Monday, March 5, 2012

NFP and the Duty of Motherhood: Transcript of a Sermon

This is a transcript of a sermon entitled “The Sanctity of Marriage: The Duty of Motherhood vs. Abuses of NFP”. You can listen to it here. Dr. Taylor Marshall also has a nice post on this, and also references the sermon I've transcribed here; Tantamergo discusses it on his blog, too.

I have omitted some of the statements that the speaker repeated for effect; otherwise, I have tried to make an accurate transcription of what is actually heard on the audio version. I apologize in advance to the priest for any errors! Anyone else who wants to offer corrections is welcome – email your edits!

We’ve been looking at marriage.

We’ve seen that marriage is a contract that results in a relationship. We saw that the marriage contract is very specific; that a man and a woman give and accept a perpetual and exclusive right for acts with are themselves suitable for the generation of children. We’ve seen that God attaches a consequence to making this contract. If the man and the woman validly make the contract, then the two become more closely related to each other than a father is to his own son, or than a brother is to his sister. That relationship is made directly by God.

This relationship is perpetual – that means it lasts to death.

It’s exclusive, which means that only that man and that woman are involved, and no one else.

And it’s limited, which means that the couple only has the right to acts which are of themselves suitable for the generation of children.

By entering into marriage, God gives each spouse rights, which means that the other spouse has a corresponding duty to accept a reasonable request. Last year we reviewed this, we saw that it’s a serious duty, we saw that it’s owed in justice to the other spouse, that it must be paid generously, or it’s not being paid at all.
We’ve seen that, precisely because it’s a serious duty, to refuse to pay the debt without a serious reason is a mortal sin against justice, and it’s also a mortal sin against charity.

The primary purpose of marriage...
Now let’s briefly remind ourselves of exactly what the purpose of marriage is. God created marriage for two specific purposes. The primary purpose of marriage is the procreation and education of children. That’s the primary purpose of marriage.

There are two aspects of the secondary purpose of marriage: mutual help and remedy. Let’s take a quick look at each.

First, mutual help and comfort: God intends that man and wife help each other – not simply in household chores and training the children, but especially by mutual love and care for each other.

Remedy: since the fall, marriage is also a remedy for concupiscence. What that means is that one of the purposes or marriage is the legitimate quieting of the passions, but that’s not simply concerned with the passions; it’s also meant to express the love and intensify the union of the two personalities of the man and wife.

So God created marriage with two specific purposes: the primary purpose is procreation and education of children; and the secondary purpose is the mutual help and comfort of the spouses, and the remedy for concupiscence.

We need to clearly understand these things, in the first place so that we can live according to the Gospel, but in the second place so that we can clearly explain and effect the correct God-given notion of marriage to those folks who the Good Lord has placed in our life.

All this chaos and confusion is coming to a head. We’re going to have to start paying the price for more than 40 years of cowardly silence from most of the pulpits and most of the chanceries in these United States. It’s a cowardly silence.  And that’s the most charitable thing one could say about it. A cowardly silence; a failure to explain to the faithful  the sometimes painful truths about marriage and divorce and contraception and sterilization and perversion. A cowardly silence…as if there’s no hell.

As if there’s no hell.

As if there’s no hell for people who don’t follow the Church’s teaching in these matters, or for the priests and bishops that don’t warn them. We need to pray that this cowardly silence will end…finally. And that our bishops and priests who have inherited this mess will somewhere find the courage, somewhere find the fortitude to speak out: in the first place against the contraceptive imperialism of our government, but more importantly and more especially against the sins of divorce, contraception, sterilization, and perversion in our own ranks, which has led us to this state.

There’s been a cowardly silence. It’s time to pay the fiddler. We need to pray.

Pray for fatherhood, because that’s what we’re missing in the Church. Fatherhood: that’s what this crisis is, is a lack of fatherhood.

Before we go on, there’s a quote from Cardinal George that’s worth pondering. Cardinal George said, “I expect to die in bed. My successor will die in prison. And his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

I think Cardinal George is an optimist.

We looked at contraception last time. Today we’re going to consider a distorted notion sometimes associated with a practice which is properly called periodic continence, a practice which involves periodically abstaining from marital rights. This practice of periodic continence is popularly known as NFP, or Natural Family Planning.

A perfect example of the distorted notion is found in an article entitled, “Small? Medium? Large? Extra Large? What Size is Right for Your Family?” by Gregory Popcak, who seems to be a devout Catholic. The author starts by asking,

Is God calling you to have another child or not? The Church in her wisdom does not give a pat answer to this question, but she does give some very simple practical advice for couples who are sincerely seeking the Lord’s will about this, and some of her tips may surprise you.

That’s fair enough. Now consider the tip we find in the article:

The best way to actively discern this question” - that’s the question about having another child – “on an on-going basis is to practice NFP.

What’s he saying here? He’s saying that if a couple is wondering whether God wants them to have another child, the best Church-approved method to answer this question is to practice periodic continence or NFP. Well, he warned us that some of his tips might surprise us.

And that one should surprise us a lot, because it’s completely wrong.

It’s wrong. Let’s see why.  We’ll refer to a 1997 article from the Vatican newspaper L’Observatorio Romano in order to see what’s wrong here. The article’s title will give us a clue: “Serious Motives Justify Couple’s Use of Periodic Continence.”

The article cites Pope Pius XII, Pope Paul VI, and Blessed John Paul II. Because his answers are so detailed, we’ll rely largely on the explanation of the venerable Pope Pius XII.

Let’s make sure, before we turn to the Pope, that we understand that the Pope is not making up any of the rules here. He actually doesn’t have that kind of authority. God hasn’t given anyone authority over the nature of marriage or its rules. Not the couple, certainly not the state or these tin-horn judges, not the Church, or even the Pope. God hasn’t given that authority to anyone. 

So what is the Pope doing here? The Pope is explaining the rules, not making the rules. He’s explaining how God made things. In fact, everything we’re going to hear from the Holy Father can be reasoned out from what we already know about marriage, the marriage contract, and the purpose of marriage.

Now as usual the quotes will be cut, pasted, and edited for clarity.

First point: Pope Pius XII:

The moral lawfulness of practicing periodic continence should be determined by whether or not the couple’s intention is based on sufficient and worthy moral grounds. The mere fact that the husband and wife do not offend the nature of the act and are even ready to accept and bring the child who is born in spite of the precautions they have taken would not of itself alone be a sufficient guarantee of the right intention and the unquestionable morality of the motives themselves.

So the first point is that there must be sufficient and worthy reasons to practice periodic continence (NFP). We’re going to get to the reasons in a moment, but before we do, in the second point the Pope is going to explain why this is true.

Second point: now the Pope explains why there must be sufficient and worthy reasons.  Notice that the Pope’s explanation is based on the marriage contract, which confers rights upon the couple and also on the primary purpose of marriage which is a corresponding duty of the couple.

Pius XII:

The marriage contract which gives the spouses the right to satisfy the inclinations of nature, and establishes them in the married state. The married couple who use that state by carrying out its specific act, have the duty imposed by both nature and God of providing for the conservation of the human race. The existence of the individual and the society, the people and the state, and even the Church herself, depends upon fruitful marriages. Therefore, to be married and make frequent use of the right proper and lawful only in the state of marriage, and at the same time to avoid its primary duty without a grave reason, would be a sin against the very nature of married life.

What did the Pope just say? That the marriage contract gives the spouses the right to the marital act, and the use of that right implies a corresponding duty which is procreation. Why? In order to conserve the human race, which is the primary purpose of marriage.

Furthermore, the Pope notes that without serious reasons, it is a sin to frequently exercise the marital right while avoiding the marital duty.

We’re already familiar with this concept. It’s our duty to go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. Without serious reasons, if we miss Mass on those days, we sin. But if we do have serious reasons to miss Mass, it’s no sin at all. It’s exactly the same concept here.

Pope Pius XII makes this clear:

If there are serious reasons, limiting the act to infertile periods can be lawful. If, however, in the light of a reasonable and fair judgment, there are no such serious reasons, then a habitual intention to avoid pregnancy while at the same time as far as possible continuing to fully satisfy sensual desires can only arise from a false appreciation of life and from reasons that have nothing to do with true standards of moral conduct.

So when serious reasons are present, periodic continence (NFP) is lawful. But if there are no serious reasons, “then the habitual intention to avoid pregnancy…” (repeats quote).

Now the fundamental error in Mr. Popcak’s reasoning is in clear focus. By promoting the idea that the couple should continually practice periodic continence as a means of discerning whether or not to have another child, he’s basically completely flipped the primary and secondary purposes of marriage – as if the primary purpose of marriage is mutual help and comfort of spouses and remedy for concupiscence, and as if the secondary purpose of marriage is the procreation and education of children.

Third point: now that the Pope has explained why a couple has to have sufficient and worthy reasons to practice NFP, he’s going to explain what those reasons are.

Serious motives often put forward on medical, eugenic, economic, and social grounds can exempt husband and wife from the obligatory positive debt of the procreation of children for a long period, or even for the duration of the marriage.

The Pope is pointing out that as long as a serious reason is present, the couple may legitimately be exempted from procreation even for the duration of the marriage. Later he points out that a couple may morally avoid procreation in one of two ways: periodic continence or total abstinence.

It’s important to realize that “serious” doesn’t mean “life-threatening”. It must be serious, like we must have serious reasons to miss Mass on Sunday; it’s the same idea in this case. So what are serious reasons?

We’ll give some typical examples.

Medical: serious real and objective dangers to the physical and even psychological health of one or both partners, usually the woman.

Eugenic: real possibility of serious incurable hereditary defects of the child. This may last for the duration of the marriage, or it may be for a period of time, for example when a woman must undergo medical treatment with certain types of drugs that will cause birth defects.

Economic: this refers to true financial hardship. True financial hardship. In such a profoundly materialistic society as ours, this one requires brutal honesty before God. All too often in our culture, we see the trappings of life placed ahead of life itself.

Social grounds: This would include problems in the social order, like the tyrannical Chinese one-child policy; or natural disasters, like floods, fires, wars, and so forth.

So there may be serious medical, eugenic, economic, or social reasons to practice periodic continence.

Now, besides a serious reason, there are a few additional conditions which also must be present in order to lawfully practice periodic continence/NFP. These are really easy to understand since they flow from the marriage debt and are rooted in the marriage contract and the purpose of marriage.

First: the agreement to practice periodic continence must be truly mutual and freely agreed upon by both spouses, and although agreement must be made by both spouses together, it can be terminated by either one alone.

As the Pope states:

…[T]his is because the right, deriving from the marriage contract, is a constant right, uninterrupted and not intermittent, of each of the partners in respect of the other.

We’ve already seen this when we talked about the marriage debt.

Second, there must be a reasonable assurance that this practice will not lead either of the spouses into sin. The more probable the danger of serious sin, the more serious the reason must be for practicing periodic continence.

So in order for periodic continence/NFP to be legitimate, it must be mutually and freely agreed to by both spouses, with the provision that either spouse can cancel it at any time by making a reasonable request to honor the debt. And there must be reasonable assurance that this practice will not result in serious sin for either of the spouses.

Let’s review:

We’ve seen if there are serious reasons, a couple may legitimately practice periodic continence/NFP.

We’ve seen these serious reasons include serious and objective medical conditions with the parent, a real likelihood of serious birth defects in the child, true conditions of financial burden, disturbances in the social order, like war or famine.

We’ve seen that this practice must be mutually and freely agreed to by both spouses, with the provision that either spouse may cancel it at any time with a reasonable request.

And we’ve seen there must be reasonable assurance this practice will not result in serious sin for either of the spouses.

Now, it’s easy to see that the idea that NFP should be constantly used, without serious reasons is actually an abuse. Are we saying, then, that NFP is comparable to the evils of contraception? No. Because direct contraception and direct sterilization are intrinsically evil, and this is not. They’re intrinsically evil, which means they are never permitted. Direct contraception and sterilization can never be permitted under any circumstances whatever, but this can be.

All right, if it’s not intrinsically evil, then, are we saying that the Popcak error is trivial? No, we’re not. Not at all. Let’s be clear. If we don’t follow God’s rules, NFP can lead to loss of souls.

Not just in hell.

What do you mean, Father, the loss of souls, not just in hell?

That’s a good question. Let’s just pick a big family number, say the number 10. Imagine the situation where you have someone whose father is the son of a tenth child, their mother is the daughter of a tenth child, and they are the child of a tenth child. So dad’s the son of a tenth child, mom’s the daughter of a tenth child, he’s the son of a tenth child.

With that kind of combination, if any of his immediate ancestors had continually practice NFP, it’s safe to say he wouldn’t have come into existence. His soul would have been lost in the sense that it never would have come to be. It’s pretty easy to see that.

I think everybody here would agree that if we asked that person, he’d be the first one to tell us that he was very thankful that he exists. He’s thankful that his ancestors, at least, were generous in doing their duty before God, and he was thankful to have a shot at Heaven. I think everybody would agree with that.

We can ask him. “Hey, Father, are you thankful you exist?” “Hey, Father, are you thankful your ancestors were generous in doing their duty before God?” “Hey, Father, are you thankful that you at least have a shot at heaven?”

See, I’m the son of a tenth child. Until this summer, I thought my mother was the daughter of a tenth child; turns out she’s the daughter of an eleventh child. My dad’s the son of a tenth child. He’s the grandson of a nineteenth child.

So to answer the question: yes. I’m very thankful to be here. I’m mighty thankful to be here.
See this stuff isn’t just theoretical. Guys like Popcak can write articles, but there’s a face on these people.

I’m not descended from rich, powerful people that lived in big mansions. I’m descended from the poor. If any of my ancestors for the past 150 years had been practicing this Popcak theory instead of embracing the cross in their state of life, I wouldn’t be your priest.  I wouldn’t be in existence. At least four generations of my family wouldn’t be in existence. And there were a lot of vocations in those generations.

This stuff isn’t just theoretical.

Let’s close with some reflections from Pope Pius XII:

One of the fundamental demands of the true moral order, is that to the use of the marriage right there corresponds sincere internal acceptance of the functions and duties of motherhood. It is urgent to maintain, reawake, and stimulate the sense and love of the function of motherhood.

He’s saying this generations ago.  (repeats quote)

The duties of motherhood. That’s what matrimony means. Matrimony comes from the Latin phrase matris munis, which means “duty of motherhood”. 

Have you ever noticed there’s two times we all genuflect at Mass: during the Creed and the Last Gospel. Why are we genuflecting? Because a woman – the perfect woman – said “yes” to her duties of motherhood.

Pope Pius XII:

At the moment she understood the angel’s message, the Virgin Mary cried “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word” – a  burning “yes” to motherhood.

The Virgin Mary gave a burning yes to motherhood – a “burning yes”.

Let’s kneel down and ask our Blessed Mother to reawake and stimulate the sense and love of the function of motherhood, both here and throughout the whole world. And to grant that more couples will have the grace to say a burning yes to the call of motherhood.


  1. While the priest who gave the above sermon is mostly correct, he makes a huge mistake in equating NFP with periodic continence. Actually, the two are NOT the same. Periodic continence can be a result of practicing NFP should a couple be in a position where they have sufficient reason for avoiding pregnancy, but it's not NFP itself. NFP involves monitoring certain physical signs of a woman's fertility, and then, having determined from those signs when ovulation is imminent, the couple may either use that info to avoid pregnancy or to get pregnant (yes, I said to get pregnant -- NFP may also be used to achieve pregnancy). THAT is what Gregory Popcak meant by practicing NFP in order to discern whether God is calling them to have another child or not. Here's the scenario -- a couple is monitoring the signs of fertility each day, and then one day the signs show that the woman has reached her fertile period. So now that they know when that period is, they then have to think and pray -- would their financial situation, health, etc. cause them to have to avoid pregnancy? Or are sufficient reasons to avoid pregnancy even present at all? And then -- ONLY THEN -- do they pay the marriage debt or practice continence.

  2. Militia Immaculata: Yes, I realize that NFP can be used to achieve pregnancy as well as avoid it; I believe the priest knows that, too. He was simply choosing to address a misuse of NFP as contraception. He also, I think, wanted to make a point about trusting God.
    Funny you should comment on this today! I am in the midst of perparing another NFP post!


Please be courteous and concise.