Let’s talk about, sex, artificial birth control (ABC) and Natural Family Planning (NFP). Let’s focus specifically on the licitness of NFP. The things that follow here assume the Catholic position on ABC. I understand that some who come here may not share our beliefs. This is not about “convincing” non-Catholics of anything. This is what you might call an “internal discussion.” This is a discussion for those of us who are Catholic and who agree that ABC is morally wrong. That is the foundation. If this isn’t you, you may find this writing to be boring or even ridiculous. That’s okay, you can just close the window and come back another time to see pictures of Gariníon or to see what is happening in our daily life. Whether you stick around or not, this will be a very, very long entry.
Throughout the years, I’ve been exposed to a many, many, many conversations regarding Natural Family Planning. I guess that comes with being Catholic, having a large family and being a certified NFP instructor (now retired!) It has come up again recently in a couple of different venues. I often find it frustrating to have conversations about this because people tend to be passionate about their position to the point of not being able to consider or hear anything else. I also find that it is hard to fully “argue” your position in these types of conversations. (That fact that it’s taking 3100+ words here might explain part of that!)
Sometimes in these conversations the question is trying to get to the heart of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, birth control, and what it all means. Often, it boiled down to questioning the licitness of using NFP at all. Many have wondered if using NFP shows a desire for control that is not an appropriate response to God’s creative prerogative, and is therefore just as evil as contraception. This is what I’ve got on my mind today. Let me say right upfront that while I do not criticize the people who are asking these questions (for in my experience, most truly appear to be seeking) I find the suggestion itself (that NFP is always wrong) to be, well, hogwash.
The conversations I was a part of or was exposed to over the years took all kinds of twists and turns and some of the things that were said or implied were mind-boggling to me. Some of these things seemed a bit extreme.
I have heard or read more times than I can remember that since ABC and NFP have the same “end goal” in mind, (avoiding pregnancy) either both are valid or both are invalid. This argument is put forth by those who reject the Church’s teaching against ABC as well as those who reject NFP along with ABC. The problem with that line of thinking, in my opinion, is that it confuses the issue. The problem with it is that it assumes that seeking to avoid pregnancy is always evil in all circumstances. If that were true, then I would have to agree that no matter how you violate that, it is evil. But avoiding pregnancy for a good (sufficient/grave/serious) reason is not evil. The problem enters with the how. It comes down to the meaning and purpose of sex and to the natural law regarding human sexuality
As I observed these conversations and took it all in, particularly over the past 15+ years, I kept coming back to one, single question:
Does no one read the catechism?
The official catechism is the sure norm for the teaching of the Faith. This kind of makes it an “open and shut case”, doesn’t it? No matter how brilliant a theologian (dead or living) or a saint may have been, the magisterium and the official catechism are the sure norm. If there is a conflict, the Church “wins”. The catechism states the fullness of the faith as we have received it to this day. From what I’ve seen, these theologians and saints of centuries past (who are often used to justify an opinion contrary to Church teaching) do not contradict the Church’s teaching anyway. They shed light on their particular times with their particular understanding and it fits in with the truth as it should. No one should ever dismiss the Church’s official teaching based on something they read or think they understand in Augustine or Aquinas or whomever else. Augustine and Aquinas would certainly stand with the Church today. Does anyone doubt it?
The catechism clearly states that for sufficient reason, couples may space their children by observing fertility and having recourse to infertile periods (it doesn’t give a list of sufficient reasons! Rather it allows couples to prayerfully discern if they have sufficient reason.)
2370 Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, “every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil
The idea that NFP is just as bad as (or even the “same” as) ABC is wrong. Natural Family Planning always respects the Natural Law. Conversely, ABC runs roughshod over it. There is nothing intrinsically evil about abstaining from sex for good reasons. There is something intrinsically wrong about overriding God’s own design in order to have “unrestricted” sex with no “consequences” (what a horrible thing to call a baby!) Natural Family Planning respects God’s design while ABC claims it is a poor design that must be corrected to suit our desires and plans.
It is true that any individual couple may not be as discerning as they ought and may use NFP with “wrong” or “selfish” motives, but even in these cases they still respect God’s design and do not violate the natural law. They do not “render procreation impossible” they accept that there are times in a woman’s cycle when conception is pretty much impossible by God’s design. They may get some of it wrong, but they remain, in their actions, submissive to God’s will, willing to sacrifice, open to life, and accept that God made a woman alternately fertile and infertile. It is really not our place to judge the details of their decisions. How do we enter into someone else’s family, marriage and circumstances sufficiently to determine if their reasons are valid? This is an issue of the heart and conscience and while we might make different decisions in the same circumstances, it is our duty to put the best possible motives on others. We need to make the same kinds of excuses for their decisions, choices and behaviors as we make for our own!
You might think that I am suggesting that everyone should use NFP and that there is something wrong with “Providentialism.” (The system of belief that requires allowing babies to come regardless of the circumstances of the family and relying on God’s Providence to take care of everything with little or no effort or thought on our part.) I do not think that everyone should use NFP or that Providentialism is wrong. I do not believe that God calls everyone in every situation to Providentialism, just as I do not believe that God in any way requires everyone to use NFP. We may legitimately consider our circumstances and make our decision. And so says the Church! So many people just want to paint everything and everyone and every circumstance with a broad brush. Of course there are some absolutes. One is that ABC is intrinsically (in and of itself) evil. Spacing children for a serious reason is not.
During the conversations on this topic that I’ve been a part of or witnessed, there were many arguments against NFP presented. One might think after listening to some of these arguments that we are all called to live in desperate poverty, to ignore the burdens a family may be experiencing spiritually, emotionally, medically, or financially and to never consider situations in an extended family. I have even heard it suggested that in the Old Testament, where it is prohibited for couples to engage in marital intimacy during a woman’s period (“in her flowers”) actually means at a time when she is infertile in any way and that this applies to us today. (For an explanation of this part, see THIS article.) The logical conclusion of that is that it is somehow “wrong” to engage in marital intimacy when you are infertile or not deliberately seeking pregnancy. I’ve seen and heard this view presented in many ways, many times.
While many do suggest that sex apart from willed (on our part) conception is wrong, some people will accept a sort of NFP in dire circumstances: complete and total abstinence. It almost seems like they have a need to impose a punishment on anyone who discerns that there is a need to postpone pregnancy. It is almost as if they say, “Well, okay, if you must, but you must not have sex at all if that is the case.”
That completely overlooks the fact that the Church teaches us that there are two equal, beautiful purposes for the sexual relationship: the unitive AND the procreative. The Church also makes it clear that delight and joy and pleasure and union in the marital act are part of God’s plan and that those who seek it (legitimately, within marriage) do no evil. In other words, God wants us to enjoy the sexual relationship of marriage!
2362 “The acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable; the truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude.”145 Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure:
The Creator himself . . . established that in the [generative] function, spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. Therefore, the spouses do nothing evil in seeking this pleasure and enjoyment. They accept what the Creator has intended for them. At the same time, spouses should know how to keep themselves within the limits of just moderation.
Without God, we cannot create another human being. We, as parents, “only” make the body. God creates the soul. All in one creative, self-giving act. It is an intimate partnership between God and man. If God does not desire to send a child at this time and does not create that eternal soul, it doesn’t matter how much we try. On the other hand, if God does create a soul, we can be sure that it is His will. We really can trust that. (This is the reason Chief and I don’t currently use NFP… if God creates a soul, it is obvious that He desires this child to come into being! We don’t have any other serious reasons [mortifying your adult children isn’t a serious reason, is it?] That does not mean that in the future there won’t be circumstances that would bring us to discern that we should avoid conception. Those circumstances have not presented themselves, but that does not mean they could not.)
Paragraph 2362, quoted above, shows us that the sole focus on procreation is not the whole picture. If sex was exclusively about procreation, what happens to a marriage after menopause? What happens if, through disease or injury, we lose our ability to conceive? What about those who are in their child-bearing years but are infertile and no licit means of reproductive assistance helps them? Are they required to give up their sexual relationship within their marriage? Do they do or seek something evil if they enjoy a healthy sexual relationship even if they know they cannot conceive a child? Is a couple doing something wrong if they continue to respond to each other, even if the woman has had a medically necessary hysterectomy? Do these things change the intimate relationship into an evil or useless one? No! That is ridiculous!!!
1654 Spouses to whom God has not granted children can nevertheless have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Their marriage can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality, and of sacrifice.
The bottom line, in my opinion, is that the Church allows the use of NFP for a grave/serious reasons. Those who say that NFP is wrong “no matter what” are contradicting the Church. Natural Family Planning is not something a “good” Catholic must reject regardless of their circumstances. It is also not required.
Lest you think that I don’t believe that we are called to be generous or that fecundity in marriage is of lesser importance than unity, here is a quote from Guadium et Spes:
50. Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents. The God Himself Who said, “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18) and “Who made man from the beginning male and female” (Matt. 19:4), wishing to share with man a certain special participation in His own creative work, blessed male and female, saying: “Increase and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). Hence, while not making the other purposes of matrimony of less account, the true practice of conjugal love, and the whole meaning of the family life which results from it, have this aim: that the couple be ready with stout hearts to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Savior. Who through them will enlarge and enrich His own family day by day.
Parents should regard as their proper mission the task of transmitting human life and educating those to whom it has been transmitted. They should realize that they are thereby cooperators with the love of God the Creator, and are, so to speak, the interpreters of that love. Thus they will fulfil their task with human and Christian responsibility, and, with docile reverence toward God, will make decisions by common counsel and effort. Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself. The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God. But in their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel. That divine law reveals and protects the integral meaning of conjugal love, and impels it toward a truly human fulfillment. Thus, trusting in divine Providence and refining the spirit of sacrifice, (1 Cor. 7:5) married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate. Among the couples who fulfil their God-given task in this way, those merit special mention who with a gallant heart and with wise and common deliberation, undertake to bring up suitably even a relatively large family. (Pius XII, Address Tra le visite, Jan. 20, 1958: AAS 50 (1958), P. 91)
Marriage to be sure is not instituted solely for procreation; rather, its very nature as an unbreakable compact between persons, and the welfare of the children, both demand that the mutual love of the spouses be embodied in a rightly ordered manner, that it grow and ripen. Therefore, marriage persists as a whole manner and communion of life, and maintains its value and indissolubility, even when despite the often intense desire of the couple, offspring are lacking.
I would like to share with you a quote from the Statement on the Formation of Conscience, 1 December 1973 of the conference of Canadian Bishops (which was issued not only as a statement in and of itself, but also as a “clean up” to the Winnepeg statement some years before). Usually this statement is used to remind couples that just because their “conscience” (which usually just means opinion!) says that they do nothing wrong in using ABC, that does not mean that they are correct or that they can use it. It reminds us that our consciences must be formed and that in the Church’s authority, we find the trustworthy norm. After all, Jesus promised to protect the Church and guide it into all truth. He did not promise that individuals would always get it right.
I believe that it fits in this discussion, too. Those out there who decide that NFP is always wrong for everyone, are allowing their conscience (opinion) to be “greater” than the Church’s authority. This does not mean that all couples are required to use NFP. Rather it means that they can under the “right” circumstances (which they, not we, get to determine.) I share this quote to remind us that since the Church, in her authority and wisdom, does allow NFP ~ who are we to suggest that no one can or should ever use it? Who are we to say that it is an evil? Do we possess more wisdom than the Church herself?
Here is that quote:
41. For a Catholic “to follow one’s conscience” is not, then, simply to act as his unguided reason dictates. “To follow one’s conscience” and remain a Catholic, one must take into account first and foremost the teaching of the magisterium. When doubt arises due to a conflict of “my” views and those of the magisterium, the presumption of truth lies on the part of the magisterium. “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent of soul. This religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra (Lumen Gentium, #25). And this must be carefully distinguished from the teaching of individual theologians or individual priests, however intelligent or persuasive.
The Church does call us to be “generous in the service of life,” but the magisterium also says NFP is acceptable and gives us an idea of “when” it is acceptable (for grave/serious reasons.) I think that’s enough.