Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Why Are We Pushing NFP?

Yes, I know, NFP is a licit means of spacing births (and that is the only use I'm addressing here).

However, while NFP is licit, it is not virtuous (as Fr. Gardner has explained). There are limits, and virtue demands that we consider the limits. And the magisterial documents contain these Truths, nuances and all. In fact, the Church is very clear in her teaching that NFP, while licit, should be only used for “serious” or “just” reasons (“justae causae” or “just cause”).

Unfortunately, "just reason" has come to mean "just about any reason" to "space births." To trust in God has become presumptuous. The Church does, indeed, "permit" NFP for "just causes," just as it "permits" capital punishment. Pius XII made it pretty clear that we aren't just "having babies"; we are creating souls with an eternal destiny, a reality which should strike us with awe. If we take someone's life through capital punishment, we are also in the presence of something which should strike us with awe.

Nevertheless, there can be "just reasons" for "spacing births" and there can be "just reasons" to execute a criminal. These "just reasons" should be judged, however, in light of the awesome realities before us. "I want to finish working on my degree" doesn't cut it as a "just reason" for "spacing births," i.e., choosing when to procreate with God a potential new citizen of Heaven. Nor should we execute someone just because it has not been defined as "intrinsically evil" to do so. There must be "just reasons" judged in light of true justice.

Yes, NFP is licit. But it is certainly not required: the Church does not teach that couples must use NFP as a matter of “responsible parenthood”.  Nevertheless, the USCCB has a detailed document concerning standards for diocesan NFP ministry. Apart from mentioning in a very general way that everyone should be educated as to “Catholic morality”, the document does not address the very important statement that “serious” or “just” reasons are required for the use of NFP.

Does this mean that the USCCB thinks that every couple who gets married will have serious reasons for using NFP?! Every couple?! Statistically, that is unlikely, unless of course, your definition of “just reason” is, in fact, “just any reason”. I think that failing to address “serious reasons” or “just cause” is simply acquiescing to the pressures of secular society to limit family size (“overpopulation”, you know) and enjoy sex all the while (because “it’s our right”).

By not spelling out some examples of “just reasons”, and by failing to emphasize the importance of those reasons in choosing to use NFP, the USCCB does the faithful a disservice: it becomes all too easy to condone and even encourage NFP for a reason that basically fits into the category of “I'm not ready for a child right now, but I'm ready for sex". Why don't we just blush and move on rather than try to make this sound responsible, even holy.

When there are "serious reasons" to not conceive a child at a particular point in time, there is the obvious option of abstinence. With one noteworthy exception, no one has ever been pregnant from abstinence. I don't know why anyone shouldn't be embarrassed, or at least humbled, at the need to figure out a way to have sex and avoid pregnancy. We shouldn't be proud of our concupiscence, but since we are all "infected" with original sin, concupiscence is a fact of life. But it’s not something we should encourage! In the life of what saint was "a great sex life" a priority?

Many couples have stories about how using NFP changed their marriage, helped them grow in holiness, saved the woman’s health, etc. I don’t doubt their stories or their sincerity. But there are also stories about trusting God’s providence that are equally inspiring. Michael Malone, in The Case Concerning Catholic Contraception, relates these facts:

On a personal note, one godson of mine was the fifth consecutive Caesarian delivery of his mother in a day when such was deemed obstetrically suicidal…I also happen to have seven healthy and happy siblings from a mother whose doctors warned her explicitly, with each and every pregnancy, that she and every one of her offspring would certainly suffer death because of a serious blood disorder (Rh incompatibility).

Do you suppose the Almighty does not know what He was doing, allowing such souls to be born and to live in such “dangerous” and “intolerable” conditions? Thank God my mother didn’t listen!

In a 2003 article called “Is Natural Family Planning a ‘Heresy’?” in Fr. Brian W. Harrison defends the liceity of NFP, but acknowledges also the lack of proper catechesis on “serious reasons” (emphases in original):

…[A]mong those promoting NFP, there is sometimes a one-sidedness or lack of balance. Married or engaged couples are often taught the legitimacy and the technique…of NFP, but with little or no mention of that other part of the Church's teaching which insists that couples need "just reasons" (Humanae Vitae, 16; Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], #2368) for using NFP if they wish to be free from blame before God. (Indeed, quite frankly, I think we really need now from the Magisterium some less vague and more specific guidelines as to what actually constitutes a "just reason".) Very often, such couples hear nothing at all of the fact that "Sacred Scripture and the Church's teaching see in large families a sign of God's blessing and the parents' generosity" (CCC no. 2373). Still less frequently are they informed that, according to the Magisterium, merely temporal or worldly considerations are in themselves inadequate criteria for deciding when NFP can be justified: "Let all be convinced that human life and the duty of transmitting it are not limited by the horizons of this life only: their true evaluation and full significance can be understood only in reference to man's eternal destiny" (Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, no. 51, cited in CCC no. 2371). Taking into account the whole spectrum of biblical and Church teaching in this area, I personally think that we need to bring back the word "grave" into the discourse about family planning. That is, we should be teaching that the temporal or worldly problems to be anticipated by another pregnancy and birth (mainly of health or poverty) need to be really grave in character before a married couple is entitled to conclude that they have a "just reason" for them to use NFP. (I said "bring back" above, because, as I shall show in this article, that key adjective, "grave", has in fact been used by the Magisterium in this context, in certain decisions that have been generally forgotten, but by no means repudiated.)

I think Fr. Harrison has a very good point there.

Could be a recursive pattern, eh?!
I am not judging anyone’s else’s story; I’m speaking to you from mine. If you assume I’m being “judgmental”, then you yourself have become the same. Let each judge his own story according to a properly formed conscience. And let each of us realize that our consciences are continually being perfected…if we are willing to cooperate.


  1. I'm not sure what type of people you are dealing with, but anyone I've ever known to practice NFP does not push it on anyone. We know it to be a very personal thing and one that requires wisdom and a knowledge of issues that only the husband and wife have.

    Because of this very intimate knowledge, the church does not have a list or get more specific in what constitutes a serious reason. The reason my husband and I use it may not be a serious reason for another couple necessarily. As individuals with varying capabilities the Church has, in Her wisdom, realized just how varying the reasons may be.

    Bottom line is why are you bringing this so much to the forefront? The Church has spoken.


  2. Cate – Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m trying to bring this to the forefront because, even though “the Church has spoken”, people are only listening to half of what She has said. There must be serious reasons for using NFP, and those serious reasons are not simply up to the couple to discern. Pope Pius XI said in Casti Connubii: “Let the faithful be on their guard against the overrated independence of private judgment and false autonomy of human reason.” Guidelines HAVE been given by the Church, but are not heeded. Of course there will be some individual variability, but saying that a serious reason for one couple might not be a serious reason for another leads us down the road of moral relativism (“It may be okay for you, but it’s not okay for me”). There’s also the message of the Church that procreation is the first end of marriage, and it is our duty to populate Heaven.

  3. Also, Cate, I meant to say that the reason I've posted on this so much lately is because the HHS contraception mandate has brought the issue of birth control to the fore. People have (finally)started talking about what the Church teaches regarding contraception. There have been articles on NFP in the secular media, plus plenty of posts on various Catholic blogs. It's a current issue, and I think NFP needs to be reexamined in light of the Church's true intentions regarding "spacing of births".

  4. Yes, sadly, NFP is "licit". At the moment.

    I say "at the moment" because the Church, in the person of Pius XII and others, has made a rather serious tactical error. And I am absolutely convinced that many of the problems the Church is now facing are a direct result of this - let's be honest - "Catholic contraception". And I am convinced that the Church will one day severely restrict, or condemn, NFP. I am also convinced that John Paul II's disastrous "Theology of the body" will suffer the same fate.

    As hard as it may be for some people to read this, the truth must be stated without emotionalism: Pius XII, good as he was on many issues, was misguided on this issue (and, no, I am not one of those historical ignoramuses out there who think he was "pro-Nazi"). It was not the only issue he was misguided on either. I cannot judge what was in his mind, let alone his heart, but there is little doubt that his promotion of this was and remains today an unqualified disaster. He certainly should have been aware of the age-old principle, "give an inch, take a mile". And not being a stupid man he should have had the foresight to see what this was going to lead to. Just one example, a personal one, may suffice. My mother had four children. Why only four? She stated to me once that Pius XII was interviewed, and when asked what he thought was a good-sized Catholic family, was quoted as saying "about four children". And, tragically, she complied with that "dictum".

    Alas, I cannot supply chapter and verse on that quote, but it was purportedly in an interview which made its way to the American press some time after Pius' famous address to Italian midwives. Then again, we cannot discount the old phrase used by salesmen, "It's not what you say; it's what people think you said." Whatever the case, my mother was convinced that Pius thought four kids was plenty.

    Even before Pius, Catholic immigrants from Europe came to America, anxious to "fit in" with the prevailing Protestant culture. My Grandparents had three children. Many others had only two. Way too many had just one. But, you see, that was the way things were in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and anxious immigrants wanted to be just like other Americans. The Church here in America, long colonized by liberals, like Carroll, Gibbons, England, et al were famous for playing down a robust Catholicism and instead exhorting Catholics to be merely "good Americans." And it is a very short step from that to Pius and NFP.

    You are very right to open a discussion on this crucial matter for it needs to be addressed. Our Bishops, currently fighting a government contraception mandate, do not understand that by supporting NFP they are shooting themselves in the foot. The non-Catholics quickly see the hypocrisy. Only Catholics, it seems, cannot.

    And you are right to concentrate on the key issue behind this: one's MOTIVATION for using contraception, the Catholic version or otherwise. If a Catholic's motivation is sinful, then he commits a sin using NFP. If he uses a contraceptive device, he commits two sins in some cases. He sins against faith and he often kills an unborn child. I will leave questions of these kind to competent moral theologians. But I do know this: if a Catholic says, in his heart, that he will use NFP because he wants a better vacation each year, a new car, a bigger TV, less college tuitions to pay, his wife to keep her full-time job, etc., and goes ahead and uses this "licit" method because of frivolous reasons like that, then in all likelihood that Catholic has committed a sin.

    Our Church, due to miserable leadership for the past - yes - 100 years or so, is in a crisis state. And until we start seeing some strong governing coming from Rome, things will only get worse. Pray for the Pope. Pray that he finds a backbone for this matter, and so many, many others.

    1. Let me get this straight. You are not questioning the interpretation of the magisterial teaching on periodic continence because the interpretation has become too lax, you are saying that it is not the interpretation but the magisterial teaching which is flawed.
      I don't see how that can be.

    2. "But I do know this: if a Catholic says, in his heart, that he will use NFP because he wants a better vacation each year, a new car, a bigger TV, less college tuitions to pay, his wife to keep her full-time job, etc., and goes ahead and uses this "licit" method because of frivolous reasons like that, then in all likelihood that Catholic has committed a sin."

      Aaah, the mythical "selfish NFP using Catholic". The couple who will give up contraception and completely abstain during the fertile period in order to get a bigger TV.

      For a couple of normal fertility with a healthy relationship, NFP simply doesn't work this way. Abstinence during the fertile period is DIFFICULT because nature has made it this way. I can't think of any couples who could actually abstain month after month for years on end without a serious reason. Most couples who practice NFP have families much larger than average.

      Some couples have psychological or relational issues where they do not have frequent relations. But NFP isn't the problem here. Likewise, some couples are of low fertility and the abstinence is shorter and less burdensome. But if this is the case, how much effort does virtue demand they put into conception?

      Along with the mythical "selfish Catholic NFP user", we also have the equally mythical "pure providentialist". The signs of fertility are not difficult to observe, even if one is not actively charting. You can't unlearn that information and, quite frankly, it would be irresponsible not to know it. (I never remember hearing "Blessed are those who do not know what their bodies are doing.") Even a claiming to be "providentialist" has some idea of what relations may or may not lead to on a given night. Likewise, there is no rule that says that couples who are charting must follow the "rules" and, indeed, many "cheat" and eventually become pregnant as a result. The idea that NFP couples use NFP as "Catholic contraception" to perfectly plan their families is simply not true.

      The truth is that there is less difference between NFP and providentialism than either side would like to admit. Both are licit, and either can be virtuous or unvirtuous depending on the situation.

    3. Thank you. I think you really summed it up perfectly!! I have said I can't see how NFP is incompatible with trust in Divine providence. Not a day goes by that I don't realize how utterly dependent we are on God for our very existence.

      I also have said that I think a false dichotomy is being set up by focusing on the extreme ends of the spectrum. It's very easy to attack an extreme.

      Also, Dan, the Church can't summarily reverse a position on faith and morals, just disciplinary things (like eating meat on Friday.) Otherwise that would mean that she was wrong in the first place, and it would undermine our whole faith, which is directly inspired by God to protect against error and falsehood.


  5. Jay,
    You make many good points. I appreciate especially this observation: "In the life of what saint was 'a great sex life' a priority?" It's not something I ever recall reading about in the lives of the saints. Yet we have sincere and faith-filled Catholics who are very energetic in their defense of NFP sometimes partly because of this aforesaid reason.

    Meanwhile, there are some Protestant Evangelicals who could be described as pro-natalist,rather than pro-NFP.

    As a priest, the former seems much more preachable than the latter. After all, pro-natalism implies the beauty, hopefulness, trust in Divine Providence, generosity, and profound joy involved in raising a large family because one is promoting... the birth of children! On the other hand, (even though NFP may allow for large families) pro-NFP implies the planning, spacing, and control that derive from the licit regulation of birth (when periodic continence is used for serious reasons)... not so kerygmatic.

    Regarding preaching about marriage, I especially appreciate the observation of St. Angela Merici who wrote that the more children a mother has... the more she loves each one. What a beautiful statement concerning the supernatural quality of maternal charity!

    Thank you for the important discussion.

    1. Father,
      You are so right. Could you say that perhaps there is confusion about the nature of marriage vs. the ends of marriage? The ends of marriage are the begetting and raising of children and the mutual help of the spouses. But the nature of marriage is a covenant of love between a man and a woman. JPll wrote extensively about this covenant and in the process, addressed periodic continence among many other things. The TOB people have taken his writings out of context and use it to promote their agenda. But they don't really understand what he means. (I don't think) The love of the husband and wife is the anchor that holds the family together. You can have procreation and mutual aid without love but it isn't the way God intended marriage to be. None of this is meant to be separated. It is amazing to me that with all the writing on marriage by the Popes in the last 100 years all that is ever talked about is few lines about periodic continence. Such a shame.

    2. Sue A,
      I am not sure that we can easily separate the nature of something from its end, or purpose...? Yet this seems to be the strategy of recent (since Vatican II) Magisterial statements, which focus on the meanings of sexual intercourse (procreative and unitive), rather than on the ends (primary and secondary).
      In "Love and Responsibility," I recall that K. Wojtila made a distinction between the objective primary end of marriage (procreation) and the subjective primary end (reciprocal love). With all due respect, this seems to be problematic too.
      Ultimately, the Traditional approach seems to be the best... that there is a hierarchy in marriage which derives from the primacy of the procreative end of sexual relations. Both husband and wife are called to place themselves at the service of this divinely ordered life-giving purpose of sexual relations. And it is through this service that they grow in mutual perfection as spouses.
      I agree that there is a lot of confusion in this area... and mystery!

  6. Great post, Jay. Sorry to be snide but why does that not surprise me that the USCCB failed/continues to fail to mention the pesky other part of NFP, i.e., the use of only for serious reasons.

    Judging from some other blogs I've visited lately, this issue most definitely needs to be coming to the forefront of Catholic minds, the WHOLE teaching, that is.

    A tie-in to the poor catechesis on the proper use of NFP in the cases of serious reasons, there seems to be a major shift in a lot of Catholic's minds of marriage:

    "The end to which marriage is primarily directed is that children be brought into the world...Other purposes of marriage are the love and assistance that husband and wife mutually give and the opportunity of satisfying reasonably and lawfully the inclination to sexual gratification." (Baltimore Catechism)

    It seems that a lot of Catholics have that backwards nowadays, doesn't it? At least it sounds like it based on a lot of what I've been reading, and these are people who are practicing the Faith! There's many reasons for this, but the most glaring to me currently is Christopher West/Fr. Loya/et al Theology of the Body. I can't speak about John Paul II's writings that started all this ~ never read them ~ but the TOB followers have almost made it into a new doctrine. I'm friends with a few 20-somethings that just LIVE by every word from the mouth of West or Fr. Loya. I no longer even look at either of their writings, but when I originally looked into it, I was shocked. And when I expressed my feelings to these friends of mine, they have a TOB answer for that ~ I'm brainwashed with Puritan sensibilities, or some such nonsense. All I need to do is keep reading their works and I'll be healed! Eeek. Along with another commenter here, I pray for the day when this garbage is condemned.

    Sorry for the harsh commenting on my part, Jay. It struck a nerve!

    Great post. Keep up the good work. You're great.


  7. Regarding the comment by “anonymous” (please leave at least a pseudonym!): The point is not really whether there are “selfish NFP Catholics” or “pure providentialists”.The point is that NFP is touted as licit birth control (meaning control over the spacing of births), at the expense of the teaching on the need for “serious reasons” to use it, and the virtue of having a large family. Probably one of its saving graces is the fact that NFP can “fail” quite easily due to the fact that God has indeed seen to it that abstaining during the woman’s fertile time is difficult (God’s providence at work?!).

    But when NFP promoters point out that NFP is as “effective” as various forms contraception “if you follow the rules”, they point to a contraceptive mindset. Whether this “shoe” fits any, most, or all NFP users is a moot point. It just makes apparent the fact that we Catholics have bought into the current cultural “myth” that family planning is better than family “happening”.

    1. "Probably one of its saving graces is the fact that NFP can “fail” quite easily due to the fact that God has indeed seen to it that abstaining during the woman’s fertile time is difficult (God’s providence at work?!)."

      The worst thing about "Natural Family Planning" is the name. It is neither natural nor is it family planning. All the various methods do is give couple knowledge about the woman's fertility and they can make decisions about their relationship based on this knowledge. Indeed, NFP advocates get very irritated when people, both secular and Providentialist, call these pregnancies "failures", because the couple knew that relations could lead to pregnancy and had relations anyway. (Creighton Model calls all pregnancies due to use of a fertile day--planned or not--"successfully using the method to achieve".)

      As for the "effectiveness", the knowledge couples get from fertility awareness is very accurate, and I see this as a positive. Sometimes couples do have serious reasons to avoid and they need a moral way to do so. Furthermore, it's not that "family planning" is better than "family happening", but that knowledge of fertility is better than ignorance of it. In fact, charting has enough health benefits that every woman should know about it, even for those who believe in "family happening".

      Overall, I think the term "Natural Family Planning" is creating a dispute where there should be none: Providentialists don't understand why "family planning" should be so important to Catholics while NFP advocates are horrified that anyone would advocate being ignorant of their bodies and their health. The two sides are talking about two completely different things.

      That being said, if a pregnancy happens due to a lack of self control or lack of wisdom in discerning "serious reasons", is this really virtuous? If a pregnancy happens due to sloppy charting or failing to learn a method, and not a conscious decision to be more open to life, is this really virtuous? I don't think the children = virtuous, abstinence = tolerated is always true for either case.


    2. Correction: Sometimes couples do have serious reasons to avoid and they need a moral way to do so without having to resort to complete abstinence, which is not ideal for a marriage. See 1 Corinthians 7:5.


    3. Dr. Boyd talked about the 100% *effectiveness* (see how infected my thinking is) of abstinence.

      I knew of a woman whose uterus kind of exploded while giving birth, and the doctor said that additional pregnancies were ill-advised. After abstaining for one year, they engaged in relations (understandable for a young couple): and became pregnant.
      That is where trust in Divine Providence comes in!

      I don't know of too many people whose will is so iron-clad that they can refrain from marriage relations indefinitely without falling into incontinence. I suppose it's *possible,* but that's why Pope Paul VI talked of the people who claim that following the teaching is impossible. (Due to our weak and frail fallen human nature.)

      I guess if complete abstinence were warranted, we would hope that the couple would grow very holy as a result, and not fall into despair. If they've built up the ordinary virtue of periodic abstinence, it will be easier to exercise the heroic virtue of total abstinence when the situation arose.

      My point is, how many ordinary couples can quit cold turkey without a huge struggle of the will? For many it will be challenging enough to abstain periodically. Those who have done so will know what I'm talking about-I hope that doesn't come across as snarky, just realistic.


  8. After reading several articles from all sides on the subject, I have come to the conclusion that fertility educators and Catholic Church need to separate because their focus is on two completely different areas and they have two different messages. Promoting family planning through fertility awareness and the Catholic ideals of marriage and children are to a large degree contradictory messages.

    Fertility educators teach couples important health information that can be used to prevent pregnancy with a very high degree of effectiveness. Avoiding pregnancy this way is considered morally licit by the Catholic Church and the magisterium is quite clear on this point. Even if this knowledge is used selfishly, it is the selfishness that is a sin, not the periodic abstinence.

    But the Catholic ideal is a bit higher and that is that children are gifts from God and that married couples are to be open to life. The Catholic ideal is not to be able to successfully limit family size through moral means, but to be generous in having children.

    When the two messages are presented together, they get mixed and confused, and I think much of the controversy around NFP--from both the secular world and the providentialists--arises from the confusion.

    This is not to say that Catholics should not promote fertility awareness (natural family planning). Quite the contrary. I would say that Catholic physicians and health educators have an obligation to promote it based on the nature of their vocation. Likewise, priests and religious should encourage this work because it is morally licit alternative to contraception, and realistically, most couples will contracept if not given an effective moral alternative and trading contraception for fertility awareness can be a step toward greater virtue.

    But what Catholics should not do is to sacramentalize it. Nor should health care professionals, even Catholic ones.


    1. Your point is well taken, JD.

      In fact, Bl. John Paul II addressed NFP instructors, in 1990 in the same way his predecessor of happy memory Pius XII addressed Italian midwives in the 1951s.

      The speeches, at least in part, are in the book referenced, the art of Natural Family Planning. I'm curious, have you read the book, Dr. Boyd, even if just the chapter Planning, Providence and Prudence?


    2. * in 1951 (the 1950s)

  9. JD, you make some excellent points. Well said.


Please be courteous and concise.