Thursday, January 17, 2013

Trusting God, Growing in Holiness...and NFP?

I’ve written extensively about NFP on this blog.

I have tried to present the logical, tradition-based reasons for not using NFP (unless for “serious reasons”), and have purposely avoided looking at individuals’ reasons for using it.  This has resulted in accusations that I’m judgmental: that I have no right to “judge” people’s reasons for using NFP; that they have every right to follow their own consciences; that what is not a “serious reason” for one couple might be “serious” for another. I’ve been scolded for not applauding couples for using NFP when they could just as easily be using artificial contraception.

None of those accusations are really true. I’m not judging people. I’ve been arguing for the principle that we should be open to God’s will for our lives and not try to thwart it while trying to appear virtuous at the same time.

That said, I do know that we’re all on a journey toward Heaven, and we are at different points along the road. Growing in holiness is a process.  

My friend Stacy Trasancos at Accepting Abundance blog, doesn’t agree with me completely about NFP, but I have enormous respect for her anyway. ;-)  Stacy recently wrote an article entitled “Open to…Miscarriage?” (please go and read the whole thing!). She said, in part:

One of my greatest fears is that I will see one of the children I have raised die. Miscarriage left me empty, imagining the dead body of a child I have raised for two, ten, or twenty years fills me with terror. Motherhood can be a curse and a blessing.
But I am starting to see it…as only a blessing, suffering and all…

Stacy had linked to her article on Face Book, and in the comments there, I wrote:

I have never had a miscarriage, but I think about the babies I might have aborted via the Pill. Anyway, "being open to" is all about accepting Divine Providence even when we don't understand why He allows something to happen.

Stacy responded:

I suspect this "being open to all" is a wisdom gained with maturity. We want to live a long life, but if we do live long enough we'll see all our loved ones die.

Yes, being “open to life” means being open to sadness, suffering, and even death. But then, we should actually be open to all those things anyway…not just as a counterpoint to being “open to life”. Death is a fact of life, so to speak. Suffering has salvific value. Death of the body means that eternal life is possible.

Being open to life, sadness, suffering, and death isn’t something we embrace all at once, though.  This was made very clear by a commenter on Stacy’s Face Book page who, referring to her state after losing a baby through miscarriage, said (my emphases):

… I couldn’t pray the Our Father for months, because I couldn’t bring myself to sincerely pray, “Thy will be done.” I knew instinctively…that meant my heart had to be open not just to receiving new life, but letting it go, should God choose. I still sobbed painfully the first few times I prayed the full prayer… [S]ubmission to even another loss was unimaginably hard to offer to God, but it also helped me move beyond the paralyzing fear that had gripped me since [my baby’s] death.

No, we don’t become saints who submit graciously to Divine Providence overnight! It’s a struggle to understand and conform to God’s will. That’s how sainthood happens.
I’ve been reading a wonderful book this submission to Divine Providence; it’s called Holy Abandonment by Dom Vitalis Lehodey, OCR. The author distinguishes between God’s “signified will” and God’s “will of good pleasure”. The first refers to the ways in which God’s will is made known to us very clearly, and in advance of any events of our lives: the Ten Commandments, the precepts of the Church, a religious Rule of Life, etc., all communicate God’s will in a straightforward fashion.

On the other hand, God’s “will of good pleasure” encompasses the things that happen to us in our lives, things which God may ordain, or which occur because He permits them. The author notes that “it is in tribulations especially we must recognize the will of God”; this is where He offers us the opportunity of “remedying our failings, of healing and sanctifying our souls”.

Even when we begin to understand and accept some semblance of submission to God’s will, there are stages of growth involved. Dom Lehodey discusses a progression that starts with seeking to avoid trials and afflictions, but accepting them as a “rigorous duty”; at the next stage the soul still does not wish for pain and suffering, but when they come, they are “accepted and endured willingly, because we know such afflictions enter into God’s designs with regard to us”. Finally, in the most perfect degree of conformity to God’s will,

…we are not content with just accepting and suffering cheerfully, for the love of God, all the trials He may send us; but in the ardour of our love, we long for these trials and rejoice at their advent, because we know they come from the hand of God and are ordained by His adorable will. (p. 25; my emphases)

Obviously, abandoning ourselves to Divine Providence requires ongoing effort, and it doesn’t apply to just one aspect of our lives. It’s not specific to NFP, of course! But in NFP promotion we can see, if we are willing to look, a resistance to accepting God’s will in our lives.

I think it is ludicrous that dioceses and parishes would actually require NFP training for engaged couples – at least in the way I’m seeing it promoted on various websites. NFP is for use when there are “serious reasons” to avoid pregnancy (and actually it can be argued that the same “serious reasons” rationale applies to using NFP to achieve pregnancy,  as well – which is an area I’ve not touched on this blog…yet).

Teaching couples NFP as a matter of course and without due respect for “serious reasons” does not even hint to them about the path to holiness that is opened by truly trusting Divine Providence. Promoting NFP encourages couples to remain bound to the world, to earthly “values” and thoughts. It binds them to the trends and opinions of the times we live in, because it does not lift our minds and hearts toward our heavenly homeland.

Currently, I believe that the idea behind the push to spread the tenets of NFP far and wide is perhaps well-intentioned, but misguided, and a little dishonest. It’s really a vote of no-confidence in the targeted couples: what if they use artificial contraception?! Quick, substitute NFP!

Yes, NFP is morally licit; however, it still perpetuates the notion that we should limit the size or our families. It perpetuates the glorification of the sex act beyond what the Church has traditionally taught. It perpetuates the idea that providing for the material needs desires of our children should be a top priority. Even the notion of being able to pay for a “good education” has its fallacies: there’s very little “good education” to be had out there these days. I am personally convinced that homeschooling is the way to go, but that’s for another post sometimes.

What if diocesan and parish programs for engaged couples included actual encouragement to have large families? Now that would be both counter-cultural and traditional. And it would open a discussion in every pre-marriage class, I’ll bet!

And then there could be discussion about how we travel the road toward abandonment to Divine Providence. We could talk about how not everyone is “there” yet, and if you’re not, then it’s permissible to use NFP for a time, if you have “serious reasons” to do so. This is where Leila’s (Little Catholic Bubble blog) post on “My NFP Plea: Stop Giving Warnings and Rejoice!” comes in. Certainly, we must sympathize with and listen to couples with fears about having “too many” children; but let’s encourage them to be truly open to God’s will, and suggest using NFP only as a last resort.

And finally, we could encourage couples to discuss those “serious reasons” with a priest – one who understands and promotes the “openness to life” that results in a large family. It makes a difference to put one’s “serious reasons” into words for someone who, while sympathetic, has a different perspective to offer.

In society in general, I’ll bet we’ll see the “large family” idea make a comeback in the very near future. Let’s help our Church be a leader on that front, instead of bringing up the rear.


  1. I don't know how you do it, Dr Boyd, but I am in continual astonishment that you can keep writing on this issue. Myself, I've all but given up....but not quite.

    I'm not trying to be outrageous here, or to be flippant in any way, but, with all due respect, I am not convinced that NFP is morally licit. I realize that most of those who are troubled by NFP are not willing to go that far. I respect that. But until we get a Church that has come back to Her senses, and will speak definitively on this subject, I am free to doubt that there can be a moral justification for using this method of birth control. A Church in disarray, one that cannot control its generals and its soldiers (note the French Bishops, who have recently come out in favor of some form of legal union for sexual deviates), or bring peace and order to its penultimate prayer, the Holy Mass, is a Church that will find difficulty in formulating and teaching doctrinal positions on matters such as NFP. Yes, of course the Holy Father, when (and only when) he speaks of matters touching Faith and morals can speak infallibly - when he specifically and unequivocally uses his Divinely-instituted charism of infallibility - but in recent decades the Popes have chosen not to exercise this charism.

    So until we get a clear, unequivocal, simple decision from the Pope explicitly dealing with the rightness or wrongness of NFP then I feel obligated to express my own serious doubts about its moral licitness. We have a right as Catholics to be taught the truth of the matter from the one voice of authority God established instead of having to rely on the contradictory statements and beliefs of various diocesan Bishops and priests.

    Thank you for another fine post.

  2. Thanks, Aged Parent. I can't say that I really disagree with you, but it is true that we have Church documents that say "periodic continence" is an acceptable means of regulating births, for "serious reasons". In that sense, it is morally licit - if the Church says it is so, it is. Of course, the Church does NOT say that a couple MUST use NFP! Thanks be to God!

    I also agree that there needs to be some clarification on the whole situation.

    Pray for our ailing Church!

  3. "But in NFP promotion we can see, if we are willing to look, a resistance to accepting God’s will in our lives."

    This is so painfully true, and not just about NFP. "If we are willing to look" at ourselves about a whole host of discernment issues, we will find abundant evidence of "a resistance to accepting God's will in our lives." As rational beings infected with the effects of Original Sin, it is inevitable that we will try to rationalize our will as "what God wants."

    "God wants me to be happy." This is absolutely true. But how often do we rationalize that into "whatever I believe will make me happy must be what God wants"? Or, worse, "I am made in God's image; therefore, whatever I want, God wants." It's the height of self-deception to believe we would never be guilty of that way of thinking. We can't help it! No matter the kind of sin, don't we always believe that doing that will make us happier than not doing it? In everything that we do, we are seeking happiness, either by our own lights or God's. Our ingrained selfishness makes "I prayed first before making this decision" a good but wholly inadequate step in the process of discernment.

    So I'm not all that impressed by the smiling couples who say, confidently, that their practice of NFP is justified "because we prayed about it." It's just too easy to insert one's own and the world's values into a moral calculus that, in the end, results in doing what pure utilitarianism or hedonism would also conclude. "It can't be wrong when it feels so right" is the anthem of much of what passes, today, as "spiritual discernment."

    Considering the utter awesomeness of what it means to be loved into being by God through a procreative act of spousal love, we should approach the very idea of "controlling the number of children" with a holy terror. We are inserting ourselves into God's desire to create a being with an eternal destiny and "discerning" whether it's a good idea to cooperate with that or not. We are, indeed, created to be happy, but the Creator knows best what He is about, and He knows what it truly means to be happy.

    I would go so far as to say that married couples shouldn't be thinking AT ALL about "family planning." If they are, they are thinking too much about the sexual dimension of their relationship which is, in truth, a peripheral and secondary aspect of married love. The vocation of marriage is to lead one's spouse and children to Heaven and thereby save our own souls. Children are conceived through the marital embrace, but the vocation of marriage is more than that: it's a specific call by God to each spouse to serve Him through the married state, and this includes the command to "be fruitful and multiply."

    That the marital embrace is BOTH procreative and unitive is a great mystery. It is a violation of something holy to remove, intentionally, either procreation or union from the marital embrace. The temptation to do so is the same as what was presented to Eve: "you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Venerable Fulton Sheen penned a book titled "Three to Get Married." At no point in one's married life is it ever acceptable to change that number.

    I think it should be an occasion of sorrow, not casual acceptance (much less celebration!)that there are "serious reasons" requiring the practice of NFP. That one is unable to be abstinent before such circumstances is a revelation of the reality of concupiscence, a sign that one has not yet achieved mastery over one's sexual passions. Yes, the marital embrace is an expression of spousal love, but it fails that if one is unable to accept the natural consequences of that act.

    NFP is neither "virtuous love" nor "virtuous parenthood," and God calls us to both.

  4. This morning my Bible reading for today was Ch 16 of Genesis.

    It describes the conception of Ishmael. Sarai's giving of Hagar to Abram in order to attempt to have a son after 10 years of being barren while in Canaan brought to mind comparisons of using NFP in order to conceive a child. Both Abram and Sarai thought they were doing something reasonable but significant complications arose because they tried to give God some help.

    How hard it is to wait upon the Lord. Tears welled in my eyes as I read because I realized how impatient in my life I am with God.

    Ch 16 contains so many powerful messages. God told Hagar to "Go back (to your mistress) and submit to her abusive treatment." What courage and faith that required for Hagar.

    Hagar met the word of God at the spring in the wilderness. Reflect on that.

    Another reading presented to me today was Ch 16 of the Gospel according to St. Luke. (Is there something about "16" today?).

    v13 is famous: "No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." [KJV]

    How hard we try to serve both our human life and God without realizing what we are really doing. So many tell us that we need to be realistic and practical; live responsibly. We desperately need to be reminded to have courage and trust in God. Genesis is filled with stories of people who waited years, decades, lifetimes for God's word to come to fruitation.

  5. With regard to the question of whether NFP is morally licit, you may find useful the following letter I wrote to "Tradition in Action" in response to a letter from a reader who had similar qualms. I hope that it makes some valid distinctions.

    Here is the letter I wrote on the topic:

    Here is the letter from a reader who had questions that were similar to those of "Aged Parent" above:
    (Scroll down to "Natural Family Planning is Bad")

    The link in both letters to my article on "Humanae Vitae" no longer works since Latin Mass magazine no longer has it up on their website. You can still find it on the internet here:

    Perhaps the main point is the one which you already made in your article -- that nothing is stopping couples from practicing the "virtuous continence" which was recommended by Pope Pius XI. From "virtuous continence" it might seem like only a small step to "periodic continence" which isn't necessarily wrong in all circumstances, but isn't necessarily right either, and in the only traditional document where it is approved even a little bit, it is called by Pope Pius XII "a sin against the very nature of married life" whenever done without the proper reasons and circumstances.
    -John Galvin

  6. Pope Pius XII said it was "a sin against the very nature of married life" whenever a couple decides "to embrace the matrimonial state, to use continually the faculty proper to such a state and lawful only therein, and, at the same time, to avoid its primary duty without a grave reason."

    We might note that he does not distinguish between natural means and artificial means, but instead he identifies the sin as failing to fulfill their primary duty while enjoying the benefits. It's kind of like collecting a paycheck for a job while never showing up to do the work.

    With regards to the "grave reasons," we might recall that he was writing in 1951 and at that time there were still millions of Catholics living in displaced persons camps and behind the iron curtain. These people might have "grave reasons." Even today, there are Catholics living in China who might be arrested and forced to have an abortion if they were to conceive.

    In the wealthy, luxurious society, in contrast, enjoyed by ourselves in the United States and similarly-positioned Catholics in Canada, Europe, Japan, etc., it seems questionable how often reasons of comparable gravity ever arise.
    -John Galvin


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