Monday, January 14, 2013

Marriage, Procreation, and NFP

Marriage is intended to be fruitful; God said so Himself! God's plan for the sanctification of the married couple includes their cooperation with God in procreating new souls destined for Heaven. NFP doesn't explicitly fly in the face of such an understanding but it is dramatically not submissive to God. NFP is all about a degree of control that is objectionable in any traditional Catholic understanding of marriage or Catholic spirituality in general.

NFP promoters attempt to elevate non-abstinence to the level of a virtue, achieved by gaining knowledge of God's designs so as to frustrate them. In other words, NFP promoters see the marital act as having “unitive” value that trumps its procreative value; therefore, engaging in marital intimacy when there is no risk of pregnancy is a good in and of itself.

But sex is not an end in itself. To long for sex but seek to avoid its consequences is, objectively, concupiscence seeking a remedy. Certainly we would say this of an unmarried couple. The traditional understanding of marriage is threefold: 1) the procreation and education of children; 2) mutual care and support for the married couple in their journey to Heaven; and 3) a remedy for concupiscence. And once upon a time, people actually got married first and then realized those ends. Some couples probably got married primarily as a remedy for concupiscence; nowadays, we have a Pill for that.

Taking the traditional view of marriage, if a man and a woman long to engage in the marital act, but are not prepared to have children, they should postpone marriage until they are truly “open to life”. They should not be thinking of ways to have sex that allows them to avoid that "consequence."

The same goes for a married couple, really. When a married couple thinks the time is not right for pregnancy, the first option is abstinence; but, if desire is too strong, then charity and justice demand that they engage in the remedy for their concupiscence. This remedy may be NFP. NFP as a "remedy for concupiscence" sounds, to me, a lot more honest in its presentation than touting it as a "way of life" or a "virtue." From a marketing standpoint, though, NFP as a "remedy for concupiscence" doesn’t sound nearly as appealing as "NFP as a way of life", or “God’s plan for the family”.

It seems silly to claim that one is "open to children" when one is organizing one's life around having sex that is not likely to be fruitful! The NFP "way of life," when not practiced to achieve pregnancy, is all about sterile sex – sex that is meant only to make the couple feel good, with no consequences attached to that pleasure. The "background music" of the NFP way of life is always about sexual intimacy: "when we can, when we should, when we can't and when we shouldn't".

Our culture has a lot to do with our understanding of human sexuality. In a recent article addressing this issue, an insightful author notes that “Teen Pregnancy is Not the Problem”. Instead, she says, the problem is how the world presents the topic of “sex”:

The world says sex is primarily for pleasure. That sex doesn’t have to be for unity or procreation. That everybody’s doing it. That there is something wrong with you if you aren’t.

…The world tells us to act on all our urges as soon as possible. To get what we want, when we want it, always. To control our fertility instead of ourselves if we aren’t prepared to become parents.

...It’s time to use our lives to tell the world sex is primarily for procreation and unity. That we aren’t supposed to marry people because it feels good to have sex with them, but to create a pleasurable sexual relationship with the person to whom we are married.

Couples marry today with certain expectations about both marriage and sex shaped by public media. Sex is supposed to be "good" with a "good partner" and "personally satisfying"; in other words, sex is "all about the couple” – a variation on the theme of “it’s all about me”. People enter marriage today with a culturally-conditioned expectation that "sex is like what I've seen in the movies” – which is to say it looks really great, and fun, and exciting! The NFP ideology (and that is what it is) does nothing to teach the true meaning of marriage, sex, or chastity, but is a subtle participant in the unchaste sexuality that is rampant in our culture. To teach engaged couples about "family planning" of any kind is conceding that "family planning" (a.k.a., birth control) is a presumed need and value in today's Catholic marriages.

Certainly, today, the Church is teaching badly in this area. Part of the reason for that is that the Church took seriously the warnings from secular “experts” that the world was becoming overpopulated. Birth control was cautiously embraced because Church leaders didn’t recognize the errors in the overpopulation argument. The apparent needs of the temporal world loomed larger than the spiritual needs of parents that are met by generous parenthood truly orchestrated by God. For a brief moment, it seems that Church leaders wondered if God maybe needed a little help in controlling population.  Hence, the concept of “responsible” parenthood, and the subtle movement from condoning periodic abstinence in certain serious situations to the idea that couples should rely on their own consciences to determine whether or not to conceive a child.

I predict that, in the future, the Church will clarify what it teaches today, dramatically redefine the "serious reasons" necessary for use of NFP, and encourage NFP as a "remedy for concupiscence" rather than a positive, virtuous practice. My prediction stems in part from my belief that what is being taught today,  and the verbiage being used to teach it, is, for the most part, wrong – at least on the very liberal end of the NFP spectrum.  

There’s another, more pragmatic reason for my prediction: far from becoming overpopulated, the world is now beginning to suffer from the effects of decades of population control. We need more babies. People are now coming to an understanding of some principles of the economics of population growth which were previously unknown, unexplored, or ignored. I’m not an expert in this area, but even in the secular media we are beginning to see a growing awareness and concern about the need for more young people. And so if the Church wants to continue to meet the needs of the “modern world”, She will have to acknowledge that birth control should never be touted as a Catholic principle, and that now more than ever Catholic couples should be open to life, open to “generous parenthood” that puts the procreative end of marriage in its rightful place of primacy.

In the end, I think that might be called “virtuous parenthood”.


  1. Dr.Boyd! Thanks a million for your inspirational blog. May I ask how many children you have?

  2. Sadly,I have only two living biological children.

  3. Only two biological children, but God knows you will get your reward for being the 'intellectual' mother of many children; because, hopefully, many people will read your posts and will be touched in their hearts by God's Truth, and will decide to be generous, virtuous parents.

    1. Dear Father,

      Your words are a profound gift to those of us who mourn past decisions for which there is no obvious way to undo the damage. That God can use our sorrow and repentance to create good out of evil ... well, there just aren't words to express my gratitude. And awe.

      Dr. Boyd has often borrowed from the words of a priest whose sermons are online at In one of those sermons, he reflects on the vocation of marriage and images a husband and wife, after death, thanking each other for the gift of eternal life that they each now enjoy though the gift of each other: "Because of you, I have eternal life."

      Your words of consolation and encouragement to Dr. Boyd made me think that, one day, she will meet souls in Heaven who will say to her, "Thank you. Because of you, I exist, and have eternal life."

      God's love is truly awesome. He wastes nothing,even our sins, to love souls to Himself.

      Thank you.

  4. Do you practise NFP yourself?

  5. Fr. Edmund Campion and Terry Carroll, thanks for your encouragement. You are too kind.

    Theresa: No (and given what I've written,wouldn't you be surprised if I said yes?!?!)

    1. Well, yes I suppose I would be surprised. O:-) It is a question of complete abstinence för you then? The reason I'm asking is that I know what you write is right, but to live by those standards is hard in todays' culture of hedonism. I would very much like to know how you do it. And speciellt how your spouse copes . I want to learn!

  6. Theresa, I'm 59 years old. Menopause has come and gone. I've been Catholic for 10 years; before that I had no idea about Catholic teaching on contraception (or anything else, really), and I had my tubes tied after our daughter was born. My doctor actually pushed it, since I was considered to be of an "advanced maternal age" at 40.

    So I cannot speak from any experience of using NFP, or of bearing many children, or even of abstinence for the sake of not becoming pregnant.

    I think that each couple, like every individual, must grow in the practice of virtue. As our faith in God grows, as we trust Him more and more, we are able to abandon ourselves to Divine Providence. I don't suppose that happens all at once for too many people. It's the STRUGGLE to understand and accept God's will over our own that helps us to grow in holiness and become fit for Heaven.

    Feel free to email me if you'd like to discuss this in more depth.

  7. "NFP promoters see the marital act as having “unitive” value that trumps its procreative value;

    From my perspective, providentialists see the marital act as having procreative value that trumps its unitive value.

    Indeed, the more I read the thinking behind this, the more it seems to me that the unitive value is entirely missing.

    1. It's self-evident, isnt' it, that the marital embrace is procreative? It's not so self-evident that the marital embrace is unitive because the physical act of sexual intercourse doesn't have to be loving at all. There is absolutely nothing about the act of sexual intercourse that makes it a unitive event or action.

      To intentionally seek to avoid procreation in a marital embrace is to violate the totality of the act itself. Similarly, to intentionally ignore or avoid the unitive dimension is also a violation of the totality of the act itself. The point is that procreation CAN be an end (purpose) of the marital embrace without reference to unity, while unity CANNOT be an end (purpose) of this physical act all by itself. The Church teaches that the marital embrace should serve both -- procreation AND unity -- but openness to procreation must ALWAYS be part of the marital embrace.

      Providentialists don't attempt to define a calculus of proportionate service of ends. Ideally, such couples just love one another and do what married spouses have always done since forever, without attempting to play God.

  8. Dr Boyd:

    Again, an excellent article on this subject. If you will allow one tiny criticism, however, it would be that you are far too nice to the NFP promoters. I admire you for that because I am past being patient with NFP and all its pomps and works, which has become an ideology for its least some of its promoters. Many others are just confused by conflicting opinions from their hierarchy, and worried about doing what is right.

    Yet you have said it best: "be fruitful and multiply," quoting God Himself. No tortured pro-NFP illogic can get past that simple statement.

    Thanks for the article.

  9. Thanks, "Aged parent"!

    Brian Killian, Terry put my thoughts into words. My short version of his reply is this: The primacy of the procreative purpose of marriage DOES in fact trump the "unitive" end.

    Procreation is dependent on the marital act; the "unitive end" is not.

    In fact, a truly healthy marital relationship does not have "good sex" as its defining characteristic. "Unity" is achieved in other ways, and that unity is then partially - not exclusively - expressed via the marital act.

  10. Been following the NFP discussion over the last week at the CBubble Blog and here. Came across this today and thought it might interest some:
    Appears to be a Protestant (Reformed? RC Sproul) take on the recent shift of the Christian Church towards BC.

    The key issue in this whole discussion is the relationship of God in our life. Ironically, the (Scripture Union) Bible reading for today is Gen Chapter 13. Abram's nephew Lot chooses the appealing looking Jordan Plain while Abram waits for God's direction (and is rewarded and protected).

    I find it stunning that so many think it is irresponsible to trust in God. Surely, Christians are called to encourage each other to live in the Lord and not conform to the world.

  11. Thanks, fRED, for the link and your thoughts. The "Birth Control Movie" project is very interesting. I think I'll do a post on it!


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