Saturday, August 17, 2013

Teach Your Children Well: Talking about NFP

On a previous (NFP) post, a reader left a comment in which she described listening to a CD talk by a Catholic motivational speaker who was describing her “conversion” regarding her use of artificial contraception. The commenter said:

I was enjoying the talk, until the point where she shared her new insights with her husband and they discussed what to do. At that point, I expected her to say, "It was so wonderful; God opened his heart, and he agreed we should not contracept”.  

Instead, she said (paraphrasing), "It was so wonderful; God opened his heart, and we agreed to learn how to practice NFP!" They had 3 children at that point (and still do), and appeared to be a financially stable, healthy middle class family. She kept going on about how horrible it would be if she got pregnant and how upset she would be, but how they were just going to "trust God" and abstain every month and live "according to God's plan" (!!)

… I hope none of their 3 children ever hears that CD…

Interestingly, Fr. William Gardner had also broached this subject with me – what do you tell the children? How are they affected by parents talking about how they couldn’t handle having another child (for whatever reason); do they wonder whether they were “wanted”, or an “accident”? What do children, especially older children, learn about the gift of life when/if their parents talk about their own use of NFP (or contraception)? Words must be chosen carefully in order to protect the child’s understanding of the gratuitous nature of the gift of life! Fr. Gardner commented on another post that, “not only with regard to one's children, but in general, the discussion of periodic continence should be reserved and guarded. On the contrary, the condemnation of abortion, artificial contraception, sterilization, and the homosexual lifestyle should be firm and forthright.”

I asked Fr. Gardner to elaborate on this thought, and he graciously wrote the following article for this blog.

** ** ** ** ** ** ** **

Teach Your Children Well, 
by Fr. William Gardner

In his Allocution to the Italian Midwives (Oct., 1951), Pope Pius XII spoke openly about periodic continence (the systematic practice of restricting intercourse to the sterile periods for the purpose of avoiding conception).   Thus, argued Frs. John Ford and Gerald Kelly in 1962, precisely because of the frank and open nature of the Pope's discussion, information about natural birth regulation should be widely available, indeed, it should be an integral part of marriage preparation and enrichment classes (cfr. Fr. John C. Ford, S.J., & Fr. Gerald Kelly, S.J., "Periodic Continence," in Theological Studies, Dec., 1962, p. 602;

Fifty years later, perhaps Frs. Ford and Kelly would be pleased to know that their recommendation has been almost universally implemented in diocesan marriage preparation and enrichment programs throughout the U.S.  The working assumption of most of these programs is that couples will employ some kind of family planning; therefore, they should be exhorted to use the kind which is not morally repugnant.

However, St. Paul reminds us that the moral uprightness of human activity is not the only criteria of judgment for God-fearing Christians, who are also concerned with not giving scandal.  In other words, a Christian who wishes to avoid placing stumbling blocks in front of other believers will also be concerned with how actions and decisions are perceived by others (1 Cor. viii. 9-13).

So, for example, suppose a married couple has discerned sufficiently serious motives for the use of periodic continence.  If they have children, it would seem prudent to be guarded about that information with respect to their children for several reasons.  Firstly, modesty requires a certain discretion about the details of human reproduction and sexual intimacy.  Certainly, parents have the primary responsibility of educating their children age-appropriately about the facts of life.  But this prerogative is also partly derived from the desire to preserve the mystery of procreation, which has a miraculous character even merely at the biological level.  So a certain reserve about sexual and reproductive matters is appropriate for parents too with regard to their children.

Secondly, the distinction between artificial contraception and periodic continence is subtle and not easily apprehended.  One position, held by this author, is that although it may be licit, periodic continence does indeed have a contraceptive aspect, for it is a habitual use of the marriage act which clearly does not increase conception, nor is it neutral with regard to conception.  Others hold that periodic continence becomes contraceptive only when there is a lack of sufficiently serious reasons for its use.  Still others hold that, notwithstanding the use of the term "artificial contraception," there is no such thing as natural contraception, since the term "contraception" can only imply the interference with individual acts of sexual intercourse and/or the suppression of the generative powers.  Finally, there are those who incorrectly hold that artificial contraception and natural birth regulation differ only by degree and not by kind. In any case, one can imagine how difficult it is for the average young person, and even for the average adult, to appreciate the moral difference between artificial contraception and periodic continence.

Thirdly, the universal hazard of exposure to contemporary culture is that of under-appreciating the gratuitous nature of the gift of human life.  But the use of periodic continence can also lend itself to this kind of under-appreciation.  In other words, the more that conception is controlled, the greater danger of misunderstanding the giftedness of human life.  But periodic continence is employed precisely because of its aspect of control over conception, or the avoidance thereof.

Bearing in mind these considerations, an indelicate parent might say to a daughter or son:  "Things were really rough, and then when we decided it was O.K. to have a baby, you came along!"  A more thoughtful approach might be the following:  "Things were really rough, and then you came along!"  The latter statement, although not revealing all the details of the situation, tends to emphasize more clearly the giftedness of human life.

If this is true with one's children, it seems it would also apply for the general public, including the average couple being prepared for marriage, or being guided for marriage enrichment.  The very nature of periodic continence requires great discretion, lest modesty be violated or listeners be led to under-appreciate the gratuitous nature of the gift of human life.

The widespread, indiscriminate promotion of natural birth regulation will unavoidably contribute to the contraceptive mentality, precisely because of its emphasis on human control over conception.  On the contrary, the firm and forthright condemnation of artificial contraception, sterilization, abortion, and the homosexual lifestyle, without explicit reference to NFP will send a clear message that God's life-giving love is not to be opposed.

The above-mentioned Frs. Ford and Kelly made the unusual claim that the advent itself of successful periodic continence has brought about the need for more prudence in decisions about family planning. Prior to the accurate knowledge of infertile times, decisions about the arrival of children "often made themselves," even for couples who had made the decision to completely abstain from sexual relations for long periods of time (cfr. "Periodic Continence," p. 610).

Our Lady-
Mother of Divine Providence
But it is precisely that unknown and surprise aspect of Divine Providence in the work of procreation that reminds us all of how much our mere existence is completely a miracle.  Let the enemies of Divine Providence be widely known for what they are; that is, to be rejected always.  But let the licit circumvention of God's plan for life be announced only with great reserve and caution, lest the Lord's command to "Let the children come to Me" be wrongly perceived to be openly defied.

Despite the ubiquitous clamoring for the regulation of births, there are emerging even today heroic parents of large families.  And not rarely these heroic parents themselves will have come from relatively small families.  We owe it to them, and to all young people, to hand over the torch of life in such a way as to not obstruct their vision, or their purpose.

Contrary to the respected, but culturally-conditioned, advice of Frs. Ford and Kelly in 1962, those involved in the pastoral care of young people and married couples will truly be at the service of life by exercising restraint and caution in promulgating information about periodic continence and NFP, while also clearly condemning all abortifacient and illicit contraceptive practices.


  1. I see that so often that people who treat NFP as a normative lifestyle see it as something there kids should be taught; usually in conjunction with TOB. I think most Catholic Youth Groups influenced by the charismatic Stuebenville mentality do the same thing. This is like throwing gasoline on a fire: young people need mastery in this area more now than ever before. There are bombarded with impure imagery and discussion constantly. They desperately need a Church teaching modesty. They need to emulate the Holy Family All of this is so foreign in the TOB crowd.

    P.S. I am writing a novena to our Immaculate Mother -- day five. See on my page.

    In Christ.

  2. Amen! I checked out your novena, too - very nice.

  3. Paenitet, have you read Theology of the Body? Self-Mastery is a term that Blessed JP2 uses in the work. In full disclosure, I am a Steubenville Alumni(look, I used a Latin word). You ought to thank the Lord in heaven for the influcence of Franciscan University in the Church today, and especially in the area of youth ministry. I currently,work full time for a diocese, before that I was in parish ministry in 3 other dioceses. The grads of Steubenville are at times some of the only people standing up for the teachings of the Church, encouraging Eucharistic Adoration, traditional prayers like the rosary and stations of the cross. I have fought personally against use of the eneagram, prayer labyrinths, and many other God aweful "spiritualities". If you bothered to ask someone about Steubenville, you would find that yes, there are Charismatics(I am not one myself, but I grew up in a charismatic community, without it I can tell you I would not have a relationship with Jesus Christ), many students drive to Pittsburg for the EF Form of the Mass, when I was there they had a monthly Latin Mass, and from what I understand are thinking of offering the Extraordinary Form.
    In my work now, I do marriage prep, and of course we teach NFP(I will tell you Dr. Jay, most Dioceses do not teach NFP at all), along with budgeting, communication, this is not to mention the theology that we also do with the couples. Dr. Jay it seems finances are also a personal matter that at times might require modesty. You should write your next book on the Trojan horse of budgeting. If there should be no stewardship required in family size, why should we be worried about stewardship of our money. I would like to write more, but I have run out of time, I wish I could have ordered my thoughts better, I hope you have a blessed evening.

  4. I don't know how old I was at the time, but I no longer believed in Santa Claus and I doubt I was in high school yet.
    It was the middle of December and I went snooping through my parents room looking for presents. Without my sister seeing (I never told her) I found the NFP books. I cried for days. The sudden realization about why we were the only children hit hard.


Please be courteous and concise.