Friday, June 15, 2012

"What If I'm Wrong About NFP?"

No matter where you stand on the use of NFP and the need for “serious reasons”, you can ask yourself this question.  I’m including myself.

I have written a number of posts about NFP (see the tab above for a list). What I’m trying to do is to examine the general principles that are required to guide our actions in the use of the marital embrace.  I’m trying to point out that there can certainly be sin involved. In fact, because of our fallen human nature, there will almost certainly be sin involved! If we want to lead holy Christian lives, we need to accept that fact, and be willing to truly examine our consciences when it comes to making a decision of our own will to avoid pregnancy.

I’ve not said anywhere (at least I don’t think so) that postponing or spacing births is intrinsically immoral. I am writing from the understanding that spacing births is licit for “serious reasons”, per documents like Humanae Vitae and Pope Pius XII’s Allocution to Midwives .

Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of discussion of “serious reasons” out there – whether on blogs, the USCCB website, or the Couple-to-Couple league website. Instead, I am told by commenters to “leave it up to the couple and their spiritual director” and that “the Church has intentionally left it vague” and that I’m a “nitpicking, nattering nabob” who should mind my own business. It makes me wonder: if everyone is in agreement that serious reasons are required for using NFP to “postpone” pregnancy, why is there such defensiveness about articulating some general guidelines about those reasons?

A few people have accused me of “going beyond” what the Church teaches, and creating a “moral issue” where none exists. But I fail to see where I have “gone beyond” what the Church teaches. I’m saying, as the Church says, that there must be “serious reasons” to intentionally avoid procreation. I’m saying, as the Church says, that the sexual act is particularly vulnerable to misuse and sin because of the immense pleasure involved. And I’m saying, as the Church says, that our consciences must be properly formed so that we can correctly discern whether or not we actually have serious reasons to avoid procreation.

This is probably the most concise statement I can make regarding what I see as the problem with NFP as it is currently promoted. NFP promoters most often have responded to my posts with statements about their own circumstances, and how, for them, NFP was justified. That’s great, but I’m not writing about personal experiences per se. I’m certainly not writing in order to point a finger and ask people to justify their use of NFP; and I probably would refrain from issuing any kind of “verdict” about a particular couple’s choice – unless the justification was something along the lines of “I’m going to be in a friend’s wedding six months from now, and I can’t be showing a baby bump at that time”.


What if I’m wrong? What if I’m being too scrupulous about it? What if couples really should have free rein in discerning that their causes are just when they opt to avoid pregnancy through the use of periodic continence?

If I’m wrong, then anyone who has listened to me and taken a more “providential” approach to marriage and God’s will for children within their marriage will probably have more children than they would have if they made free use of NFP.

If I’m wrong, then more souls will have been brought into the world than would have otherwise. I would argue that that means a greater cooperation with God’s will, because He is the ultimate author of life, and none of those souls conceived in the marital embrace can possibly be considered a “mistake” or a “punishment”.

If I’m wrong, then some couples will make sacrifices for their children that they weren’t really “planning” on making. My views may cause some of those who listen to suffer more than they would have if they’d used NFP. But how can this possibly be to their eternal detriment? Surely if couples are demonstrating a “generous” attitude toward parenthood, their suffering will only increase their holiness in this life, shorten any time they might spend in purgatory, and thus pave their way to Heaven and eternity in the presence of God.

In short, if I’m wrong…people who practice what I (and the Church) preach will progress along the path to holiness.

Now it’s your turn, if you are a promoter of NFP who has found my views objectionable. What if you’re wrong? What if we shouldn’t be promoting NFP as God’s gift to couples who want to “postpone” pregnancy? What if NFP really does require more objective “serious reasons” than you are willing to agree to?

If you’re wrong, then couples who intentionally use NFP to avoid pregnancy will probably have fewer children than they would have otherwise.

If you’re wrong, fewer souls will have been brought into the world than would have otherwise. I think that shows a lack of cooperation with God’s will, because He expressly told us to “be fruitful and multiply”, and He did not add, “if you can fit it into your own plans”.

If you’re wrong, then couples may practice “responsible” parenthood while forgetting to be “generous”. They may have fewer medical problems and fewer bills, and overall less suffering and sacrifice, but does that increase their holiness in this life? Does it lead them forward along the path to holiness? Or does it, on some level, encourage a bit of selfishness, all the while justifying it as “discernment”?

The bottom line is this: if I’m wrong, I am sorry for leading anyone astray. But I’ll bet that, in the end, there won’t be too many couples who will say “Darn you! If I hadn’t listened to you, three of my children wouldn’t have been born, and life would have been so much better.”

I just can’t see that happening.

And if you’re wrong? Then at least some of those couples who were using NFP for not-so-serious reasons might find out when they face the Creator that they weren’t doing His will, but their own. And they will understand what they passed up in so doing. Imagine the pain of knowing the souls you could have conceived if you’d cooperated with God’s will and timing.

I think Fr. Gardner is right: NFP may be licit, but it is not usually virtuous. “Generous” parenthood, on the other hand, is more likely to be virtuous, and is sometimes heroic.

All in all, I’d rather be one of those doing their suffering in this world, rather than in purgatory.

Click on the NFP tab at the top of the page for a list of other NFP posts on this blog.


  1. We'll start with a clean slate on the comments. Play nice. Ad hominem attacks are not welcome.

    I understand this is an emotional topic for some, but let's try to respond intellectually rather than react emotionally.


  2. (I tried to post the following earlier and I don't think it went through. If it did and it was one of the comments you found as an attack that was and is not my intetion.)

    "why is there such defensiveness about articulating some general guidelines about those reasons?"

    I think this is key to a lot of what is going on here. I think there is agreement that the teachings of the Church call for serious reason. Your desire for general guidelines is something I think a lot of us wish existed because discernment for God's will for one's life is often not an easy thing given our selfish nature, whether that be our desire to conceive or postpone given our situation. However I think creating those guidelines is largely impossible. No matter how one defines "serious" or "grave" that definition is still subjective. We are all unique, beautiful creations of God and as such we all have an immeasurable amount of personal factors to take into consideration when it comes to the end result of what is "serious" for us and what God is asking us to do. What is truly and deeply serious for one couple may be "no big deal" for another. And it is in that reality that discernment is necessary.

    "Does it lead them forward along the path to holiness? Or does it, on some level, encourage a bit of selfishness, all the while justifying it as “discernment”?"

    To be perfectly honest, though I understand what you are trying to get at, I find this quite uncharitable. I don't see how prayer and discernment for God's will is selfish or wouldn't also lead us to holiness. On our NFP forum we have had a great deal of posts regarding discernment and one common element I see almost without exception is that these couples are WANTING to actively open themselves up to conception during the fertile time. When someone has discerned a serious reason to postpone it's not a given that they are doing so out of a selfish place or wouldn't desire more children. Often the need to postpone is done with great strength and tribulation, not relief that they found an "out" within the Church's call to generosity.

    I think this is a good discussion that needs to happen however I wonder if you wouldn't also support your goal (helping couples attain God's will for their lives in a way that will lead them away from sin and towards eternal salvation yes?)by promoting generosity in a way that makes people naturally embrace it.

    Clarifying rules and Church teachings may be one part, but maybe you are being called to think on a much bigger scale? There are organizations like who seek to build up the culture of life in such an encompassing way that generosity would simply occur by default. I would challenge you to take this a step further. If you want to encourage and bring couples back to a spirit of generosity as you see it, then it should be well worth the time to look at WHY that spirit of generosity appears to be missing. I don't think it's just an "expressed rules" thing. I think it's much deeper and more complicated then that. If we can embrace a true culture of life in all that we do and all those we meet, the rest will be supported and generosity would be the obvious and natural choice.

  3. Kristin, thanks, and no, your comment did not appear earlier. Good points, and charitably made - I appreciate that! I will take a look at the website you mention. I'm also interested in looking at the historical reasons for how we have reached the point where the spirit of generosity is somewhat lacking.

    Also, I certainly didn't mean to imply that prayer and striving to discern God's will is selfish; what I was getting at there was that SOMETIMES (and I don't pretend not to be guilty, either), we convince ourselves that "I've prayed and therefore this is right for me". I've had people tell me that about abortion! So prayer is good, but we can fall on our faces if we don't have the proper knowledge of what the Church teaches, etc. If we rely ONLY on ourselves to discern, our chances of going astray can be high, especially when our emotions are involved.

  4. I think Kristin nails it. Of course we would all want to have many children. Certainly, I think those who say "I want two and then I'm done" or something similar are mistaken. But there is a difference between personally relying on God's providence to provide for the needs of, say, a dozen children; and telling others that they must do the same. Honestly, I do not think you're doing this but certainly that's how your comments can be interpreted.

    So I get that you don't want to promote NFP as "birth control" per se, because that leads people into using NFP for the wrong reasons. As I said in a previous post though, and as you agree, it takes a certain amount of willpower to choose to avoid having sex during the fertile periods. While I do think what is "serious" enough will be sometimes misinterpreted, generally speaking couples who use NFP to avoid will cite what they interpret to be a serious reason. In your example, is the couple who decides to avoid because one doesn't really want to be pregnant at a wedding really misusing NFP? Or are they suffering from profound vanity? Would abstaining altogether really fix that problem? I don't think so.

    And, I guess that's my ultimate point: that to use NFP wrongly means that some other area of a couple's life is deficient in some respect, not that NFP is, per se, wrong. While NFP can be a locus for couple's deficiencies to be most evident, NFP remains, itself, simply a licit means to effect, possibly, illicit intentions. Let's be clear here: NFP remains licit even when intentions are illicit. I think this might be the heart of the disagreement. (I am not a moral theologian, so my terms might be off, but I think you get the sense of it.)

    Your comments, moreover, regarding a well-formed conscience and desire to understand what are, in fact, serious reasons, are well-received. As I said, I think there ought to be more thoughtful discussion about this. At the same time, realize that, as I said, no couple uses NFP to avoid for "frivolous" reasons, at least from their perspective. Naturally, it is going to be heated topic as you might understand.

  5. Based on the teachings of St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, and a few Popes, the practice of NFP, although licit, would be licit only as an indulgenced practice. Meaning that practicing NFP, at best, would be venial sin. However, as NFP is commonly advocated and taught in pre-cana programs, etc., the practice of NFP is approached without any reference to a grave justification. Without the grave (a.k.a. serious) reason(s), practicing NFP for the purpose of enjoying the pleasure of the connubial embrace without the intention of procreation is mortal sin.

    When it comes to the definition of what is serious or grave, We shouldn't think that these are subjective terms. Pope John Paul II said in "Veritas splendor" that a subjectivistic conception of moral judgment" leads to a "crisis of truth", and "a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others. Taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature." (paragraph 32)

    Dr Boyd, I think it's more than reasonable, based on the teachings of the Church, to think that "NFP really does require more objective serious reasons”.

    So, given that practicing contraception is commonly placed by moral theologians in the category of an offence against the fifth commandment, I would propose that one objective criteria for a grave/serious reason would be that a life would have to be at certain risk; not just possible risk, but certain risk -- i.e. if a woman were to get pregnant at a particular time, somebody will die.

    Dr Boyd, what do you think? How's that for an objective criteria for grave/serious?

  6. The Church does not find it prudent to issue some "general guidelines" regarding the serious use of NFP. That's the simple fact of the matter. Here is the guidance offered by the Church, which I'm sure you are familiar with:

    "With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time." - Humanae Vitae para. 10

    THIS question is where you "go beyond" the Church's teaching, when you ask for specific guidelines that no where exist and that the Magisterium has prudently left to the discernment of married couples.

    And goodness me, such an "objective guideline" as Creary's statement that only if a life is in certain grave danger would it be licit to avoid pregnancy goes far, FAR beyond all of the guidance the Church has given.

  7. Creary is taking a good hard look at Augustine, who has certainly had some influence on Church teaching; St. Thomas leaned on him, and of course the Summa Theologica is a firm underpinning of the Church's doctrines. The term "responsible" parenthood is pretty much new to Humanae Vitae, and frankly, I wish the current Church hierarchy would show a little "responsible parenthood" toward the faithful!

    Other papal documents prior to HV are a little more specific about "serious reasons". I'm not saying there should be a "list of acceptable reasons" - I'm saying that people should be offered a little more than "Oh, just follow your conscience." The current social milieu emphasizes personal control and personal fulfillment, rather than the needs of the Church which a married couple is duty-bound to observe. HV has to be viewed in the context of the teaching that has gone before, not just as an isolated, "current" authoritative statement. More on all this in another post in the next week or so, maybe. I know, you can hardly wait! ;-)

    1. Augustine is not the Magisterium, nor is Thomas. If Creary or you would like to favor his view in your personal living, then by all means, go ahead. But other Catholics are under no obligation to do the same.

      Of course I favor a contextual reading of the documents. But I honestly do not believe that the framing of the issue in HV is novel. You apparently disagree

      The Church offers more guidance than "just follow your conscience." HV is full of guidance. In all of the NFP literature and instruction I've come across, the emphasis has been on openness to life and generosity of heart, not on simply asking how we're feeling about another baby at the time.

    2. Also, if I'm not mistaken, St. Augustine held that it was better for a man to procreate with a woman who is not his wife than to have non-procreative sex with his wife.

      So you can see where an over-emphasis on the procreative aspect gets us.

  8. And because I felt many of the points in this comment were directed at my comments on your other post, I want to respond further.

    (1) I did not claim that you believe NFP use/birth control to be "intrinsically immoral". I was making a point of Church teaching on the matter, a point which I'd hoped we both could agree on for clarity in the discussion.

    (2) Again and again, NFP users have told you that the discussion of the need for serious reasons to avoid pregnancy using NFP does take place. Frankly, your perspective on this is one of an outsider, speculating on what you believe to take place. You did not ever use NFP, so you never received instruction in it, nor would you have ever been in the situation of personally discerning and discussing with others the discernment process. I don't believe you are involved in premarital instruction or marriage ministry. So I believe you are simply ignorant of the many conversations that do take place about this issue, simply because you have never been a part of them (nor had reason to be). Many of the closed NFP communities of which I am a part frequently have these discussions. My married friends and I have these discussions. My husband and I have these discussions.

    Your concern here seems to me to be a lack of trust in other married couples--lack of trust in their judgment, in their ability to discern God's will, in their understanding of the teaching, in their openness to life, in their generosity of heart. I deeply believe that NFP using Catholic couples have done nothing to deserve such distrust and skepticism of their motives, which is why your comments on the matter seem, at best, uncharitable.

    (3) If I'm wrong, then the Church is wrong. Simple as that.

    (4) "Imagine the pain of knowing the souls you could have conceived if you’d cooperated with God’s will and timing." Your concept of God's will and the strange suggestion of some sort of pre-existence of souls (or alternate timeline in which more souls would exist?) baffles me. Can you not admit that a couple using NFP to avoid pregnancy for serious reasons is cooperating with God's will? They certainly aren't frustrating His will for the creation of new souls if they have discerned that He is not calling them to procreate at that time.

    And the whole notion of "God's timing" is a rose-colored glasses view of how conception takes place for a couple not paying attention to fertility signs. A couple using NFP could quite possibly conceive more children throughout their childbearing years than a couple using nothing at all, having random acts of intercourse following their urges for intimacy without regard for the timing of ovulation. In this scenario, how does ignorance of biological reality equal "God's timing"?

  9. Creary, actually I think that currently the criteria of "risk of death" does go beyond what the Church intends for "serious reasons". It would be hard to read that into any of the papal statements of this century, for sure. So it's not something today's couples could be held to. There's a lot to be said for voluntarily adopting such a philosophy, though - that would be truly abandoning oneself to God's providence in a heroic way.

    I think a way to frame it in a more "acceptable" way would be to point out the value and desirability of large families, which is an age-old Church value, while acknowledging that not everyone is able to accomplish that, numbers-wise...for a variety of reasons. All the faithful who seek to fulfill their duty to the Church are doing their part. And there are other types of "parenthood", such as spiritual parenthood, too.

    1. Jay,
      If a person has a very serious life threatening reason to avoid pregnancy they would have moral obligation under the fifth commandment to try their best not to conceive. This is not the same thing as relying on God's Divine Providence or accepting and carry through with a difficult pregnancy. There is such a thing as presumption.

    2. Sue, if that is the case, then the couple should probably abstain completely, wouldn't you think? That is, after all, the only absolutely sure way to avoid pregnancy.

    3. Well,
      That's what I've always thought. My husband's grandparents had to do that. He was a daily communicant and they were one of the closest couples I have ever seen. They were married for 65 years.

  10. Rachel, in terms of the discussion of serious reason, of course I believe that some couples have these. I believe others don't, and that's been evident on some other blogs and news articles that talk about NFP as the perfect way to practice birth control. Period. I also fail to see "serious reasons" given much attention on the USCCB website and the CCL website. So my concern is that the teachers and promoters of NFP are not being completely honest about its licit use. And they are perhaps unwittingly helping to maintain a current cultural value that "responsible" and "prudent" parenthood means intentionally limiting the number of children in a family. I'm not saying each couple consciously adheres to the overpopulation myth; I'm saying that the myth has had an impact on our thinking about families. This kind of effect is not always one that we are conscious of, and it can influence even our prayerful discernment, since we are, after all, human.

    There's a lot to address in your comment...running out of time here. But your ending question "how does ignorance of biological reality equal 'God's timing'?"...I don't recall saying that it does. But I could turn the question around and ask "does knowledge and the use of that knowledge NECESSARILY indicate God's will?" Knowledge about IVF, cloning, etc. comes to mind. Not all scientific knowledge can be used morally or even licitly. Just sayin'. And no, I am not putting NFP in the same class as IVF and cloning.

    1. Again, the USCCB website and the CCLI website are not the only (nor the primary) resources for instruction in NFP nor for continuing formation for discerning the proper use of NFP. Perhaps they are the easiest sources to find via Google, but they should not be used as the standard measure for the types of discussions that take place regarding the regulation of births by Catholic married couples.

      You asked why NFP using couples don't just "leave it up to God". This would involve, practically speaking, abandoning charting/using NFP--i.e., ignoring what is biologically taking place. I've heard the argument before--that somehow not being aware of the timing of ovulation and therefore not doing anything to time intercourse relative to it means the couple is using "God's timing". And I have not anywhere implied that we MUST use the knowledge God give us, or that any use of that knowledge necessarily indicates His will.

      I guess I just don't see the traditionally "providentialist" view of things (don't chart, just have a "normal married life" and let babies come as they may) as certain proof of "God's timing" so much as the couple taking a passive stance towards the possible results of their intimacy. I guess I just have a problem with considering this kind of passivity necessarily virtuous (or at least more virtuous than using NFP).

  11. I personally appreciate Creary’s attempt to raise the bar with regard to the standard for serious reasons for the licit use of natural birth regulation. Hypothetically, couldn’t the Church adopt his criteria (only in danger of death is it licit to prevent the conception of children by the use of periodic continence)? After all, we are talking about the existence, or non-existence of a human soul. If I were that potential child-to-be, I would want only the most serious of reasons to preclude my existence (and this is with the blessing of the Church). Actually, most potential children-to-be are prevented from existing without the blessing of the Church, through the use of artificial contraception.
    (As a side-note, Creary, you made a very interesting comment about the placement of the sin of artificial contraception under the purview of the 5th Commandment. I previously thought that this was because of the self-mutilating nature of sterilizing drugs, or treatments. But you seem to be implying that it is because of the murder-like prevention of a potential human being(?) This is, indeed, a serious matter.)

    Rachel, you commented that couples are certainly not “frustrating His will for the creation of new souls if they have discerned that He is not calling them to procreate at that time.” But (from Michael Malone) what if they were using NFP and still conceived. Does this mean that they did not, in fact, have serious reasons… or does it mean that God was playing some kind of cruel trick on them? I find it to be strange that we can anticipate God’s will by our discernment of serious reasons...

    Lastly, I suspect that St. Augustine is wiser than we moderns are willing to admit. His teaching on marriage is sometimes cavalierly dismissed as archaic and a product of his own troubling life experiences. But I suspect that he was carefully synthesizing the timeless teaching of the Church Fathers and the best of the Judeo-Christian tradition, while also benefitting from the experience of his own conversion from a promiscuous lifestyle. His teaching on marriage was adopted not only by St. Thomas, but also by Pope St. Gregory the Great and seemed to be the guiding principle of Catholic magisterial teaching on marriage for centuries… until the time of Vatican II. I suspect further that, sooner or later, St. Augustine will be vindicated for explicating the correct teaching on marriage and celibacy (especially after having been refined by St. Thomas).

  12. Interesting notes, Fr. Gardner. I have been thinking all day about Creary's proposal that danger of death might be the "serious reason" required for periodic continence. While Humanae Vitae implies that "lesser" reasons might suffice, that's not really consistent with past teaching, is it? In this day and age, that kind of sacrifice is really dismissed by most as almost fanatical. Look at the flak the Duggar family has taken for having 19 kids (or is it 20 now?). Even some NFP proponents denigrated the Duggars by creating a t-shirt slogan that says "I use NFP, and Michelle Duggar is not my idol."

  13. "But (from Michael Malone) what if they were using NFP and still conceived. Does this mean that they did not, in fact, have serious reasons… or does it mean that God was playing some kind of cruel trick on them? I find it to be strange that we can anticipate God’s will by our discernment of serious reasons..."

    I don't have the answers so that's not at all what I'm trying to say below...but I very much appreciate this discussion so I hope you all know my goodwill with the questions below. This is just what's going on in my process, I don't claim to be right.

    Couldn't the above quote be said about discernment of anything? We do our best to genuinely discern and do so prayerfully but always with the caveat of "Thy will be done" right? NFP does not frustrate God's will in the same way that contraception does because it very openly says "Thy will be done" by not using any sort of artificial interference.

    For example I have a kidney disease that baring a miracle will call for transplant in the next ten years. We have been SO very blessed to have had 4 biological children since we married 8 years ago and would love to have more. But we realize that there are very serious risks now that my kidneys are declining. This risk may not result in death or it may...there is no real way to know "for certain" and as I believe my job in this world is to love God and do everything I can to help my Husband and Children get to heaven should I not value doing whatever I can, within church teachings, to minimize my decline and care for the children God has blessed me with? My husband and I have talked about being open to life in other ways, like renewing our foster care license and continuing that work, being open to adoption etc. Is the only way we can truly and genuinely be open to life through our very own physical bodies? If we should unexpectedly conceive we trust that God would see us through but I don't see how using NFP though "certain death" is not known, is somehow sinful. We are open to life but we are also valuing and caring for the lives God has already given us. And how can "certain death" really be known? You hear all the time about people who beat the odds.

    I share the above not because I know the answers. I don't. I struggle with this discernment and probably always will. But here's the thing. I do believe that my desire for more children is a gift given to me by God because for me it confirms our discernment to postpone. If I was WANTING to postpone and looking for a loophole I'd certainly have it and knowing myself I'd ALWAYS question if what I was doing was for me or for Him. But that's not the case. I want to conceive. I want just say "ok Lord it's on you". But I truly don't believe that is what is being asked of least not this cycle. And I think my desire to conceive is confirmation that we are not postponing for us and because of our selfish desires because if we wanted to be selfish we would show no restraint. At what point are we just walking onto a busy highway saying "ok Lord, if you want me to live don't let any cars hit me"?

    1. I can't really add much of anything to what Kristin D has said here in response to your question, Fr. Gardner.

      It's not so much that I think we can "anticipate" God's will through discernment, but that we can discern it and leave room for Him to act (by not doing anything to deliberately frustrate it). It can work both ways, both with a couple discerning they are not called to have a child and then getting pregnant unexpectedly, and with a couple discerning that they are called to have a child but then facing infertility. We see through a glass darkly, yes?

  14. Kristin, thanks for sharing your story and your thoughts. I don't know the answer either, but it certainly sounds like you are working very hard at "discerning". In your case, it is possibly an issue of death (or at least hastening death, maybe), and that would constitute a "serious reason" to avoid pregnancy. One could also ask, at what point does a couple decide to abstain completely because of the risk of death to the mother if she becomes pregnant? (I'm not saying this is your situation, I'm saying, "what if?")

    On the other hand - and this is hypothetical and not meant as advice to you or anything like that - suppose you decide to postpone pregnancy, and then in 5 years, your illness COULD be treated effectively, or suppose there is a miracle of healing for you. In that case, you might be in a position of "I wish we had". We can't second-guess God - we just have to trust. That's not easy, and there are always questions, I guess.

    One could also ask whether your desire to conceive is a "sign" from God that you SHOULD, and just leave the details to him. That's tough when you consider that the "details" might actually involve further deterioration of your health, or even death. But what about the child? What plans might God have for that little soul, even at the "expense" of your health? I do not envy you!!! But God will give you the grace to work this out for yourselves, I'm sure.

    I hope this doesn't sound "preachy" or whatever. I'm thinking out loud, too, as I contemplate your situation. I'll be praying for you at the Divine Mercy chaplet each day - for your health, your discernment in all this, and that God's will be done.

    1. I appreciate your prayers and I appreciate this discussion. I've certainly felt the weight all of the options and possibilities you've presented above and have been bringing those to prayer for some time. I don't know the answer but am in a state of continual discernment as anything can happen and things may change. I belive this is what I'm called to do "in this moment" but I'm always open to and welcome to that changing.

      With your response I'd like to revisit what Rachel brought up above as I feel it's a continual theme brought up in the responces above from you and others.

      (4) "Imagine the pain of knowing the souls you could have conceived if you’d cooperated with God’s will and timing." Your concept of God's will and the strange suggestion of some sort of pre-existence of souls (or alternate timeline in which more souls would exist?) baffles me."

      And then Fr. again reiterates this theme writing:

      "After all, we are talking about the existence, or non-existence of a human soul. If I were that potential child-to-be, I would want only the most serious of reasons to preclude my existence (and this is with the blessing of the Church). Actually, most potential children-to-be are prevented from existing without the blessing of the Church, through the use of artificial contraception."

      THIS truly seems to be a huge part of your and the other's thought process on generosity and qualifications for determining serious reason. If this is true then shouldn't we even be actively trying to conceive "just in case?" If God doesn't want us to have a baby then we just wouldn't right? I'm just not seeing this fit with anything I've been taught. Though I'm taught we have free will so can choose to turn our backs on God I'm also taught that God knows everything I have done or will ever do. Is that compatible with the belief that I should work under the assumption that God has 20 extra souls just waiting there for me to conceive? What does the Church say about this part of the thought process?

      And in regards to artificial contraception this is also key to illustrating it's complete separation from NFP. Artificial contraception blocks God from creating a child during marital union while NFP never does this. In addition many forms of Artificial Contraception have an abortifacient aspect that also attempts to and does prevent life from continuing should pregnancy occur through causing a very early abortion. Again NFP doesn't do this.

      Though I completely agree with generosity and proper discernment, I would like some discussion about the above thought that seems to keep recurring: The belief that there are souls waiting to be conceived for which NFP somehow prevents. Is this compatible with the our faith?

  15. Kristin, I'm doing more research as I can on that question about souls "waiting to be conceived". I don't have an answer right now. I know that some people think it's the wrong way to look at it, but I have not yet clarified my own thinking on it. Maybe Fr. Gardner will add some further thoughts on this.

  16. "If I were that potential child-to-be, I would want only the most serious of reasons to preclude my existence..."

    This is one of the most bizarre and nonsensical hypotheticals I have ever encountered. Sorry to put it so bluntly, but I just can't get around it.

    I am no priest, and I'm sure my theological education lacked the length and depth of your seminary formation, Fr. Gardner, but I do not see how this squares with Catholic teaching whatsoever. The Church teaches against the pre-existence of souls. The soul is created along with the body at the moment of conception; not earlier. Philosophically, it makes no sense to me to imagine the feelings of a non-existent being regarding their non-existence.

    I can understand, perhaps, if your point is to get at the awesome power and responsibility parents have to bring new souls into the world for God. Yes, this is truly an amazing and weighty gift. But I do not believe that the flip side here is that when a married couple fails to bring forth as many children as they possibly could that they are depriving God of new souls for Him.

    1. Rachel, sometimes I wonder if modern theological training is more of a liability than an asset… But could we not say that both you and I were once a “potential child-to-be”? Well then, we can also say: “Thank the Lord that my existence was not precluded by any action against conception of any kind.”

      You seem to answer your question within your own comment. There is an infinite chasm, or separation, between existence and non-existence such that creation is truly the realm of the miraculous. And procreation involves the most serious duty for spouses, but also the greatest opportunity for charity among believers.

      Pope Pius XII expressed a similar view in his Address to Newlyweds, which Dr. Boyd has quoted previously: “It will depend on you whether those innocent souls, whom the embrace of Infinite Love desires to call from nothing, shall come to the threshold of life, in order to make of them one day His chosen companions in the eternal happiness of Heaven. But alas! If they remain merely magnificent images in the mind of God when they could have been rays of sun that illuminate every man who comes into this world (John 1:9), they will remain forever nothing but lights extinguished by the cowardice and selfishness of man!”

    2. Fr. Gardner,

      I agree with you that modern theological training is not always an asset! I've seen many for whom it can be a detriment, though I don't count myself among them. I don't typically go around arguing with priests!

      I really am having a hard time accepting, philosophically, your ideas about "potential children-to-be". The phrase really does not even compute for me.

      "But could we not say that both you and I were once a “potential child-to-be”? Well then, we can also say: “Thank the Lord that my existence was not precluded by any action against conception of any kind.”"
      I do not believe that we can say this, no. We can say that once I did not exist (though God certainly had foreknowledge of my future existence), and then I did exist, as a person with body and soul, from the moment of my conception. To me, you are ascribing being ("you and I were once") to a non-being ("potential child-to-be"). This seems to violate the law of noncontradiction. A thing cannot both be and not be at the same time.

      Re: the Pius XII quote, I don't think he is quite using the idea of "potential children-to-be" in the way you are. He seems to be speaking of God's foreknowledge, though towards the end I'm not sure. I have a hard time making sense of the idea that we have the ability to prevent from existing the people God wills to exist. I agree that in general, human actions have and can prevent the existence of new life, and God wills in general for new life to exist.

      But God's foreknowledge of human persons is not just general, but would become specific, as in foreknowledge that particular persons will one day exist, what they will be like, their temperaments and vocations...Perhaps He has foreknowledge of children I have not yet borne; if so, it would be of specific children--that son to be born in 2015, daughter in 2017, etc. But there is not a queue in heaven of little souls waiting to be embodied. And the child I might conceive this month would be genetically unique and very different from the child I would conceive in 2015 or 2017. So I cannot agree that each cycle I fail to conceive (for whatever reason) that somehow God's will is thwarted.

    3. Rachel, potential means not-actualized, therefore there is no violation of the principle of non-contradiction. When a couple is having sexual relations, there is the potential for a human life to be created since procreation is the primary end (purpose) of sexual relations. If my parents had been following the regimen of periodic continence throughout the month of June, 1959, or thereabouts, I would never have been created. As it is, thanks be to God, my beloved parents were practicing no form of birth regulation whatsoever. And I believe this was the case throughout their married life. It’s not that my mother had to conceive during every eligible cycle of fertility as you implied in your last statement. Rather, the point is that they performed no action(s) that were against conception. Therefore, they did nothing to prevent the conception of a potential child-to-be.

      Perhaps my terminology is redundant (?) Maybe it should be potential child, rather than potential child-to-be.

      Also, God’s knowledge is different from human knowledge. Foreknowledge is the only way that humans can know the future, apart from faith. But God sees everything now, as in real-time. This explains why divine knowledge does not take away human freedom. Therefore, a potential child does not have to exist actually for God to know him, since God’s knowledge is not caused, as is the case with human knowledge. In fact, God’s knowledge was directing all the circumstances and events that caused a potential child to become an actual child. Thus God could say to Jeremiah: “Before I formed in the womb I knew you.” (Jer. 1:5) Is not God saying here that He knew Jeremiah both as a potential child, and as an actual child?

      So, when I speak of a potential child’s existence being precluded, I am not talking about an actual child. I am referring to the gravity of the use of periodic continence (the lack of children will be a real impoverishment) and to the varying degrees of malice involved in effectively attempting to thwart God’s creative will.

  17. I have read most of this conversation, and think I have something new to add. My husband and I are NFP teachers, and we do the "sex talk" at the marriage prep our cluster hosts every spring. We work hard to put forth the essence of the Church's teaching in the 45 given to us. We also think carfully about how we present ourselves verbally and physically in an attempt to make Catholic Large Family life attractive. ( we have 7 children so far).

    This is what it looks like in the trenches (at least in the Northeast). One or 2 couples out of 30 in these prep classes have an understanding of Church teaching. Most are openly living together and contracepting. Even those who go to Mass every weekend are often introduced to the reasons behing the teaching against contraception for the first time at our session!

    In our years of work we have seen couples move, by the Grace of God, from contracepting, to active Catholics who begin to struggle with "serious reasons".

    But in defence of NFP teachers, we need to meet people where they are before we hit them with the deeper issues behind Catholic teaching. "Hmmm, NFP might work for us.." is a more possible step than " I need to get off contraception and be open to life!" Though I have seen this happen too, happily!

    God works wonders with these couples once they make the baby-step to NFP. We do our best, in pray and trust the Our Lord can use our little efforts to win souls!

  18. Allie, thanks for this comment! Your description of a marriage prep class fits the image I had in my head! I agree that NFP-instead-of-the-pill is a step forward. Since it seems that currently more and more young people are seeing the dangers of chemical contraception, it's probably a good time so present an alternative. Still, we need to keep in mind that NFP as a substitute for illicit contraception is not the final answer (and it sounds like you are very much aware of that). I think you've inspired me for a future post...

  19. > a lack of cooperation with God’s will, because He expressly told us to “be fruitful and multiply”

    The early Jewish interpretation of that was as a command to get married (aimed at men).

    The new covenant changes that. Jesus. Most of early Christianity's leaders and writers chose to be unmarried and have no biological children (but they were spiritual fathers to many).

    Tertullian affirms that the new covenant “abolished the ancient command to increase and multiply” (ANF 4.40).

    Augustine wrote: “This propagation of children which among the ancient saints was a duty for begetting a people for God, amongst whom the prophecy of Christ’s coming had precedence over everything, now has no longer the same necessity. For from among all nations the way is open for an abundant offspring to receive spiritual regeneration, from whatever quarter they derive their natural birth.” (nupt. et conc. 1.13)

    Using "be fruitful and multiply" to argue for maximising biological reproduction is not in tune with patristic tradition, which emphasises spiritual fruitfulness.

  20. Dr. McKeown - a very interesting point. Thank you. I will certainly take this under consideration.


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