"You aim at a devout life, dear Philothea, because as a Christian you know that such devotion is most acceptable to God's Divine Majesty," says St. Francis de Sales in his book "Introduction to the Devout Life".
And we can all be Philotheas, as St. Francis notes: "I have made use of a name suitable to all who seek the devout life, Philothea meaning one who loves God."
Yes, I know, NFP is a licit means of spacing births (and that is the only use I'm addressing here).
However, while NFP is licit,
it is not virtuous (as Fr. Gardner
has explained). There are limits, and virtue demands that we consider the limits.
And the magisterial documents contain these Truths, nuances and all. In fact,
the Church is very clear in her teaching that NFP, while licit, should be only
used for “serious” or “just” reasons (“justae causae” or “just cause”).
Unfortunately, "just reason" has come to mean
"just about any reason" to "space births." To trust in God
has become presumptuous. The Church does, indeed, "permit" NFP for
"just causes," just as it "permits" capital punishment.
Pius XII made it pretty clear that we aren't just "having babies"; we
are creating souls with an eternal destiny, a reality which should strike us
with awe. If we take someone's life through capital punishment, we are also in
the presence of something which should strike us with awe.
Nevertheless, there can be "just reasons" for
"spacing births" and there can be "just reasons" to execute
a criminal. These "just reasons" should be judged, however, in light
of the awesome realities before us. "I want to finish working on my
degree" doesn't cut it as a "just reason" for "spacing births,"
i.e., choosing when to procreate with God a potential new citizen of Heaven.
Nor should we execute someone just because it has not been defined as
"intrinsically evil" to do so. There must be "just reasons"
judged in light of true justice.
Yes, NFP is licit. But it is certainly not required: the Church does not teach that
couples must use NFP as a matter of “responsible parenthood”. Nevertheless, the USCCB has a detailed document
concerning standards for diocesan NFP ministry. Apart from mentioning in a very
general way that everyone should be educated as to “Catholic morality”, the
document does not address the very important statement that “serious” or “just”
reasons are required for the use of NFP.
Does this mean that the USCCB thinks that every couple who
gets married will have serious reasons for using NFP?! Every couple?! Statistically, that is unlikely, unless of course,
your definition of “just reason” is, in fact, “just any reason”. I think that failing to address “serious reasons” or “just cause”
is simply acquiescing to the pressures of secular society to limit family size
(“overpopulation”, you know) and enjoy sex all the while (because “it’s our
By not spelling out some examples of “just reasons”, and by
failing to emphasize the importance of those reasons in choosing to use NFP,
the USCCB does the faithful a disservice: it becomes all too easy to condone
and even encourage NFP for a reason that basically fits into the category of “I'm
not ready for a child right now, but I'm ready for sex". Why don't we just
blush and move on rather than try to make this sound responsible, even holy.
When there are "serious reasons" to not conceive a
child at a particular point in time, there is the obvious option of abstinence.
With one noteworthy exception, no one has ever been pregnant from abstinence. I
don't know why anyone shouldn't be embarrassed, or at least humbled, at the
need to figure out a way to have sex and avoid pregnancy. We shouldn't be
proud of our concupiscence, but since we are all "infected" with
original sin, concupiscence is a fact of life. But it’s not something we should
encourage! In the life of what saint was "a great sex life" a
Many couples have stories about how using NFP changed their
marriage, helped them grow in holiness, saved the woman’s health, etc. I don’t
doubt their stories or their sincerity. But there are also stories about
trusting God’s providence that are equally inspiring. Michael Malone, in The Case Concerning Catholic Contraception,
relates these facts:
On a personal note, one godson
of mine was the fifth consecutive Caesarian delivery of his mother in a day when
such was deemed obstetrically suicidal…I also happen to have seven healthy and
happy siblings from a mother whose doctors warned her explicitly, with each and
every pregnancy, that she and every one of her offspring would certainly suffer
death because of a serious blood disorder (Rh incompatibility).
Do you suppose the Almighty
does not know what He was doing, allowing such souls to be born and to live in
such “dangerous” and “intolerable” conditions? Thank God my mother didn’t
In a 2003 article called “Is Natural Family Planning a ‘Heresy’?”
in Fr. Brian W. Harrison defends the liceity of NFP, but acknowledges also the
lack of proper catechesis on “serious reasons” (emphases in original):
…[A]mong those promoting NFP,
there is sometimes a one-sidedness or lack of balance. Married or engaged
couples are often taught the legitimacy and the technique…of NFP, but with
little or no mention of that other part of the Church's teaching which insists
that couples need "just reasons" (Humanae Vitae, 16; Catechism
of the Catholic Church [CCC], #2368) for using NFP if they wish to
be free from blame before God. (Indeed, quite frankly, I think we really need
now from the Magisterium some less vague and more specific guidelines as to whatactually constitutes a "just reason".) Very often, such
couples hear nothing at all of the fact that "Sacred Scripture and the
Church's teaching see in large families a sign of God's blessing
and the parents' generosity" (CCC no. 2373). Still less frequently are
they informed that, according to the Magisterium, merely temporal or worldly
considerations are in themselves inadequate criteria for deciding when NFP can
be justified: "Let all be convinced that human life and the duty of
transmitting it are not limited by the horizons of this life only: their true
evaluation and full significance can be understood only in reference to man's
eternal destiny" (Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, no.
51, cited in CCC no. 2371). Taking into account the whole spectrum of
biblical and Church teaching in this area, I personally think that we need to
bring back the word "grave" into the discourse about family planning.
That is, we should be teaching that the temporal or worldly problems to be
anticipated by another pregnancy and birth (mainly of health or poverty) need
to be really grave in character before a married couple is
entitled to conclude that they have a "just reason" for them to use
NFP. (I said "bring back" above, because, as I shall show in this
article, that key adjective, "grave", has in fact been used by the
Magisterium in this context, in certain decisions that have been generally
forgotten, but by no means repudiated.)
I think Fr. Harrison has a very good point there.
Could be a recursive pattern, eh?!
I am not judging anyone’s else’s story; I’m speaking
to you from mine. If you assume I’m being “judgmental”, then you yourself have
become the same. Let each judge his own story according to a properly formed
conscience. And let each of us realize that our consciences are continually
being perfected…if we are willing to cooperate.
Please keep comments civil and charitable; responsive rather
than reactive. Thanks.