually known as an NFP method. The remaining part is a cut-off level c together with a simple rule: if P(t) is less than c, you can have sex safely, otherwise you can’t. Actually, NFP teachers usually leave the whole probability estimation story out of the picture. You are given a 0-1 algorithm: if such-and-such criteria are met, you can have sex safely, otherwise you can’t. Sometimes, if you learn the method well and you do not insist too much on sureness, you would be allowed to introduce little adjustments. Why is it done this way? I don’t know. Partly because some people believe that probability is to difficult to understand for some other people; partly because if you want to measure efficiency of an NFP method (and possibly compare it to efficiency of artificial contraception), you need to have well-defined method in terms of actual behavior. Nevertheless, in my opinion this simply does not do justice to NFP.First of all, if we were to apply on behalf of NFP the argument from the goodness of knowledge as such (as in “it is, generally, better to know what’s going on in one’s body than not to know”), then the P(t) estimation version of algorithm provides much more actual knowledge than the popular 0-1 version. Moreover, hard-wiring the cut-off level into a method deprives a couple of a possibility to discuss and mutually agree what level of “risk to conceive” is acceptable to them in given circumstances. Furthermore, P(t) version would allow for easy adjustment for a couple who doesn’t want to necessarily avoid pregnancy at any given moment, just wants to have less of them (less than they would expect with no planning) altogether. And finally, it leaves no room for (or at least actively discourages) the couple to make case-by-case informed decisions whether to have sex or not.This last point I’m going to elaborate a little. What I mean is the following: when we as a couple are considering having sex, we take into account various factors that may influence our decision for or against intercourse. Some of them are important (and given due consideration); some are quite silly (such as “but I’ve just changed the linen!”). None of them – as yet – proved so important that it would override all others: we’ve never made solid resolution to, say, <>never<> engage in an intercourse when there is someone sleeping in the guest bedroom (even though they can actually hear us), or <>always<> have sex when I get hiccup (even though it does really help). We just weigh all the arguments (half-consciously, needless to add) as the moment comes. Why should it be any different with the probability of conceiving?

  • Anonymous says:

    of course, gravity is a matter of prudential judgment …

  • zippy says:

    Gravity is a matter of fact. A prudential judgement is a subjective assessment of the facts: a determination made by the acting subject that the facts are this and not that. A prudential judgement isn’t insulated from being wrong simply in virtue of being a prudential judgement.

    Interestingly, this connects quite directly to my previous post on conscience and truth. The same sorts of things which can be said about the relationship between conscience and truth can also be said about the relationship between prudential judgement and truth.

  • brandon field says:

    LL’s point about the probability function is one of the things that I have been unable to properly articulate in this discussion. I think he did a good job pointing out my lines of thought that NFP isn’t about the binary sex/abstinence decision. His point about the linen was also one that I was trying to figure out how to properly word.

    With regards to the P(t) never being 0, think Elizabeth and Zechariah, or Abraham and Sarah. Which means that even temporary abstinence to the point of post-menopausal can’t be relied on to prevent pregnancy.

  • Steven says:

    Dear Brandon,

    With regards to the P(t) never being 0, think Elizabeth and Zechariah, or Abraham and Sarah. Which means that even temporary abstinence to the point of post-menopausal can’t be relied on to prevent pregnancy.

    Which just goes to show that the best policy is cooperation with God’s will in the matter! 🙂 (hence not spending a lot of time worrying about NFP one way or the other.)

    shalom,

    Steven

  • brandon field says:

    Which just goes to show that the best policy is cooperation with God’s will in the matter!

    Steven,

    I agree completely, and I hope that the things I’ve written here don’t make it seem otherwise. (After all, with three kids under 5 on ~$25k/year, I’ve got a pretty low threshold of patience for the argument that you need to have finished your additional degree or be making lots of money to properly raise a family).

    brandon.

  • Steven says:

    Dear Brandon,

    I’m sorry if I conveyed that I thought you were in the wrong–simply beating this dead horse so long as the corpse holds together. 🙂

    shalom,

    Steven

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy,
    what you say about forming the conscience, etc, is all well taken – as is the comment that prudential judgments are not infallible.

    All I meant was that folks will necessarily disagree as to the appropriate application of the guidelines for the use of NFP. Deliberately welcoming 3 small children with an income of less than 25K doesn’t seem prudential to me in my circumstances, but there are perhaps circumstances in which it would be prudential. It may, however, be a heroic choice. When his family became poor, JRR Tolkien’s family relocated to the country where the poverty was not as detrimental.

    Fred

  • brandon field says:

    Fred,

    Please be assured that in town we live, our “poverty” is hardly detrimental. I don’t make any claims on heroic virtue.

    brandon.

  • Anonymous says:

    Moral: Nookie can be naughty. Not having nookie, never naughty.

    Corollary: Voting can be naughty. Not voting, never naughty.

  • zippy says:

    I wouldn’t be quite so categorical. There are certainly times when depriving one’s spouse is evil; and there are at least hypothetical circumstances in which it would be evil not to vote.

  • Patrick says:

    I’ve been very carefully staying out of this particular fray, but I wonder if you might want to correct your first graph, which seems to be at odds with the following:

    There is a caveat in here about temporary abstinence as well. Married couples have a positive obligation to bring children into the world. It isn’t an absolute obligation: indeed, Josephite marriage can be a very holy state in its own right. But frivolously failing to fulfill the obligation to be fruitful would be wrong, even if the means used were temporary abstinence (as opposed to periodic abstinence).

    Doesn’t that mean, in your framework, that temporary abstinence should also be “less justifiable” as the gravity of the reasons decrease to 0? Thus the blue line should also start at the bottom before rising with/above the green line, if your text is to be believed.

    My personal opinion on all this is that I have no idea.

  • zippy says:

    Doesn’t that mean, in your framework, that temporary abstinence should also be “less justifiable” as the gravity of the reasons decrease to 0? Thus the blue line should also start at the bottom before rising with/above the green line, if your text is to be believed.

    Sort of. What isn’t represented is a distinction between temporary abstinence and permanent abstinence. (My whiteboard scribbling is atrocious enough without trying to go all 3D on you). I think there is a surface of curves such that the “permanent abstinence” curve would look like you describe, whereas when the duration of the abstinence approaches (say) a year or two it starts to look like what I actually drew. My verbal caveat is basically an admission that there is a family of curves not just the one I actually drew. But in my understanding the NFP curve always lies below the abstinence curve.

  • Anonymous says:

    St. John of the Cross said that in the end we’ll be judged on how much we’ve loved. I’m far more concerned about that than worrying about whether NFP is licit.

  • […] one may think of NFP – and I’ve been critical of triumphalism about its use in the past – it is clear that it is an entirely distinct kind of thing from contraception. […]

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