I recently engaged in a debate over this post on a traditionalist group's blog. I was very sure going in that "of course, everyone needs to know NFP". After considering the issue further, I began to wonder if that was indeed the case. So, I hit the books to see if I could find evidence for the widespread teaching of NFP.
First I will try to give the highlights of the debate for those of you who don't wish to slog through it all on your own.
1) learning NFP may tempt people to sin, either in the frank discussions involved in learning it or in the possession of knowledge about a woman's fertile times (i.e. a couple may use it without serious reason)
2) in the West, the experience of serious enough reasons for the use of NFP are so rare as to make widespread teaching of the method not just unnecessary and a waste of time, but potentially immoral, as learning it may be a temptation to sin
My basic arguments:
1) most couples will have serious enough reasons to use NFP at some point in their marriage, so it should be offered to couples at the start of their marriage
2) learning NFP in the pre-marriage period is less stressful than trying to learn it once a need arises - it's also easier as the signs confused by breastfeeding infertility, poor sleep due to newborn/infant/child sleep habits, etc.
The first thing that I took the time to read was Casti Connubii, something that's been on my "to be read" list for several years now. I then went through Familiaris Consortio. The contrast between the two is interesting, but I don't see any glaring contradictions. In 1930, when Casti Connubii was written NFP didn't exist as it does today, but still Pope Pius XI mentions and allows recourse to natural infertile periods for spacing births. Pope John Paul II had the benefit of seeing the effects of several decades of use of modern NFP, and makes quite a case for it's widespread dissemination.
I'll try to briefly reflect on what I see as some of the more relevant points in FC. In section 28, he writes, "Thus, the fundamental task of the family is to serve life, to actualize in history the original blessing of the Creator - that of transmitting by procreation the divine image from person to person. Fecundity is the fruit and the sign of conjugal love.... However, the fruitfulness of conjugal love is not restricted to the procreation of children...it is enlarged and enriched by all those fruits of moral spiritual and supernatural life which the father and mother are called to hand on to their children and through the children to the Church and to the world." (para 2-4)
In this section we see, that while procreation is "fundamental" to marriage, the live-giving and life-serving responsibly does not end with procreation. Parents have the task of educating their children, especially in faith and morals, with an eye towards not only their redemption, but also that of the world by way of the example shown by the family. Thus, responsible parenthood should include discernment by the husband and wife of whether or not at any given time the family's life-giving service is best shown by seeking to add a new life or refraining from doing so. Parent's have a right to be able to take into consideration their ability to care for their children in such a way as to give them a solid foundation in the faith, when deciding about family size.
Section 32, para. 5-6: When, instead, by means of recourse to periods of infertility, the couple respect the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of human sexuality, they are acting as "ministers" of God's plan and they "benefit from" their sexuality according to the original dynamism of "total" selfgiving, without manipulation or alteration.
...The choice of the natural rhythms involves accepting the cycle of the person, that is the woman, and thereby accepting dialogue, reciprocal respect, shared responsibility and self- control. To accept the cycle and to enter into dialogue means to recognize both the spiritual and corporal character of conjugal communion and to live personal love with its requirement of fidelity. In this context the couple comes to experience how conjugal communion is enriched with those values of tenderness and affection which constitute the inner soul of human sexuality, in its physical dimension also. In this way sexuality is respected and promoted in its truly and fully human dimension, and is never "used" as an "object" that, by breaking the personal unity of soul and body, strikes at God's creation itself at the level of the deepest interaction of nature and person."
Here JPII, talks about how couple's benefit from the practice of NFP, in communication, responsibility and self-control. He talks about how NFP involves an acceptance of the truth about sexuality, and respect for the wife, as her fertility is not rejected as it is with contraception.
(para. 3) As Mother, the Church is close to the many married couples who find themselves in difficulty over this important point of the moral life: she knows well their situation, which is often very arduous and at times truly tormented by difficulties of every kind, not only individual difficulties but social ones as well; she knows that many couples encounter difficulties not only in the concrete fulfillment of the moral norm but even in understanding its inherent values. But it is one and the same Church that is both Teacher and Mother. And so the Church never ceases to exhort and encourage all to resolve whatever conjugal difficulties may arise without ever falsifying or compromising the truth: she is convinced that there can be no true contradiction between the divine law on transmitting life and that on fostering authentic married love.
(para. 5) On the other hand, authentic ecclesial pedagogy displays its realism and wisdom only by making a tenacious and courageous effort to create and uphold all the human conditions-psychological, moral and spiritual-indispensable for understanding and living the moral value and norm.
(para 6) There is no doubt that these conditions must include persistence and patience, humility and strength of mind, filial trust in God and in His grace, and frequent recourse to prayer and to the sacraments of the Eucharist and of Reconciliation.
(para 7) But the necessary conditions also include the knowledge of the bodily aspect and the body's rhythms of fertility. Accordingly, every effort must be made to render such knowledge accessible to all married people and also to young adults before marriage, through clear, timely and serious instruction and education given by married couples, doctors and experts. Knowledge must then lead to education in selfcontrol...(emphasis mine)
Here, we read that the Church knows that virtuously living out the marriage vows is difficult. Then JPII goes on to list some of the areas in which instruction and formation are necessary to enable couples to fully live out their marriage vows responsibly and without contradiction to moral norms. Psychological, moral and physical health are to be looked after, as teaching in and the practice of virtues. Seeing that these conditions are meet will help couples to have healthy marriages. JPII then goes on to say that knowledge of the fertility cycle should be made "accessible to all married people," and "to young adults before marriage." This sounds like a call for the widespread teaching of NFP to me. If JPII saw any threat of harm in teaching about fertility, he would not have called to it to be taught before marriage. Later, in section 35, he goes on to call for a "broader, more decisive and more systematic effort to make natural methods of regulating fertility known, respected and applied." (emphasis mine) Again we see the Pope calling for knowledge of NFP to be made more widespread, and put into use! If he was concerned about mis-use, then he would have been less forceful in his call for dissemination of the knowledge of NFP. And clearly, he believed that there are many couples for whom the use of NFP would be licit.
There are sections of FC that do remind couple's to use discernment in regard to family size. Specifically, section 34, calls couples to look to the teaching of Humanae Vitae as "the norm for the exercise of their sexuality." And later in the same section, "...the function of transmitting life must be integrated into the overall mission of Christian life as a whole, which without the Cross cannot reach the Resurrection. In such a context it is understandable that sacrifice cannot be removed from family life, but must in fact be wholeheartedly accepted if the love between husband and wife is to be deepened and become a source of intimate joy." (para 6). So he doesn't do away with or forget about what was taught in HV. The conditions for use of NFP...just, serious or grave still apply. So we see that JPII's call for widespread teaching of NFP came even after consideration of the guidelines put forth in HV.
There are many factors that come into play in a decision about whether or not to have another child. People must be adequately taught in order to live out their marriage vows and make responsible choices about parenthood. Part of that teaching should include knowledge of the woman's fertility. Having knowledge about a woman's fertility, and respecting her natural rythyms leads to the growth of virtue. The sense of responsibility fostered by knowledge of fertility, and the discernment called for in HV are integral to using NFP in a virtuous way. Knowledge of the Church's teachings on sexuality and responsible parenthood should be taught, including knowledge about NFP so that couple can make good decisions regarding family size and continue to live in service to life.
So, in the end, I am more convinced than ever that NFP is good, and that it should be widely promoted and taught, but only within the context of Church teaching on the family.