Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Is Heroic Parenthood the New "Responsible"?

Who could argue with the concept of “responsible parenthood”? It just seems so…well…responsible. No one wants to be an irresponsible parent! I think, though, that the concept of “responsibility” has become something of a political issue, and also one of those things people embrace for the social approval it enjoys. For instance, we hear lots of talk about being “responsible” about the environment, “responsible” about recycling, “responsible” about taking care of our bodies by working out and/or dieting, etc. 

Sadly, this kind of uncritical acceptance of the idea of “being responsible” has led us down the wrong path when it comes to family size. Let’s take a look at where the concept of “responsible parenthood” entered into Catholic thinking and teaching; why it entered; and what it really means for us as Catholics.

It appears to me that the term “responsible” first came to be applied to parenthood in Church documents during the Vatican II; the concept appears in Gaudium et Spes, in paragraphs 50-51. I suspect that the idea of “responsible parenthood” had been in the minds of moral theologians for some years before that; I doubt the concept sprang up overnight at the Council.

But what brought it about in the first place? I think a major catalyst was the “overpopulation” scare, but this was part of the bigger picture of the changes that were occurring at a rapid pace in the world faced by the Church in the 20th century. Near the beginning of Gaudium et Spes, in paragraph 4, we are reminded that:

Today, the human race is involved in a new stage of history. Profound and rapid changes are spreading by degrees around the whole world. Triggered by the intelligence and creative energies of man, these changes recoil upon him, upon his decisions and desires, both individual and collective, and upon his manner of thinking and acting with respect to things and to people. Hence we can already speak of a true cultural and social transformation, one which has repercussions on man’s religious life as well.

As happens in any crisis of growth, this transformation has brought serious difficulties in its wake.

If that was true then, how much more so now! In my own small view of things, it seems to me that the changes in society – technologically, socially, and morally – have been greater in the last 10 years than in the 40 that preceded it! I wonder if the Church, in Her desire to meet the needs of the “modern world”, neglected to consider that what is “modern” today can become outdated as soon as tomorrow.

At any rate…back to the overpopulation issue, which was a serious concern at the time of Vatican II. I was born in 1953, and “overpopulation” was a part of my vocabulary and awareness from as early as I can remember thinking about such things. I remember staring out the car window as we went on a Sunday drive, seeing hills and fields bare of houses or any sign of habitation, and wondering, “How can there be too many people if there is so much space left over?”

The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich was published in 1968, but the idea had been around before that. In a recent article entitled “The Overpopulation Myth and the New Morality”, Dr. Howard Kains says:

Ehrlich’s book was not the beginning of the general panic about overpopulation, but had been preceded by moves in the Johnson administration. In a 1965 speech to the United Nations, Johnson advised that, “Five dollars invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth,” and insisted that sterilization programs be implemented in India as a condition for famine relief from the United States.

The concept of “population control” was just part of the culture when I was growing up. You were supposed to get married and have two kids – one to replace you, and one to replace your spouse. Anything more was…well…irresponsible.

The problem is, the overpopulation myth was just that: a myth. It still is. It still affects the thinking of people regarding family size, contraception, and “responsible parenthood”.
Let’s look at it from the viewpoint of the diabolical. Picture Satan sitting in his office wondering, “How can I prevent the creation of more souls?” Hmm. He puts the overpopulation concept into play, so that people, becoming more and more aware of the world around them, will fear the creation of new souls and the “burden” that will put on society. Next, in order to help them accommodate their fear, Satan introduces artificial contraception. Great! And not only that, he hides the fact that there are side effects ranging from sterility to cancer…at least, he has been pretty successful in hiding that info from the women who use chemical birth control.

Picture Satan giggling with glee in 1930 when the Anglicans approve use of artificial contraception, and when all the Protestant churches jump on the contraception bandwagon shortly thereafter. He’s a little miffed in 1968, when Humanae Vitae is promulgated, wherein that darn Catholic Church still insists that contraception is immoral and Catholics may not use it.

But what does Satan do better than disobedience?! Theologians, priests, and even bishops rise up to defy the Pope’s authority to reaffirm the immorality of contraception; they cite “conscience” as a reason for individuals to disobey the teaching of the Church on this subject.

The Church seems to have been convinced by “modern” reasoning that it is not good to have many children. For instance, Humanae Vitae starts out with a statement that

…there is the rapid increase in population which has made many fear that world population is going to grow faster than available resources, with the consequence that many families and developing countries would be faced with greater hardships. …[G]reater demands made both in the economic and educational field pose a living situation in which it is frequently difficult these days to provide properly for a large family. (par. 2)

So, for those who still want to obey the Church, but who are worried about overpopulation and their own potential inability to provide for a multitude of children, Satan has another answer: responsible parenthood. And how do we achieve “responsible parenthood” without artificial contraception? Enter NFP. Natural birth control…and it’s 99% effective! But the point, for our purposes here, is that it’s still birth control, and it’s promoted primarily – though not exclusively – for the purposed of limiting spacing the births of children within a family.

Yet there is firm evidence against the myth of overpopulation, and we are seeing associated problems emerging for nations like Japan, where the birth rate has been too low for too long. In Japan, we can see hard evidence of the error of limiting births – not just pie-in-the-sky speculation.

Besides, truth never changes. Either God said, “Be fruitful and multiply” or He didn’t. I am quite sure that God did not say, “Go forth and beget according to responsible parenthood”, and He didn’t say, “Be fruitful and multiply, but not so much that the earth is overpopulated”. The value and virtue of a large family used to be understood and taught; now, having many children is seen as selfish and irresponsible.

I also think our shepherds hedged their bets on “responsible parenthood” by describing it as both “generous and prudent”. Well, it seems to me that it’s hard to be both. Fr. William Gardner makes a very good point in a soon-to-be published article that

It is noteworthy that the Church does not preach “responsible witnessing,” or “responsible missionary work,” or “responsible martyrdom.”  And this is rightly so, since these terms do not fit together.  Instead, we honor saints like Maximilian Kolbe, Francis Xavier, and Isaac Jogues for their heroic witness, their heroic missionary work, or their heroic martyrdom.

And that begs the question: Why do we not promote the concept of “heroic” parenthood?
Today’s society does not value parenthood, children, or even women’s fertility. But a woman’s ability to engage in sexual activity seems to be given a high priority. In a recent article, Elizabeth Crnkovich asked “Why Is Government (and Society) Discouraging Childbearing?” She notes (my emphases):

…[A] woman is expected to pass her most fertile years acting like a man, building up a strong career, and making a lot of money. Only after she is thus “established” and has “enough money” is she allowed to start thinking about having children.
In all of this, of course, there is no assumption that she will abstain from sex. Rather, she is expected to use pills and implants, diaphragms and injections in order to foil conception and escape the “burden of children.” …

At a recent Family in America conference, Dr. Jennifer Morse, founder and president of the Ruth Institute, spoke of society’s lack of acceptance of women’s fertility. Young women are told they must be just like men if they want to enter the workforce and fit in in the workplace. They are advised not to have children right out of school because that will get in the way of a career…

According to Dr. Morse, fertility is not seen as the norm for women but is rather viewed as a problem. And since society’s progressives view fertility as problematic, a government constituted of progressives takes action to curb it

The truth is, we need more children. Society in general needs more children. Our own nation needs more children. The Catholic Church needs more children.  With that in mind, consider these words from Gaudium et Spes (par. 50):

…Let [parents] 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…

Today’s young married couples seem to equate “responsible” with “fewer”. But if one is truthful about the state of the world, and about the state of the Church, I think one will likely come to the conclusion that “responsible parenthood” cannot be taken to mean, simply, “fewer children”. Today, it probably means “more children”. But “more children” would mean more sacrifice for parents, and sacrifice is something of a foreign concept to recent generations.


Perhaps “responsible parenthood” does in fact mean “generous parenthood”.

Perhaps “responsible parenthood” does in fact mean “heroic parenthood”.

Be fruitful, and multiply!


  1. So true! Sadly, the groundwork for abortion was contraception.

  2. There is an article in today's Wall Street Jornal that concerns the lack of children in California. That is pretty close to us all in the U.S. Kathy

  3. This is a good analysis. The key is the proper understanding of the virtue of "prudence." Were the martyrs imprudent when they chose to be tortured to death rather than burn a pinch of incense to the Roman gods? True prudence means understanding and wisely utilizing the means which will get you to heaven. There is a worldly prudence which teaches the opposite. That kind of prudence is effectively demolished by St. Louis de Montfort when he talks about the wisdom of the world in contrast to the wisdom of God.

    To apply true prudence to the subject under discussion, the question is "Which kind of 'responsible' parenthood will get us to heaven? The kind which makes all possible allowances for worldly pleasures and concerns, or the kind which is focused on the best utilization of the means that God has given us to help us on our journey to heaven?"

    St. Paul said "women will be saved by childbearing." This quote was repeated by Pope Pius XI in 1931 in his encyclical "Casti Connubii" demonstrating its perennial application over the course of 1900 years.

    Virginity, of course, is an even better means for getting to heaven. But once we have chosen the married state, it is better to have the prudence of the martyrs than to adopt the "responsible parenthood" of Margaret Sanger and company.

  4. Thanks, John. Good points. I'll save them for a later post! ;-)

  5. I take great offense at your lumping together young married couples using NFP and young married couples using contraception. I'm wondering how many young married, NFP-using, couples you've gotten to know while writing these blog posts and your book. I'm a young wife and mom of two beautiful babies (plus another baby, God-willing, who we'll meet in Heaven). My husband and I use NFP BECAUSE we want to have a generous family. God, through NFP, has allowed us to know the days that we are most likely to conceive. NFP has allowed us to keep an accurate health record so that when we lost our second baby to miscarriage we were able to talk with a doctor and take steps to decrease our miscarriage risk for our third pregnancy. Now NFP is allowing us to temporarily avoid pregnancy so that we can avoid debt and continue maturing as spouses, parents, homemakers, etc. and feel psychologically secure to welcome baby #3 - hopefully sooner rather than later. I am confident that if we have babies when we prayerfully discern God is calling us to do so, rather than having as many as physically possible, we will be able to have a bigger family in the long run because we were prudent in our early years. I'm 26 years old, most of my friends are Catholic, and all my Catholic friends (and some Protestant friends) use NFP. None of the NFP-users have the desire to "be responsible" as the world defines it and only have a couple kids. We all are using NFP so that we can be both generous and responsible/prudent.

    Would you say it's impossible to be both prudent and generous with money? A person could give ALL their money to charity... or a person could give some money to charity, use some money to go to college to get a good paying job, and invest some money... and by the end of one's life be able to give much more money to charity (and probably have more babies!). Is the latter choice going against God's will?

    The problem over the past 50 years is that most Catholics choose to IGNORE Humanae Vitae and use contraception anyways, NOT that all of sudden, with the dawn of Humanae Vitae, all Catholics stopped having babies and instead started to avoid pregnancy with NFP!

    No offense but I think you are wasting your energy worrying about the mindset with which Catholics might be using NFP. Most Catholics are using contraception. A very small percentage use NFP, and a small percentage of those are probably misinterpreting "grave motives". Pray for that last group - they'll come around before menopause I'm sure. NFP, unlike contraception, makes it quite difficult to be selfish with fertility and closed to God's will for too long. Let's really focus our energy (i.e. blog posting and book writing) though on the rest of the Catholics that have no idea how God created their bodies or what precious gifts He's given us in our fertility, sexuality, and children.

    If you've ever in Wisconsin, let me know. You'll have to join us for our parish's young adult brunch and get to know some authentic, NFP-using, Catholic young married couples!

  6. Holy cow. I can't believe it. Someone is actually daring to question NFP, the "good and moral" Catholic birth control. It's about time!!!! I am 32, married for almost 7 years, and have three small children (and another on the way). I went through my own NFP journey after I got married. I attended Franciscan University and 100% pro-NFP. I handed out Janet Smith tapes and learned the Creighton Method through classes offered at the school. My husband and I did pre-cana at a nearby church and they did an overview of NFP there as well (complete with the egg whites to give the men an idea of fertile mucus).

    I had issues with my cycles and went to an OB to see what was going on. I was eventually told I couldn't have children naturally. I was crushed! We had originally planned to use NFP for a year or two to "get used" to being married and to get on our feet financially. However, since I didn't think we could have kids, we dropped the thought and just lived.... Then we got pregnant two months after the wedding :)We had a beautiful baby girl.

    Shortly after she was born, I got pregnant again, then miscarried. It was at this time that my protestant mother in law pleaded with me to use birth control because it would be unhealthy to get pregnant again so soon after a miscarriage. I told we wouldn't do that, but were considering NFP. Her response? "Oh! So you have Catholic birth control? Great!"

    This statement bothered me a lot and started my journey. I read every Church statement from the past that I could get my hands on regarding fertility and marriage and children. I read about prudence and God's Providence. I read all the NFP books that I had. I watched an episode of EWTN's "NFP: Embracing the Marital Gift."

    My conclusion was that I could never, in good conscience, use NFP. I know the Church has approved it and encourages it- but it's not doctrine and those teachings can change. I am free to disagree... and I do. I refer to NFP as a current trend in the Church.

    At the time I arrived at this conclusion I was still on Facebook. I mentioned my reading and thoughts and- WOW- people get VERY ANGRY when you start messing with their "approved" method of spacing children. My good Steubenville friends actually asked one of our classmates- an atheist- who had become a lawyer to help them out with their arguments. It got pretty ugly and I lost almost every single college friend over this. They thought I had lost my mind. People- good people- who I had looked up to hurt my me pretty badly. All because I dared to question the morality of NFP.

    I have wanted to do what you are doing, but with small children and a house to take care of, I don't have the time. So thank you very much for putting this out there! I actually have two families near me that agree that God should be given 100% control over their fertility. I do believe that more and more couples will come to feel this way as well (especially as the Latin Mass grows). I've even noticed a growth in the (mostly) protestant "Quiverfull" movement.

    Keep on keeping on and God bless you! I haven't read your book yet, but I am going to get a copy of it.

    Have a blessed Lent!

  7. Wow! What a testimonial! Do you mind if I make your comment into a post? I will leave your name off if you so desire. Thanks so much for your encouragement; it does seem to be very dangerous to question NFP! God bless you!

  8. If I may suggest a reason why it seems "dangerous" to question NFP...

    How do you justify your stance without suggesting that the Holy Spirit does not guide the writing of papal encyclicals like Humanae Vitae and councils like the Second Vatican Council?

    You read my earlier comment and think "oh look, another defensive NFP user, she's getting defensive because she actually feels guilty about her use of NFP for trivial reasons". That is completely off the mark. My husband and I have been using NFP for our entire marriage of 3 years and 7 months; we've been pregnant three times and have a son who will be 3 years old in 2 months and a daughter who will be 1 in June. You can do the math and then tell me you think I'm being defensive because I've used NFP improperly.

    I'm "defensive" because I love Christ and His Church and you are mocking important Church documents and suggesting that the Holy Spirit was absent when the Church has affirmed over and over again the use of periodic abstinence to avoid pregnancy for serious reasons.

    It is awesome, Corrie, that you and your husband are in a position to accept children "as God gives them". That is beautiful and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I would say the same for the Tridentine Mass - beautiful and absolutely nothing wrong with it. However, Catholics that attend the Tridentine Mass cannot in good conscience stick up their nose at those that attend Novus Ordo mass and suggest that the Novus Ordo liturgy(as a whole... as it is meant to be done in the GIRM...) is just a "passing fad". Just as with the Novus Ordo Mass, there has been confusion about the proper use of NFP in marriage, but to suggest that NFP is immoral because some people use it for trivial reasons is to "throw the baby out with the bath water" and in doing so, rejecting the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

  9. Alison, I love Christ and His Church, too. I am not mocking any documents; I am pointing out some problems with Humanae Vitae, and some discontinuity of "modern" documents with earlier documents and the traditional teaching of the Church.

    I have never said that the use of NFP is immoral in and of itself, because NFP is permitted by the Church; however, using NFP inappropriately is probably immoral, and there's the rub. I think if you would actually read my book, you would have a better idea of what I'm actually saying.

  10. "I am pointing out discontinuity of 'modern' documents with earlier documents and the traditional teaching of the Church." -- How is that any different than what SSPX, or other schismatic groups, do in the name of being "traditional Catholics"?

    I do not plan to purchase your book but I've read most of your NFP blog posts. In some posts, I completely agree with you, that NFP needs to be always be presented as something to be used to achieve pregnancy, to monitor fertility, or, when a couple has serious reasons that they've prayerfully discerned, to avoid pregnancy. Too often it's compared to contraception and taught as a way to simply avoid pregnancy. However, most of your posts condemn NFP as a whole and suggest that most people using NFP as using it "inappropriately" and that is just not true.

    You do use a lot of language that mocks the Church (Church documents, Blessed JPII, Pope Benedict XVI). If you'd like me to create a list, I'd be happy to.

  11. Sure. You can email me your list at drjayboyd@msn.com. I'd be happy to see it. It's not my intention to "mock".

    By the way, it is not wrong or heretical to point out where there appear to be discrepancies between "newer" and "older" Church teaching.

  12. Well, I thought this statement to me was mocking: "Also, there are Church teachings that predate JPII, believe it or not."
    Good grief, Dr. Boyd, do you think I'm an idiot?

  13. My apologies for that comment, which was, in fact, mocking. Shame on me. I guess I just get worn down by the number of comments and emails I get that seem to imply that the writer does in fact assume that anything predating JPII is either nonexistent or invalid.

  14. Dr. Boyd, I know that you are honestly seeking the truth of the matter, as are we all.

    Sometimes I feel like I am not allowed to challenge this line of thinking, because to do so would imply lack of trust in God. That is disturbing.

    Are you familiar with the dissertation by Orville Griese, 1942, entitled The Morality of Periodic Continence? This is pre-Vatican II, Pre-Humanae Vitae. It bears no weight apart from the force of its arguments. It is helpful insofar as it reveals the mind of the Church at this time.

    I read it, and found he gave lists of reasons! He was quite strict, didn't wish to see the rhythm method disseminated to the people lest they assume they had license to actually use it.

    Yet he allowed its morality in certain individual circumstances as follows:

    Ordinarily sufficient for the Permanent Practice of Periodic continence

    1) Because conception will very probably result in death or permanent state of bad health for the mother

    2)Because it is almost certain that the mother cannot bring forth living children

    3) Because the mother can bring forth only abortive children (miscarriages)

    4) Because it is practically certain that the children will be born with serious and incurable hereditary defects ie. Insanity

    5) Because it is morally impossible for the husband to support another child

    6) Because the mother has proven to be utterly incapable of fulfilling the usual maternal duties relative to the care and training of children either physically or morally

    7) Because one of the spouses is absolutely opposed to having children or another child

    8) Because it is the only way of stopping and preventing [contraceptive] methods in marital relations

    9) because it is morally certain that one of the parties will otherwise fall into sins of incontinence

  15. Ordinarily Sufficient only for the Temporary Practice of Periodic Continence

    1) Because of a temporary physical weakness or period of convalescence e.g. gaining strength after childbirth or an illness

    2) Because of extraordinary inconveniences and expenses associated with childbirth e.g. Caesarian deliveries

    3)Because of the exceptional fecundity of the mother; necessary to "space" births

    4)Because of difficult financial conditions at the present time. unemployment, misfortunes, etc.

    5) Because the young wife is not yet physically fit to assume the cares of motherhood

    6) Because of a temporary nervous strain on the part of the wife; simply cannot bear the thought of another child.

    7) Because the birth of another child will actually render the mother incapable of properly rearing the children already born, at least for the time being.

    8) Because the wife has to work and help support the family; husband's salary is insufficient, or employment irregular, etc.


    1) Because the man and wife wish to train just one or two children for special careers or social standings in life

    2) Because the wife wishes to work for a while after marriage in order to help pay for the furniture, help the husband pay his debts, etc.

    3) Because the wife wishes to have only one or two children and keep her career; nurse, teacher, beauty specialist, singer, etc.


    1) Because the wife has an unfounded fear of the ordinary pains and inconvenience of pregnancy and childbirth

    2) Because the man and wife wish to "enjoy life" while they are young-they will settle down later on; or any other motive which indicates an excessive love of ease and comfort, or which indicates a spirit of avarice, vanity, etc. e.g. they shrink from the sacrifices normally associated with the rearing and education of children, or they simply have no desire for children, or they desire only one or two children so that their wealth will stay in the family, or because it is the "style" to have a child or two.

    3) because of any malicious motive such as hatred of children, contempt for the divine plan or for the authority of the Church

  17. Thanks.

    Most NFP promoters don't want to allow any "providentialist" thinking, and so many providentialists feel that THEY are not allowed to challenge NFP thinking! I find that disturbing, too.

    I'm pretty sure he wasn't talking about NFP as we know it today when he talked about periodic continence, though. I would disagree with some of his "sufficient motives"; some of them could be accomplished by delaying marriage! Also, these days I think some of the "sufficient" and "doubtfully sufficient" become interwined in the minds of the couple and in the view of society.

  18. Actually, if you read the dissertation, you'll see that he examines it precisely as an entire system of avoiding pregnancy. In 1942,Humanae Vitae had yet to be issued formalizing the Church's position-to say nothing of all that's been further said since then, yet many people had in fact heard about the rhythm method, and were using it. You would probably find the dissertation very informative.

    Can you show how NFP is incompatible with trusting in Divine Providence? I don't think that they are mutually exclusive. Sure we can all strive for the ideal. But we may fall short. We are weak and frail after all. We have a variety of limitations (truly very wide in the words of Pope Pius.)

    Many moms of large families are struggling and overwhelmed and afraid to give voice to that for fear of being recriminated. But I'll admit it. I'm overwhelmed! So I-and others like me who haven't been wrongly convinced it's wrong, use the means that the Church permits to get a breather, in order to be a better mom and a better Christian witness-more peaceful, more joyful.

    As I have said before, the Church doesn't command heroism, she demands obedience and faithfulness.

    It seems to me that you imply that anyone who uses NFP without a serious-enough-in-your-book reason is guilty. Even though the Church does NOT say this, and has explicitly stated otherwise in documents like Familiaris Consortio, which has recently spoken of NFP (a recent science) in terms considerably more positive than just toleration. (See sections 33 and 34.) Can I presume you have read the encyclical, and as Catholic, hold it as true?) Do I misunderstand you?

    We have no problem whatsoever with your promoting and upholding the ideal of marriage. What we take huge issue with is denying the Church's teaching that specifically allows periodic continence when legitimate reasons exist why procreation is not advisable at that time. The Church can't allow something INHERENTLY WRONG can it? Why can't you underscore the first without dismissing the second aspect of the teaching? It seems dishonest to do otherwise, and we would be much better served if you took that approach. If the only way you can encourage large families is by denying them a means offered by the Church, there's a big problem.

    In other words, your teaching on NFP and what the pope says in Familiaris Consortio can't both be right. If I misunderstand, and you can show how it does in fact square with it, I would be much reassured. Please do us that favor.

    Mrs. Mike


Please be courteous and concise.